Brand new woman

Artificial girlhood is apparently bigger business than the boring old biological version

Artillery Row

When transgender male Dylan Mulvaney reached 365 days of “girlhood”, big brands bestowed endorsements and sponsorship upon him. One might say he turned parading as a girl into parading as a woke mascot for companies keen to improve their ESG rating. It was all so predictable: The Daily Mail hated it — Teen Vogue loved it.

Jolyon Maugham KC, founder of The Good Law project and obsessive supporter of trans causes, almost melted with glee. He started quoting Martin Luther King:

He is referring to Nike’s choice of Mulvaney to endorse sports wear, specifically leggings and a sports bra. Mulvaney was made famous for his video diary series “Days of Girlhood”, which chronicled a second “puberty” as he “transitioned” from man to girl. Many of his videos are hyper girlie. He gives a performance of a man parodying a tweenie at a sleepover party. It is sexist and creepy. The radar tingles.

What example does this set for aspiring female athletes?

Nike exhorted Instagram to “Be kind [heart emoji] Be inclusive [heart emoji] Encourage each other [heart emoji]”. It went further and threatened to delete hate speech and bullying. If you feel insulted by a man pretending he’s a girl prancing around in a sports bra, you must not say so, just be kind [heart emoji].

This is not what Maugham sees. He sees what he wants to, as all ideological warriors do. He’s so desperate to bolster his defence of trans people that he cast “consumer facing brands” as prescient oracles. It’s a bewilderingly illogical argument from a barrister. Huge consumer brands can be out of touch with their audiences, as New Coke proved in 1985. Their judgements are fallible; sales go down as well as up. 

Tapping into social consciousness often fails, because it isn’t done with heart and guts but for the bottom line. When Kendall Jenner handed a can of Pepsi to a police officer, it was cringey and obviously about profit rather than social justice. People famously burnt their Nike shoes after the brand’s Colin Kaepernick “Believe in Something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” campaign. Despite the backlash, it reportedly generated £4 billion in sales. Kaepernick did believe in something, took a risk, and that resonated.

Nike’s last brush with the culture war had mixed results

For Mulvaney to take this job, a woman must sit on the sidelines (as with trans women in women’s sports.) There is more focus on equity in sports sponsorship these days, but women’s deals are dwarfed by men’s. If a brand is going to pay a woman to model a bra, it would be nice if it would pay an actual woman. Women need support, and not just in the bra department. What makes it particularly galling is that Nike sponsors track athlete Allyson Felix, but reduced her sponsorship by 70 per cent when she got pregnant. It seems that some protected characteristics matter more than others.

What example does this set for aspiring female athletes and the young girls on social media? Research by charity Women in Sport found that over half of parents said their daughter had felt excluded from sport, and of those 26 per cent said their daughter had been told, “it wasn’t for girls”. Seeing women in sports ads might help. Seeing a man pretend to be a girl in a sports ad might be a little disorienting.

Jimmy Choo’s controversial “Shoes to Die For” ad

The idea that brands know what the future looks like, or should look like, is ludicrous. Over the years, they have depicted women in a blend of predicaments from imminent rape to death. What direction was the arc of the moral universe heading when Jimmy Choo’s “Shoes to Die For” ad depicted Cara Devligne as a murdered woman being buried in the desert? Or how about Dolce and Gabbana’s infamous banned “gang bang” ad which showed the simulated rape of a swimsuit model? Never mind American Apparel’s buttock and crotch shots of adolescent models dressed as schoolgirls. These ads court controversy and column inches at the expense of objectifying and dehumanising women. The bend towards justice as demonstrated by consumer facing brands is very slow, if it is coming at all.

That’s the point: brands don’t offer us a shiny vision of the future; they hold a mirror up, showing us in microscopic full detail, including our worst flaws. Advertising can offer hope and virtue, but it often preys upon greed, insecurity, lust and the need to conform. It can also reflect a darker and more sinister side of human nature. A recent Balenciaga campaign showed young children posing with stuffed bears clad in BDSM-style harnesses. Sexually deviant ads featuring kids are not new. One infamous 1975 Love’s Baby Soft cosmetics advertisement used a prepubescent girl done up in full adult make-up and hair, clutching a soft toy with parted lips, next to phallic shaped bottles and the slogan “Because innocence is sexier than you think”. Brands don’t show us the future; they show us whatever they think they can sell. Unchecked, that is sometimes quite horrible.

Implied murder and rape sell products, so why not paedophilia too?

Maugham made his name by defending us against Brexit, then by killing a fox with a baseball bat whilst wearing a kimono. More recently he hit the headlines for being one of 120 barristers who have declared that they will not prosecute “peaceful” climate protesters. His Good Law Project website is bedecked with the trans flag colours. On social media he is your classic liberal woke capitalist, literally tweeting that “deep woke” is a synonym for “innate decency”.

Generously, some might say that woke capitalism brings extra benefits for the public. (If you view the public as being in need of education by well-paid executives who think they know better, that is.) Perhaps more realistically, woke capitalism is just the same old capitalism, but garbed in the vestments of political correctness. 

The need to contort brand endorsement into de facto social justice hides the insult and cost to women. Womanhood is not vestiture. It’s not drag. It isn’t normally supported by big brands. But what would I know, after just 18,349 days of being female.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover