As western women, these are two qualities we are told we must achieve. But on who are these characteristics based? And by whom are they being mass marketed to us?
In choosing my images for this appropriation and comparison essay, I wanted to go back to the Winged Nike statue we had briefly studied in my Art History class. Fascinating is the “prowess” of the larger-than-life winged goddess, her body braced against and unmoved by an invisible harsh wind. She stands, theatrically – with richness and a sense of volume – on the prow of a ship, once on a rock niche dug into a hill. There, hand cupped to her mouth in proclamation, she once overlooked the sanctuary of the gods on the island of Samothrace (northwest Aegean) in commemoration of a great naval victory.
I knew that many things in the visual culture around me incorporate aspects of the traits exemplified in the Winged Nike (see Figure 1a). Honing in on just one image was a difficult task, so I went to Google images to help bring some clarity and inspiration. I hoped I would “know it when I see it”, and this did happen. Typing “Nike” into the search field I was fully aware of the mix of images it would yield – very black, very male basketball stars, a variety of “swoosh” logos, and endless product shots of shoes. However, among this crop the image of a dancer with a forward-thrust torso grabbed my eye. Maybe it was the fuchsia shirt of the dancer, or the exposed shoulder and splayed hair that caught my attention – or maybe it was the fact that this image was the only photo of a female that came up who was not a headless marble statue.
This woman appears in a Munich, Germany billboard advertisement for Nike Women (see Figure 2a)– presumably apparel, although there is no indication of what particular product is being advertised. The exclusion of any explanatory text besides the words “Nike” and “Women” was seemingly purposeful. It appears to have been created to solidify the Nike Corporation’s support of women in the mind of the viewer. As if to say, “we support women so much, we just had to create this giant billboard in case you’ve forgotten or had any doubts!” The choice to remove the space between the two words reinforces this idea on a subconscious level, as if to say that the Nike Corporation and women as a whole go hand in hand, and Nike is right there beside women, supporting them in all their efforts. To analyze the design of the two words on an even deeper level, the choice to make “Nike” in a heavier font than “Women” also seems intentional. To me it only further suggests that the strong, well-established Nike Corporation is a solid jumping-off point or support base that enables women to achieve their goals and dreams. One could also see the word “Nike” as being heavier and therefore being the more important of the two words… the Nike Corporation as more important than women.
It is interesting to note the history of the Nike Corporation’s public image in regards to their treatment of women. It is well known that much public outrage exists because of Nike’s utilization of sweat shops in Latin-American and Asian countries where their workers have reported being paid less than minimum wage, mistreatment, and forced overtime. The vast majority of these textile workers have been women. In October of 1997, Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times wrote an article entitled “Nike Supports Women in Its Ads but Not Its Factories, Groups Say”. The article title sums up the issue… “A coalition of women’s groups attacked Nike as hypocritical” for its ads featuring female athletes, asserting that “something is wrong when the company calls for empowering American [and in this case, European] women but pays its largely female overseas work force poorly” (Greenhouse A30).
This is a good place to point out the website from which the Googled billboard image was linked. Wooster Collective, “a celebration of street art”, features frequently updated posts showcasing art found on streets and public advertisements fallen victim to “culture jamming”. Culture jamming refers to the “hacking”, re-arranging, reorganizing, vandalizing or defacing of public ads for the purpose of making a statement about the hypocrisy or irony of popular culture and/or corporate advertising. The billboard was featured on the website in January 2007 along with it’s “hacked” transformation aptly entitled “Nike the Ripper” (see Figure 2b); a giant black Nike “swoosh” is drawn across the woman’s exposed throat like a massive knife, giving the impression she is being decapitated. Of course, the Winged Nike of Samothrace is headless, so this was an immediate confirmation of the connection of the two images.
Woostercollective.com received immediate complaints that it appeared they were supporting violence towards women, so they contacted the artist for clarification of his intent. Said the artist, “People … just see a “cool” and attention-grabbing picture of a “beautiful” woman, which represents exactly what these people desire to be like… so [they] see a literally hacked woman and not Nike being hacked.” He goes on to explain, “[a] cut-out “swoosh” on the poster over her throat… she wouldn’t be “cool” anymore… You can’t see a “cool” dancer nor the values Nike tries to sell you anymore; instead you can see the personification of Nike (the female dancer) having it’s head cut off by its own logo, which now is just as aggressive and dangerous as the politics of the corporation in reality are.” (Marc).
Depictions of females as glorious examples of vitality, movement, and power are seen in both the Munich billboard (pre-hacking) and the ancient statue of the Greek goddess of victory, the Winged Nike. Both figures are similarly posed with proud, bold, open posture and arms extended out; the “W” formation of the dancer’s arms mimic the outstretched wingspan of the Goddess. Both are meant to be viewed from the front left… the Winged Nike is sculpted in much less detail on the right side, and we have no view of the woman’s right side in the billboard. The ruching and gathers of the woman’s shirt recall the fabric folds of the goddess, as do her exposed shoulders. In fact, if one looks closely they will find that the arms of the dancer seem to be “cut off” by her shirt in the exact same place that the statues arms have broken off.
Much like the corporate advertising of today is not safe from being vandalized by those who disagree with it’s presence in society, so the ancient statues of Greek and Roman deities were often pulled down and destroyed by new religions, including Christianity, as they swept through Greece in the Roman period. Often statues lost their heads and arms with this rough treatment, or were damaged by the excesses of invading armies (Kluth). The Winged Nike was carved from Paros marble but still suffered these losses. Her right wing is a plaster replica of the left. Despite these damages, the Winged Nike has withstood the test of time very well since her creation in approximately 190 BC. She was unearthed in 1863 after being discovered by Charles Champoiseau, amateur archeologist and “French Vice-Consul to Adrianople (Turkey)” (Astier) and now sits in the Louvre Museum in Paris (see Figure 1b).
Nike is the goddess whose help was invoked to grant victory in war and contest, usually portrayed adorning the winner with wreath or sash. We see this tradition carried on in beauty competitions the world over… reinforcing to women that beauty is a victory. In Ancient Greece, even personal beauty might be a victory if achieved, and certainly this mindset carries on into today. The Nike Corporation is the goddess Nike’s namesake and has adopted this idea unto their corporate image for marketing purposes (see Figure 3). In fact, the name “Νίκην”, or Nike, can also be traced to the Indo- European root “nei“, which means “to be energetic, to shine beautifully” and “kigh“, meaning, “to be forceful and violent” (Kluth); and this dichotomy of beauty/strength can be seen in the “dancerly” quality of grace, beauty, and flexibility is displayed in both images. Interestingly, all Greek deities are “shape-shifters” (Kluth), and Nike herself endorsed dancing as a suitable celebration for victory. In both images the importance of beauty is evident and tied into the idea of survival and competition.
Lisa Smith, the author of Nike is a Goddess: The History of Women in Sports sums it up. “The issue of women in sports has been a longstanding controversy… comparisons [have long been made] connected intimately with feminine identity and the role of women in society. Some women question “how can I be stronger, be more courageous” while others seek shelter from the backlash of masculinity and become preoccupied with trying to keep their feminine appeal intact” (Smith). I feel that the billboard, calls upon the “pull” of the classic timelessness of the statue, exhorting “ideal” female strength and health, of the ancient statue to appeal to women who want to be both strong and beautiful.
Figure 3 – Taken from Nike Women’s European website… formerly NikeGoddess.com). Notice the similarities between these women, the statue, and the billboard: hair splayed, shoulders exposed, arms outstretched. Beauty and strength are both enforced as strongly desirable. The website also suggests that in order for women to achieve this balance, they will need to rely on Nike.