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Like a Girl: The History Behind Superbowl 2015's Most Talked-About Ad

Like A Girl: The History Behind Superbowl 2015's Most Talked-About Ad

Like a Girl?

A little boy doesn’t jump out of his crib magically knowing how to throw a fastball, save someone from a burning building, develop sophisticated software, or negotiate for a higher salary. If he succeeds at these tasks, it’s because he received the training and encouragement to do so throughout his life. If we don’t afford our daughters the same attention, how can we expect them to succeed in the same endeavors?

Watch Proctor & Gamble’s “Like a Girl” advertisement, which aired during this year’s Superbowl, scoring the most buzz across all social platforms:

What Did You Call Me?

“Like a girl” is an insult, usually directed toward boys or men, when they do something poorly or in a way that suggests weakness or a lack of athletic coordination. But when you really think about it, it doesn’t make much sense. There is nothing intrinsically gendered about sporting ability, courage, intelligence, or standing up for oneself. These are traits that can be nurtured in any boy or girl from a young age.

So where did this notion of “like a girl” originate?

According to Eric Anthamatten, a professor of  philosophy at Fordham University, the phrase “like a girl” has little to do with biology and everything to do with socialization—in this case, the way girls are raised to interact with and understand their own bodies and abilities. Let’s use baseball as an example. The act of throwing something is inherently aggressive, requiring a balanced stance and the use of force to hurl an object forward. Sounds pretty basic, but historically, aggression was not a trait associated with women or girls. Sports were not for girls. Politics were not for girls. Firefighting and policing jobs were not for girls. It stands to reason then, that parents were not raising their girls to successfully engage in these endeavors. It was domesticity all the way.

Old Insults Die Hard

Today’s “like a girl” insult is something many of us say without thinking—a byproduct of a time when girls and boys had very narrow roles, and when embodying characteristics of the other gender was seen as a personal failing. Boy, am I glad I don’t live in that world. (Though we do still live in a world where women’s sports receive but a fraction of the funding and publicity of their male equivalents, where female CEO’s are still difficult to come by, and where only 14% of computer science graduates are women. Biases are still alive and well.)

The Real Roots of Ability

Parents—think about your daughter, if you have one. What makes her her?

Maybe she’s the fastest runner in her grade. Maybe she shines in math, science, or English class. Maybe she can sing. Maybe she writes and stars in her own plays. Maybe she’s brave and outspoken and not afraid to try new things. Maybe she’s extremely compassionate. Maybe she throws a mean fastball. Maybe she’s going to be an Olympian. Or an astrophysicist.

Regardless of gender, our children’s talents really take off when we make a conscious effort to nurture them. Kids aren’t one way or another simply because they’re a boy or a girl. To be sure, some kids may have natural inclinations toward sports, academics, or creative arts, but the way we respond to those inclinations can hugely impact our kids’ self-perception and accomplishments (the old nature vs. nurture argument).

Proctor & Gamble’s ad is a well-intentioned effort to reclaim the phrase “like a girl” and turn it into a positive. Personally, I’ll be even more excited when we move beyond attributing our successes and failings to gender and allow our kids to explore, experiment, win, and lose, free from biased expectations and the social shackles of years past.