This Girl Can?

In January 2015 Sport England launched 'This Girl Can' a campaign all about getting women and girls moving. From the off it was heralded as empowering by the media, and from the off it has fascinated me. 

Initially I was all for the campaign, swept along it it's glossy finish, the sight of 'real women' doing their thing, seemingly not caring about their sweaty faces and wobbly thighs, it seemed refreshing. But gradually, gradually I started to think about things a bit more, and gradually, gradually the sheen wore off. An academic friend of my Mum's passed on this article published in The Conversation by two academics at Bath University and it got me thinking. I mulled on the issue for about a year until the opportunity presented itself last term to think seriously about the subject, so I did. What I'll be sharing here is the condensed result of that thinking. The original was a 2,500 word long academic paper (which I will happily send to anyone who fancies reading it), this is the more user friendly version. Full referencing is available on request.

Fewer women than men participate in sport, and Sport England has stated that one of it's core priorities is to change that. It's invested more than £10 million in Active Women projects, with This Girl Can being the largest and most visible of its campaigns.

It's a celebration of active women up and down the country who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their faces get.

(This Girl Can, 2016)

Through film and print media the campaign tells the stories of real women rather than professional athletes, using the complete opposite of the idealised images of we're so used to seeing in sports campaigns. Women are shown participating in a range of sports supported by catchy slogans 'sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox', 'I jiggle, therefore I am' and 'damn right I look hot'. The films have been shown on primetime television and the internet and have been viewed 37 million times. It's likely you've seen it, and it's also likely you've engaged with the campaign on social media - the hashtag #ThisGirlCan has been used in more than 660,000 tweets since January 2015. 

All of this is designed to challenge attitudes and boost women's confidence around sports participation. While there is some evidence that participation has increased (more on that later!), should we also be questioning whether the campaign has also re-emphasised gender stereotypes in sport? 

gender ideologies in sport

I won't go in to loads of depth on this one, just enough so you know what I'm on about for the rest of this post. Essentially when I talk about 'gender' in my work, I am talking about the socially constructed roles of men and women. In British society men have historically been privileged and, as such, gender ideology will typically be be based on a model that classifies people in to sex categories. These categories are biologically defined, focusing on the idea there's a natural difference between people in each category, and different expectations are therefore placed on them.

Sport as we know it emerged during the Victorian era and were very much the domaine of men. They were symbols of masculinity, chauvinism and power. Women for the most part were excluded. If they did engage in sport they were deemed unattractive (aesthetic rationale), acting in opposition to femininity (social rationale) and at risk of endangering themselves psychologically and physically (medical rationale). The belief that there's innate biological and psychological differences between the sexes created a form of sexism so pervasive and powerful that the exclusion of women from sport felt like common sense. And so their participation was restricted to whatever activities society (men) felt were acceptable.

but we've never had it so good!

Since the 1950's women's participation in sport has increased. At London 2012 men and women competed in every event, and women accounted for more than 44% of participants overall.

In the UK, Sport England's Active People Survey indicated women's participation has increased and the gender gap, while still evident, is gradually narrowing. Win! More specifically, research suggest that as a result of This Girl Can around 2.8 million women and girls have engaged in some form of physical activity. Win Win!! We could almost say we've never had it so good. 


You see women still participate in sport less than their male peers. And the increases in participation have been marginal. So what's going wrong? Well, Sport England has commented that the differences in participation between men and women isn't because women don't want to be active, it's because they're afraid of being judged when they are active. This is where gender ideologies come in - while as a society we're pretty on board with the idea of women getting physical, we've still got pretty traditional ideas about what 'appropriate' behaviour looks like, and some sports are more 'appropriate' than others. 

