I’m catching up on the news of the day through The Daily Show (a choice in consumption which in no way skews my perception of reality or reinforces what I already assume about it, right?) when it cuts to a commercial break. Naturally, I’m eager to see what artificial need I’ll become aware of as I wait for more cathartic criticism of a nation that spends more time worrying about Hilary Clinton’s Chipotle order than nuclear talks in Iran. What I get instead is a new marketing campaign from Nike targeted at women (which strikes me as a strange demographic for online viewing of The Daily Show, though admittedly I know nothing about the breakdown of its audience). The tagline: BETTER FOR IT. My Media Studies juices flowing, I decide I have to decode this appeal.
Nike is well known for its JUST DO IT campaign. This was never targeted explicitly at men, but that’s an implicit assumption we can make about Nike’s audience (for one thing, given our culture’s preferential treatment toward men). The company tries to attract active athletes, and we all know who the doers in American society are and who our culture privileges and values when it comes to competition, especially in sports. Men “just do it.” Women are “better for it.” Is there a built-in distinction here between activity and passivity? Or am I reading an inappropriate code into the message?
My sense is that Nike is unwittingly reinforcing the hegemonic norms of men as active, mindless, aggressive competitors while women are self-conscious doubters who are in constant need of positive reinforcement and encouragement along the way to justify what is apparently abnormal for them: physical persistence and strength. They’ll be “better for it,” but unlike men, they can’t “just do it.” It’s simply not in them, or rather, our culture trains them to believe this “truth.” Men do. Women get through…maybe.
As the commercial suggests, women are too busy lost in their own heads, talking themselves through exercise. They envy other women who are already better for it, their bodies having met our cultural ideals. They’re judging each other and themselves through a male lens. The women who are represented as in the process of working toward their (autonomous or heteronomous?) ambitions can hardly be described as unfit or unattractive by our society’s normal standards. In fact, it’s fairly difficult to distinguish between the women who are envious and the women who are envied. Presumably, this internal battle is happening for all of them; none of them are good enough, but they’ll be better if they engage in the quest to be better.
Stepping back a bit and being more generous in my reading, there’s no direct indication that the women in the commercial are doing any of their exercise for men; in fact, there seems to be the positive message that women are better for their hard work independent of their relation to men. I still wonder though if the undercurrent of their persistence is embedded in a male-centric culture and, in Nike’s case, this niche community of physical endurance. Men, meanwhile, in any Nike commercial, are just getting the damn thing done. That’s what men do. They’re not battling any internalized oppression or self-doubt. Men don’t have time for that nonsense. Women don’t have time without it.
The fact that Nike has to have advertisements directed at women, an historically marginalized audience for their brand and what they represent, is not inherently negative. While it is symptomatic of a male-dominated culture, we don’t have to read it as a trivial concession but as a necessary (not conciliatory, nor pandering) or inevitable (given the right consciousness) opening of the market, an increase in the possible avenues down which women can construct their identities and develop a more positive orientation toward their bodies and minds. At the same time though, we should be wary of the gender code pervading the difference between male and female directed messages. Men are told to do, women are told to work through. What do we learn and internalize in this subtle difference? What should we bring to the surface as we decode the way our culture primes us for our present and future place in society?