Just days after Images & Voices of Hope held a panel on challenging stereotypes at our recent media summit, Misty Copeland became the first African-American woman to be named as a principal dancer by the American Ballet Theater.
Copeland was at the center of an Under Armour advertisement that we explored during the panel. The ad combatted stereotypes about race, age, and body image, and was an example of how the media can play a powerful role in changing our perceptions of what’s possible.
During the panel, Droga5 creative director Felix Richter — who helped create the Under Armour ad — talked about the significance of it.
“Under Armour is Nike’s biggest challenger in the U.S.,” Richter said. “Their uber masculine image has become a barrier to women. We wanted to send a message that genuinely empowers people.”
The Copeland ad features shots of her dancing, accompanied by a narrative about being rejected by a ballet school because “she had the wrong body for ballet.”
Nearly 8,700,000 people have viewed the ad on YouTube since it was released in July 2014. Another ad featuring kickboxing super-model Gisele Bündchen has been seen by almost three million people since September. Copeland and Bündchen are two of the 10 women featured in Under Armour’s “I Will What I Want” campaign.
“In advertising, because we have so little time, we tend to only show extreme stereotypes all the time,” Richter said. “The more we show them, the more people accept them as all that is true.”
Richter was joined by moderator Erin Shaw Street — Lifestyle Editor at a Birmingham creative agency called Big Communications — and two other panelists: Nancy McGirr, a photojournalist in Central America and founder of the nonprofit Fotokids; and Monica Guzman, a freelance technology and media columnist and soon-to-be Nieman Fellow.
During the panel, Guzman explained why stereotypes can actually be good in some cases:
“Stereotypes are the zip files of storytelling,” she said. “They are useful because they are efficient bundlers of information. The more familiar a viewer is with stereotypes, the faster you can get to the jokes (in TV sitcoms). The question is which files do you unzip? “
Think about it. The adage about not judging a book by its cover is not exactly true. Like it or not, we do look at the outside, before we delve inside. Or as Guzman points out, “what you show is what you get.”
Guzman, who herself is breaking through barriers in the tech industry, says women often shy away from the field, because until now, there hasn’t seemed to be a place for them there.
“We make very quick judgments we don’t even recognize we are making based on a quick question our brain makes. Do I fit in, do I belong?” she said.
McGirr has broken down stereotypes in two ways — through her own work as a photojournalist and through Fotokids, where she has spent more than two decades teaching photography to impoverished children in Guatemala City.
When McGirr photographed El Salvador’s teenaged-guerrillas in the 1980s, she was doing more than showing kids with guns — she also was providing a portrait of them as adolescents. One of the photos was of a then 14-year-old girl guerrilla, with pants stylishly rolled up over her combat boots and with flowers in her hand.
“What I wanted to was to show them as kids,” McGirr said. “She is a young girl and there is a fashion statement going on here. … This is the quintessential pre-selfie picture … that shows her as teenage girl as well as an armed combatant.”
McGirr, who spent a lot of time covering the aftermath of conflict in refugee camps at the time, recalled a visit home when she was showing her father some of her photos.
“’Nancy, these people look just like us,'” he told her. “He could feel a commonality, and so he began to look at the refugee problem a bit differently,” McGirr said. In other words, breaking down stereotypes can often be something that happens singularly, up close and personal.
After years in the field, McGirr was worn out by the trauma of covering war and moved to Guatemala. She took an assignment that looked at families whose livelihood centered on what they could scavenge from the dumps. She developed a relationship with some of the children and gave cameras to six of them. From there, Fotokids (originally called “Out of the Dump”) was born.
McGirr said the children took pictures that reflected their lives. When two girls were given Barbie Dolls as gifts, for instance, they took a photo of the dolls looking like tourists and being held up by the Guatemalan military.
“It’s a difficult line,” she said. “A lot of the photos are stereotypes. But if the children take the photos and they say this is happening, it is a whole different thing and people take it in a totally different way.”
Throughout the panel, McGirr, Richter, and Guzman showed that media of all types can widen the lens through which we see people by helping us break free from harmful stereotypes — one article, one ad, and one photo at a time.