International Women’s Day 2019 (Friday 8th March) is focused on #BalanceForBetter. It’s asking, how can we celebrate women’s achievements while we strive for a more gender-balanced world?
Without question, one of the main ways brands, the media, and society as a whole can do this is by changing the way they talk about, and talk to, women.
In any society, children are given verbal and image-based cues on how they’re expected to behave. When it comes to teaching children things like morals or manners, this can be a good thing, but sometimes the messaging goes astray.
In 2018, clothing retailer Boden released a catalogue that included T-shirts for girls and boys. The boy’s shirts featured words like: ‘awesome’, ‘good’, ‘genius’, ‘champ’, ‘super’ and ‘epic’. The girl’s choices included instructions like ‘smile’, mottos like ‘it’s cool to be kind’, the word ‘love’ and a unicorn with pink hair.
There’s nothing wrong with a boy being awesome, nor with a girl being kind. But why is it always that way round? Boys can also be kind; girls can be awesome. These sorts of gender-divided messages are all too often found in children’s marketing and products.
Cumulatively, they help to influence boys to think that strength is crucial, and that being strong means being the best (and that by expressing certain emotions they’re showing weakness). For girls, they teach them to placate, to conform to beauty ideals, and that their emotions are wrong, unless expressing them makes them more desirable (has any woman not been told to smile by a stranger?).
This only gets worse as we grow up.
Even the tamest of adverts can see women sexualised.
We’re becoming less tolerant of this kind of messaging as a society, but for everyone who pushes back, there are others who ask what the fuss is about and roll their eyes at political correctness gone mad.
How brands are changing the narrative
We’re starting to see brands fight against stereotypes and create campaigns and products designed to celebrate women as they are, without judging them against set criteria.
The 2019 OSCARS saw the debut of a new ad by Nike (working with Serena Williams). Dream Crazier looks at some of the ways women are judged and criticised (for example, people may describe an angry man as angry, while an angry woman gets labelled as being hysterical or throwing a tantrum).
The message of the ad is that if society is going to call you crazy for being true to yourself and your aspirations, push harder and be crazier.
Mothercare is another brand challenging the messages around women. It found that 80% of mothers said that they compared their bodies to the ideals celebrated in the media. When you consider that the women they’re comparing themselves against may have a team of people helping them train, eat and make them look camera ready, and that many photographs are digitally manipulated, this hardly seems like a reasonable comparison to make. But, women have had a lifetime of programming to judge themselves harshly by the time they are old enough to be mothers.
To combat this, Mothercare has devised an ad campaign, running on the London Underground, that celebrates women’s real post-baby bodies.
As International Women’s Day approaches, many brands will be creating content, holding events and using the hashtag to express their support for the cause and celebrate women and gender equality.
However, to create a lasting impact and help to design a world where all people are judged, not on their gender, but themselves, brands need to ask how they can carry the message of gender equality throughout the year.