We’re More Than Mermaids and Murderers

The New England Patriots won the Superbowl (again!) in the lowest scoring game in Superbowl history.  I don’t know if it was a good game because the NFL is racist and I can’t fuck with that, but I still enjoyed the other big game–Superbowl ads! For decades now the Superbowl has hosted some of the most expensive TV ad time; this year costS ran at 5 million for a 30-second spot.  That means Cardi B has to make 4,201,681 Pepsis skruuuttt off the shelves to pay for ad time–and that doesn’t even include paying the celebrity endorsers or the manicurist who did that to Cardi’s nails.

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There’s no room here for boring old My Pillow ads or long pharma lists of side effects.  Instead, advertisers bring their A game to the big game.   Critics Monday morning quarterbacking the ads this year said the ads, on the whole, failed to inspire much beyond the same yawn the game did but buried in the boring ads is a glimmer of America’s shifting gender landscape.

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Taken together, the ads of the Superbowl serve as a snapshot of mainstream American culture, a night when Madison Ave translates the life of the Friday Night lights crowd and sells it back to them with the celebrities du jour.  The tone of the ads is an echo of the mood of the nation, and the best ads push our imagination towards our brighter future. For much of the Superbowl’s 52-year history, the ads revolved around the man’s world–razor ads and beer ads full of “manly men’, women draped across their shoulders like scarves, mere accessories, or crave-worthy objects.  As times changed, ads gave a wink and nod to the ladies who were expected to be at SuperBowl parties, but more interested in the snacks than the sacks.

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Women make up an increasing share of the fan base of the NFL.  Just like women are getting shit done in Congress, handling business in business, and pushing social change forward, they are also watching football.  The big game means big chances for advertisers to not only speak to women viewers, but to position themselves as a brand able to address women as full humans.  So how did advertisers do ditching the stereotypes and including women in the big game? Here are the big plays:

Same Ladies, New Era

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Several of the ads that featured women could claim that they are catering to women viewers, but the ad is really just the same old same old.  Anheuser Bush pitched a new sparkling beverage targeted at women (because real liquor would mess up our little lady minds!) with mermaids twirling beneath the sea.  Mermaids are a hot trend and a cold stereotype.  Sure undulating under the wave is sexy but you can’t run shit if you have no legs.

Image result for superbowl ads 2019Stella Artois went for a land version of a mermaid featuring the demure damsel in a dress Carrie Bradshaw.  Sex in the City aired from 1998 to 2004, just a year after the invasion of Iraq and three years before social media, and Carrie Bradshaw was a woman of her time kissing frogs and holding out for Mr. Big, a guy we would call problematic by today’s standards.  Is this the best they could do for a poster woman to bring beer ads into the 21st century? And then there was Zoe Kravitz with the organic, gluten-free bedroom eyes.  Sure ASRM is science, but its arousal factor is that same old sex-sells storyline.  A beer ad with ear porn isn’t speaking to women, just whispering to the boys.

The call: fumble. Sticking a woman in an ad during a football game doesn’t automatically mean you’re shattering any stereotypes. Recycling the same old themes or celebs, breathless and prettily sipping their drinks misses the moment and the movement that women are in.

Fearless Women With Fight

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Unlike undulating fish girls, several of the ads spoke to the power that women are taking on as we push towards gender equity.  Two ads promoted upcoming streaming shows: a promo for The Handmaid’s Tale third season on Hulu and one for a new show on Amazon prime called Hanna.  Both show women who are uninterested in being anybody’s sexy mermaid.  Handmaid’s tale is a pointed critique of contemporary gender politics, pulling no punches for the Superbowl crowd, calling on America to wake up.

Image result for hanna amazon prime Hanna also paints a dark world for women, where a young girl is turned into a weapon and must fight to be free.  While this certainly seems different from centuries of submissive and subjugated women, she is still a tool, shaped by a man to have only one strategy–violence. I don’t think this is what Helen Ready meant when she sang ‘hear me roar.’

