Fuzzy feminism: Same old girl power, but without the glamor or the fantasy

An ad released by feminine product company Always and directed by "Queen of Versailles" filmmaker Lauren Greenfield seeks to erase the negative connotation associated with performing activities "like a girl." (Always via YouTube)

Fuzzy feminism preaches that a woman is perfect just as she is. It soothes the soul. And it’s good for business.

The latest advertising campaign that falls into the fuzzy feminism category launched last week with the stated goal of improving girls’ self-esteem while also reminding folks that words can grind away at a kid’s well-being. Under the auspices of promoting its Always line of feminine protection, Procter & Gamble released a YouTube video that challenges the negative connotation of running, throwing, fighting and doing any number of other activities “like a girl.” In the video, filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, who directed “The Queen of Versailles,” asks a group of adults to “run like a girl” or “fight like a girl.” They perform a cliched pantomime of a fumbling gait and flailing arms. The video even includes a young boy who aptly demonstrates that, while he’s not yet old enough to shave, he’s already well-versed in the precise paternalistic mockery that’s implicit in the phrase.

“We didn’t know how people in the video were going to react,” says Velvet Gogol-Bennett, a Procter & Gamble spokesperson. ” But “they played out pretty much the way we thought it would happen.”

Then, like rays of sunlight, into the dour video come a series of fresh-faced prepubescent girls who, when asked to run or fight or throw “like a girl,” give their best and most earnest effort to sprint, jab and pitch. The  negative definition of the phrase hasn’t yet registered in their consciousness and they haven’t internalized any accompanying inferiority complex. That ego blow comes, according to a study cited in the advertisement, around puberty — just when a girl starts thinking about tampons and pantiliners. When she very well might think about Always — the feminine care brand that has been dutifully watching over her self-esteem. Of feminine care brands, Always has the largest market share in the United States, Gogol-Bennett says.

Like other advertisements in this genre, which have come from, among others, Unilever’s Dove and Procter & Gamble’s own Pantene and Olay, Always aims to take a loftier approach to advertising by selling an explicit philosophical stance — a point-of-view — instead of hard-selling a specific product. The strategy allows mass market brands to stand out on drugstore shelves using a tool that takes advantage of their non-glamorous, non-prestige reputation, notes Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the New York-based retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. Instead of aping the glossy advertising of  high-end brands or explaining how a consumer can get a designer look for less, these brands have made an effort to claim a moral high ground by suggesting that they have women’s best interests at heart in a way that luxury brands — and other mass market competitors — do not. Raw reality is their calling card. And, says Flickinger, the ads are effective.

“We definitely plan to continue the conversation,” Gogol-Bennett says, explaining that consumers are encouraged to Tweet examples of themselves doing something “like a girl” — whether playing competitive soccer or shooting skillful basketball. Always and its ilk are advocating woman power. Loudly promoting self-confidence and independence.

But their claim is not all that different from the one that high-end brands also tout — albeit under a thick coating of gloss and creative art direction.


Balenciaga Fall 2014 advertising campaign with Gisele Bundchen. (Steven Klein/Balenciaga)

About the same time that Always launched its #LikeAGirl campaign — or “social experiment” as the company refers to it — Balenciaga released images for its Fall 2014 advertising. The series of hard-edged, black and white images feature model Gisele Bundchen. In one she wears a long textured jacket and over-the-knee, high-heeled boots. In another, she’s wearing a bejeweled sweater  in a room lined with cracked mirrors. In the latter image, the viewer’s vantage point is from behind Bundchen. She stands with her hand against a cracked mirror as she eyes her own brooding, chiseled face and close-cropped, boyish haircut — or the illusion of such a hair cut. The model famous for her long mane of hair did not shave her head for Balenciaga, rather the look was achieved through special effects and air-brushing.

Does high-tech trickery negate the advertisement’s intended message, which creative director Alexander Wang describes as being one of non-traditional beauty and empowerment?

To be clear, there are countless luxury advertising campaigns — and mass market ones, too — whose sole purpose is to objectify women or to create the taunting illusion of impossible perfection. For example, the fall Anthony Vaccarello campaign featuring Anja Rubik  comes to mind. The platinum-haired model is all long bare legs stretched out in a pin-up pose. But through the seasons, there have been other ads that have aimed — with dramatic lighting, evocative styling and larger-than-life models — to make a statement about power and autonomy. Certainly past  imagery from Donna Karan, Versace and even Balmain have had those characteristics as their message.

In the Balenciaga advertisements,  Bundchen maintains a stern, uncompromising expression. She is woman as superhero — a kind of modern day Wonder Woman — a character that once appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine, by the way. The images of Bundchen suggest such determination that one momentarily wonders if she didn’t shatter all those mirrors with her bare hands during some futuristic boardroom stock options brawl.

For brands such as Balenciaga, the point of the big fall advertising campaign isn’t about selling a specific garment. Only the most discerning eye can make out much of anything in Bundchen’s wardrobe aside from those deadly over-the-knee boots and the crystal-studded neckline. These are images meant to define a brand for the season, to give consumers an idea of the designer’s sensibility and to wrap shoppers in a cocoon of intimacy and desire. It is a siren call for consumption.

But underneath that thick, distracting coating of glamour is a message: “We wanted to convey this idea that a woman could shave her head and still feel confident and desired,” Wang said  in a statement. “There’s a new movement to power dressing and this is where we were trying to go with this campaign.”

It’s a philosophical point as relevant as any but requires some interpretation.

The luxury market dabbles in high concept intellectualism and misdirection. The mass market traffics in readily digestible aphorisms. In tearjerker tweets of accomplishment. But both ends of the spectrum are often saying the same thing: Idiosyncrasies are beautiful. You’re brilliant. You can do anything. Stop apologizing.

Fuzzy feminism ostentatiously takes on big complicated concerns and reduces them to one-liners. Always draws a direct link between girls’ drop in self-esteem at puberty and a single, politically incorrect phrase. In its simplification, it offers up a rush of feel good endorphins.

The designer market focuses on fantasy — asking a woman to think beyond the image in the mirror, beyond her subway commute and her middling job to dream about herself as a  grander, more glamorous,  more powerful woman. It’s a person she may never be. Perhaps it’s a person that she has no desire of ever becoming. But it’s the bits and pieces of that fiction that have the potential to propel her forward and upward through the force of her own imagination.

Reassuring simplicity moves merchandise. But fashion is at its most instructive when it recognizes nuances and contradictions and dares viewers to find a way for their fantasies and realities, insecurities and points-of-pride to coexist. And to do so beautifully.

Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the Washington Post fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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