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'The Toughest Athletes': Nike & the Commodification of Feminism

“Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world”

So NIKE boldly states on the first page of “About Nike" – the company's core values made explicitly clear in these first ten words. Nike is about Inspiration, Innovation and Inclusion, and though the last one might seem like an inference from the word “every”, the asterisks on "athlete" points to a quick reiteration of Nike’s inclusive ideologies: “if you have a body, you are an athlete.”

In 2021, inclusivity and empowerment of marginalised groups is an invaluable chip for a company to carry. Though Nike have remained a brand dedicated to innovation – since Bill Bowerman's obsession with improving the running shoe, even before Nike's inception (first as Blue Ribbon Sports) – their mandate to inspire and to include is most closely associated with their identity as a 'global brand' in today’s progressive world, a branding decision stemming from their ultimate goal: to sell. As human rights activism and social justice reform increasingly take up space within mainstream media, Nike takes the side of the left-leaning, neoliberal consumer in its brand-led approach to product marketing. “The world is [Nike’s] community,” according to their website, and that means including every member of their community, and inspiring every member of their community, because inclusivity and its surrounding activism have become the popular language and values of the world, Nike's consumer base.

Renowned for their though-provoking, inspirational and progressive advertising campaigns, on Mother's Day, Nike premiered their latest film, 'The Toughest Athletes', dedicated to new and expecting mothers. The film coincides with the launch their first maternity collection, Nike (M), along with four audio guided workouts for new and expecting mothers, in partnership with Jane Wake, a pre- and post-natal exercise expert. Including celebrity figures as well as everyday athletes, Nike make a point to highlight the film’s representation of several nationalities across the globe, from the United Kingdom to Jamaica, Singapore to France, the US to Australia, and more. The video is also inclusive of differently abled mothers, as well as athletes whose body types veer outside of the pre-determined social standards of beauty.

An inclusive video with an inspiring message – that praises the strength of women, both mentally and physically – Nike’s core values are fairly represented in this film. As is their bottom line.

Throughout the video, Nike's distinctly neoliberal, consumerist ideologies come out to play. Though the advert is about motherhood, the journey of carrying, birthing and nurturing a child is presented individualistically, competitively (by centring the advert around sport and strength as a virtue), and with a consumerist end. Ultimately Nike are selling motherhood, in order to sell their new maternity collection. They are selling feminist activism in order to sell their brand.

Whilst the film makes no mention of feminism or women’s rights activism, it is clearly a feminist piece. In fact, it is a piece most typical of the popular feminism that proliferates mainstream media. According to Sarah Banet-Weiser, a feminist theorist and author of Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny, feminist ideologies now occupy space (albeit contested space) in popular culture, they're prevalent in commercial media and are even now admired and desired ideologies. Feminism has become an ‘It-Girl’ of sorts, and the feminist message woven into Nike’s 'The Toughest Athletes', is a perfect disciple.

Emphasising the individual strength of a mother, their ability to “push” beyond their limits, or their natural inclination to be at one with their bodies, the feminist message in 'The Toughest Athletes' is a capitalist-friendly neoliberal message, that places the responsibility of solving the professional bias against pre- and post-natal mothers on the mothers themselves. They are the ones who must "push" at every point, who must “[get] it done no matter what,” who must believe that they are and can be both athletes and mothers if they want to be. Interrogating the system that discriminates against mothers in professional spaces, suggestions of restructuring the work-life dichotomy in order to accommodate mothers, genuine critique of patriarchal structures that necessitate such a film are all missing; but not missed in the popular. As Banet-Weiser says, "in a capitalist, corporate economy of visibility, those feminisms that are most easily commodified and branded are those that become most visible." The importance – to Nike, to its consumers, to commercial media – is that such feminism is seen. There is no effort for feminists to be heard.

A touching campaign indeed, 'The Toughest Athletes' reminds us that Nike is a company dedicated to inspiring its community – the world. The practical and considered Nike (M) collection reminds us that the brand is all-inclusive and globally progressive. But at the very end, once the rousing crescendo of the advert’s score is stilled by an ultrasound heartbeat as the Nike (M) logo (which includes a baby tick below the signature Swoosh) appears, Nike's consistent branding lets slip the one mission statement that is best left unmentioned. Apparent in its now-exposed commodification of motherhood (and feminism) is the open secret that Nike is a capitalist corporation whose ideals and values serve a singular branding purpose: to sell.

Display Cover Image: Nike


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