As I ride home in the heavy monsoonal rain across the Nguyễn Hữu Thọ bridge that connects Ho Chi Minh City’s working class District 4 and the decidedly more upmarket District 7 just 4kms or so south of the city’s central District 1, a new billboard catches my eye amidst the pattering of raindrops on the taxi’s windows.
Emerging from the gloomy atmosphere of the afternoon downpour is a glowing image that immediately rattles my inner-Feminist cage.
Beside the image, the words bật tông trắng hồng (turn on white and pink tones) and làm mờ sạm nám (dim dark pigmentation) make me sit up and take notice.
The words are accompanied by photos of Laotian-Belarusian beauty queen and Miss Laos 2012 winner Christina Lasasimma in three stages of (re-touched) skin tones and dramatised emotions – from dark skin (looking sad) to tanned (looking somewhat less melancholic) to white (looking very happy and now crowned as a princess).
Her “mood swing” is the miraculous result of a skin whitening pill manufactured by Ritana.
“You should be immune to these kinds of advertising messages,” I say to myself. “After all, you’ve stopped colouring your hair for almost three years now.”
It hasn’t been easy though, standing up to my own construct and meaning of what it is to be beautiful, especially living in Vietnam, where every week I encounter an exchange from total strangers motioning towards my belly and asking, “Baby?”
I guess I should feel flattered that a 47-year old woman on the brink of menopause still gets asked this question.
(Disclaimer: Despite what I’m about to say, I have been a fan of the Clinique three-step skin care forever)
As the classic tagline from Virginia Slims, a brand of cigarettes once marketed as a female-oriented spin-off to Philip Morris’ male-targeted Benson & Hedges brand, celebrated: “You’ve come a long way baby…”
But have we?
What is the “new normal” after #MeToo? And, how has it influenced Vietnam’s own female gaze?
Ironically, the new billboard had leapt out at me on my way home from co-paneling a documentary screening and discussion forum at the American Centre’s Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.
The panel discussion topic was centred on gender perceptions in the media and was one of a number of Consulate events commemorating United Nations Day of the Girl on October 11 and Vietnam Women’s Day on October 20.
Along with Tran Thi Ngoc Tran, the Director of the Vietnam arm of the global campaign for the education and empowerment of girls, Girl Rising, Vu Tran Dung, the Country Coordinator of Impulse Saigon a non-profit project established in 2018 to raise awareness of health in the LGBTQI community, and moderated by Monica Damberg-Ott, the U.S. Consulate’s Cultural Affairs Officer, I engaged in robust discussion that shed light on attitudes regarding gender representation in mainstream and social media, including in our everyday lives.
Some of the points I discussed during the event were based on current research by Pretty Little Head, a research-based marketing consultancy company based in the UK, and Mindshare, a global media agency network spread out across 86 countries, and published via the World Advertising Research Center (WARC) in January 2020.
The research highlights how marketing to women has changed over the last 15 years from the eras of The Good Girl to The Rebellion through to The New Normal
In its simplest interpretation, the era of The Good Girl marketing stems from the golden years of advertising in the 1950s and 60s, which promoted both physical and perceptual stereotypes of women that are mostly viewed from an authoritative male gaze – models are small, thin, weak, young and play roles that are domestic and subservient to men.
They are passive and there is shame in non-conformity.
In Vietnam, examples of this range from the proud housewife and mother cooking a feast with Knorr beef or chicken stock cubes while waiting for her son to return from the big city to celebrate Tet, Vietnam’s lunar new year and most important celebration of the year.
Or the aforementioned skin whitening advert from Ritana (purportedly made in the USA, by the way) that reinforces sad and insecure imagery of Asian women who have naturally dark skin allowing the message to contrive aspirational representations enhanced with the use of a mixed-race celebrity from the region.
Some extreme examples have undoubtedly survived this era and are now populating social media, such as YouTubers Ghiền Mì Gõ with their Sugar Baby music video and web series that feature passive female characters whose bodies are objectified and treated as business collateral in a May-September relationship.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it has elicited calls for perceived unhealthy social media content like theirs to be better regulated and taken down, but with over six million subscribers and more than 1.5 million views of Sugar Baby alone, that may prove difficult given the largely unfettered access to online content people have today.
In the early 2000s, combined with the rise of social media and Dove’s #realbeauty campaign, The Rebellion era was born, reaching its peak in 2018 with the tidal wave brought on by #MeToo, the TimesUP movement, as well as Unstereotyping and Femvertising trends in advertising.
In local media in Vietnam, The Rebellion era is still very much the norm with advertisers, mostly pushing feminine hygiene products such as Kotex and Diana, targeting young women and girls to go for their dreams and be bold with their life choices.
They pontificate that the meaning of success is something they make on their own.
Gender inclusivity has also entered the mainstream with lesbian role models in Valentine’s Day campaigns, like the one by toothpaste brand, Close-Up, in 2019.
Meanwhile, reality imitated art back in 2018 on the reality television series, The Bachelor Vietnam, when two women refused roses from the bachelor and promptly left the show together as a couple.
While actions like these have become more mainstream, and despite Vietnam continuing its recognition of the important role of women in society and having celebrated Vietnam Women’s Day since 1930, public service announcements still, for the most part, relegate women to stereotypical gendered roles of being teachers and nurses, and semiotically place them in the lower echelons of the pyramid power structure.
There is change afoot, however.
Key messages and calls-to-action that embrace the new Vietnam empowered and co-powered by women are becoming more evident in government billboard pronouncements where women are seen to be taking on historically male dominated roles by appearing as police officers.
The third and current stage of marketing to women is the The New Normal, an era where the wokeness of previous gender limiting ideas in marketing is sustained to create an “acceptance and appreciation of more nuanced reality of female attitudes and experiences.”
What does this mean?
A few of the young women who had attended the discussion at the US Consulate gave me the answer.
They shared with me that they see the Tet holiday trope of mothers and grandmothers taking charge of preparing, cooking and serving food at family gatherings as normal and not offensive to them and, in fact, something they greatly admire and aspire to emulate later in life when they have their own families.
Of course, I assume, that’s after they have travelled, completed a higher education degree, and go on to balancing a career with marital and familial duties.
They made a good and valid point here. On that note, I’m leaving the conversation there with GenX – 0 and Millennials – 1.
The strong Asian matriarchal role model is arguably one of the more complex representations of women and shouldn’t be excluded in the emerging new normal in exchange of an ultra-feminist view.
Was VietJet, Vietnam’s biggest airline, on the right flight path after all, by on one hand “playing host” to an inflight same-sex wedding party in 2015, but still managing to objectify women with its recent calendar promoting its Fly Green 2020 campaign with scantily-clad models cavorting on their aircrafts’ wings?
I hope not.
The new normal in marketing to women should strive to see the woman as a whole person with many roles that’s non-binary in order to fulfill her being and give her joy.
And, if she chooses, can also include romance, family, being beautiful or fashionable in her own naturality; not in a way to enhance her appeal to the male gaze, but rather as a form of self-expression and equal representation in whatever space she chooses to occupy.
Needless to say, our own perceptions of a woman should not be dictated by any media.
The new normal must allow a woman to create and own her meaning and be comfortable with its reflection. – Melanie Casul
Melanie is an Associate Lecturer at RMIT University Vietnam and teaches on the Digital Marketing Program. She is also The Bureau Asia’s content manager.
Follow Mel on Instagram at @melaniecasul
Photos by Melanie Casul