Is the new RAF advert as feminist as it seems? – Tess Michaels

If you watch anywhere near the amount of First Dates that my flatmates and I do, you’ll have seen it by now: the new RAF advert featuring audio of adverts for typically feminine products being played over footage of woman in the military. The campaign recently won £1 million worth of free air time on Channel 4 as part of the network’s campaign to improve diversity in adverts and challenge the negative portrayal of woman in adverts.

The ad has been hailed by many as  a breakthrough for female representation in advertising, challenging the gender norms and stereotypes so often seen to be thrown at women in the media. And I do believe this was the aim of the campaign – to show women in a light which is not constrained by the social ideas of femininity we’re used to.

However, the advert missed the target (if you’ll excuse the military pun). Instead of showing that women can be whoever they want to be, they pigeon holed us into two typecasts. You can either choose to be typically feminine, wearing lip gloss and doing your hair, which the advert (and society as a whole) portrays as being weak. Or, alternatively, you can be traditionally masculine, choosing to fight in the British military, displaying attributes which we associate with being strong and powerful.

But this raises a new question: why do these two options have to be mutually exclusive? Why, as a society, can we not have more of a fluidity when it comes to gender norms? A woman is no less strong simply because she chooses to wear makeup. It plays into the narrative that by showcasing attributes associated with masculinity you’re “not like other girls” – a toxic concept used to demonise typically feminine behaviours.

Negative connotations associated with femininity are one of the key challenges faced by the modern feminist movement. Little girls grow up being bombarded with adverts telling them they should play with barbies and learn how to french braid, but are then criticised for partaking in these things when they reach adult hood. Why can I not wear pink and be an aeronautical engineer, enjoy makeup and be an MP, or wear lip gloss and fight for my country? The most ridiculous attribute mocked by the advert are sanitary towels, with an advert for the product needed by most women (yet ridiculously expensive) being played over the top of a woman in a fighter jet. Has she, now having joint the RAF, stopped having periods?

Amongst all this ‘feminist’ advertising, there is no mention of the deep-seated misogyny faced by many women in the British Armed Forces. A study in 2015 shows that nearly four out of ten women in the British Army had received unwanted comments or been exposed to material of a sexual nature in the past year. The updated version of the report in 2018 showed that 34% of women had had unwelcomed comment made against them about their body, appearance, or sexual activities. Needless to say, I don’t think the armed forces are in any position to be telling women what is and isn’t feminist.

Even if the Armed Forces aren’t the epitome of feminism, there are many organisations which have women’s rights at their very core. If Channel 4 has a million pounds to be throwing around, why can’t they give funding to one of the many UK charities promoting gender equality that may be struggling for funding? An amazing example of this is the This Girl Can campaign, funded by the National Lottery, which encourages women to exercise in a society where they’re often discouraged from doing so. If Channel 4 truly wanted to show gender diversity in their advertising surely this is the route they should be taking.

Although I’m sure the new RAF advert had good intentions, for me they went about it in entirely the wrong way. We shouldn’t be telling women that any feminine traits they may express are inherently bad and should be quelled in order to appear as strong and masculine. Women are strong exactly how we are – no matter if you wear makeup, fight in the army, do both, or do neither. So, I’d like to propose a new tagline for the advert: rather than “women should be defined by actions not clichés”, perhaps a better option would be “women should be defined however the hell they want”.

Tess Michaels is a second-year Politics student and writes her own blog here:

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