Is Nike feminist? (Brandon Ewonus, 2nd blog post)

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.


4 comments on “Is Nike feminist? (Brandon Ewonus, 2nd blog post)

  1. Last fall, I wrote a paper on a Nike product that is far from being feminist, but is instead unnecessarily sexualizing of female athletes. Nike has a swimsuit called the Lingerie suit (though it looks like it is not available through the Nike website anymore). It looks nothing like lingerie, but in calling it that, Nike sexualizes its female swimmers. I do not know the marketing strategy behind this product. Maybe they were trying to use the name to make the swimsuit sexier. However, this brings us back to our discussion of how women are marketed either as sexy or as the girl next door. But why does (did?) Nike feel the need to give one of their swimsuits such a blatantly sexual name? In most cases, or at least in my experience since this suit was a part of all Stanford aquatics teams outfitting, athletes do not really pay attention to the name of their swimsuits, but choose them based off of style instead. The Lingerie suit is not the most flattering or even revealing suit in the Nike line, but is still named in a very sexual manner. By using this name, Nike reduces the high level swimmers who wear this product to the likes of the Lingerie Football League, overly sexualized female football players who play in panties, bras, shoulder pads, and helmets. Though these women are often coached by ex-NFL players or coaches and play full touch football, their image is primarily sexual, even after the league changed their name to the Legends Football League. With team names like the Baltimore Charm, Toledo Crush, Las Vegas Sin, San Diego Seduction, and the Los Angeles Temptation, despite their athletic abilities, the primary focus of the league is the sexualized women.

    Though I’m sure Nike does not wish to liken the high level athletes who wear their products to the players in the Lingerie Football League, but in naming their product the same, in a way they do. The unnecessary sexualization of their swimsuit, and therefore the athletes who wear them, is definitely far from feminist.

    – Morgan Fuller

  2. I agree with both of you here. Nike is a really interesting business in terms of social responsibility. I think they definitely try to be more strong female oriented. If you look at their ad campaigns over the years, I think they have definitely gotten better. Still not great all of the time, but to a point where they have good intentions in mind and are just having trouble projecting these well. In terms of the fitness marketing, I think that is more about their market. Workout clothing/yoga clothing is basically a wardrobe staple for females this day, where nike and lululemon “workout” clothing are less common amongst males. I think this transition, to women wearing workout clothes more often as normal clothes, is in part to blame for this switch in marketing. I am by no means applauding or supporting the way they market their products to men vs. women, but I think there is some reasoning behind it.

    Two more quick things:
    1. Nike’s newest ad campaign is pretty cool. I think I like it. I am still thinking it over, but it’s definitely another step in the right direction. It’s called portraits of power I think if you want to check it out.
    2. For my interview, I spoke with a former Nike athlete. She emailed the Nike CEO and asked for a female athlete ad campaign and they thought it was a great idea. The ad was supposed to be a nude; she sent another email explaining why this was a no-no and Nike understood, changed the ad, and apologized. I think so much of the issue is just educating people on these issues and helping women to understand their right to speak up. We talked so much about the way media portrays women, but I think women also have a social responsibility in determining how they are portrayed. And even if someone thinks that shouldn’t have to be their responsibility, companies and people are open to positive change, and women can easily change things now. Women speaking up about these issues can be taken in a really positive and constructive way.

    Hannah Brown

  3. I really enjoyed your research into the topic. For my paper on women in management, I found that a lot of women are entering the industry through marketing departments. Taking a small glimpse into Stanford, Professor George Foster who teaches sports management at the GSB said that 40% of his marketing class was comprised of women as opposed to only 15% of his management class, meaning that women have a tendency to be interested in marketing careers within sports. My hope would be that as more women make inroads, we will see more targeted campaigning. Also shocking that marketing isn’t more female centered is the fact women comprise 46% of NFL fans.

    -Enrique Garcia (comment #2)

  4. The amount of times words like “lean”, “toned” and “fit” come up when talking about female athletes instead of male athletes is extremely interesting, These are words/adjectives that many men strive to achieve. However, they must not be good enough for the ideal man that brands like Nike, and magazines like Men’s Health are trying to portray.

    In that same vein, words like “strong”, “ripped” and “muscular” are words that tend to describe men who are athletic. With the exception of some sports like weightlifting, or gymnastics, rarely do you hear a female athletes called these names. So I wonder, when did these adjectives start to pick a side and become exclusive to men or women? The ideal man is large and strong, but he can also be lean and strong, which is actually the more prevalent option with men. Women should be small and dainty, but many of those women are still strong and muscular. On my team, many photos come out where the light hits the rowers muscles and they looked ripped. But we use that term as a joke, and say in a man’s voice, “dude, you looked ripped.” That world does not carry a positive connotation with women.

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