It’s not just about the running.
I’ve been a runner since the days when women were prohibited from running marathons on the excuse that too much exercise might hurt us. I attended the first women’s Olympic marathon and, in one of the highlights of my career as a writer, got to have breakfast decades later with Joan Benoit Samuelson, who’d taken home that first Olympic long run gold. I conceived the idea for, and many of the scenes of my first novel on long runs as I trained for and ran a marathon. But it’s not about the running or even about sports for me or, I suspect, for most of the almost 50 million viewers, and counting.
It’s not about girls, either. Let’s be honest here: we’re talking about an advertisement for feminine products. Its target audience is women of childbearing age.
And yet it has gone viral.
If you haven’t seen it, “Like a Girl” is a nifty video produced and directed byLauren Greenfield, about the very subtle ways we as a society shape gender presumptions. Older girls and women, and even boys and men, when asked to run or throw or fight “like a girl,” do so in silly, noncompetitive ways. Very young girls just run or throw or fight their little hearts out, in ways that look very like boys their age might do.
“Like a girl” is still thrown around as an insult, and yet if you look at the facts you have to start to wonder why. Women, who have long earned more than half of all undergraduate degrees, now earn more than half of all post-graduate degrees as well – and do it with, on average, higher grades than male students. On average, women’s IQs are now higher than men’s.
Yet we remain a society riddled with subtle and not-so-subtle gender presumptions that suggest females are something less than males, and we perpetuate those stereotypes in ways we often don’t realize.
In film and on prime time programming, women not only have far fewer speaking roles, but are far more likely than male characters to be hypersexualized, and far less likely to have identified careers. Is it a surprise that the percentage of women to men hanging out in director’s chairs or writing rooms is appalling?
In fiction, we ghettoize novels centered on women’s lives as “chick lit” – with the implication that men need not even consider reading some really fine books – while similar stories written by men are shelved in “general fiction” and not, as perhaps they ought to be, under “dick lit.” We identify fiction written by women, the novelist Meg Wolitzer points out, with covers that leave men reluctant to pick up books.
Teachers at one boys’ school, according to the novelist Mary Gordon, defended the fact that their students weren’t reading Austen or Woolf on the excuse that they were looking for works that boys could relate to, while at the girls’ school across the street, “no one would have dreamed of removing ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus.”
The question is whether that will ever change, and how we might make that change happen.
Run like a girl. Study like a girl. If you’re a writer, write like a girl. Dream like a girl. Achieve like a girl.
That’s what the viral spread of “Run Like a Girl” is about: the appetite for a world in which “like a girl” isn’t an insult, but rather something about which we all might be as justifiably proud as Joan Benoit Samuelson must have been when she took home that first Olympic gold medal for the marathon thirty years ago this Tuesday, on August 5, 1984.