Advertising, sports have power to reclaim ‘like a girl’

Hillary Smith

Of the countless Super Bowl advertisements, one in particular made a deep impression on me. It included clips from an experiment conducted by Always, a feminine hygiene brand, in which people of different ages were asked to mime physical actions –– run, throw, etc. –– “like a girl.” The adults pretended to be weak and silly. But the young girls, unaware of the phrase’s connotation, portrayed vigor and determination.

This was eye-opening for me because I realized that I would have done the same thing the adults did. I have become desensitized to “like a girl” existing as an insult. But this phrase, in evoking the stereotype of females as physically weak, can be incredibly harmful to girls with waning self-confidence, which Always’s study proved tends to begin at puberty.

The young girls in the ad, however, give the phrase positive meaning. In order to maintain this attitude, we must produce more ads and other media conveying this meaning. I am realizing how powerful television ads, which I usually find annoying, are in promoting messages like this one, because they reach large audiences. While I recognize that the ultimate goal of advertising is profit, the favorable response to this Always ad seems to prove that positive and eye-opening messages catch our attention and make us inclined to support the brand, so I hope that more companies will use ads in this way.

Along with advertising, professional sports play a significant role in establishing gender norms because athletes also reach large audiences and are often featured in ads themselves. Thus, something that would surely help redefine the meaning of “like a girl” is greater promotion and coverage of professional women’s sports. There really aren’t any huge female counterparts to the huge men’s teams. The teams we refer to when referencing various cities’ professional sports are always men’s. The teams that are a big deal are always men’s. For goodness sakes, men’s football is so huge that we reschedule meetings so that everyone can watch the Super Bowl.

But why this disparity? Why is the WNBA so much less popular than the NBA? I’ve heard that the women just aren’t as fast-paced and exciting to watch. But whose fault is that? Should we shift some money and efforts from men’s basketball programs to women’s to try to remedy this? As a soccer fan, I can attest that women’s games are just as thrilling and competitive, so why is the men’s World Cup a bigger deal? And why must we add “Women’s” in front of every professional women’s sports league? Why can’t we add “Men’s” in front of men’s to equalize it? In not doing so, we’re perpetuating the idea that men’s teams are the main teams and women’s are those other, special ones.

A recent Boston Globe article suggests that one reason for this disparity between men’s and women’s teams is our culture of long-standing allegiances to traditional –– and therefore men’s –– teams. It also states that people still perceive women as less physically capable, which is why we need more exposure to female athletes –– so that they can prove the opposite and inspire girls. Some women’s teams cited in the article are enhancing their viewerships by promoting themselves in their communities. I think this is an effective start to solving the exposure problem, but as stated on the Women’s Sports Foundation website, women’s sports still receive significantly less funding than men’s, so closing this funding gap is imperative in increasing promotion and exposure.

Sports and advertising can and should work in tandem in promoting the positive meaning of “like a girl.” I hope this starts to happen for the sake of the next generation of women so that they can maintain their confident attitude and not let their supposed physical inferiority degrade their self-esteem.