Advertising dreams

You may well have seen the new Virgin Media advertising campaign which features a girl who wants to skateboard

In case you haven’t, it’s the story of – to quote the ad agency – “the power of connectivity in bringing new friends together”. They are after all selling the internet to you.

The narrative of the ad is that a girl goes to the skate park, tries a trick and falls flat on her face. When she goes on the internet, she expects to find herself ridiculed but instead makes friends who helps her. And then she tries again and, in the end, nails it. And the skatepark welcomes her, banging their boards in approval.

All of which is lovely, and the ad has been made with the help of Melanin Gals and Pals skate crew who presumably do really support each other as the boarders do in the ad.

But it is nothing like what skateboarding is like for most teenage girls. Nine out of ten girls who skate don’t feel comfortable in the skate park. They tell us stories about being racially abused on skate parks, about having stones thrown at them. They say that they go to skate parks first thing in the morning, or just after it’s rained. They’re teenagers, of course they don’t want to get up early, and the surface is rubbish when it’s wet. But it’s the only way they can skate without being hassled.

This hassle takes all sorts of forms, from being called ‘ramp tramps’; to complaints that they are rubbish and just get in the way; to threats of rape. And the result: the skatepark isn’t the welcoming, supportive place the Virgin ad portrays.

And this isn’t just anecdotes. There’s very little research in the UK, but plenty in America, Australia and New Zealand, and they all confirm that out door skate parks are places where girls don’t go because they are actively made unwelcome. One report describes them as being ‘coded male’. For me, the most telling statistic comes from America. They fitted activity trackers onto teenage girls and recorded how much exercise they did, and there was a clear link between being more active and living near a park. Great, parks are good for you. Only there was one exception. If that park was a skate park, the girls’ activity levels actually went down. So a lot of outdoor skateboard parks aren’t just male dominated, they can drive girls out of the area.

Again, this is born out by what Make Space for Girls gets told. A council on the south coast of England surveyed teenage girls to find out what would make them use a particular park more. The number one response was a request for a new gate on one side of the park, so that they could get out without going past the skateboarders.

For me though, what’s most startling about the ad is the claim that social media will support girls and young women in skateboarding. I know, I’ve said it already, they’re selling the internet so of course this is what they want you to believe.

But once again, this just isn’t what happens and there is research to prove this.

Bridgid McCarthy analysed four thousand comments on skateboarding videos posted on YouTube and discovered “the pervasive presence of abuse and misogyny” as skateboarders tried to police a sport that they felt was not for girls. Her paper is called ‘Who unlocked the kitchen?’ and that’s at the friendlier end of some of the comments posted. The internet is not a place you’d want to be as a girl skateboarder, it really isn’t.

I thought this was cool till one girl started talking about breaking gender barriers then it got lame and I realized they were all lesbian man hating femnazi’s and women’s skateboarding is just gross.

Plenty more of the comments are more offensive too. Skate parks are ‘dude space’ and girls are not welcome.

It’s a depressing picture, but none of this is to say that girls shouldn’t skateboard. Of course they should and the numbers of them who attend indoor skateparks (which are safe and have adults around permanently) is testament that plenty want to. But if any young girl were to go to the skatepark and think it was going to be like this ad, they’d end up very disappointed.

So we’ve got a challenge to Virgin Media, and any other company who’d like to take it up: put some resources into understanding what is really going on with outdoor skateparks and be part of the movement to make change.

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