The New Face of Women's Cycling?
“To get more women on the road, we have to get them to think of these things as accessories... Natural, everyday accessories, like handbags."-- Bonnie Tu, Giant CFO
As a man talking about women and women's cycling, I am sure I am putting myself in great danger of talking like an ass. When was the last time a man really understood women? I also have to say that in order to write this I had to... er... man up and actually put my sophomoric maleness aside or at least under a critical light to better do justice to this topic in a more mature way than I am usually comfortable doing. Since when has acting mature ever been fun? I am also inspired by the many women riders I have met and seen in my time as a cyclist in Taiwan.
Ok! Here goes nothing...
Now that my wife has finished her thesis, she has been exploring the idea of buying a bicycle for exercise and recreation. I have tried to keep my distance and only offer help when she asks, as I have a tendency to get really excited about bikes and then kill the buzz. Shhhh!
My wife has been doing a really good job with her research and I am having fun watching her do all the responsible stuff that comes with buying a bike. She has bought books, magazines and searched online for as much information as possible for what she should be doing.
And then I got the following email:
"I hate how they promote women's bikes"
Along with the email she included a link to the the Liv/giant website.
Liv/giant is a company-wide concept of products and retail space aimed primarily at women and at increasing the number of women who ride bicycles. According to Giant CFO, Bonnie Tu, who is also taking point on the Liv/giant campaign, the goal of the concept is to "woo women into cycling".
On this blog I have explored the idea of how women approach and interpret cycling, and moreover, how increasing women's involvement in cycling can transform the cycling landscape. Although Giant offers a range of bicycles for women, I am sadly disappointed in the way Giant perceives women and women's cycling. Despite the company's massive revenues and leading R&D, Giant by no means lives up to its name as a leader in the future of women's cycling.
The Liv/giant website linked above provides a fantastic opportunity to analyze and discuss the semiotics of Giant's message; a message that makes me increasingly uncomfortable.
The link leads to a slick, modern website with large photo images and soft graphics. The sequential photo montage depicts a glamourous young woman in fashionable clothing, make up and stylish hair, relaxing and enjoying a life of leisure outdoors and on a boat. The images are indistinguishable from those you might find in the scented pages of the top fashion magazines, like Elle, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Marie Claire. In every picture the model is wearing a skirt or tube dress, and high-heels. At first it is difficult to discern what exactly is being advertised as a bicycle only appears in only four of the ten slides, the other slides seem completely irrelevant to cycling. It actually appears that the bicycle is merely an accessory to the clothes, make-up and the girl. That may be Giant's point after all... not to sell bikes, but to sell bicycle clothing to women.
Ready To Ride?
"We should not be too familiar with the lower orders or with women."--Confucius
It is obvious the model depicted in the advertisement does not ride a bicycle. If she were riding a bicycle she would not be wearing skirts, heavy fabrics or clothing that might drape into a chainring. Her hair would surely not be glossed into place and her make-up would have run down her face in the heat and humidity. She would not be white, and would have much better muscle tone. Unless she has clips in the base of those heels, I don't see how she does it. Nothing about the woman indicates that she rides a bike.
I am actually having a hard time believing this concept and marketing campaign was headed by a woman and a cyclist. Not only does Giant buy into and promote the oft repeated stereotype of women in Taiwan as vapid, silly creatures, who shallowly concern themselves with fashion and spend someone's money on handbags and accessories, but Giant, a company that sells one of the greatest tools for mobilization and liberation, employs imagery of their object from what feminist theorist, Laura Mulvey, identifies as the "male gaze", a term which borrows from Jacques Lacan to demonstrate how media images can be gendered to reflect the sole view of the heterosexual male as the predominant frame.
The fetishized, gendered images of the slender female body with ample necklines, bare, airbrushed skin, and voyeuristic glances up skirts, long, slender legs, appeals more to the mass-marketed male frame of of the eroticized woman that has been the the predominant grammar of fashion photography for decades. This type of fetishization of the sexualized female (for the pleasure of the male) does not empower women, but rather reinforces feelings of insecurity and a negative body image: These are not empowering images for the majority of women and they do not reflect women's athleticism, strength, power and determination. They are the exact opposite of how cycling should make a person feel. Nothing can encourage positive ideas of body image faster than by pushing the body to do amazing things and to accomplish the "impossible".
Gear For Cycling?
"Nobody should doubt that our women’s bikes are designed for women by women.”-- Bonnie Tu, Giant CFO
Bonnie Tu presumptuously claims to be the "godmother" of Women's cycling and yet I can't help but feel she views Taiwanese women through the chauvinistic and dismissive lens shared by so many men. Although many women (and men for that matter) in Taiwan (and elsewhere) buy expensive name brands and buy into modern materialism, Giant's concept feels even more awkward and patronizing considering the new roles of women in contemporary Taiwanese society... including Bonnie Tu, who holds the deputy post in one of the nation's largest and most successful companies. Compared to many countries around the world, including the United States, it is not uncommon for women in Taiwan to excel to become leaders in their respective fields and vocations. Taiwan has already had a female vice president and may very well have a female president or at least presidential nominee in the near future. Women not only hold high positions in politics, but also in every major vocation in Taiwan. Women in Taiwan have taken the agency to plot their own lives and careers to pursue a variety of interests. I am always surprised by the great plurality I have experienced in Taiwan. This is why I am so puzzled that Giant would reduce women's cycling to "an accessory, like a handbag". This is an insult to all the strong, intelligent and capable women out there who do not need to be coerced into buying a bike just to go with a good pair of pumps. Women in Taiwan are perfectly capable of buying a bike for any number of intelligent reasons, and do so.
On A Pedestal: Liv/giant Boutique in Taichung
Lastly, I feel this marketing approach is short sighted and irresponsible in many ways, not the least of which is the impact of selling bicycles as simply accessories. If this is a successful approach and manages to convince more women to buy bicycles it is easy to view it in a positive light. It might even be economically savvy and make lots of money for Giant. More power to them if women respond to this type of marketing. The downside is that although cycling is more friendly to the environment than automobiles, they do not come without an environmental price tag. The metals have to be mined, the materials transported, the electricity spent, and all the other little things that go with industrial production . A bicycle can only negate that footprint if it is actually used and used well. Selling bikes as superfluous fashion accessories that may do lots of sitting really does little to negate the environmental deficit of the bike's production.
I see nothing wrong, and lots right about a large bicycle company targeting women and giving women a space in the marketplace to explore cycling without the feelings of intimidation and inhibitions in dealing with a male dominated sport. The Liv/giant store does a lot of things right, but I DO wish Giant would approach women cyclists with more respect and the acknowledgement that Taiwanese women have the ability and the intelligence to approach cycling for its obvious merits and not for the superficiality of the runway.
"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."-- Susan B. Anthony
She Pedals Magazine
For an excellent alternative in the portrayal of women's cycling, I suggest the approach taken by SHE pedals magazine, a magazine devoted to women's cycling that depicts women cyclists enjoying the sport while maintaining their femininity without falling into a dated male caricature. I picked up a copy in Palm Desert and found it to be a provocative portrayal of the sport. Even in the cover image we see a silhouette postured to display independence and power. Her physique is not waifish, but fit. She is confident and assertive.
I would also suggest picking up a copy of Every Woman's Guide to Cycling: Everything You Need To Know, From Buying Your First Bike To Winning Your First Race by Selene Yeager. It offers more confidence building information for beginning female cyclists than Twiggy. Muscles like those will never get her in a Giant ad, but I bet she can kick some ass on the bike.
Women deserve far better treatment from Giant.