Every woman is a super woman

// 23 February 2009

Unless you believe Coca Cola and singer Duffy in the latest ad campaign.

Duffy declares

I spotted a poster near Heathrow yesterday and intensely disliked it immediately. Why? Lets see Duffy who won a plethora of awards at the Brit Awards and who has become a household name is not a “superwoman”. Well if she isn’t then no other woman, despite what they achieve, can surely claim that tag. Plus why is it averring to be nothing special is being presented as a good thing? I’d much rather have an advert that says “I am special and so are you” than an advert which tells young women (and lets face that’s who they’re appealing to in audience here) that even if you achieve your dreams, win awards and are plastered around town by the largest multinational corporation, you’re still nothing special.

I guess there is an alternate reading of “I’m not a superwoman” so you can do this too but I find that harder to discern from an advert to which most people’s response would be “well if you’re not who the hell is?”. Is it too much to ask that advertisers might celebrate women’s achievements, once in a while, rather than either denigrating them or just using their bodies? Can anyone name adverts which do celebrate women’s achievements?

Comments From You

Mark // Posted 23 February 2009 at 10:40 am

Tricky one this. I’m all for boosting the self-confidence of anyone who lacks it.

However, I do have some qualms about the tendency – in some quarters – to elevate women to “superwomen” solely on the basis of having two X chromosomes. This is sometimes seen in the claims that, if you are a mother, you are – ipso facto – a good manager, self-organiser & multi-tasker. True, many are, but just giving birth doesn’t automatically implant those abilities. Likewise, not all women are super-women (I can certainly think of a couple). That isn’t to belittle what talents they do have. Far from it. By giving all women the “superwomam” soubriquet, purely because they do not have a Y chromosome, could actually downgrade the achievements individuals have actually striven for. “Why did I break my neck to do X when my neighbour is called superwomen no matter how useless she is?”

Lindsey // Posted 23 February 2009 at 11:36 am

I’d like to think this is just representative of a generally evil company (they use exploitative and child labour practices, amongst other things) but I can’t think of any better ads.

I guess the thing about ads is that they’re so short they rely heavily of stereotypes to get the message out quickly. Unfortunately their favourite attention grabbing tactic is ‘hot chicks’ eg that one with a naked woman in a field who’s lost a tooth (some dental hygiene product, I forget which) I don’t get why a slow panning shot of a woman’s arse has anything to do with oral hygiene.

JenniferRuth // Posted 23 February 2009 at 12:45 pm

Hmm – I guess the message is meant to be about not putting yourself or other people on teetering pedestals – just be yourself. I don’t think it works very well though – it certainly has no immediate impact and the message is unclear.

But I’m biased – having superpowers is one of my favourite personal fantasies.

As for ads that celebrate women’s achievements? I’ll have to think about that one – nothing immediately comes to mind!

Rachael // Posted 23 February 2009 at 12:49 pm

This makes me sad…especially as it is applied to I believe – one of the most talented women around at the moment.

I get so angry when I see the media destroy female artists to such a degree that they turn to drugs, or over-dieting or alchohol and their lives become parodies and their careers fall by the wayside.

Duffy has managed to deal with press interest with grace…and has maintined her strength and talent throughout.

Surely then – she is the IDEAL role-model for younger women! So this ad should read “I am incredible…and so are you”!!

lucy // Posted 23 February 2009 at 12:56 pm

another interpretation might be “i have no super powers, even i have to drink this sugar-free version of a soft drink to stay un-fat”.

obvs this advert fails on account of saying too little, aside from “duffy drinks the coke.”

….but, in general, i feel pretty comfortable with the message that this successful woman has achieved so much WITHOUT magical, unique superpowers. Isn’t that more inspiring than the basically meaningless “every woman is a superwoman”. What the hell is a superwoman anyway? i, for one, can’t fly.

Louise Livesey // Posted 23 February 2009 at 1:29 pm

I agree as far as not assuming skills and also not gendering skills either. I disagree when it comes to the idea that there are objective, stable and consensus criteria for being a “super woman” (as I would for a “super man” but this is a feminist website after all). Every woman is a super woman because, as Linda Gordon says, they are the heroes of their own lives and because every woman lives and strives within a context of patriarchal privilege which undermines their actions and privileges the actions of men. All men and women experience this differentially mediated by place, class, race, education, sexuality and so forth but women, as a social category, experience disadvantage purely on the basis of their gender whereas men, as a social category, do not. Individualising things to “humpf x gets more credit and I don’t” ignores social location and gendered power relations.

