By now you’ve likely seen the Always #LikeAGirl video that went viral, evoking tears of recognition as well as feminist critique about the uneasy equation of empowerment and tampon ads. And if you haven’t yet, click here or watch below.

Empowerment cheese, says Jezebel. An emotional ploy for tampon sales, writes Daily Beast and also Shape, who asked professional female athletes to respond. Outdated, responded ultra-runner Ellie Greenwood. “I agree that we should be way beyond this kind of thing. I can think of so many strong female sports models…I think that we should be at the stage in sports—and also in people’s perceptions of sports—that there is no reason why women can’t do 99 percent of what men do, and having some conversation about it is a little out of date.” Yes, yes, and great.

And still, here’s the thing: I’ve watched this video myself four times. It is manipulative, I agree, given that there’s no clear action on Always’ website steering us to how we might protect pubescent girls from the confidence plunge (other than using a winged panty liner, surprise, or sending out a tweet to prove how awesome doing things #LikeAGirl really is). It is consumer capitalism masquerading as feminism. Yep.

But what I’m interested in, as both a scholar of narrative and a communications professional, is why I, along with so many others, am so darn moved by the message in the video. Let’s forget that it’s Procter & Gamble, just for a tiny sec.

The video’s message is powerful because award-winning filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, the video’s director, is good. Her documentary creds include The Queen of Versailles, Thin, Kids + money, Beauty CULTure. Her photojournalistic book, Girl Culture, is by all accounts an intelligent exploration of American girlhood, endorsed in an introduction by no less than historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg.

So Greenfield is good, and the thinking behind the project is smart. The ad provokes us grown women to think back to a time before we were aware of gender difference, before “like a girl” meant something derogatory. For many of us, that’s hard to do. But if you think back, I bet you can find it. Give it a try. It’s a highly worthy pursuit.

Ok, I’ll go. My own recollection of that moment when I first realized “like a girl” could mean something negative was the day I asked my high school history teacher, who happened to be the boys’ baseball coach and clearly favored the jocks, why no one in the class was bringing up issues of morality when discussing the reasons the U.S. nuked Hiroshima. “Morality? That’s such a girl response,” said someone in the room. Cue snickering from all the boys in the room. Next, cue confidence plunge.

Well, almost. Lucky for me, my English teacher that year, Ms. Medwin, was a big ole feminist, and the world she opened for me saved me from despair. Under her guidance, I wrote my first real term paper–on Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich, women who refused to go under. “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her,” wrote Rich.

Rich also wrote this: “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” To that end, I’d love to see the kind of messaging in the Always video applied to a massive campaign, say, to restore the rights of the women of Hobby Lobby to access contraception through health care. Or to find all the remaining kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Or to any number of wrongs that need righting, right away.

Because at the end of the day and after all the virality, it’s still a tampon ad, and there’s nowhere much for our roused sentiment—the connecting between and among women we experience here as viewers—to go.

And so, a video with a powerful message becomes a lost opportunity. Amanda Hess at Slate sums it up when she notes, “it’s a little sad that all of this enthusiasm for women’s stories are leading us directly to a box of maximum protection wings, while female filmmakers and characters are still so underrepresented at the box office.” We’re wasting our best filmmakers on tampon ads, the headline screams.

Thinking like a girl over here, I say it’s high time empowerment causes, and not just empowerment products, had a PSA as powerful as this tampon ad. Causes for the betterment of women and girls’ lives deserve our most creative thinking, our savviest makers of all sorts.

When the cause for gender equity truly goes viral, when it becomes actionable and not just aspirational, then maybe, just maybe, “run like a girl” will mean, as one of the women in the video implores, “win the race.”

I’m not hugely optimistic, but I have to stay hopeful. Because my greatest hope is that by the time my little girl, now four years old, hits puberty, this conversation will actually be out of date.

 

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