Why the “Year of the Woman” is still another year of sexism

“I want to win as an athlete. I want to shine as a woman.”

This is the tagline for a Pantene Pro-V commercial starring Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin.

We all know that ads geared towards women are ridiculous and that beauty ads tend to equate products with ruling the world, or having it all, or other ridiculous ambitions that, in reality, are rarely linked to the shampoo or razor one uses. But for some reason, this ad just irked me more than most.

This is, as some have said, the “year of the woman” at the Olympics. Every single country, for the first time ever, has at least one female athlete representing them. Many female athletes have been featured on TV, magazine covers, blogs, and just about any other media option out there. I opened my Rolling Stone magazine recently to find a short piece on Holley Mangold, which managed to touch on both her talents as an athlete and her thoughts on women competing in typically male sports: “It’s hopefully paving the way for more women to realize they don’t have to be crazy-manly and crazy-feminine. They can be a mixture of both.” And weightlifter Zoe Smith had a great response for men suggesting that female weightlifters are unattractive.

But just as there has been great coverage of women athletes, there have also been plenty of sexist and misogynistic representations of them. Zerlina here at Feministing wrote about the ridiculous coverage of Jordyn Wieber’s crying and many have discussed the fact that ESPN’s “Body Issue” featured male athletes in mostly athletic, active poses with female athletes in mostly passive, traditionally feminine poses.

So this one shampoo ad really shouldn’t have surprised me. But the way they set apart “woman” and “athlete,” as if they are two mutually exclusive aspects of her personality, really bothers me. She has to do one thing as a woman, and another as an athlete, and God forbid she try to be both at one time! I mean, surely she can’t “shine” as an athlete or “win” as a woman. That’s just silly. I also like that they use a concrete word like “win” for the athlete side, and a vague word like “shine” for the woman. Yes, I realize the word “shine” is meant to be associated with shiny, beautiful hair, but the way they use it makes it much broader. Shine as a woman. Be beautiful, captivating, fabulous, perfect. The message is that a) women need to be beautiful, captivating, etc., and b) that this must be done by being feminine. (It’s great that you’ve won some medals, but take care of your dirty pool hair, woman!)

Surely, with so many women kicking ass at the Olympics this year, we as a society have come to realize that women can, in fact, be athletes while still being women, right? Apparently not. Women athletes have long felt pressure to separate their athletic lives from their “female” lives, making sure to dress up, wear makeup, style their hair, etc., when not on the court/in the pool/on the field. The Olympics are no exception. Even with more women speaking out against the obvious sexism of Olympic commentators, this Pantene Pro-V commercial sums up the general feeling: You are an athlete in one part of your life. You are a woman in another. You know which one’s more important.

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