If you live in a major Canadian city, you may have seen Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” ads plastered on buses and billboards. In the season of giving, the campaign attempts to sell the virtues of female empowerment. Ads state that girls around the world are three times more likely to be malnourished than boys and are also more often denied education. The campaign seeks to emancipate girls and women from the social expectations that subjugate and impoverish them, but the ads actually reinforce traditional gender roles. In the context of a patriarchal society, the girls in the ads seem to be saying: We want to be stronger and smarter, but don’t worry, we won’t stop being caregivers or the cushions in society. The campaign also fails to go after the real forces of oppression, as if such a blatant indictment would be unladylike.
The Plan Canada campaign encourages potential donors to invest in girls by arguing that females will naturally work to help others and inspire social cohesion. “Because I am a girl I will take what you invest in me and uplift everyone around me,” one poster states. The kicker of the campaign is “Are you the one?” Although the appeal for donations is intended to be universal one, it capitalizes on the notion that girls passively wait for their saviours.
The campaign is cut from the same pink material as the ubiquitous movement to find a cure for breast cancer. (Like the breast cancer campaign, Plan Canada also distributes its logo on pink T-shirts to increase awareness of Because I am a Girl.) For her book Pink Ribbons Inc., Queens University professor Samantha King investigated how the campaign expunged the “stigma, secrecy and shame” associated with the disease by recasting its victims as noble survivors. The Pink Ribbon movement blasts representations and symbols of “hyperfeminity” and casts sufferers as “wife,” “mother” and so on. In so doing, King explains, the campaign has reimagined a disease that challenges a woman’s ability to breastfeed, reproduce and hold together the nuclear family into one that celebrates this ability. The Pink Ribbons marketing strategy teaches that women will valiantly uphold their social roles in spite of the disease, and that’s a trait that corporate sponsors enthusiastically applaud.
These pseudofeminist campaigns do not demand social and economic transformation. They simply ask for a little bit more, and even that request is one they feel the need to justify. They do so by appealing to old-fashioned ideas of what constitutes femininity and depicting females as deserving and grateful.
The appeals are safe, and their targets are too. The Pink Ribbons campaign seeks a pharmaceutical “cure”; it doesn’t, of course, investigate the relationship between pharmaceutical hormones, estrogen-mimicking plastics, industrial pollution and breast cancer incidence. The Plan Canada campaign refers to early marriage and the withdrawal of girls from school, but glosses over any questions about the effects of global capitalism and the market logic that displaces communities, devalues women’s labour and education, and forces families into the kind of poverty that necessitates early marriage.
The campaigns speak to the depoliticized nature of charity, but the way they sanitize and corporatize feminism is also insidious. Movements that truly fight for females don’t reinforce gender roles—they sabotage them. From the suffragettes who, 100 years ago, launched a window-smashing campaign in response to police brutality against female activists, to the radical feminists who are mobilizing against U.S. wars today, these movements are disruptive and uncompromising. Their slogan would be something more akin to this: Because I am a girl, I am tired of asking nicely.