In the fight for gender equality, I want to see more — and different — stories about the role of boys and men as allies.
October 11 is the United Nations’ “International Day of the Girl Child.” In the fight for gender equality, most brands and organizations dedicated to the cause focus their messaging on the empowerment of girls and women. But is that enough?
I’ve spent the past 10+ years exploring how storytelling and design can be used for social change. For too long, mainstream media fed women a message that their value was tied to their youth, beauty and sexuality — a message that young girls also internalized. Over time, society woke up to these gendered stereotypes, and enlightened media-makers finally started creating positive messages to reflect the true value of diverse girls and women as whole human beings.
As a senior strategist at enso, where my job is to understand cultural trends and people’s relationships to brands, I’m noticing a trend: these ubiquitous “girls empowerment” campaigns are starting to feel one-dimensional. The familiar tropes look something like this:
pre-pubescent and adolescent girls, with varying skin tones, body types and apparel, speaking confidently and looking directly into the camera, demanding respect and equality, usually with a bold soundtrack playing in the background.
Unconscious bias alert!
I am writing this blog post from the perspective of a:
3) mixed race
7) advertising professional
8) living in a middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles.
My view of current events and pop culture is largely seen through my Instagram and Twitter feeds, The New York Times “evening briefings” and The Daily podcast, a handful of industry publications and blogs, and water-cooler chats with my friends and colleagues. Oh, and memes!
Take my views on media representations of gender equality with a grain of privileged-heteronormative salt.
For what it’s worth, here’s my stance: I want to see more — and different — stories that also create dialogue about the role of boys and men as allies.
There’s nothing wrong with creating gendered spaces. There’s nothing wrong with sisterhood or fraternity. The masculine-feminine binary can still exist.
But are we limiting girls empowerment by excluding boys from the storyline? When boys are stunted, they grow up to be stunted men, perpetuating a culture of toxic masculinity. We need to equip everyone with the language, emotional support, and social acceptance to get involved in making society more equal for all.
Empowering girls to reach their full potential.
Here are a few recent examples of how “girl power” shows up in media:
- Michelle Obama launches the Global Girls Alliance with the mission to “empower adolescent girls around the world through education, allowing them to achieve their full potential and to transform their families, communities, and countries.”
- Barbie, the “original girl empowerment brand,” announces the Dream Gap Project, a multi-year global initiative to “raise awareness around limiting factors that prevent girls from reaching their full potential.” (enso is proud to have partnered with Mattel on this initiative.)
- Disney sends “Disneybound” fans to Disneyland, as part of the brand’s #DreamBigPrincess photography campaign to encourage girls to follow their dreams and “realize their full potential” through a series of “empowering” images.
- Girls Who Code releases Sisterh>>d, a digital visual album “celebrating young women driving our most transformative movements — and calling on girls around the world to join them.”
These and other campaigns show girls of all stripes that they belong to a community, that they matter, that they are limitless. These types of communications campaigns are more than welcome — in fact, they should have existed all along. But now that they’ve reached the mainstream, what else — and who else — can we include in the conversation?
The boys are not all right.
In his opinion piece, “The Boys Are Not All Right,” Michael Ian Black wrote, “America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us.” It ran in The New York Times in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students dead. Like nearly all mass shootings in America, the gunman Nikolas Cruz was, indeed, a broken boy.
Research shows that compared to girls, boys in the U.S. are more likely to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder, prescribed stimulant medications, fail out of school, binge drink, commit a violent crime, and/or take their own lives. (Watch “The Mask You Live In” for a deeper investigation on how America’s narrow definition of manhood harms young boys.)
At the same time as boys are in crisis, girls are being told that they are smarter, more confident, more supported, and more “empowered” than ever before. And it’s true: girls outperform boys on many fronts, academically and emotionally. These girls grow up to be women who are more educated and more emotionally intelligent than men.
How do we deliver a message of empowerment to girls, without ignoring the unique challenges that boys face, too?
How do we encourage girls to stand with boys, not against them? And vice versa?
From sisterhood to alliances.
Girls in America and around the world continue to face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But they shouldn’t have to face these obstacles alone. At the end of the day, gender equality is not only a girls’ or women’s issue — it’s a human rights issue. And it affects everyone.
Fact: 98 million adolescent girls around the world are not in school.
Provocation: Once girls get into school, how can we teach boys to accept them as equal and brilliant peers?
Fact: Starting at age 5, many girls begin to develop limiting self-beliefs.
Provocation: How can we inspire confident young boys to encourage girls to dream big with them?
Fact: Women comprise less than one-third of speaking characters in films.
Provocation: What are boys learning when they don’t see or hear girls in their favorite movies?
Fact: Compared to men, women receive far fewer degrees in computer sciences (18 percent), engineering (19 percent) and mathematics (43 percent).
Provocation: Who will grow up to be the scientists and engineers that design our future?
Time for more — and different — stories.
The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously gave a TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” She said:
“That is how to create a single story: show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become…
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story…
The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
I don’t want to see a “single story” of girls empowerment. In addition to stories of girls supporting each other, I want to see more stories of boys loving each other, in that sweet way that boys and brothers do.
“I love you.”
“Because you make me laugh.”
In addition to stories of confidence, I want to see more stories of boys and girls grappling with the insecurities and vulnerability that all humans feel, at any age.
“I don’t mind you crying. I cry, too.
We cry as men.
It’s good to cry so you can work through that emotion.”
In addition to stories of sisterhood, I want to see more stories of boys and girls co-existing and playing together, as friends, families, students and neighbors, celebrating both their feminine and masculine traits.
Everyone thinks that girls should just be pretty and boys should just be adventurous.
I think that’s wrong.
Why should boys’ and girls’ clothes even be separated?
We’re just as good as each other.
Yes, I want stories for and about our girls. But not at the expense of our boys.
enso is a creative impact agency.
We work with innovative companies and organizations to create positive impact at scale through shared missions. Learn more at enso.co.