Call me the lone dissident, but I maintain that the over-hyped, over-praised, and over-cheerleaded -- but mostly tediously didactic -- feminist “Like a Girl” commercial that aired during the Super Bowl was not “groundbreaking” (the Huffington Post’s breathless word). It actually threatened to set back the cause of taking women seriously, as athletes or as anything else.
Maybe that’s because the 17-year-old son of a friend who’d come over to our house to watch the game along with his dad blurted out, “Yup, she’s running like a girl,” as a character called “Erin” in the commercial jogged daintily in place while flailing her legs. Then, when a character named “Dakota” jogged in place in the commercial, except more energetically in order to show that the phrase “like a girl” could have a positive meaning, the 17-year-old jeered, “She’s still running like a girl!”
(Hint to future feminist commercial-makers: Running in place will always make you look as though you’re running like a girl. That’s because it’s not really running. It’s telling your audience, “Look at me, running!” -- which is a girl thing to do. Same with “throw like a girl” and “fight like a girl” in that commercial. Unless a female is doing the real thing -- sprinting across a finish line like Florence Griffith Joyner -- her body language will inform you that she is putting on a performance in order to show you how cute she looks. Female humans are natural exhibitionists.)
Or maybe it’s the fact that it was more than a full day after the Super Bowl before I realized what product the “Like a Girl” commercial was supposed to be advertising: the Always brand of menstrual pads. In our general raucous merriment over the commercial, we’d missed the nanosecond-long Always plug at the end. In that respect, “Like a Girl” resembled the old “Modess …. because” magazine ads -- also for menstrual pads -- that ran from the 1950s through the 1970s. The ads invariably featured a full-page photo of an elegant fashion model attired in a sumptuous evening gown descending a curved staircase or plucking a mimosa blossom off a tree. As a 9-year-old leafing through my mother’s Vogue and entirely ignorant of the biology of reproduction, I would ask myself, “Because what?” That was about as much relation as the “Like a Girl” commercial bore to what it purported to advertise.
Oblique and ladylike delicacy -- talk about a female stereotype!
The problem with portraying a stereotype -- even when your aim is to debunk it -- is that stereotypes usually (although granted, not always) contain a substantial kernel of truth. Math really is hard for most women because of differences between most men and most women in their brains’ facility for mentally rotating three-dimensional objects, and thus for abstract thinking. Women really are generally worse drivers than men, studies have shown: They have fewer spectacularly destructive road accidents than men but more minor ones per mile driven.
And women generally lack the degree of upper-body-strength -- and physical strength in general, thanks to the difference between estrogen and testosterone -- to compete athletically with men. The reason there are no female pitchers in Major League Baseball is that women in general “throw like girls.” If you’d like to encourage girls to become superb athletes when they grow up, feed them images of Jenn Suhr executing a pole vault -- and also looking glamorous -- rather than images (as in the Always commercial) of a darling but not particularly convincing youngster chirping in her baby voice that running like a girl means “running as fast as you can.”
Of course, the aim of the Always commercial wasn’t really to increase the “confidence” of girls, as it said. It was, rather, to render the phrase “like a girl” off-limits in polite public discourse. “Like a Girl” is the new “Ban Bossy” (that campaign launched last year by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg). The idea is that if you ban the word or phrase, somehow the underlying conduct will disappear -- because the “conduct” in question consists only of a stereotypical misconception. The aim of “Like a Girl” isn’t to raise girls’ self-esteem. It’s to police everybody else’s language.
For the record
Feb. 5, 12:41 p.m.: An earlier version of the post referred to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg as Sheryl Steinberg.
Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.
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