Louise Livesey // Posted 23 February 2009 at 1:37 pm

To be a pedant, part of my concern is about the space between “super” and “woman”. Had it been a single word, “superwoman”, I’d be a lot less harsh on it – partly because, to me, that would mean “I don’t wear ridiculous outfits which emphasise my breasts and bottom” like this. Note my title was “every woman is a super woman” not “superwoman” – the latter makes success a condition on abnormal, superhuman abilities whereas mine is on recognising that in some way every woman is amazing. I don’t think that’s without meaning, I think that’s a powerful message. I also think it’s something young women need to hear.

Let’s also not forget there is a music industry competition being engendered here as Duffy is often classed alongside Alicia Keys (well in my limited reading she has been anyway) and Keys released a song called “I am a Superwoman” (lyrics here). I can’t help but wonder how much that tagline was a negotiation between Duffy’s management and Coca-Cola’s ad agency.

Aida // Posted 23 February 2009 at 2:15 pm

Lindsey you’re so right about that dental advert! Apparently my friend thinks it has everything to do with dental hygiene – because she’s missing a tooth and would be beautiful otherwise!! Doesn’t explain the lingering camera over her boob and ass though does it?

I generally hate adverts, and the people who try to make out they’re anything more than brainwashing peices of crap that need to sex everything down to a toothpick. Degrading to men too, ‘mouthwash’ … ‘sex’ … ‘let’s buy mouthwash’.

With Duffy, as always reverse gender roles. Strikes me adverts would feel this message more fitting to a successful woman than successful male.

Brad Pitt is ‘nothing special’ ;)

FruitSalad // Posted 23 February 2009 at 2:29 pm

Hmmm. I am not sure what interpretation, of the various ones people have described above, I agree with.

Which pretty much means the ad fails, if it’s that ambiguous.

I agree that young women need to hear encouraging and self-esteem boosting messages, and the ad is certainly not that.

Amity // Posted 23 February 2009 at 2:33 pm

I actually interpreted it as “I’m a successful and talented woman and there is nothing extraordinary or unusual about that,” as opposed to thinking that a ‘normal’ woman wouldn’t be able to achieve what Duffy has because she has some kind of special status or ability. I find that message much more empowering than a saccharine, patronising message that we are all heroes. There is nothing heroic about being a woman — we are just everyday people too. To insist otherwise only highlights our Otherness.

Ellie // Posted 23 February 2009 at 4:29 pm

I dunno, it’s pretty inoffensive to me. It’s more confusing than anything else, I don’t think it’s got much to do with gender per se, if they’d used a male figure it would be the same.

Louise Livesey // Posted 23 February 2009 at 5:15 pm

Can you think of any advert which has a man saying “I am not amazing”? I add that to my previous challenge about positive female images.

Kez // Posted 23 February 2009 at 5:29 pm

I don’t find it offensive, although I also struggle to see the point of how this is meant to be advertising Coke. My reading of the advert is just that she’s saying “I’m a normal person, not a superhero”. I actually find that less offensive than the often-seen suggestion that women who are very good at something are stunningly unusual (for some reason, the example that rather ridiculously leaps into my mind is Carol Vorderman when she started on Countdown – there was this kind of wave of “She’s a woman! And she can do sums! This is unheard of!”).

Of course some woman are exceptional at what they do, as are some men – that doesn’t make them super women (or men) – though I suppose it all depends on your understanding of the term. Anyway, nobody’s actually going to publicly say “I AM a super woman” or even “I AM a super man”, are they?

Basically, a crappy and pointless advert, but not necessarily a sexist one IMO.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 23 February 2009 at 11:18 pm

just makes me think of scrubs. i cant do this all on my own, oh i know im no superman

Libby Feller // Posted 24 February 2009 at 12:56 am

She isn’t saying she’s not amazing, successful, awesome, strong, talented, etc. She’s simply saying she’s no super hero and she’s not. I love Duffy’s music and I don’t think this ad is offensive. Since when did a beautiful voice and awards mean a woman must have super powers because how else could she do it? Geez, maybe hard work and god given talent? I would be highly offended if the ad did say “I’m special and so are you.” How much more condescending could one be? I’m not special and I’m not going to buy someone’s product just because they think they can convince that I am. Might I add that it’s these ideas that we are all special that has made children lazy and mediocre but that’s a whole different rant I want get started on. Seriously, everywoman is a super hero? Why, because I have a vagina I automatically have super powers?

