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Rainbow Capitalism: The Commodification of Pride and its Impact on LGBTQ+ Mental Health


The Commodification of Pride and its Impact on LGBTQ+ Mental Health

It’s the last day of Pride 2021. For the last thirty days, brands have plastered their social media accounts with rainbow logos, pride flags, and hashtags to show their undying support for the LGBTQ+ community.

Well, undying until July 1st.

What? You didn’t really expect these big-name brands to keep up the rainbow profile picture, the “love is love! buy this shirt!” pinned tweet, and matching header image forever, did you? June is over, and along with it, the rainbow-clad attempts by brands to appear supportive of LGBTQ+ lives.

In June 2019, I wrote a piece for InSPIre the Mind called “Is Mental Health Awareness the New Marketing Strategy Trend?” — I also spoke about this on BBC Radio 4's Beyond Today podcast last year, which you should definitely check out! Funnily enough, this was a piece initially inspired by conversations that friends and I had had surrounding rainbow capitalism and brands profiting off of Pride celebrations.

As I began writing, however, the piece grew into a much wider commentary on how big-name brands were (and still are) taking advantage of the increasing popularity of mental health discussions to, essentially, make a profit. In the blog, I said:

“Brands will plaster a general statement on a rainbow logo, and maybe a promotional video that goes viral, and then the other 11 months of the year is radio silence.”

As with most issues, this isn’t as simple as “brands marketing Pride is bad” — it’s a lot more nuanced than that. All of what I’ve said above is true, but so is the fact that brands getting involved in Pride Month is incredibly important.

Generally speaking, brands involving Pride and LGBTQ+ conversation in their advertisements and social media campaigns are, for example, a fantastic way to gain visibility. In a survey on 2000 gay and bisexual men, it was found that 52% of respondents felt “invisible” in advertising, meanwhile, 54% felt that greater exposure to LGBTQ+ representation in advertising would have helped them come out sooner, thanks in part to normalisation efforts.

It’s no surprise that a great number of brands have faced backlash and had their motivations brought into question by LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies (those who stand with and unconditionally support LGBTQ+ people though don’t identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community themselves). Year after year, we’ve seen brands flaunt their support of the LGBTQ+ community in the form of limited-edition product lines and discounted subscriptions. Yet come July 1st, the same brands go back to business as usual with little to no input where it matters to LGBTQ+ lives, at least from what we can see.

In other words, their support — or allyship — can appear conditional.

It’s tough to see this as genuine rather than just a marketing team noticing an advertising opportunity in the ever-growing popularity of Pride Month. This a global community spanning race, gender, ethnicity, class and politics which has long been marginalised and discriminated against, not just a market to profit off the struggles of. I want to emphasise that this isn’t to discredit the earnest work being done by a huge number of people. I simply want to talk about patterns I’ve noticed over the years regarding brands and the ways that they engage with Pride month.

With this blog, I want to talk about how brands have commodified Pride and the impacts this has had on the community both generally and in regard to mental health.

As much as we might hate it, the world of politics is hugely influential on our everyday lives, and this is only more so the case for marginalised groups still advocating for equality. Unsurprisingly, businesses play a huge part in these systems as well.

To the outside world, these brands and corporations get to play the role of a supportive ally while doing little to none of the work. In fact, a US study investigating the involvement of brands in funding lawmakers supporting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation found that several powerhouses of corporations were contradicting their own public statements of allyship by directly funding millions of dollars to lawmakers opposing the 2019 Equality Act — a bill with incredibly harmful implications to the LGBTQ+ community.

It may very well be the case that these corporations are financially supporting candidates on “both sides” since this would guarantee them influence and allies in congress regardless of who wins. However, I think it’s fair to say that they yield that neutrality the moment they decide to take advantage of social outcry to sell a product. Once these brands caught on that morals sell, they quickly made being seen as socially aware their top priority, over the wellbeing, mental health, and livelihood of real LGBTQ+ folks.

Rainbow Capitalism, TV and Cinema

Disney, one of the world’s largest companies and media kingpin, has also joined the fun this June with its Rainbow Disney Collection and a non-profit online show “This is Me”. Disney has… a complicated past (and present) with its commitment to LGBTQ+ representation and allyship however it’d be unfair to ignore the good work they’ve done to only focus on the negative (which I’ll still be doing, don’t worry).

Though they haven’t specified the portion of funds raised from the Collection that’ll be donated, the LGBTQ+ charities they’re supporting are listed. Nevertheless, considering how much Disney makes a year and a staggering reported $54 billion in retail sales worldwide of licensed and direct-to-consumer products, I would hope that all proceeds from this would go directly to the LGBTQ+ community.

It really feels like every few months there’s yet another round of “Disney introduces first-ever openly gay character!” and almost every time, it’s at best disappointing and at worst insulting. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “exclusively gay moment” with LeFou in Beauty and the Beast, for example, was a moment that social media and practically every news outlet had a lot of fun with. Despite the directors attempts to lower the audience’s expectations, buzz around the movie was at an all-time high, with some praising Disney for its bravery and others expressing their frustration at yet another example of a company or studio doing the bare minimum to profit off of LGBTQ+ individuals’ need to be properly represented. Four years on, and what was lauded (though briefly) as a historic moment in Disney cinematic history, is now just part of a meme.

