I enjoyed Dr. Cassie Wright’s presentation on gender and international sports last Thursday. In particular, I was interested in the discussion surrounding “corporate social responsibility” and the controversial question about whether Nike is a feminist company.
I started investigating by taking a look at http://www.nike.com/us/en_us/, and at the surface level, Nike’s website seems reasonably fair towards men and women (as compared to, say, ESPN’s website). The home page features a Nike Women Summer Style Guide, the women’s sections have a nearly identical layout to the men’s sections (same colors, etc.) and are easily accessible, and there is a pretty extensive inventory of women’s products in a variety of sports. Despite these positive features, however, much of the rhetoric and imagery from the website makes assumptions about women. For example, in the “women’s training section”, most of the images feature women in non-action yoga poses, and there’s a call for women to get “tone”, “lean”, and “Hot. And Sweaty.” To contrast, the “men’s training section” features men in high-intensity poses, calling men to “move like a champion”, “energize” their recoveries, “go even harder”, and “conquer any gym session”. In addition, the women’s pages feature a special “Shop This Look” button (not available on any of the men’s pages I visited) that can be used to search for particular styles of clothing, while the men’s players have buttons entitled “Shop Running” or “Shop Training”; it is clear that Nike assumes that its female consumers are more interested in the fashion benefits of its products than the men are, who are instead assumed to be more interested in the promised functionality of its merchandise.
Next I looked at Nike’s powerful 30-second “If you let me play” commercial from 1995, which offers a series of statistics to encourage parents of girls to let them play sports (Nike ad: If you let me play). Overall the message is strong – it’s hard to deny the benefits of female athletic participation – however one might question whether true equality is actually being presented in this commercial if Nike claims that girls or women need to ask permission in order to be allowed to participate in sports. Similarly, Nike’s Just Do It 2005 ad campaign for women initially seems rather bold. The print ads (Nike Women ads) feature women boasting about their athletic body features in a way that contradicts the traditional feminine image; examples include “My Shoulders Aren’t Dainty”, “My Butt Is Big”, and “My Knees Are Tomboys”. In terms of challenging the established female body image, these ads are quite successful, however as Patti brought up in class, they still reduce women to just a series of parts, in a sense objectifying them: their faces aren’t even shown.
Finally, I watched one of Nike’s recent “Girl Effect” commercials (The Girl Effect). The idea behind the campaign is to encourage women’s education in the “global south” (as discussed in class) in an attempt to improve the overall wellbeing of developing countries. As this article by Lisa Glass points out, “The focus on the education and empowerment of young women is a positive message in itself, but at the same time this campaign homogonises and generalizes women in the global South.” The campaign oversimplifies the causes for global poverty and ignores the need for feminism in more developed nations. Glass claims that Nike likely has other motivations for pushing the campaign, including the possibility of creating new markets in developing countries or “mobilizing the labour of women in the global South…not eradicating poverty but teaching the poor to take responsibility and find ways of coping with it”. Of course, after being accused of producing goods in sweatshops in South Korea, China, and Taiwan, it’s hard not to question Nike’s motivations and practices.
While I applaud Nike’s efforts to be more socially aware of gender inequality, to draw attention to issues such as women’s participation in athletics, and to promote alternative athletic female body images – all possibly for ulterior motives – I believe that their still unequal media and oversimplified / under-contextualized campaigns cause them to fall short when it comes to being qualified as a true feminist corporation.