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‘Like a Girl’ ad makers’ hearts are in the right place, but …

The “Like a Girl” ad that ran during the Super Bowl is undeniably powerful, but it didn’t quite sit well with me. After some thought, I came up with three reasons why.

1. There is a basic dishonesty in the premise. Assuming that the video is truthful (not edited out of context), it looks like a group of actors were called in for an audition and then asked to act for a director. “OK, so I’m just going to give you some actions to do, and just do the first thing that comes to mind.” The actors agree and when asked to run/fight/throw like a girl, they create a caricature.

They could hardly have done anything different. From what we can see, each one is being given a chance to sell their acting skills in a brief moment without any context. They then reach for a quick and negative portrayal. The same thing would have happened with most any instruction they were given. If they were asked to speak like they were English, they would say things like ‘pish posh,’ ‘cheerio’ and would talk about tea and crumpets. Those things are certainly stereotypes, but how else would they convey “English’ in a brief moment?” This is true of almost any adjective. If they’d been asked to “talk like a guy” would they have escaped stereotypes?

In fact, think of what would have happened if one of the women had thought, “Well, I’m a girl, I’ll just act normally and play it straight.” They then would have run in place normally and almost any director would have dismissed them as terribly boring.

This wasn’t fair to the actors.

2. It’s not cool to shame children. Look at the boy at the 1:08 mark. He’s what, 10 or 11 years old? He’s asked if he insulted his sister. He says “No, I mean, yeah … insulted girls, but not my sister.” He obviously doesn’t understand exactly how to untie a person he knows well, like his sister, with a wide-ranging stereotype, like “girls.” In time, hopefully, he’ll have a better grasp on this. And it isn’t hard to see how this exact example will help him out.

I have three young kids and they run into these teachable moments all the time. If they see someone using a powered cart at Target, they loudly ask what’s wrong with them. I quietly tell them that it’s not polite to point or yell and then explain what the situation is. This is normal parenting, and you can hear stories like this from virtually every parent.

What parents don’t do is correct their children in a commercial that airs during the most watched television program of the year. Let’s hope that this commercial doesn’t lead to years of teasing and bullying and therapy sessions. This isn’t a fair thing to do to someone that young.

3. The message isn’t quite right. I have a 7-year-old daughter, and I worry about her future. I don’t want her to face a plummet of confidence in her teens, as the ad suggests. But I doubt that making “like a girl” into an amazing phrase will help. In fact, reinforcing her identity as a girl will make her more vulnerable to other dangers. I’m not especially worried that she’ll come home crying on the bus because she couldn’t hit a ball well, but I am worried that she’ll be crying because someone told her that her outfit wasn’t girly enough.

I think that the ad makers’ hearts are in the right place, I truly do. We should all want girls (and boys!) to escape having their spirits crushed as teens. The mistake they make is by trying to fight against this by drawing a line around a group and trying to elevate it. This will always a) reinforce stereotypes within that group and b) create hostility from those outside of it. I don’t want to a) have to tell my daughter to dress a certain way because that’s how girls do it, and I don’t want to b) alienate her brothers by defining successful things as girl-like. Instead of emphasizing her wonderful girlness, I’ll emphasize how wonderful she is as an individual. In the end, that’s obviously the best way forward.

Peder DeFor, of Minneapolis, writes the blog Peder D4.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 02/03/2015 - 09:33 am.

    “In fact, reinforcing her identity as a girl will make her more vulnerable to other dangers.”

    Isn’t that statement right there exactly what the advertisement is trying to work against? The ad doesn’t want young girls to end up conforming to a preconceived social ideal about what women should be like- so their position is to stop conditioning young women to think that doing anything ‘like a girl’ inherently means ‘less than a boy’ or whatever. Just something I noticed that maybe you hadn’t thought about in that light. Maybe I’m just trying to say that from my point of view, I would say that ‘reinforcing her identity as a girl will make her less vulnerable to other dangers.’

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/03/2015 - 09:34 am.

    Agreed, almost

    I have a grandson and a granddaughter, and my hope is that both of them will grow up straight and strong and competent – to be, using that old Army commercial phrase – the best that they can be.

    I’m not bothered by the commercial’s stereotyping, and there is some, as much as Mr. DeFor is, but perhaps that’s because I grew up with multiple sisters, taught in a public high school for 30 years, and coached high school girls’ sports for 15 seasons. Having had ample opportunities for observation over the years, I’m well aware that gender usually has little to do with innate abilities in most circumstances, whether physical or intellectual. There ARE girls who “throw like a girl,” but if that bothers you, keep in mind that they can be taught throwing techniques that will transform their abilities. There are also girls who can bring it as well as, if not better than, most males. A commercial I’ve seen a couple of times featuring Moné Davis is a case in point. I coached a few of both kinds. And, while we’re at it, there are plenty of boys who don’t have much in the way of athletic talent.

    It shouldn’t be necessary to say this in what purports to be a civilized nation in the 21st century, but generalizing from a few examples is very often inaccurate, which is what makes stereotypes of almost any kind so pernicious, whether they’re based on gender, culture, race, age, or what-have-you. That said, I agree that the commercial has its heart in the right place, and if its execution is less-than-perfect, well, few human endeavors achieve perfection. Sadly, there’s still plenty of prejudice and stereotyping in this and other societies, so I’d say the commercial’s overall message doesn’t depend very much on whether the actors are “acting” or not.

  3. Submitted by Tom Kelly on 02/03/2015 - 09:45 am.

    Caricatures? Sure . . . but why?

