Nike’s Girl Effect: Simplifying Poverty and Women with Each Tick of a Clock

Safeera Jaffer, Bachelor of Arts (Cultural Studies)

The clock is ticking. Oh yes, Girl Effect, it certainly is. Each second that ticks by in Nike’s “The girl effect: The clock is ticking” video adds yet another infuriating second of simplifying poverty and making assumptions about the people it is precisely trying to ‘help’.

Imagine if you, as a 12-year-old girl, were told that YOU could end poverty not only for yourself, but for your family, your community, your country, and the entire world, as the girl effect initiative casually asserts. What an enormous burden! Not only does this place an immense amount of responsibility into the hands of adolescent girls to get the whole world out of poverty, but it completely ignores the root causes of suffering. 12-year-old girls did not - and do not - cause poverty, so why should they be the ones expected to eliminate it? Rather than acknowledging the broader issues like debt, displacement, unfair trade, aid, exploitation of resources, structural adjustment, the financial crisis, and many others, Nike’s Girl Effect individualizes the problem to solely focus on girls as the solution to an undefined problem. Their unilateral decision moves girls to the forefront of development and poverty alleviation while simultaneously overlooking Nike’s own contributions to maintaining systems of oppression and inequality; perhaps Nike should address their own involvement with sweatshops, labour abuse, and environmental destruction? How can girls be empowered when they are living in disempowering conditions?

Through a simple, black stick figure, the video determines exactly who and what constitutes a girl. In its simplistic representations, Girl Effect flattens the complexity of girlhood and poverty: because two curved lines on a chest and pigtails sticking out of a head determine girlhood, right? Wrong. Gender is not determined based on physical body shape or type, nor is it Girl Effect’s role to categorize what determines or who is considered a ‘girl’. But I guess that’s just how they do it. Not only is gender experienced differently from person to person, but poverty is also significantly more complex than Girl Effect portrays it to be. As if a “happy & healthy” 12-year-old girl is the start to “generation after generation” of ‘success’, this video simplifies the “solution” into snappy phrases, palatable cartoon images, and slightly motivating, yet dramatic music. One, simple word - “she” - comes to represent and reflect an entire world of women in poverty. “She” becomes the face of poverty. Regardless of geographic, social, historical, political, or economic context, “she” is the answer. And her entire being is flattened into her economic potential to “[impact] the world.” “She” becomes such an abstract fantasy that “she” is not even considered a person anymore; “she” and they simply become one of the fifty million possible “solutions.” No, really.

And yet, the dichotomy and positioning between “she” and “you” reflects one of the major contradictions of empowerment; who is truly empowered by this video? Who is this video being shown to? Where is it being shown? While attempting to show the potential for an empowered Other, the video also appeals to Western girls as a part of the solution. The video hails “you” as an agent subject that is completely separate and distinct from “she.” It’s “not the life you imagined for a 12-year-old, right?” The focus on “you” reinforces the continuing colonial narrative where Other girls are constantly measured solely in terms of how their lives compare to those in the West. If that’s not the life for a Canadian 12-year-old, then it should not be the life for anyone, right? Despite the fact that this statement overlooks the conditions of poverty within First World countries like Canada, the phrase declares Western life to be the epitome of progress, success, and modernity. Empowering Western girls to empower Other girls? More like empowering Western girls to embrace their own benevolence and false sense of superiority (only in order to “help,” of course). Shifting this focus to the Western girl reinforces the colonial rescue fantasy and re-emphasizes the Other as an object in need of “saving.”

However, the problem here is not simply the Girl Effect initiative. Even though the clock has ticked for almost seven years since this video was created, the message of girl’s empowerment is still plastered everywhere in development and mainstream understandings of “humanitarianism”. And yet, despite the hypervisibility, this limited, eurocentric understanding of “girlhood” still remains largely endorsed and unchallenged.

So yes, Girl Effect, clearly “we have a situation on our hands.” It’s just not the one you wanted or expected.