We were one of the 30 million plus viewers who saw your Like a Girl Campaign video, released a few weeks ago. We loved your message: it is one of empowerment, and the social stigma it challenges is important, timely and absolutely necessary. However, when paired with a bit of critical thinking, your message came apart for us. But let’s talk about it.
The website you launched alongside the video, http://www.beinggirl.com/, provides useful resources and chat forums about topics relevant to girls (such as my relationships, my period, and health and wellness). The language is simple and accessible, which is a good thing… but we have a few concerns. In response to a plea for advice about a boy (how do I get his attention?) an expert on your beinggirl forum responds, “flirt with him!” Why is this problematic? It sends a message that this girl’s worth is contingent on, and lies primarily in, her ability to garner attention from the opposite sex. This idea is then underscored by the overt oversexualization she will see in mass media, which is a key contributor to why she might develop (like her peers are, at higher levels and at younger ages) risky behaviors such as eating disorders, substance abuse, and various forms of self-harm. And so, we’re back at the beginning again.
In an incredibly powerful, goosebump-inducing moment in the video, a woman says, “if someone else says that running like a girl, or kicking like a girl or shooting like a girl is something you shouldn’t be doing, that’s their problem. Because if you’re still scoring, and you’re still getting to the ball on time and you’re still being first, you’re doing it right and it doesn’t matter what they say.” In theory, that’s true. But what it fails to take into account is the incredibly complex sociological factors that girls face: factors which inhibit this advice from being useful or practical. According to a Girl Scout Research Institute report (Exploring Girls Leadership, 2007), many girls identify their worst fear in being a leader as getting judged by their peers: the same fears that they have about personal conflict in general. In short: without access to mentors, resources, and intentional programs which acknowledge this discord, it will matter what people say to girls, and they won’t possess the tools or language with which to speak up, confidently, about the issues which matter to them.
Over the past ten years, companies from Pantene to Dove to American Eagle have utilized tactics similar to yours in an attempt to break down harmful sexist and misogynistic stereotypes and therefore, gender inequality. There’s great advantage to Big Brands such as yours doing so: you have a dependable brand, reach, money and the resources that help guarantee the success of their message. But in its fragmented and decontextualized intention, movements such as yours lack the practical power to become anything more than a theoretical overview that will garner mass social sharing power (and in turn, potential consumers)… and that may be precisely your point. There are some critics that suggest the messaging intentionally misses the point: that, if women believed the principle at the core, your products couldn’t possibly exist. What do you think about this comment? Have you heard of the #notbuyingit movement?
Feminist organizations, from YWCA Canada to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, have been engaged in a long-standing dialogue about these issues for decades. These are agencies who have a dependable brand, and a successful track record (built on research and best practices) in delivering advocacy, programs and services to women and girls that help to guarantee the veracity and usefulness of the work and message. In a precarious funding climate, agencies such as these are struggling to find funding as, paradoxically, the need for these programs continues to increase. A necessity that you highlight. What would happen if the money and reach of Big Brands such as yours met the holistic vision and knowledge of agencies such as these? What would happen if you really, really meant it: and if we really, truly, committed to breaking down these stereotypes piece by piece together? This, then, is your official invitation to take your corporate responsibility seriously. Let’s work together to build, solve, and share a vision. Isn’t that where mass movements of change begin? Let’s break down what’s not working, and build something that our girls can stand on. And build on. Just think of what they could accomplish.
Yours in making women equal citizens
Megan Lambe is the Director of Communications and Public Relations at YWCA Cambridge.