    Actors or not, if asked to do athletic actions “like a girl”, there is an impulse to perform in an exaggerated, uncoordinated, and false manner. Why is that? Because we have written into our culture a myth that is strong, shaming, and controlling. It’s long past time to bust that myth.

  4. Submitted by Matt Becker on 02/03/2015 - 09:49 am.

    Note

    If you look up “mansplaining” on UrbanDictionary.com there’s a link to this post.

  5. Submitted by Matt Becker on 02/03/2015 - 09:50 am.

    Also

    “In fact, reinforcing her identity as a girl will make her more vulnerable to other dangers.”

    That might be the most sexist sentence I have ever read.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/03/2015 - 10:54 am.

      Sexist

      I don’t want my daughter to think that there are areas of ‘girl things’ and ‘boy things’. That’s what I meant. (Other commenters seemed to understand that. Maybe they didn’t look quite so hard for the outrage angle.) I’m much more worried that she’ll feel she *has* to do things because they’re girly. I’d rather she try things out in different fields and see what she likes.

      Would we be better off if I praised her homework, athletics and other activities by saying that it was ‘wonderful, like a girl’? Or would that lead to other problems? I’d rather that she identify strongly as an individual first, who happens to be a girl.

      • Submitted by Matt Becker on 02/03/2015 - 01:17 pm.

        Yes. Totally ignore the fact that she is a girl. That’s not sexist in the slightest.

        I stand by my statement.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/03/2015 - 04:41 pm.

          Eyeroll

          Think what you want. The idea that the fact she is a girl is ignored isn’t true and nothing that I’ve written should lead someone to believe that.

          But go ahead and have this conversation with the person you’ve imagined.

          • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 02/04/2015 - 11:50 am.

            Look, I still think the article you wrote is actually sexist- but I don’t think it’s in an overt or intentional way. To draw an analogy, when we talked about things like ‘institutionalized racism’ throughout 2014, I see this as being indicative of structural sexism.

            You talked about how her ‘being a girl’ makes her more vulnerable to other dangers, and your solution is to try and teach her the things she needs to be aware of, and things she shouldn’t be doing, to avoid that danger… I view this as placing the onus on her to avoid undesirable behavior by others. My approach to that is to teach my son that those behaviors directed towards woman are simply inappropriate and offensive, and why it’s wrong. We are both trying to address what we perceive as threats to our (and others’) children, but in your approach, it’s treating a symptom and reinforcing gender stereotypes, and in my approach (IMO), it’s doing more to address the cause.

            As to the cause, well, we’re all products of some 10 thousand years of rigid patriarchal societies, and we’re just beginning to crawl out from under it. That’s why I want you to know I’m not calling you a sexist. I don’t believe it, for one (that you inherently believe woman are ‘less than’), but I also recognize that you’ve been raised and surrounding by this system your entire life, as have we all. If we can all acknowledge it, we can start to move forward, and abandon the false narrative of how empowering women and girls amounts to an imposition on boys.

  6. Submitted by jason myron on 02/03/2015 - 10:16 am.

    What a godawful

    tone deaf piece. It’s like something Laura Ingraham would write, but minus the warmth and humanity. I think Mr. Becker’s two posts hit the nail on the head.

  7. Submitted by Cynthia Marty on 02/03/2015 - 11:33 am.

    “Like a Girl”

    Before writing this piece you should have watched the entire video on the creation of the “Like A Girl”. Totally did not hit it..

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxd_DKsITXo

  8. Submitted by Ann Richards on 02/03/2015 - 01:10 pm.

    ‘sexist comment’

    These are very interesting comments to an article I really appreciated. I did not see the ad, but am interested in the reaction to this article, partly because I am female and have young grand daughters. We see the same article but from our own experience. For example, the line…..’reinforcing her identity as a girl will make her more vulnerable to other dangers.,’ makes me think of safety issues. Just being a girl is a special risk, and I am especially aware of that when I take my little girls out in the public. Her point #2 was also interesting…..certainly worthy of comment. I observe this on the playground often, and haven’t known how to address this, other than leave.

  9. Submitted by Lola Fitz on 02/03/2015 - 05:11 pm.

    Um, no. I think this ad hits it right on the head. One, I find it problematic that a man is writing this and saying ‘nice try, but no!” And two, you seem to be oblivious to the BS girls and women have to face.

    And, I guess on a surface level, you’re right. This a very deep, systematic issue. But, I think in general the ad is positive because it’s trying to reverse the negative attributes that girls face. And it isn’t just girls who suffer this rubbish, boys do too. Being called a girl is somehow an insult in our culture. So, by saying that doing things ‘like a girl’ is not negative, it’s in fact positive, will be a truly powerful thing.

    It’s so telling that a 10-year-old knows instinctively to act the way he does to portray running or throwing “like a girl.” Yeah, he doesn’t seem to understand that it’s an insult to his sister, but he knows it’s an insult.

  10. Submitted by lauren zeinfeld on 02/16/2015 - 08:10 pm.

    How are we preparing girls for girlhood?

    We’ve managed to raise a generation of girls who truly see themselves as equal. However, most girls will experience some form of gender un-fairness before the age of 7. Everyday little girls google “am i ugly?” to get feedback on their developing selves. Majority of girls are growing up without knowing what makes being a girl truly special.

    I am from a generation of messages that reinforced “girl power.” Beyonce sang songs about independent women and TLC proclaimed against no scrubs. While these messages of female empowerment might not relate to today’s generation, they did instill a sense of pride in my girl-ness.

    How are we preparing young adolescence for girlhood beyond their physical selves? And how are we empowering them to use their female strengths to make this a better world?

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