Why Doing Things 'Like A Girl' Doesn't Mean Doing Them Poorly

by Katie Gonzalez

It looks more like a social experiment than an advertisement.

When behind-the-camera voices asked teens and young adults to show them what it meant to perform different activities “like a girl,” the results were disparaging, but not unexpected.

The subjects, both male and female, flailed around for the camera, showing just what they thought of girls — their animated and floundering actions proving that to be a “girl” is a bad thing.

But then actual girls were introduced to the project, and they simply did as they were told, but with some very different responses. When asked to run “like a girl,” the girls ran in place like they were preparing for a track event.

When asked to “throw like a girl,” they tossed an imaginary ball straight and strong — clearly not bothering with any underhand movements or overly-giggly “oopsie!” moments.

More than it attempted to hawk Always products, the commercial attempted to show that the bias against females at any age isn’t ingrained in us: It is learned as we get older, turning confident girls into insecure women who believe that their femininity is a bad thing.

The transition from girl to women, confused by puberty, is a difficult process in which the female body isn’t only subject to change, it becomes a space for scrutiny.

As women mature, they are reinforced with toxic, society-imposed notions — about the “ideal” body shape and weight, about the professional opportunities they should “realistically” pursue, about how their sexuality is something to care for and covet and protect, adding intense and not-easy-to-navigate pressures on an already hard coming-of-age point in time.

The “like a girl” playground taunt isn’t simply reserved for the jungle gym, it’s an early-embedded tool by which we reinforce socio-cultural expectations that cast women as weak and inferior to their male counterparts.

As these girls grow into young women, the words so often repeated remain with them, encouraging a lack of confidence, which, in addition to other structural economic and social restrictions that we place on women, can be crippling to a female’s psychological development and personal satisfaction.

Women begin to actually perceive themselves as having less self-worth than the men they used to wrestle with and play house with during recess. After all, guys are told to be them — to act like men. Women are told to not act “like a girl.”

By using such charged language, we create these expectations for boys and girls that they feel forced to mold themselves to, amidst society’s often silent yet overt constraints to do just that.

Adult instructions — “Don’t be a baby! Quit acting like a girl!” — become a moral code by which children adopt the approved behavior and values they carry into their own adulthood.

By teaching kids that “like a girl” is no good, we reinforce a belief that women are somehow the second sex.

It’s confusing how one gender has become a stand-in for inferiority, providing a phrase that evokes images of weakness and feelings of helplessness in a mere three words.

And if “like a girl” is so wrong, then the phrase “man up” is its opposite — usually implicitly or explicitly endorsed as the better behavior.

Boy are told to “man up” when they cry (because showing emotion and discussing feelings are clearly too effeminate actions), and even girls are similarly ordered to “man up” when they resist doing something else deemed too frivolous of — heaven forbid — “girly.”

Whereas “like a girl” has developed to indicate a weakness, “man up” has come to symbolize a strong command that implies doing to right thing, the smart thing, the best thing.

“Man up” is all muscle; “like a girl” glistens with disappointment and unfulfilled potential.

In other words, femininity is treated with little respect and often ridiculed, but masculinity is applauded, encouraged and, in some situations, absolutely required.

Not only does this idea of clear-cut “femininity” and “masculinity” create a strictly-established gender binary, which fails to consider individual identity and the fact that these ridiculous determinations are entirely socially constructed, but this idea embeds self-loathing in women, while teaching men that misogyny is justified.

These cues teach kids to see their differences instead of their similarities, and places a clearly higher value on one set of behavior and its accompanying sex (masculinity, males) over the other (femininity, females).

By being more conscious of what we criticize as being “like a girl,” and by being more cognizant of the negative implications of gendered words like “bossy,” we can continue to raise our girls and boys to be the best, truest versions of themselves, instead of reinforcing sexist notions of one gender being greater or more capable than the other.

The conversation that Always’ three-minute spot sparked (propelled by the #LikeAGirl hashtag that quickly made its way through social media) might appear to be undeserving of a simple yet successful advertisement ploy, one that called out a controversial and often-ignored issue while also promoting female empowerment.

These little battles might seem like semantics, but they reflect a more subtle yet still important attempt to change the substance of our society.

For if we come to speak about girls and women on equal terms with men, we’ll start to see girls and women on equal terms with men, and then we’ll eventually learn to treat girls and women on equal terms with men.

Photo Courtesy: Flickr