When it comes to women and sports, we've got a long way to go before we reach the promised land of gender equity. Still, when you consider that Title IX just passed in 1972 and that we've got some seriously kickass women athletes to look up to in the wide world of sports today, well, it could be worse. So how are we doing when it comes to women, sports, and advertising? Well, let's start on a high note:
Remember this Nike ad? It first aired in 1995, and even though that was 15 years ago, it is still the gold standard in women's athletic advertisements (if someone has an example of an ad campaign that's done a better job since this one, please leave it in the comments section). This spot is positive all the way, without glossing over the marginalized experiences of many young women athletes in our culture. Compare it to this Under Armour ad, which takes a similar approach with less of an explicit message (and less diversity):
To me, the Nike spot makes more of an impact, though both are pretty good. Of course, Nike and Under Armour are working from an advantage here because these ads are about young girls playing sports, and who doesn't want that? Things get a little dicier when the target audience matures into adulthood:
OK, I get that this ad comes with good intentions. Athletes should feel proud of their physiques, and they shouldn't let beauty norms get in the way of that. Agreed! But! (Butt!) The woman in this ad is fragmented, reduced to a specific, sexualized body part in order to make a point about sports culture. I can't help but feel that the way this posterior is framed is making a statement that reinforces some of that culture as opposed to challenging it – because the focus is still on a body part. Also, this ad pits athletic women against skinny women as if someone couldn't be both (or as if bigger women need to resent smaller women). Still, the ad is kinda funny, and we women have certainly been subjected to a lot worse when it comes to sports and the size of our asses. Behold:
Yeah. Those Reebok Easytone ads leave a buttload (pun!) to be desired when it comes to representations of athletic women. Because, of course, when you boil everything down, women only exercise to conform to looking a certain way (firm yet small butt, firm yet medium-sized boobs, flat stomach, etc.). If you weren't sure of that fact, just listen to the creepy mansplaining narrator at the end of the ad. This ad, and many others along similar lines, sends a sexist message (exercise, fatty!) masquerading as helpful (we just want to improve your workouts!).
Sports advertising that targets women is rarely about sports. Instead, it's about what the advertisers want us to think sports can do for us. It's about selling a lifestyle where we're sporty people, and sometimes that's OK (when the lifestyle involves physical fitness and athletic ability) but usually that lifestyle involves the same tired tropes that so often come with women's ads: beauty, looks, weight loss, youth, beauty, nice butt, guy attention, beauty, etc. Even when the ad pretends to be about rejecting conventional beauty myths, what usually happens is that those exact beauty myths are reinforced (but now you can get the look from athletic gear instead of cosmetics!). Check out this Asics ad for an example:
Hey ladies, we don't want you to get your thin body and your pretty hair from cosmetics, we want you to get them from our line of athletic beauty products! Still get them though, because we'd hate for you to look gross. And of course, all athletic women are thin and pretty. No need to challenge that completely false notion.
I've been looking around the interwebs for a while, as well as calling for help on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and I'm having a tough time finding much in the way of women's sports ads that doesn't inadvertently reinforce sexist notions somehow. Even in the ads that I didn't include here, there seems to be quite a bit of one-step-forward-two-steps-back (yes women can play sports but only through the male gaze and only if they are young and thin and showing a lot of skin) going on. Some of the better examples are at the local level, like this one for a New England sporting goods chain (via redingtonpete), but even it pits a hot woman against schlubby guys – not entirely progressive:
What would you sporty feminists (and I know you're out there) like to see in women's sports advertising? Are you happy with the current offerings, or do you think more could be done here? Are athletic companies striking out when it comes to marketing to women and girls? Or have they scored a touchdown? Who will win in the shootout between sporting goods companies and women athletes? Are these ads making those crucial three-pointers, or has their shot clock run out? And can you come up with some more sports-related metaphors to apply to this situation? Just do it.
This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.