Image result for superbowl ads 2019Sarah Michelle Geller revises her role as potential home invasion victim as a masked intruder stalks her and her man.  Hiding in the bedroom, her Olay smooth face is too lovely to open her facial recognition phone, but also disarming enough to charm a psychopath.  No kung fu or social resistance here, just a beauty made more beautiful by Olay slaying and staying alive.

The call: false start. Whatever troubled world these three women live in, they have what they need to stay alive without needing to call on a sailor for rescue, but it would be nice if women could do something other than fight off sexual predators.

The New Power Brokers

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Toyota chronicles the inspiring story of football phenom Toni Harris, East Los Angeles College defensive back–no kicker avoiding the ruffing here. As one of the first female athletes to place college football, her story is certain to motivate a generation of future football stars.  Toyotas and features game footage and off the field shots standard for any up and coming football star a-la-ESPN. She is presented as powerful, positive, and inspiring without pandering or paternalizing.  Here’s hoping we’ll see her on the field in the big game soon.

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Serena Williams starred in an ad for social app Bumble and served as co-creative director off camera for the campaign as well.  Neither mermaid or murderer,  Serena plays a real authentic version of a contemporary woman in the ad, doing real things like working and spending time with family and friends.  She is not a magical creature, or a fictional femme fatal, just a person looking to succeed and thrive, using a connecting app to connect all the parts of her life, not just dating. The ad speaks to real women’s needs: the need to get shit done without waiting for Mr. Big, the need for empowerment that relies on fresh, decolonized ways of being powerful. Of all the women we see featured in their own Superbowl ads–including the lovely and underutilized Cardi B–Serena seems the most authentically human, and the one that many women who work hard and want to watch the game with her girls are likely to recognize themselves in.  The ad speaks to women in a way that is free from typical patriarchial narratives, and one that doesn’t center sex as a selling point.  The ad really does speak to women as if they are full humans, though I wonder if the NFL would have given Serena a 3/5ths instead.

The call: touchdown! The push to topple patriarchy means women are moving to take their rightful place in our culture; advertisers must keep working to write the new narratives that reflect our changing gender landscape in America.  If the Superbowl ads are any indication, we still have a ways to go to shed the centuries-old stories dotted with damsels and doll-eyed beauties. One thing I know is that when we have women behind the camera and in leadership roles on creative teams we stand a good chance of getting more authentic images, the kind that will woo consumers and inspire girls looking for images that fell like them

The Sisterhood of The Unraveling Rants

This weekend saw plenty of black girl anger on display from Serena’s throw down on the court to Cardi B’s blow up at Nikki Minaj during fashion week.  Seems like everywhere you turn a black woman is getting kicked out or called out for being angry. Before you start with some respectability politics a-la-well-calm-down, remember Black women are often stereotyped as out of control, but with a world on fire, acting nice is a privilege they can ill afford.  I’m not saying you should start ripping off wigs but beyond soundbites and stereotypes, anger has a place in every black girl’s arsenal. 

Serena Williams’ journey to capture her 24th Grand Slam title stopped short when she received a game violation for verbal abuse, effectively ceding the match to first time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka.  The high drama played out on the court with Williams accusing a judge of sexism for issuing a rarely-called penalty for coaching.  Unlike her brooding and unrepentant male counterparts who made screaming at refs their brand, she was penalized for her verbal outburst, costing her any remaining focus she had and the game. 

She complained bitterly that the rules were being applied differently for her versus her male counterparts–textbook sexism–and has been supported by many of her peers from Chris Everett, covering the Open as it happened to tennis and sexism expert Billie Jean King.

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Despite having a point about sexism in tennis, Williams lost the match and of course faced the usual hateful representation as an angry ape/child. Oh, and she was fined for her outburst about unfair treatment of women–she’ll pay $17,000.  Also textbook sexism

DmjIAJSV4AEJHku.jpgAcross town in a less athletic display of rage, Cardi B threw a shoe at Nikki Minaj in a scuffle best described as rap beef with great dresses.  In a scene right out of Love and Hip Hop, Cardi B pulled up on Minaj at the Harper’s Bazaar Icons party at New York Fashion Week.  The fight garnered lots of buzz throughout the weekend with bloggers turning history professors as they run down the back and forth between the self-proclaimed Queen of rap and the newcomer for the throne. 

