There is an advert on TV at the moment for a new Virgin Media broadband service that features a mother showing her daughter a series of YouTube clips of various inspirational women. I recognise the intended message of the ad - that high speed broadband can help girls to access content that is going to spur them on to greatness - and that's all very feminist and admirable, if obviously totally inaccurate for 99.9% of the tweenage and teenage population ("OMG! That cat in trousers is like totally cray cray!"). Unfortunately it still irritates the crap out of me.
Lack of believability aside, it has all the subtlety of Paloma Faith's fashion sense, who, incidentally appears in the ad as one such apparently inspiring women (I mean she's quirky and outspoken, but I suspect she's mainly in it because she agreed to wink at the camera for money). From the faux, 'wide-eyed wonderment' (psychotic?) look on the girl's face, to the choice of music (This Girl is On Fire), to the "Women who rock" search term they use to find more videos, the whole thing just screams, "Look at us being all feminist even though people are actually far more likely to use the internet to watch plasticated porn stars than successful ladies doing impressive stuff. Aren't we all edgy?!" Err, no. Girl Power is great and all but, well, it's rather 1996. It could be that Virgin Media are trying to counteract the somewhat less PC adverts of sister company Virgin Atlantic. Who knows frankly. Whatever the thinking behind the advert, I am pretty sure we should be beyond this level of obviousness. The fact that this advert so blatantly signposts its Right On message just proves how much of a novelty too many still consider the whole "female empowerment" thing to be, and I just find that intensely depressing.
Given that we have not yet achieved true equality between men and women, a conscious effort to boost the status of women in society and flag up positive role models remains essential (though it's probably more effective when done for non-commercial "let's sell some Broadband" purposes). We have to keep plugging away, because, as many more intellectual types than me would argue, the "patriarchy", consciously or unconsciously, have too much invested in keeping women subjugated to ever willingly relinquish their more dominant, controlling position. But change doesn't just come from shouty, big ticket campaigns. It happens through quite subtle shifts in the way women are portrayed in the media and represented in wider public discourse too. These changes are undoubtedly influenced by wider feminist movements (and a greater involvement of women in the public sphere), but they're probably more influential for the average (wo)man on the street, because they're much more accessible and mundane and less overtly political. Take for example the portrayal of women in film and TV as a human beings rather than simply "Mum" or "Wife" or "Bitch" or "Slave to her romantic feelings" or "Tough woman acting like a man in a man's world because who would be interested in a woman otherwise?". There are some good recent examples out there. Happy Valley comes to mind (awesomely good if a bit grim), as does the latest Star Wars film. Totally contrasting genres, but both feature three dimensional women who just get on with things (dealing with parental grief and the policing of smack heads / fighting with the Resistance against the evil First Order), and in doing so, are kind of inspirational.
It can be done well on an advertising front too. I loved the This Girl Can ad campaign by Sport England last year, that portrayed dozens of women of all shapes and sizes just getting on with the business of staying fit and healthy. A public health rather than commercial advert admittedly, but it was simple, effective, non-preachy and even though I watched it as a cynical "feminist", it made me want to get up, put my running kit on and wobble down the road listening to Get Your Freak On by Missy Elliot. The inspiration came not from famous, glamourous ladies, but from ordinary lasses, and in some ways I think that's actually more powerful.
So I'm afraid Virgin Media, you don't get a neatly nail polished (yeah right!) thumbs up from me. I admire the sentiment, but not the clumsy execution. Next time, why not depict a Mum showing her son videos of inspirational women? That WOULD be a bit more 2016. In fact, I think I might go show Duckling some clips of Aung San Suu Kyi right this very minute. Failing that, Peppa Pig is kind of a feisty, strong young woman, isn't she? I knew there was a reason I let him watch 27 episodes per day.