Point/Counterpoint: Does Empowerment Sell?

POINT, via the New York Times: People are paying lots of positive attention to that new Pantene ad about not apologizing so much and the Under Armour one featuring ballerina Misty Copeland! Perhaps we are finally feeling the winds of change.

Ms. Copeland, standing at 5 feet 2 inches tall, muscular and busty, faced similar criticism as a young dancer, not fitting the willowy mold of the typical ballerina. But she succeeded, making herself the perfect face — or body — for Under Armour’s empowering tagline “I will what I want.”

“For aspiring dancers (and their teachers) to see that her body — her skin color, her monster glutes, her bust — do look right, that’s just huge,” writes Hana Glasser at Slate, in one of the many articles gushing about the campaign’s inspirational power.

Whereas the straight-up sex ads for places like American Apparel feel tired, retro. Or is that merely the brand?

Maybe Empowerment has the edge these days! Maybe we consumers, especially ladies, want to be feel inspired to part with our money rather than shamed into doing it, out of the fear that otherwise we’ll be insufficiently attractive to men.

COUNTERPOINT, via the Hairpin: I’m sorry, what?

I saw so many women I adore and respect re-blogging that stupid commercial with heartfelt approval, and every time I did I felt a little sick. Every time someone added an “Amen!” or an “I hate it when women do that!” I whispered a bitter little apology. Sorry. Oh, sorry. Sorry I do that so much. I don’t mean to bother you.

On the surface, the commercial looks like empowerment. Women, stop apologizing for no reason! You don’t owe anyone your contrition for existing in the world! It’s a solid sentiment and one I agree with, as far as it goes–but then, it makes me angry because it doesn’t go far enough. Reflexively apologizing is a habit women develop because we live in a misogynistic society that penalizes us if we’re perceived as too assertive. We live in a world that is constantly, often mindlessly but sometimes maliciously, reminding us to get back in our place. Women who over-apologize don’t do it because we feel that our bodies and ideas and emotions are unworthy of the space they’re taking up, but because we have subconsciously absorbed the reality that other people do, and will treat us worse if we refuse to play along. It’s not an intentional attempt to undermine ourselves. It’s a flinch back from the fire.

Saying “women should stop apologizing” without even trying to address the root cause of the behavior–which, again, is misogyny, not “women being crazy”–is, well, about the level of feminist discourse I would expect from a shampoo commercial. This is advertising, not empowerment. Just like the Dove “Real Beauty” ads that went viral a while back, it exists to sell a product, not kickstart the revolution. And that’s fine. But it really rubs me the wrong way when people start talking about it as though it’s genuinely transformative.

Yes! Yes to this as a personal essay/rant. But. Changing the media landscape can actually be transformative. I grew up with Secret, a woman’s deodorant, purring that it was, “Strong enough for a man, but PH balanced for you.” That was not that long ago. I grew up with all sex in advertising all the time; the only empowerment-type ads I remember were for Wheaties and Virginia Slims: “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

Seeing Misty Copeland leap across a stage like a warrior queen is a much-needed fuck you to that kind of thinking. Whether it not it inspires me to buy Under Armour, it makes me glad that advertising — and media, and the culture at large — is sort of a little bit trending in the right direction.