But it wasn’t an episode of reality TV–it was two women who have more in common with each other than they have with many of the other party goers.  Both are entrepreneurs doing their best to ride the wave of celebrity before time and the next big starlet leaves them on the shore.   While their public beef will help drive records sales and blog hits this week, this is just another chapter in the ho-hum tale of ghetto girls acting badly.  Their out-of-control anger over some she-tweet-she-said is exactly what is expected out of both stars and out of angry black women in general.  This didn’t happen backstage at a Migos show–this was a show they put on for the international fashion crowd-tres boughetto. What ever happened to go high, ladies?

Before we chalk up this weekend to the same ole angry black women story we always hear, let’s not.  When we talk about how angry black women are, we ignore that black women, in reality, are not angrier than their white counterparts.  What we are repeating is an old stereotype that was used to justify oppressive practices to keep black women in check. Black women do–and have a right to–respond to attacks on their community and character with anger.  But the conflation of their temporary mood and their permanent color is classic racism, providing an easy excuse to invalidate any given black woman’s righteous anger as just a character flaw of the race.


In fact, recent studies show that white people are more likely to describe themselves as angry than members of other racial groups. The poll should come as no surprise: everywhere we look we see internet videos of white women going off at Starbucks, on the street, at Michael’s–and let’s face it, if crafting makes you angry you really need help.  But we don’t call them angry white women–we refer to them as Barbeque Becky, or the lady freaking out at Michaels, but their whiteness is not a key descriptor in their internet moniker like it is for Serena.  Go google angry white women, and then angry black woman–what difference do you notice in the results?

It’s not just the women who are mad as hell–there was no shortage of male violence competing for airtime this weekend–from real stories of shootings, rape, and murder to hours of news with men yelling at each other in silk suits or a day reserved for men running full speed at each other and knocking each other’s memories out of their heads on the football field. Male aggression is nothing less than the great American pass time. The consequence for men who act aggressively is winning.  They are rewarded on the field, in the workplace, and in the White House for acting aggressively, threatening and pushing, dominating and snarling.

We are a sharply competitive nation who prizes the flash of sharp teeth and the rule of the bone.   To give up your anger is to put down one of the most powerful tools in American culture, and to silence your own voice in the face of oppression.   Still, public displays of anger by black women have little benefit for them beyond being weekend clickbait and conversely carry the consequences of hundreds of years of history.  What’s a black woman to do?


Anger is a valid and valuable human emotion.  Like any weapon, you have to be careful with it: using it to try to right the wrongs of the world is a solid move, even if you don’t always land you blow.  But using your anger to slide into a petty feud best left in subtweets is like bringing a knife to a fist fight.

Screen-Shot-2018-09-08-at-11.49.05-AM.pngUnlike Cardi B, never, never let them see you sweat over the next b.  Cardi B has been riding a wave of love for her plucky weird vibe from bump reveals to Met Gala Virgin Mary glam.  Being something other than a wild rapper is what’s getting her invited everywhere.  Don’t lose your seat at the table fighting over scraps.  There’s no black girl magic in playing out the same tired trope of hood chicks who don’t know how to act.  Best to keep your knives virtual and your bag–and your plus 1–secure.

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But anger has a place and black women have the right to display anger, to call people out with their anger, to wield their anger like everyone else in America.  We know that sexism is unlikely to disappear with a whispered “excuse me, please.” Like Serena, don’t let them talk you down when you are busy pointing out systemic inequality.  Serena may have lost the Grand Slam but she proved herself a superhero in a tutu scoring again in a match against sexism.  She kept her anger directed at a system that wasn’t treating her fair. Instead of attacking her young opponent she lifted up her sister with grace and love, despite her being all the way in her feelings.   She showed us rage done right: a new play that has room both for fierce competition and for grace and respect for the winners.