To generate even more excitement for the final instalment of the Star Wars sequels, director JJ Abrams teased the reveal of an LGBTQ+ character. Despite enthusiasm from both the actors and audiences to see one of the main three leads — Rey, Finn and Poe — be not straight, it was actually two very minor characters who, once again, share a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment together, right at the end of the film.

Frustratingly, these are by no means the only examples of Disney and their marketing teams using the deep need of LGBTQ+ audiences to be seen and honestly represented in the stories they love just as their heterosexual peers always have been. This also very nicely ties into a discussion of queerbaiting (a marketing technique in which TV & film creatives purposefully hint at a character or a pairing being not straight without any intention of actually making those characters anything other than straight to attract, in particular, queer audiences.) and how harmful that can be for, particularly younger, LGBTQ+ audiences.

What message are gay audiences being sent here? That they’re an afterthought? That they can exist, sure, just never as the hero of a story?

Across the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 23 films, not a single hero — or even minor character — is a lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Of course, the character of Loki is canonically genderfluid and bisexual; however, this was only in his own TV show last week. Though the big screen is yet to see any diversity in terms of gender or sexuality, Disney’s slate of TV shows have been doing far better. A wonderful example was Disney Channel’s original series Andi Mack which had one of its main characters say, out loud, the words “I’m gay” and allowed this young boy to get a happy ending with the boy he likes at the end of the show.

Television reflects the real life world and today that includes LGBTQ youth who deserve to see their lives depicted on their favorite shows. Disney has been a leader in LGBTQ inclusion and there are so many young people who will be excited to see Cyrus’ story unfold. Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD

There’s an indescribable comfort that comes with being seen and feeling understood and media, which acts as a reflection of who we are as people and as a society, has long been the medium people have turned to find this. We’re all very familiar with relating to characters and for most cisgender and straight people, it’s pretty damn easy to find one or 20 characters you can point out and say “they're like me!”. As a series directed at a younger audience, Andi Mack and shows alike provide LGBTQ+ children and teens the chance to find that same comfort.

According to the 2019 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, 86% of LGBTQ+ youth report being harassed or assaulted at school, which can significantly impact their mental health. With rejection and victimisation being leading risk factors for mental ill-health in LGBTQ+ youth, it's vital for adolescents of all gender identities and sexual orientations to be exposed to positive representations of LGBTQ+ characters in the shows and characters they love. Children should see that queerness is a perfectly normal and common thing, and that you can have friends and family in your life whose love is not conditional. Stronger and more frequent representations of LGBTQ+ people in media can help diminish the stigma which fuels the homophobia and bullying so prevalent in our schools.

Compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers, studies have shown that LGBTQ+ people are at greater risk of suicidal ideation and self-harm, with 1 in 8 young adults aged 18–24 years reporting attempting suicide in the last year. Furthermore, according to the 2017 Stonewall report, 52% of LGBT people reported experiencing depression in the last year.

What does this mean for brands and how they get involved in pride?

Fear is a powerful and dangerous thing, we know this. It’s why 1 in 7 LGBTQ+ individuals admit to avoiding healthcare treatment due to fear of discrimination; not surprising given that almost a quarter of participants reported receiving discriminatory remarks from healthcare professionals. This fear of reaching out, of opening up about yourself, is by no means uncommon to a lot of LGBTQ+ individuals and stems from a wide range of core issues, a large one of which is stigma.

If brands genuinely want to be a part of the conversation, they need to be putting in the work behind the scenes in June as well as every other month of the year. LGBTQ+ activism and gay Pride are not social media fads to participate in when it’s convenient. As with the Black Lives Matter movement, these causes are not opportunities to make fast money — they are extremely important fights for justice and equality for groups who have and continue to be discriminated against. And they should be respected as such.

So, today is the last day of Pride 2021. What are you and the brands you engage with doing to effectively support your LGBTQ+ friends, family, and peers all year round?

I’d encourage everyone who can to get involved and below are some great resources to help you get started:

  • Stonewall.org — covers all kinds of ways that you can support the LGBTQ+ community including donating, campaigning, volunteering, and researching.

  • MindOut — great mental health support (online and phone) and advice resource. Also includes volunteering and fundraising opportunities.

  • Mindfind out more about LGBTQ+ mental health and how you can support those in need — you can call the Mind Infoline on 0300 123 3393 / info@mind.org.uk, the Mind Legal Advice service on 0300 466 6463 / legal@mind.org.uk

  • Talk to the Samaritans — they offer 24-hour emotional support in full confidence. You can call them for free on 116 123

  • Albert Kennedy Trust — Supports LGBTQ people aged 16–25 who are homeless or living in a hostile environment.

  • Galop — Provides helplines and other support for LGBTIQ+ adults and young people who have experienced hate crime, sexual violence or domestic abuse / 0207 704 2040 (hate crime helpline)/ 0800 999 5428 (National LGBT+ domestic abuse helpline)

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