Media Analysis: #LikeAGirl
If you watched the 2015 Super Bowl, it’s likely that you saw Always’ poignant advertisement endorsing a more nuanced definition for the colloquialism, “like a girl”. A teenage girl named Erin opens the advertisement with her interpretation of what it means to run like a girl, followed by a number of other similarly aged girls and a few boys. She takes her perfectly manicured hands and places them at her sides, with the palm outstretched perpendicularly to her legs. Like a clumsy doll, she proceeds to prance around the room, indicating that girls are unable to run in an athletic, masculine fashion. Immediately after, a set of young girls around the age of 8 introduce themselves and show their interpretation of what it means to run “like a girl”. Young and uncorrupted, these girls appear unfazed by the fact that “like a girl” functions as an insult in society, and they proceed to run “as fast as [they] can” (Always, 2015). Athletic, confident, and powerful, these young girls embody society’s future women, illustrating the uplifting possibility that today’s females may equate themselves to their male counterparts in adulthood if we continue to encourage their strength.
While this advertisement attempts to reclaim and resignify the colloquial phrase “like a girl” to imply strength and power instead of weakness, rocking the traditional gender binary that represses female power, its efforts are futile. Unfortunately, the language and images the campaign promotes alienates a multitude of women who don’t identify with the heteronormative actresses on screen while also encouraging the categorization of society into two neat boxes marked male and female. According to Always, what it means to be “like a girl” is no longer weak, but instead feminine, dress-wearing, and cis-gendered, as Erin and her counterparts flash whitened teeth and flip their freshly curled locks (Always 2015), which is limited at best. Since the 1990s, feminist and queer interventions, two by Anne Fausto-Sterling, have helped us to understand how the very categorical descriptors of “girl” and “boy” subject human-beings as a species to a rigid binary that demoralizes instead of empowers. Furthermore, Foucault’s The History of Sexuality provides insight into how the employment of language, which is productive in nature, results in the subjectification and confinement of humanity to the gender binary that oppresses us (1997). Thus, as Always proposes a newfound strength in girl-dom, one that praises traditional female gender norms such as dresses, makeup, and hair bows instead of condemning them, it fails to empower and speak for women who transcend these norms. In this way, Always helps the gender dichotomy strengthen its grasp on society, for it excludes the all people who don’t conform to one extreme or the other (girl or boy).
Language is both an expanding and restrictive tool, which can reflect and reproduce a narrow understanding of the world around us instead of a thorough one. Anne Fausto-Sterling speaks to this power in her piece, Sexing the Body, which investigates the origination of a commonly accepted philosophy that biological sex determines gender (2000). As Sterling (2000) postulates, the medicalization of the human body in the 20th century resulted in the categorization of the species into two subtypes based on physical genitalia, when, in fact, many intersex beings with combined sexual organs transcend this rigid dichotomy. Always, instead of exposing gender’s abstract nature, encourages the binary by distinguishing “females” from their polar opposite: males. When the producer asks how a cis-gendered, female teen feels when someone says she throws “like a girl”, the actress responds by characterizing women as “strong” even though the colloquialism portrays femininity as “weak” (Always, 2014). However, in doing so, she undermines the commercial’s attempt to rock the gender binary by enforcing a distinction between men and women to begin with. She doesn’t say that people are strong, but that women are strong. In doing so, her language alone separates her kind of woman, a dress-wearing, makeup-using, cis-gendered female from the infinite other genders that truly exist.
