This was my initial reaction to the now-viral campaign It Was Never A Dress. The campaign redefines the female washroom symbol, which was previously assumed as a figure wearing a dress. According to this new information, it was never a dress. It was always, in fact, a cape.
People on the internet are celebrating the newfound notion of the symbol showing a woman in a cape, not a dress. But wait, hold on a second… why was a woman in a dress not good enough? The fact that this had to be changed suggests women are not good enough the way we are, and not strong enough wearing a symbol of femininity.
Think of the female washroom sign – back when everyone thought it was simply a dress – as a metaphor for women. We’ve gone along, in our dresses or whatever we were wearing, fighting for our rights and being awesome. Then It Was Never A Dress comes along and says that we’re not good enough the way we are, and that we need to have our images reinvented in people’s minds in order to be better at being women.
Furthermore, there’s what the dress was replaced with (or what women are being told they need to be more like in order to be better): a cape.
Why is the image of a woman in a cape stronger than the image of a woman in a dress?
A troubling answer: because capes are typically worn by male superheroes, and often symbolize masculine strength.
The people who are delighted at the cape-wearing woman (instead of the dress-wearing woman) are inadvertently saying that females are stronger and better when they are masculine and embody masculine traits. So what I’m getting from It Was Never A Dress is that women are not good enough the way we are – and if we put on a symbol of masculinity, we are better.
According to their website, It Was Never A Dress is “an invitation to shift perceptions and make assumptions about women and the audacious, sensitive, and powerful gestures they make every single day.”
That sentence puts up red flags for me. An invitation to make assumptions about women? That can’t have been what they meant, because it implies an open invitation to assume negative things about women. This should be what the campaign is trying to avoid.
And yet, It Was Never A Dress is, to me, perpetuating a bold (and horribly misled) assumption: that to be strong, women need to be masculine.
Throughout history, women have had to fight for our right to be recognized as equals to men. Today, in the 21st century, we are still fighting for this. We are not going to reach a point of total and complete gender equality by telling women that the way for them to be strong is by being like men.
We don’t need a new perspective on the symbol on our washroom door to tell us that women are strong; we are already strong. And without misleading campaigns like this one, we would be even stronger.