I was driving to work one morning when I heard on the radio an ad for the Nike Women’s Marathon. Not unusual since Nike and running go hand-in-hand. What caught my attention about this particular ad was when the female voiceover said something about San Francisco fireman in tuxedos awaiting the runners at the finish line to hand them a Tiffany necklace. THAT definitely received a WTF reaction.
Photo from milemusings blog.
As I was driving I was trying to reconcile what I just heard: women run 26.2 miles to be rewarded with jewelry and a man at the end? If Nike was trying to be subtle with its societal expectations of women they did a really poor job of it. Let’s break down the overt reproduction of gender norms (I would call it symbolism but that would require an attempt at reading between the lines):
– society (specifically those in the West) expects women to keep an attractive and healthy appearance in order to find a suitable mate (insert marathon and marathon training here)
– society expects women to find men desirable (insert firemen here)
– society expects women to find a man who is able to provide and take care of her (again with the firemen + jewelry)
– society says a single woman past the age of…let’s say 30-35…must be a lesbian
Sure it’s a Tiffany necklace instead of a Tiffany engagement ring but I think the dominant message is still – woman run towards man awaiting with jewelry. That is the end goal! You know you have completed the race, and symbolically your role as a woman in society, when you find a man willing to give you jewelry. Was Nike trying to make an overt political statement with the largest women’s marathon in the world? Yes and no. I assume they would deny it and call it women’s empowerment, but Nike is really just smacking us across the face with ‘one man and one woman’. It might as well be the Rick Santorum women’s marathon. It is a marketing ploy. Absolutely. Sex sells. And there are, I assume, just as many women who run the race and think nothing of the firemen and the jewelry and would have run the race without those ‘incentives’, as there are women who specifically choose that marathon because of what awaits them at the finish line. Marketing and advertising not only promote what society already desires but also what larger forces dictate that desire ought to be.
Photo from TeamTraining.
Heteronormativity is the assumption that everyone is heterosexual. It describes the fact that regardless of what television show you watch, what movie ad you see or what magazine you flip through you are almost guaranteed to see the message that man and woman are a natural alliance. It is an assumption and ideology that puts everyone into the same box and forces many to climb out of it. Well I’m sorry to inform you that people don’t fit into neat little boxes, even though necklaces do and a woman is not defined by the either the presence or absence of a man.
Would a Nike men’s marathon with women in gowns holding an apple pie in one hand and managing a child in the other be received as uncritically? Would a Nike men’s marathon with women in lingerie and a beer in hand at the finish line be acceptable? I highly doubt the first scenario would ever happen and the second one wouldn’t surprise me at all, but neither would be accepted as insignificant political and/or cultural statements. So why, from what I can tell, has this race not received more outrage?
Photo from Runnersrambles.
I thought that when I googled the Nike Women’s marathon there would be a plethora of feminist bloggers weighing in on the subject. To my surprise, almost all of the blogs I found were about runner’s experiences…and not the critical kind. For example, on Runner’s Rambles I found: “Tiffany necklaces, firefighters in tuxedos, chocolate, Nike tech finisher’s shirt, running through the streets of San Francisco…what more could a girl ask for?” The only critical reflection that I have found so far about the marathon was from Wallflower Friend. The part of the run that annoyed this blogger was that the expo at the end of the run was plastered with “I run to be…fearless…a survivor…sexy, which is where her feminist side took over. Sexy, I might add, was written in ridiculously large font on the expo tent. I suppose we can chalk this up as another contradictory Nike initiative. As much as Nike likes to represent itself as pro-woman athlete, it still does so within the confines of traditional gender norms. Nike says it’s okay to get sweaty, have muscles and be competitive (because those are the things that help it make money), but at the end of the day, you’re still a woman. And as far and as fast as a woman can run, evidently Nike assumes that she should still be running home to a man.
The Tiffany necklace that runners receive at the end of the race reads “Run like a girl” on one side. “Run like a girl” is Nike’s attempt to challenge the assumption that running like a girl is inferior to how men and boys run. It’s Nike’s contribution to the disintegration of gender norms. But clearly, there are some gender norms that fall outside of Nike’s strike zone.