AnotherJenn // Posted 24 February 2009 at 1:45 am

Women are constantly being pressured to tone down their individual achievements. “I never set out to be a successful __________,” is often seen as some badge of honor instead of the sad statement or lie it really is. If you didn’t seek success, then why didn’t you think you could do so? More likely though, people don’t achieve great things without a lot of hard work and focus, so they do seek achievement but feel pressure to downplay their ambition.

Duffy is a super woman. She has super talent, a super career, and a bunch of super awards. It’s ridiculous for her or Coke to claim otherwise. And it’s condescending to onlookers. If she isn’t super, who is? If

maggie // Posted 24 February 2009 at 10:14 am

I’m glad we’re moving away from the superwoman slogan. It is condescending and gives the impression that we as women can juggle a family and successful career (i.e. slavishly making lots of money).

This is a lovely portrait of a highly talented woman who is happy and fulfilled doing what she wants to do.

Liz // Posted 24 February 2009 at 10:49 am

For me it’s not the fact that she says ‘I’m no superhero’, but the fact that it is in the context of her sexual availability which makes this add irritating. The message of this add seems to be ‘I’m availabe’ – hence ‘hello you’.The way she is sitting is particularly open, she’s definately performing for the male gaze and the message seems to be ‘ Don’t be intimidated by me’… That’s why it’s not cool for me.

Sabre // Posted 24 February 2009 at 11:26 am

This ad made me sad, because it makes being a super woman seem like a bad thing, almost something to sneer at. When I saw it I wasn’t sure why I disliked it, but now I think it’s because I get the message “don’t worry, I’m famous and successful, but I’m not threatening in any way”. Is that message aimed towards men , i.e. “I won’t threaten your power” or women, i.e. “I’m not your competitor” ?

If men are compared to super heroes/shown with super powers then it’s usually positive (e.g. the woeful Lynx adverts). But it’s less accepted for a woman to be compared so favourably, the subtle implication here is that being ‘super’ is a bad thing for a woman. A woman should be down to earth, non threatening to all, and not be overtly strong or ambitious, even when successful.

It’s not the worst advert in the world and there are lots of ways to interpret it.

Josie // Posted 24 February 2009 at 1:44 pm

I read it differently – my interpretation is that it’s suggesting that Duffy is a ‘normal’ person who drinks diet coke, just like you or I… so if we drink diet coke then we’re on the same level as Duffy.

Not the best wording to get across that message (if it is the intention) though.

Anne Onne // Posted 24 February 2009 at 6:08 pm

On one hand, it can be seen to have the ‘I’m a normal person like you, I drink Diet Coke like you’ message, which is probably what they were going for.

But, and this is significant, context:

Women get so much hassle about not being good enough, how they ‘can’t have it all’, and so much more pressure to do all the work, whilst being told that they’re just not good enough.

Women are also constantly pressured to be humble, even when they have acheived so much. A good recent example would be the University Challenge winning team’s Gail Trimble last night: lambasted for being too smug or something, even though she practically singlehandedly won UC! It’s a Quiz, for Pete’s sake! The very point of those things is to be knowledgeable, and you bet a man wouldn’t have been called smug for having the audacity to know the answers!

I’ve never seen an advert aimed at men with the message ‘I’m not a superman’ aimed at selling them a confidence-boosting or even relaxing product. Everything is sold to men with the ‘You CAN do anything/you’re a hero who needs this to be heroic’ line. Men are always presented as competent and powerful, to the point of negating their vulnerable, human side, whereas as women, we get lots of adverts telling us that we aren’t doing well enough at running everything. It’s the difference in pitch between ‘MEN! Take this to be even awesomer!’ and ‘WOMEN! You need this to be tolerable!’.

On the one hand, it’s good for us to acknowledge we’re human, nobody can do it all, and it hurts society to tell men that they can. On the other hand, society tears women down by forcing them to do more, and telling them they can’t do it, and ignoring them when they do.

I would have left this well alone if I were them. Bad wording, and too much of a history to be just a simple remark without hitting upon the context which is hard to put through or analyse in an advert. There are certainly simpler ways of selling a drink.

