Members of the Miss G__ Project for Equity in Education have sometimes been called — or have been accused of being — "media darlings." Equipped with bubbly personalities, quick-wit and analytical minds, the steering committee of this grassroots feminist organization understands the mutually dependent relationship between activism and the media and they know that image is important if they want to garner headlines.
The Miss G__ Project was created by two students at the University of Western Ontario, Sarah Ghabrial and Sheetal Rawal, who realized that something major is missing from the Ontario Secondary School curriculum. Unlike universities across the country, high schools have yet to create a Women's and Gender Studies course. Since January 2005, members of Miss G__ have been raising awareness and lobbying government to adopt such a course, which they believe could build tolerance among students by linking gender to issues of class, race, ability and sexual identity.
In her new book, Branding Miss G__: Third Wave Feminists and the Media, Michelle Miller dissects Miss G__'s image, arguing that "The Miss G__ Project is only one example of a feminist group which has been willing to compromise its message in order to gain positive media coverage."
On a limited budget, the Miss G__ Project has relied heavily on media coverage to spread information, carefully crafting an image that has made them accessible to the mainstream media, yet still interesting to the alternative press. Tactics, such as appearing child-like or "girlie," are what Miller calls apolitical and "more feminine than feminist." Miller argues that the Miss G__ Project itself recognizes the negative stereotypes that are often associated with first and second wave feminism, emphasizing "the supposed 'novelty' of good-looking feminists" in order to be accessible to the mainstream. For such a tactic to work, Miller writes, "the audience would have to believe that feminists are not traditionally good looking," which of course is problematic.
For example, to accompany a 2005 article, The University of Western Ontario's campus newspaper, The Gazette, published a photograph of the Miss G__ Project's steering committee posing in "girlie" pastel t-shirts, each with a lollipop in their hand or mouth. To Miller, and other critics of Miss G__'s branding campaign, the group's image choice both sexualized and infantilized them, "making them appear child-like and unthreatening," hinting at the "heterosexuality and desirability of the group's members." Such a photo might make it easier for members to receive attention from the media, argues Miller, but it can also undermine the serious issues that the group is tackling.
Miller's self-professed goal of her first book is "to evaluate and increase the possibility of using image as a political strategy in the most effective way for feminist lobbyists" — a goal which she effectively achieves. Miller draws upon her own experiences as a queer feminist from a working class background, discussing the systematic and financial barriers associated with becoming involved in feminist activism. She worries that members of the Miss G__ Project and other third wave organizations are too often guilty of "enforcing the interesting reality that it is still middle-class, degree-holding women who are writing the feminist movement, despite the professed goal of taking politics out of the ivory tower." This is especially relevant, says Miller, because members of Miss G__ face a "paradox of wanting to bring feminism into the public sphere for increased accessibility to all students, even though they themselves have had special access to a women's studies education in a university setting."
At first glance, Miller's criticism may seem harsh, but on closer examination it seems she is presenting a comprehensive guide for grassroots feminist organizations to be accessible without being apolitical or subscribing to "feminism lite" or "lipstick feminism" tactics. As a member of the Miss G__ Project, Miller has insight into the inner-workings of the organization; and she does not try to hide her bias: "My work within the Project cannot be understood as blind acceptance and support of all of the approaches undertaken by the group, including its emphasis on branding a feminist image that is extremely feminine, heterosexual-seeming and apolitical."
Unlike recent feminist texts, which Miller calls "flashy and fashionable," Branding Miss G__ is rooted in theory and case studies, using examples from mainstream publications, such as the Toronto Star and the independent press to illustrate negative framing techniques used by the media. For instance, while the Miss G__ Project has received some wonderful coverage, there is a tendency (especially in the mainstream media) for journalists to provide "shallow and superficial" coverage that talks more about the "kind of shoes an activist wears rather than the serious lack of female presence in education that she is lobbying against."
These clear and concise examples from the media are coupled with Miller's intelligent writing, which is informative though not buried in rhetoric, making the book accessible for readers who do not have a background in feminist theory. Branding Miss G__ is an insightful tool which will undoubtedly be useful for The Miss G__ Project and other grassroots endeavors.
Miller addresses Branding Miss G__'s greatest downfalls in the book's final chapter, noting that the Miss G__ Project is ever-changing, making the brand-new book slightly outdated. As the group moves forward, it is abandoning some of the "babe feminism" which has helped it to gain attention.
Branding Miss G__ can easily be applied to the broader discussion of women and sexuality, as well as the commodification of protest, asserting that politics can often be obscured and undermined by appearances and flirtatiousness. It also has the potential to act as a useful text for all grassroots organizations, not only those directed to a feminist audience, highlighting the successes and failures of the Miss G__ Project.—Jessica Rose
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