Late to the party once again, but after seeing the Verizon “Inspire Her Mind” commercial posted and reposted, I couldn’t help but notice something odd: people are passionate about the commercial’s message. They are concerned about girls getting the wrong messages on issues of appearance and talent. Then I thought about one of last year’s most popular songs, and I was able to place the elusive odd feeling.
First, I think it’s smart to remember, as Simcha Fisher pointed out, that the “real, true, deep down message of this ad is that you, the viewer, should like Verizon.” So while you’re feeling fuzzy and gooey inside when you think about how you never tell girls they’re pretty, remember that a business with a deeply held belief in making money has a vested financial interest in making you feel fuzzy and gooey.
I agree with the general message: that we shouldn’t discourage kids from doing what they are passionate about doing. However, there’s another message here, and it’s that young girls are influenced by what people tell them. Sounds legit. We’re supposed to pay attention to the messages we send with our words. When we tell girls they are pretty and fail to praise them for being good at other things, they may not seek to build any skills other than those of looking good.
Enter popular music. If you’re a woman and you’re listening, you hear plenty of messages. Verily Magazine points out some of the more disturbing trends among the top 40: messages such as “Shut up and take your clothes off” or “You’re as valuable as what you let men do to you (consent optional).” My personal favorite, however, is a message I imagine Verizon should despair of: “You’re the hottest bitch in this place.”
Enter popular entertainment. The magazine covers that grace your grocery store checkout boast all the best sex tips: How to Make Him Crazy, The Sex Move That Will Blow His Mind, etc. And of course, let’s not forget the ratio of half-naked women to men in most magazines. (I’m looking at you especially, EW.) What’s the message here, Cosmo? If all you ever talk about is makeup, clothes and being the best bombshell in the bedroom, I start to hear a familiar refrain: You are how you look. You are your sex appeal. It’s “you’re so pretty” on crazy, gross, misogynistic steroids.
What are we telling girls now? Now that they’re all grown up, what do they need to hear? I’m curious: at what age does a girl move from needing to be praised for something other than her looks, to being praised only for her looks? It’s not okay to tell a little girl she’s pretty, but it is okay to tell her she’s “the hottest bitch in this place.” And believe me, girls of the same age are listening.
What if, in addition to affirming their daughters’ beauty, parents also praised them for doing other things well? What if they took time to notice what their kid liked to do, what she was good at, and encouraged her to pursue those interests? I remember my parents doing both for me. They taught me to take pride in my appearance and to work hard for things I wanted, for things I was passionate about. They also taught me that I was more than my looks. I’m grateful for what they tried to teach; I know parents have so much influence over what their children believe. I grew up believing I could be anything I wanted. What if parents tried to instill that belief, alongside a healthy confidence in appearance? What if they taught their kids that they are more than just their looks? If it sounds like a delicate balance to strike, that’s because it is, and it’s more than a 60-second commercial or 3-minute song can address. But it’s worth it for parents to help their kids wrestle with that balance.
What bothers me is that I don’t see this Verizon commercial or popular culture striving for any kind of balance. Apparently telling girls they’re pretty is fatal for their future in science. But what happens when we go around telling them “I know you want it”? How in this enlightened, post-feminism culture does a song become a hit that contains the idea a woman has been “domesticated” and needs to be “liberated” by a man? Robin Thicke is one guy. But people, we can say “Hi. I’m not going to play your song on the radio, buy it online or dance to it when it comes on because it’s RIDICULOUS AND DISGUSTING.” The list goes on: I’m not going to buy your gross magazine. I’m not going to stand for the way you use naked females to sell stuff.
What if we focused on affirming women for being worthwhile human beings instead of stressing about our pretty-to-smart ratio when they’re young girls? What if we stopped telling them they’re hot bitches who are as valuable as their ability to excite the largest number of men, and told them that their bodies are worthwhile, and that their minds are worthwhile, and that their creativity is worthwhile, and that demands respect. Not the kind that comes from some cheap, emotionally driven commercial message and certainly not the kind that comes from the cult of sex appeal, worshipped by popular culture.