by Brenda McKenzie, Doctoral Candidate, Kent State University
Women and girls are bombarded with messages every day from the media about how they should look and act and who they should be. These messages are often detrimental and can be downright misogynistic as has been highlighted by the work of Jean Kilbourne and the documentary MissRepresentation.
But there has been a recent shift in how women and girls are being portrayed and the messages companies want to send to women. The shift seemed to start with Goldieblox’s ad that dispelled the myth that all girls want is to play princess. Girls want to be innovators and architects and scientists and more. More recently Verizon examined what happens when girls are called pretty as a part of their #InspireHerMind initiative which targets getting young girls more active in science, technology, engineering, and math. Being pretty is seen as being “less than” – if you are pretty, you cannot be smart, accomplished, or change the world. This ad sends a message about the impact of our words and that it is time to tell girls they are “pretty brilliant, too.” Pantene picked up on the #sorrynotsorry movement with their ad. Women are more likely than men to identify their behavior as needing to be apologized for which can then fuel the double standard that women who are not “apologetic enough” are bossy. The Pantene ad shows women kicking the “sorry” habit by just stating their opinion or asking for what they need without apologizing first. Always took on dispelling the “like a girl” stereotype and negative connotation of being a girl by asking a group of young women and men what it means to “throw/run/fight like a girl.” Initial responses were very stereotypical. But when offset by young girls confidently addressing the phrase “like a girl,” responses changed. The message here is to not own the stereotype but to make it mean amazing things. Girls are told to “keep doing it,” that it doesn’t mean you are weak or doing something you shouldn’t as a way to help bolster their self-esteem. In the past couple weeks, Under Armour put out a new ad featuring Misty Copeland that illustrates the power of believing in yourself to achieve your dreams and not letting others tell you that you are not good enough or cannot succeed. Misty is now a ballerina soloist for the American Ballet Theatre. Under Armour has also teamed with Gisele Bundchen and Lindsay Vonn to launch #iwillwhatiwant and @UAWomen to “create a movement of WILL thru innovation and action” (Twitter description). I applaud this (and @UAWomen has 43,000+ followers as I write this) but underlying that is a push to buy their products.
As a woman and feminist, I applaud these new messages. But as a cynic, I have to wonder what is driving this shift. While I have seen the Under Armour ad on TV, the rest have only been online or in stories in media such as Time. What is causing positive messages such as these to be crafted? Are company’s beginning to feel a backlash from female consumers thus encouraging the creation of this wave of advertising? Or is this more of a marketing strategy, tapping into social media movements such as #banbossy and #sorrynotsorry, designed to pull in the female consumer and make money? And if the latter is the reason, does that really matter if these messages help begin to shift social construction of gender? Having these ads can be a positive in the development of young girls, shifting the message of how girls can view themselves, saying you are capable and strong. By staying online, however, quickly forgotten for the next trending story, the impact of these messages is lost. I already hear fewer of the college women I interact with talking about #banbossy (and I’m not even hearing Beyonce talk about it anymore). These messages cannot be one time only, move on to the next thing if we want real change to happen. And they cannot stay online, lost in the noise of all the other information out there.
I am glad to see this new generation of ads. Will they start a trend? Can they make a difference in how women and girls are viewed? Only time will tell.
Brenda McKenzie is currently a full-time doctoral student in the Higher Education Administration program at Kent State University. Her current research interests are women and leadership, student learning, and history of higher education. She has 20+ years of higher education experience, most recently at Kent State working with leadership development, Greek life, and student activities. Her other professional experience included working with student organizations, new student programs, non-traditional adult students, and residence life.