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Doing It Like A Girl

When the “Like a Girl” video, commissioned by Proctor and Gamble, was turned loose on the World Wide Web, the company may have underestimated not only its viral success, but also how it would spark an almost infinite number of conversations around the world about just what it means to “do it like a girl”.

The video, created to subtly promote brand awareness of their feminine hygiene line, Always, begins with a selection of adults and teens being asked to do various things, such as run, throw an imaginary ball, or fight – “like a girl” – all while being filmed. Not surprisingly, the viewer is “treated” to what seems is going to be a comedic short of men, women and teens of both genders, responding with highly stereotyped “feminine” ineffective behavior – all flailing arms and legs – every one of them looked ridiculous and completely useless.

As the film continues, young girls under the age of 10-12 were asked to perform the exact same actions with the exact same phrase, “like a girl.”  Without pause or reservation, each launched into action, with confidence, accuracy and not a single shred of gender self-consciousness. There was no sign of the flapping and flailing, only power, self-confidence and success.

Obviously the words “like a girl” transform in the way they are interpreted when females are young, to the time when everyone grows up. They go from a statement that is heard as “how do you run, throw or fight” to an insult asking “how does an imaginary universal stereotypical girl run, throw or fight?”  We see the results of this metamorphosis of meaning in the way people of both genders interpret actions as well as how they themselves use the words “like a girl.”

We’ve all heard the phrase, usually used to insult boys who are unable to do something well, something that is usually athletic.  Some of us have even used the phrase without a true thought or understanding of what it really means.  The words “like a girl” do two things to the minds of boys, one is to insult them and the second is to motivate them to try harder to “do it like a boy/man” while simultaneously affecting girls, putting them down and making them feel as though they are “less than” their male counterparts.

To feminists the use of references to female attributes has been known to be insulting for many decades, if not centuries. Just a moment’s pause and thought should bring up an array of feminine words and phrases that men use to each other in jest as well as harsher ones as terms of abuse.

As a society we are all primed to expect and accept, almost without question, that “like a girl” – which is among the lightest of these gender-based insults – means something lesser, ineffective, and pretty useless.

Back in 1966, American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg , introduced the idea of gender constancy, a revolutionary new concept in early gender role development.  Kohlberg theorized that children self-construct their gender through a “conceptual pattern” in their minds.  This means that while children typically understand, between the ages of two and seven, that their physical gender is irreversible (gender constancy); the awareness of gender roles, stereotypes and societal standards develop before they completely understand gender constancy.

Before they fully understand gender constancy, children grow up to increasingly identify with the sex with which they were born, and learn to adopt the prevailing gender roles and behaviors that are considered “normal” for that sex in that society. So women could grow up and learn to be warriors or homemakers, and men could grow up to be masters or servants – or some mix in-between, depending on where they live.

Social groups need labour to be divided among their members in order to function. Not everyone can be a chief, and if everyone were a warrior, the home fires would soon splutter out. Add to this the fact that, biologically, only women can bear children and that humans require years of care and nurturing before they can fend for themselves, and it becomes easy to see why, a lot of the time, in many societies, “monuments are for men and waffles are for women” – a reference to a University of California film made in 2000.

But divisions of roles based on necessity and practicality are a far cry from regarding some roles as more valuable and others as lesser. Difference, does not mean better or worse. This is as true of gender as it is for any other feature that distinguishes one person from another.

So anyone raising or caring for children take note, pause a moment and think before the words “like a girl” get said, and wonder why at that moment you feel the need to insult or belittle, because there are better ways to motivate children to strive to do better.

*HilarySwift is a published author and mental health professional in first life.

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