One of the most popular ads at the Superbowl this year was “Like a Girl.” Respected documentary director Lauren Greenfield asked a series of girls and boys, “show me what it looks like to ‘throw like a girl.’ ‘Run like a girl.’ ‘Fight like a girl.’” Teenage girls and boys performed a caricature of silly, incompetent running and throwing. Young girls, though, ran fast and threw hard. They didn’t know, yet, that girls are incompetent. It concluded, “Let’s make #likeagirl mean amazing things.”
I cried. So, clearly, did many other people: the ad ranked #4 in most-watched ads on Google since it went viral in June, successful enough that Proctor and Gamble paid big bucks to air it during the Superbowl. Do you know what that means? We all got teary-eyed together over a maxipad ad. Yes, that commercial was created to promote Always brand menstrual hygiene products.
Interviewed at Huffington Post, Elissa Stein, the co-author of Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, complained that the commercial was unsatisfactory because it didn’t actually talk about menstruation. To her, this meant that the ad was part of a pattern of refusing to talk about periods, and therefore implying that menstruation is dirty and disgusting and taboo.
After spending years interviewing women born from the first years of the twentieth century through the 1980s and delving into Kotex’s archives for my book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, I see it differently. The “Like a Girl” commercial gets at the heart of what women explained to me that they wanted when they made menstruation “modern.” They wanted control over their bodies, so that they could do what they darn well pleased, whatever day of the month. They used newfangled tampons (introduced in 1936), because it meant they could run and swim during their periods. They gave their pre-teen daughters Kotex pamphlets so they wouldn’t be shocked and worried when they bled. They turned away from old ideas about the dangers of exercising or swimming during menstruation.
Women became more willing to talk about menstruation, but they insisted that it be on their own terms, when they felt like complaining about PMS or asking a boyfriend to pick up pads, not when it was forced by a visible stain or incapacity from a chafing menstrual pad. Modern menstrual products were supposed to make it easier to focus on running and throwing, not on menstruating. The Always ad reflects what the modern period is all about: the dream that our menstrual status just really shouldn’t matter.
Why do we get weepy over the “Like a Girl” commercial? Because we see that we’re still fighting for everything that modern menstrual care and modern attitudes toward periods was supposed to help us accomplish. We have modern periods. We have capable bodies. And yet once we hit puberty, we still understand that “like a girl” is an insult. Modern periods were a start, but they aren’t the end of the story.