The Liberated Woman: Feminism and Perfume Advertising

Feminists Gloria Steinem and Pamela Hughes. You go, sisters!

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was an era of social and political conflict.  As demonstrations against the Vietnam War were happening at every college campus and sit-ins were staged on buses to protest segregation, women were agitating for equal rights with men.  At the forefront of the women’s liberation movement was Gloria Steinem, who co-founded  Ms. magazine in 1972 and remains to this day an activist and journalist.  Steinem is famous for a speech delivered during the 1971 meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus, entitled “Address to the Women of America”:

This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.

The excitement stirred by Steinem and her fellow feminists did not go unnoticed by advertisers and marketing agencies, particularly the ones working for Revlon.  Before long, Revlon released a slew of scents and advertisements in the 1970’s and 80’s celebrating the newly liberated woman who has everything and can do anything.  The most famous example of this superwoman is Revlon’s Charlie–she is glamorous, beautiful, confident, and fun. In this commercial, she’s played by Shelley Hack while Bobby Short croons:

Here’s the woman who wears Enjoli, also by Revlon, who “can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man…cuz she’s a woman, W-O-M-A-N”:

Jean Naté was a perfume originally created by Revlon way back in 1935, but was repackaged in the early 1980’s to appeal to “people who want to take charge of their life”:

The fun, flirty tone struck by these commercials is at odds with the seriousness of the feminist movement.  Geared towards men, these ads reveal an underlying insecurity about the future of male dominance.  The man buying Charlie wants his favorite lady  to be exciting and confident yet feminine, to be strong but soft and curvy; in other words, an athlete who is a killer in the kitchen and in bed.  They seem to be reassuring men that the women in their lives, though liberated, would still be the mothers, wives, and girlfriends they always were.

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