ad-womanI read Nils Leonard’s intended paean to women in advertising on the same day I went to see David Fincher’s Gone Girl. On its own, Leonard’s poem is sticky with patronizing objectification, but sitting there in the dark movie theater, it struck me just how much his lyric imagining of the perfect modern creative as “fierce, fearless, and female” mirrors the "Cool Girl" of Gone Girl, blisteringly deconstructed by author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn as “hot, brilliant, funny” and utterly idealized.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. …And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version — maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.

Maybe he works in advertising, so "Cool Girl" is a passionate, frustrated, discontented, 3 a.m. tequila genius who knows all the beautiful places to lunch.

If you don’t think about it too deeply, Leonard’s shining-eyed exaltation of women creatives might feel like a step in the right direction -- a correction to the misogyny our industry is infamous for. But in the words of cultural critic Margaret Lyons, “The opposite of being degraded isn't being revered-- it's being seen as a fully complex human being.”

With that in mind, I propose an alternative vision of this modern creative, this fully complex female human being in advertising.

She is not “the new face of great work.” It’s common knowledge that she’s been making great work since 1910.

When she attends a meeting of creative directors at her agency she isn’t the only woman in the room. There are women above her on the ladder to emulate. There are women a few rungs down to mentor. There are women next to her to support, challenge, and compete with.

She has a wide range of expertise and interests, and what she doesn’t already know she can learn. She’s chosen to work on cars, alcohol, airlines, and tech, not just soap, lipstick, tampons, and cleaning products.

She’s paid exactly as much as any man with her title and experience would be. Let’s say that one again: She gets paid as much as her male colleagues.

Her generosity and compassion are not mistaken for weakness. Her authority and directness are not interpreted as coldness. She can collaborate without being called needy. She can work independently without being called conceited.

She is never called sassy because sassy is another word for bitch. When you call her aggressive, it’s a compliment. She can say "no" without being labeled difficult. She’s not crazy, psycho, or overly emotional just because she disagrees with you.

It doesn’t matter who her best friend or lover is.

Her menstrual cycle is not a topic of discussion, even if she happens to be having a bad day. If she chooses to have a child, it is not a death knell for her career.

She can be beautiful without being accused of sleeping her way to success. She can be plain without getting ignored.

She may be fearless, particularly when she’s just starting out. To be fearless is to be unwise and reckless; to lack an appreciation for what’s at stake. Given the time and opportunity, she may grow to be courageous, someone who pushes against the status quo with a clear-eyed understanding of the risks involved.

She may be a star, a natural leader who inspires everyone around her, beloved of clients, a sought-after speaker, famous for her insights and breakthrough work.

She may be a truly deplorable yet ferociously talented person who doesn’t care about anything but winning.

She may be a sweetheart who bakes cookies for the office every Tuesday and who can be counted upon to always get the work done on time and within budget.

She is varied and individual, imperfect and triumphant, insecure and arrogant, funny and intense, angry and lighthearted, like everyone, like anyone.

Whoever she is, she is no one’s “girl.”

Leonard did get a couple of things right: She is never yours. And she will leave you someday, for a bigger job at another agency or a different kind of life client-side, for politics or grad school, to raise children or open a restaurant, to sail around the world solo or plant a garden, to run a startup or teach high school art. It may be sacred. It may be ordinary.

But it will be on her own terms, without your permission. And she won’t give a damn if you love her for it or not.


Originally published Oct 24, 2014 4:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017