This Girl Can is a campaign looking to challenge traditional notions of femininity and positions itself as empowering. To challenge the notion that the female body is simply an object of beauty. This is a complex area, and while women may contest gender expectations in sport, some academics would argue that their activities continue to be modified by gender ideologies. This Girl Can's mission illustrates this when it states 'no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their faces look'. Yes it's arguable that this is a play on the idea women aren't playing sport because of fear of judgement, but it can also be read as emphasising some of the aesthetic and social objections to women engaging in sport through gender ideology, reminding them why society is uncomfortable with engagement outside the parameters it deems acceptable. 

no matter how they look

 At the heart of this campaign are images of women that we wouldn't normally see in the media. Unlike commercials for Nike or Adidas, which show women who are athletic yet still fit conventional ideas about female beauty, the women in this campaign come in all shapes and sizes. And that's part of it's appeal. From the outset it seems so outrageously positive! But what if it has the opposite effect? While the bodies might contrast to those hawking pricey running shoes, presenting them as radical or revolution could be (and is by Fullager and Francombe-Webb, 2015 - academics who have heavily influenced my thinking in this area) essentially another form of objectification perpetuating traditional views about women in sport. 

Set to catchy pop music (seriously, I got to cite Missy Elliot in the original paper I wrote on this - academic high point!) the film isn't dissimilar to a music video - women bounce in time to music reinforcing cultural ideas about female bodies and male gratification. Overlaying these images are slogans like 'sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox' that while used in self-reference within the context of the campaign, have the potential to shift to spiteful attacks on those who don't conform (Fullager and Francombe-Webb, 2015).

Women receive so many competing messages about their bodies from society - images of powerful athletes complete with those of fashion models, they're told to get strong, but lose weight, muscles are great, but too many muscles are unfeminine. It's exhausting and confusing.

Messages promoting appearance and beauty seem to be louder than those about athletic performance. Standards of 'cosmetic fitness' lead women to opt for activities aligned to ideals about beauty, fashion and sexual attractiveness, and to keep their appearance in check when they participate. What's more, it's been suggested that these messages may also influence how long women remain engaged in sport as they may cease participation if an activity causes them to gain weight or once they achieve a goal. 

no matter how well they do it

The statement 'throwing like a girl' has become synonymous the the idea that if you're doing something like a girl, then you're doing it the wrong way. It's an insult. A slight. It emphasises the idea that for sport to be legitimate it must encompass masculine traits. Statements like this perpetuate the idea women's sports are second rate, it trivialises it and undermines steps towards equality. 

In it's mission statement This Girl Can emphasises that it's a celebration of active women participating 'no matter how well they do it'. While this can be interpreted as an effort to reassure the nervous that their athletic performance is irrelevant, the use of negative language can also be seen as re-emphasising the repressive stereotype that women aren't as good at sports as men.

Ideology is taken for granted in society. It's a form of cultural logic that we use to make sense of the world. This is especially true in relation to gender, and as a result it can be hard to transcend traditional assumptions about difference between genders and the notion that sport is a traditionally masculine domaine. Sport media coverage reinforces that and consistently focuses more on men than women. the way commentators approach coverage is different two - men's strengths are highlighted, while women's weaknesses are emphasised. Media is significant in shaping perceptions of women in sport, and I'd argue that the language used by This Girl Can perpetuates the negative messages already shared by the winder media.

so what?

Women's participation in sport is a complex area, and there are no easy answers (seriously, I could make a career out of thinking about it and still not solve the problem). There's the sense that we need some pretty big social changes to happen if women are to achieve equality with men - and we can't really expect that from one campaign. 

On one hand This Girl Can has been great - more women are engaging in sport! But we should question the extent to which the campaign has challenged social norms around women in sport. Many of the images and slogans employed can be argued to perpetuate existing stereotypes.

What could This Girl Can have done differently? Did it miss an opportunity? You see, I don't think so. Yes I'd like to have seen more positive language, but ultimately our society is so entrenched in gender difference, particularly in sport, that it's hard to see how different images could have been used.

Wow, so that was a long one. I hope you found it interesting (if you made it to the end) and that maybe it sparked some ideas. I'm an academic and am always up for a debate. If you want to let me know more just ask. If you want to question me please do.