While language in and of itself restricts our understanding of gender, a complex topic, to a limited, binary perspective, the manner in which it is employed further reduces our insight. Not only does this Always ad encourage the usage of dichotomous phrases such as “girl”, “boy”, “strong”, and “weak”, but it also subconsciously endorses a singular kind of normative woman. In a later clip, a girl wearing an effeminate blue dress and bright red lipstick states that “[she] walks like a girl and wakes up like a girl because [she is] a girl, and that is not something to be ashamed of” (Always, 2014). Through the voice of the blue-dress-actress, Always fights for unity amongst women but instead alienates the myriad of girls (the asexual, transgendered, masculine, etc.) who don’t walk and talk like the heteronormative actress. In campaigning for pride amongst normative females like Erin and her friend in the blue dress, Always actually oppresses the non-normative women that choose to transcend the gender/sexuality binary, for no genderless women were featured amongst the actresses representing the types of girls society is not “ashamed of” (Always, 2015). This line raises the controversial question of whether or not girls who break the heteronormative mold in fact do have something to be ashamed of, for they don’t dress or express themselves exactly as the Always spokes-girls do. Similar to the way in which the Victorian’s obsession with talking about and medicalizing of sex resulted in the production of sex, men, and women as subjects, this commercial engenders a subcategory of women within the female realm: the ideal woman (Foucault, 1979). Everyone else simply does not fit the mold and is treated as such.
While Always attempts to reclaim the colloquialism “like a girl” and reshape it to express a woman’s power and equality to her male counterparts, the company solely fights on behalf of the heteronormative female population, resulting in a very limited pursuit of girl power that subjectifies many non-binary women through the dissemination and internalization of the #likagirl campaign. When asked once more how to run “like a girl”, an African American actress with straightened hair, winged eyeliner, and highwaisted jeans explains she will “run like herself”, implying that she, a cisgender, heteronormative female, represents all girls (Always, 2015). Clearly this poses a problem for Always’ mission, for it suggests that an acceptable woman is one who conforms absurd beauty standards to satiate the male gaze that has an ever-present hold on female lives. As Always encourages females to pursue heteronormative behaviors, girls and women across the nation will internalize these values (the dresses, makeup, and curled hair) and succumb to a Foucault-dian productive power that prevents them from rising up against the rigid gender symbols forced upon them by our patriarchal society (Foucault, 1997). This sort of “productivity” is more oppressive than it is beneficial. Instead of proposing the explosion of the binary altogether and the reassessment of what it really means to be a girl—whether you are heterosexual or genderless—#likeagirl subconsciously suggests that only heterosexual, cisgender women should explore their inner power within the boundaries of the beauty/behavioral standards that our unyielding society is already accustomed to. How can humankind expect to move past the binary if it only recognizes one kind of woman—the type that wears form-fitting dresses to hug their breasts and show off their traditionally feminine sex characteristics?
Language has evolved since the dawn of time into an essential aspect of human relations necessary to converse, empathize, and understand one another. However, in the search for understanding we have limited ourselves by constructing rigid definitions for each word in our lexicon. Terms such as “boy” and “girl” meant to simplify and explain society subject it to a binary perspective with little wiggle room to explore the possibilities of a more abstract gender sphere. While Always pursued a female-empowering, binary-exploding campaign with its #likeagirl commercial, the language spoken throughout the advertisement (weak/strong, self-conscious/confident, boy/girl) not only encourages black and white binaries, but also pits women against each other, as heteronormative, dress-wearing females are equated with “winning” while genderqueer women are not represented (Always, 2015) . While #likagirl successfully empowers heterosexual, cisgender females to embrace confidence and self-assurance through the use of heteronormative actresses wearing excessive makeup and traditional female sex symbols such as dresses and bright pink colors, it fails to empower all women. To take this campaign to the next level and fight for equality amongst all females and males, genderqueer women need a voice alongside their heteronormative counterparts. Redefining #likagirl as a more fluid, concept including feminine and masculine women alike will open the doors to exploding the gender binary and, ultimately, achieving a genderless society where #likaperson frames public discourse.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000a). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (Revised ed. edition). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000b). The Five Sexes, Revisited. The Sciences, 40(4), 18–23. http://doi.org/10.1002/j.2326-1951.2000.tb03504.x
Foucault, M. (2012). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.