Sport England is to partner with VicHealth for a social marketing campaign to encourage women to participate in sport based on its This Girl Can campaign. However, beyond the campaign’s initial “feel-good” nature, this news may not be as totally positive as it seems.
In its attempt to motivate and empower women, the campaign material may unintentionally work with entrenched norms of sexualising women to perpetuate their self-objectification. This is likely not only to be detrimental to their mental and physical health, but also to further their commodification in society.
Further reading: Sexualised girls are seen as less intelligent and less worthy
The origins of This Girl Can
In 2015, Sport England launched This Girl Can to encourage women to be more active, regardless of body type or age. The mainstream and social media response was positive, and the campaign has received significant global attention for its “Just Do It” style of messaging.
Commercial marketing has always used this commodification of women. But its use in a campaign aimed at empowering women should be of concern.
Further reading: There’s a world of difference between sex and sexism in advertising
What’s the problem?
The romanticisation of women who are “just doing it” has long been used to sell women’s sportswear. This ideology is now reaching a crescendo.
In the This Girl Can advertisement, simulated hypersexuality is posited as essential to agency and action. This turns a laudably intended campaign of empowerment into one of sexual subjectification and self-surveillance.
The “male gaze” – depicting women and the world from a male point of view – has cemented itself as a staple in advertising, including sports campaigns. What is telling in the This Girl Can campaign is the way in which this male gaze has become an internalised self-perception.
Another point of distinction in this campaign is a shift from women’s sexualised bodies presented as passive, mute objects of a male gaze to active, desiring sexual subjects. They are women who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it is in their (implicitly “liberated”) self-interest.
The likelihood of women internalising their agency as directly linked to their sexual capital is highly related to how normalised this is. Research has found that as group identification increases, a person becomes increasingly likely to adopt that group’s behavioural norms. Considering the campaign’s viral status, this is an important consideration.
The exposure of bodies is central to the campaign’s intended message of body confidence and erasing fears of judgement. But, far from what many headlines would have you believe, this campaign is not revolutionary in its construction of women.
Being “confident”, “carefree” and “unconcerned about one’s appearance” are now central aspects of femininity – even as they exist alongside injunctions to meet impossibly high standards of beauty.
So, although we should rejoice at the portrayal of “normal” bodies in this and other campaigns, the same objectification of women is at play. Even when showing women’s bodies in action, rather than focusing on the traits of health, agility and co-ordination, the campaign ad frames the female body as an object.
The focus is on women’s buttocks, faces, hips and chests, the sexualised movements of twerking, “wobbling”, hip shaking and heavy breathing, and taglines such as “Hot, and not bothered” and “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox”.
This approach, while seemingly empowering, could also be read as a simple re-engineering of the objectified female (in contrast to the athletic male) that we often see in sportswear advertising.
An American Psychological Association taskforce, examining the sexualisation of girls in US culture, concluded that this had negative impacts on girls’ cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, body dissatisfaction and appearance, anxiety, sexuality, attitudes and beliefs.
Many would contend that sexualisation can act as empowerment. However, there is some danger in this proposition for selling sports involvement to women. The taskforce highlighted a negative relationship between self-objectification and girls’ sports performance.
The campaign’s use of the text overlay of “I kick balls. Deal with it” reminds the viewer of the traditional androcentric domination of sports. However, we suggest empowerment is not just about claiming back an insult but understanding the reality of the constricted space and physicality of women.
As Iris Young argues, there is not only a style of “throwing like a girl”, but also “running like a girl”, “hitting like a girl”, and so on. For women in sport, a space surrounds them in imagination that they are not free to move beyond.
Further reading: When it comes to sport, boys ‘play like a girl’
What would a better campaign do?
A better way forward would be to focus on “real women’s” voices (in more than stylised overlays and sexualised panting) rather than bodies – highlighting the judgement women fear, as well as the pleasure they can get exercising.
It could prove empowering to take the enjoyment often reserved for men’s experience of physical activity – independent of desirability – and allowing that to be the drive for women’s participation.
A focus on the female voice is also prime, as the voiceover in advertising – the credible, convincing and authoritative voice of reason – is overwhelmingly likely to be male. To allow the female voice to exist free from the constraints of the gaze – that is, disembodied, omniscient, objective and empowered – could offer a route to a stronger construction of women in sports advertising.
When campaigns do use images of women participating in sport, a greater reliance should be on the highly relevant and typically unsexualised body parts of hands and feet – signifiers more often used in marketing sports (and sports equipment) to men.
Involving more women in sport is significant. Sport and leisure spaces are a key setting in the primary prevention of violence against women.
The chance for sport to be a site of redefining power is monumental – the very centrality of sport in gender socialisation is key to its ability to challenge traditional roles and construct new, more positive identities for both sexes.
We do applaud the campaign’s success in encouraging women to participate in sport in the UK. Unfortunately, for the most part, it does little to take women away from the usual sex sells approach (albeit with the inclusion of more “real” women) we have come to expect of mainstream advertising.
Paul Harrison has received funding from Consumer Action Law Centre, Australian Securities Investment Commission, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, Department of Health and Human Services (Victoria), Monash Health and Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.
Laura McVey does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.