Anna // Posted 24 February 2009 at 7:11 pm

Anne – did you see Trimble’s response? She very quietly, gently pointed out that no, she wasn’t smug, and that if she’d been a man she wouldnt’ve got the criticism or focus on her looks. I love her, I actually do.

Anne Onne // Posted 25 February 2009 at 3:34 pm

No, I didn’t. Good on her. But I was saddened that no coverage in the media was about whether her treatment was sexist. ALL of it seems to have been ‘is she or isn’t she smug?’ .

As if that actually matters! She was on a Quiz show, one particularly famous for smug intellectuals (second only to Mastermind, probably!).

Though I did see that Nuts or some other waste of dead trees was asking her for a photoshoot. Patrarchy: it really won’t be happy til you’re completely dehumanised, sexualised and subservient. *Sob*

Good on her, and I hope she gets the most out of her life, and spites all those who want to put her in her place because she’s got the audacity to be female and smart, and not ashamed about it.

Kez // Posted 25 February 2009 at 4:06 pm

I was thinking about Gail Trimble when I first read this post. I was really shocked – though not exactly surprised – with the tone of some of the coverage she got. So was Paxman, apparently.

I do hope she told Nuts, or whoever it was, where to stick their photoshoot.

Mark // Posted 25 February 2009 at 4:48 pm


“Men are always presented as competent and powerful”

I’m afraid your memory is being a little selective.

Think of all the adverts depicting men as incompetent around the home; the TV sit-com “Men Behaving Badly” and countless other examples where men are not portrayed as superheroes.

Anne Onne // Posted 25 February 2009 at 10:24 pm

@ Mark: True, men are presented as bumbling, when doing tasks society considers menial and below men (cooking, cleaning, looking after kids). These are tasks men aren’t supposed to even want to do, the story goes. They’re not tasks seen as being manly and competitive, unlike, say shaving one’s face, which has to have the most ridiculously overkill ads known to men.

Also, men are seen as bumbling in adverts aimed primarily at women. As if to tell women ‘yeah, it’s OK that he can’t do any of this and doesn’t really bother trying, you can do it better, so go ahead. Do it all.’

Men in media as a whole aren’t presented as being less capable at work or life if they’re bad at cooking or cleaning. There are still plenty of portrayals of competent, strong, intelligent men for every example of an incompetent buffoon. They’re not judged as being stupid for these faults, as they’re sold as being loveable, something that one expects of men. And when men like this are presented to men, its for them to empathise with the everyman who ends up getting the hot chick and all the rest.

Insulting, I agree. But the ones who think up these adverts, the ones who sell the ‘hey, they’re just cavemen! Cavemen don’t cook or clean or do emotions or girly stuff’ are primarily men.

I should have made my wording clearer: in ads selling things to men, the vast majority focus on prestige and power, whilst the majority of ads aimed at women focus on increasing insecurity or co-opting the idea of confidence to make women buy things by feeling guilty and imperfect.

Of course the overarching message is ‘buy this because you need to be better’, but men and women are attacked differently. Thanks for pointing out that it’s more complex, though I was focusing more precisely with how ads aimed at men show men, and ads aimed at women show women. And I do believe that in those, overall women are shown to struggle juggling everyday life, and men excelling and wanting to excel more. Naturally neither men’s nor women’s lives are that simple.

It’s worthwhile that with the ‘superwoman’ thing, gender roles and housework play into it. Women are expected to work these days, yet they’re still expected to do most of the housework. And child care. Of course, if a woman can’t manage, it’s the job that must go. Men aren’t expected to do housework to nearly the same extent, or look after kids. The way that things are sold partly presents the reality (women do more work, women are made insecure by beauty standards) but doesn’t address or try to challenge it.

Darla // Posted 26 February 2009 at 12:47 am

Men aren’t the oppressed class though. A lot of posters seem to forget this when they remind us of how 0.01% of rapists are women.

Women can never be ‘super’… and can never be normal, like men in men behaving badly. They have to be well- presented slaves who never fart, never burp like those men in sitcoms, here for men’s pleasure. Yay patriarchy! There are two many layers to our oppression to bring in the ‘what about that woman the once?’ rally.

Sarah // Posted 2 March 2009 at 9:42 am

Its basically saying that you can achieve what she has achieved. She’s obviously a mega-star and she’s saying she’s no superwoman, because she just worked hard and got lucky i spose. Its showing if your really passionate about something, it can happen.

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