Tampax quietly unveiled a viral ad campaign in June that I stumbled on a few weeks ago and my feelings about it remain complicated. Despite the hours spent turning it over in my mind, my conclusion is that the campaign--documented entirely on one site, zack16.com, and chronicling the adventures of a sixteen-year-old boy who wakes up one day with a vagina--is many things in turn: edgy, challenging, steeped in stereotypes, possibly transphobic, and potentially subversive in its exploration of gender. ALL AT THE SAME TIME.
Zack Johnson, the central figure of this ad campaign--which, it seems important to note, was created by a major corporation--finds himself suddenly transbodied after living a life unquestioning of gender. The idea is interesting and deeply surprising. Zack's adventures are divided into nine brief episodes, where he is forced to rexamine his relationship to his best friend, his sister, and his body. The "sell" doesn't even come until the last few episodes, when it becomes clear that Zack is going to have to navigate his first period (which, I should note, he handles with far less anxiety and grief than I did mine.)
Stop what you're doing and watch the first four webisodes in this twelve minute mini-film http://zack16.com/the-film/
As you can see, the campaign slides into simplistic and sexist stereotypes regularly, like when Zack immediately bonds with his sister by baking brownies and watching a romantic movie. Girl parts make you emotional! His final assesment of the female biology--"Fifty percent of the population has a vagina, and they seem to be doing pretty well"--is not exactly a "Hear me roar" kind of statement. There are moments that verge on transphobic, too, like when Zack thinks that his crush won't be interested in him because of his "equipment"--um, I think a hell of a lot of women with similarly-bodied partners would disagree with that assesment.
On the other hand--and this is the part that bowls me over--Zack's experience with the boys he's friends with is, well, very transteen. He is worried about being "discovered" by his teammates, who are portrayed as sexist assholes. We are asked to sympathize with Zack, and not just in a gender-binary pity fest. His body has changed in a way that doesn't reflect his understanding of himself, and he is forced to rexamine what it means to be masculine and feminine from the perspective of one who is both and neither all at once. This aspect of the campaign is an accurate description of my adolescence, and the complexity of Zack's reaction is surprisingly well portrayed.
Ultimately, I wouldn't argue that this is a progressive, gender bending ad campaign. However, perhaps by accident, Tampax has created a documentation of a nonnormative gender experience that is not dismissive, hateful, or single-mindedly exaltant of binary norms. Zack's panic about de-pantsing on the soccor field may be one of the most sensitive portrayals of a trans experience that I have ever seen. Or, perhaps, I am being optimistic. What do you think?