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'Evita': Femininity, Branding, and Soft Power

19/01/2015 16:43 GMT | Updated 20/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Almost a century ago, a dark and skinny girl of illegitimate birth dreamed about becoming an actress in her country's capital, Buenos Aires. Her name was María Eva Duarte (later "Eva Perón"). Not only did Eva Perón realize this childhood dream by achieving nationwide fame as a successful actress in her early youth, she also dramatically turned into a major player on the world's stage as the First Lady of Argentina.

As the lyrics of the emotion-triggering song "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" suggest, Evita's soft power is closely linked to emotional appeal, a key component of the traditional view of femininity in countries and cultures including Argentina. Although the notion of first ladies, and women in general, does not tend to be closely associated with political influence across historical periods and cultural contexts, Eva Perón's case shows that femininity is not necessarily a drawback in one's career - even in a male-dominated world.

Leaders mainly demonstrate two types of power: "hard" and "soft". This categorization may lead one to wonder if the two are contradictory or complementary. Eva Perón's relationship with her husband validates the latter. Soft power, as defined by HBS professor Joseph Nye, is "the power to attract" that is associated with intangible assets such as "attractive personality", "culture", and "moral authority". These qualities are part of Argentina's traditional view of the role of a woman as both physical and spiritual: to care for her family and to support it through emotional means. While men should be rational, women are seen as emotional and irrational. The un-institutionalized, spontaneous and spiritual leadership that Eva Perón exemplified complemented her husband Juan Perón's institutionalized and scientific leadership as a male, a former military general, and the President of Argentina. The feminine's association with soft power was thus significant for Eva Perón to gain her soft power.

How, then, did Eva Perón establish her soft power in Argentina and abroad, even among individuals who had never interacted with her personally? One possible answer is "brand image building". Canadian author Naomi Klein, in her book No Logo, focuses on the role of marketing and brand image construction in North America. According to Klein's perspective, branding is "expansive" in nature, and offers a platform to establish and widen the base of followers who identify with the brand. Although Eva Perón lived in a distinctly different social and political context in another time period, Klein's discussion of brand construction as a means of expanding certain messages to a broader audience is relevant.

Through occasions including her "Rainbow Tour" in Europe, Eva Perón's presence offered a refreshing and (ostensibly) non-political image with which the masses could identify. Her tailored outfits that highlighted her physical femininity, for instance, contributed to Evita's unique brand image. They provided an opportunity for more potential followers to be attracted by her soft power. Internationally, Evita embodied the new Argentina under Juan Perón's political leadership and formed a memorable part of the nation's image that was presented to the world. Domestically, Eva's rise from her humble background as an illegitimate child from a middle-class family had become an aspirational lifestyle. Her accomplishments in life became (what we would consider, in a contemporary sense) "branded" as a motivating experience that the Argentinians would strive for. For the "descamisados" who, like Evita, had moved to Buenos Aires to pursue their dreams but initially suffered from humiliation, Eva Perón had offered them legitimacy and pride. She represented the potential power of the interior, the primitive masses, in the cosmopolitan city of Buenos Aires. Evita's domestic and international success therefore demonstrates that the Eva Perón "brand" was instrumental in establishing her soft power.

Back in Eva Perón's early days, among the patriarchal Argentinian society, who would have envisioned that the drama in this young future actress' life would significantly extend beyond the physical stage that she used to dream of with her wild, girlish eagerness?

Evita demonstrated that branding and soft power could complement each other either to serve society's welfare at large or to fulfill her self-interest, depending on the perspective. By building her brand image as an intangible asset, Eva Perón had established and consolidated her soft power. Meanwhile, only through her soft power could she leave such a long-lasting image and a collection of myths among the living today. As both Eva Perón's brand-building and soft power are closely tied with her characteristics as a female, her successful branding and charismatic soft power show that femininity does not necessarily have to be a drawback in one's career, but could be a positive asset in obtaining one's soft power and constructing a positive brand image.