The XX Factor

This Great Ad Reveals All the Ways We Hold Girls Back

Treacly “girl power” ads and initiatives often fall short for me, in no small part because they tend to be reductive and as much about body policing as the mainstream sexist culture they resist. That’s why this new Verizon-sponsored ad, which was made in conjunction with Makers to show parents how they unintentionally discourage science interest in girls, feels like a blast of refreshing cool air.

In the ad, we watch a girl grow from toddlerhood to adolescence, and we see the various ways her parents squelch her curiosity, by instructing her not to get her dress dirty, seeing her “icky” interests as disturbing, and treating her like she’s more delicate than her brother. The punch line? The girl walks up to a bulletin board advertising a science fair, but instead of reading the flier, uses the bulletin board’s glass as a mirror to apply lipstick. 

This ad gets a couple of things right. The first thing is that the ad focuses on the parents and not the girls themselves. So much of our efforts in trying to encourage girls end up treating them like they’re the ones who are screwing up, either with too much “body talk” or being lame for playing with certain toys. This ad shifts the focus, arguing that girls are born fine and it’s the rest of us who screw them up.

Just as importantly, despite the punch line of lipstick over science, most of the ad is not reductively focused on body issues and beauty. It’s all too easy to fall back on the notion that the focus on looks alone is what’s holding girls back, in no small part because it allows liberals to hand-wring about the “beauty myth” while simultaneously allowing conservatives to scold about the evils of female vanity and sexuality. But this video tackles a much more insidious force holding girls back: the general pressure on them to be, for lack of a better term, more ladylike. It points out how we not only value beauty, but also prioritize neatness, quiet, and safety in girls while encouraging risk-taking and confidence in boys. 

This all comports with the research that shows that girls and women shy away from riskier endeavors—including majors where getting B’s and C’s are more likely to happen—than boys and men do. It’s not just, or even mainly, about looks. It’s about these other pressures on women that leave them little room to screw up. Especially since science, as a field, is about experimenting with things and learning to pick yourself up again and start over if your hypothesis fails. So kudos to Verizon and Makers for getting it right, and hopefully this will encourage further efforts to tackle the real reasons girls find their natural curiosity so frequently stifled while growing up.