The Sexism Defense Mechanism
Words by Addie Levinsky
I've been in the cycling industry in some capacity for almost a decade. I've been fortunate enough to see the incredible growth of the sport as it relates to female identifying individuals. That's not to say there isn't a lot of work to do in the scope of equality, but the willingness to expand the dialogue grows with every season. That's precisely why Pretty Damned Fast exists - to create and foster any and all dialogue around women's cycling.
I joined PDF at a rather volatile time with my own relationship to cycling. After many years of bikes being the forefront of both work & play, I started to disengage. First it was my body, completely breaking down from continual overtraining, then it was my mind. I simply didn't care anymore (I mean, as much as one can not care about something that was literally their entire life for the better part of a decade).
Disengaging myself from both my immediate and distant cycling communities meant I entered in the conversation only when it seemed interesting or relevant in some capacity. I focused my energy for PDF on personal stories from others, which was incredibly rewarding and helped maintain just enough stoke that I didn't fall into the camp of completely jaded.
For better or for worse, that ultimately meant ignoring anything marketing-related. That certainly wasn't the intention, per se, it just wasn't on my radar. I have had the pleasure of building relationships with many brands in the past, and I continued to value those companies and individuals in the industry continuing to make cycling a more inclusive community.
Fast forward to the Pinarello ad that went completely viral in a matter of minutes - I'm sure you all know what I'm referring to (for reference, check out the CyclingNews article on it). The ad featured a headshot of a female and the following quote: "I've always wanted to go cycling with my boyfriend but it seemed impossible. Soon everything will become possible." It doesn't take much analysis to determine why this is an overtly sexist and tone deaf piece of marketing. You don't need to read between the lines to determine the implication is that females are inherently slower than their male counterparts.
The response from the entire cycling community was overwhelmingly positive, standing together to bring down Pinarello's off base message. They did end up issuing an apology and removing the ad.
I was as put off by this as anyone - I wanted to say I was in disbelief, but I wasn't. There have been plenty of cycling companies that have been blatant in their chauvinistic advertising. It's also no secret that our country has been experiencing an outpour of sexual harassment allegations across every industry you can imagine. The "Me Too" movement hit many of us like a sack of bricks, over night, causing reflection that was sometimes unwarranted.
That brings me to my belief that many of us are on edge. We're hyper aware of what's happening around us. Even those who have not had a direct experience with discrimination or harassment are still affected by it in some capacity. It's the dialogue of our increasingly divided nation.
So, how does this relate back to the bike industry? It's arguably the same as it's always been, we've just had more opportunity to reflect and our defense is in full-force. The latter is especially clear, as PDF posted Trek's latest eBike marketing campaign, suggesting that the ad was also sexist.
I have always looked at Trek as a pioneer in the cycling industry, especially as it relates to marketing (and marketing to women specifically, if we want to get down to brass tacks). It's almost too easy to look at an ad for an eBike, see a woman, and expect that the message is "they need assistance because they are not strong enough."
This is completely off base. I admit at first glance I perceived the ad to be off-base. But I immediately caught myself and wondered, "am I searching for something here? Is this my instinctual defense mechanism clicking in?"
The answer is yes. I read the copy associated with the photos and the whole campaign is gender-neutral, more or less. The scenarios offer a whole range of interpretation, none of which suggest a woman should have an eBike because they are slower than a man.
It's far too easy to assume everything is being marketed to the super-serious-spandex-clad-bike-racer...that is such a small percentage of what the cycling demographic really represents. And that's not only one of the best things about the sport, but something that needs to be considered when we're talking about aspects of the sport, such as eBikes, that rile up a considerable amount of controversy.
There are plenty of assumptions that can be made when looking at an ad campaign. A lot of it arrives from preconceived notions, and thus conclusions are drawn that are inaccurate. However, assumptions, or more delicately, feelings, are rooted in experience and individual perspective, and that absolutely ties into how one would process an ad. That is to say, there's no "right" or "wrong" feeling, but messages can be lost in translation or misinterpreted.
The dialogue that came from PDF's post, as well as reading what Trek wrote directly, made it abundantly clear that fishing for a debate can happen much too swiftly (please take the time to check out the entire ad campaign here. You will see Trek has covered just about every rider imaginable in their eBike campaigns and otherwise).
I maintain my conviction that cycling has come an incredibly long way, and I think Trek has played an enormously positive role in this. I'd also say that eBikes are also contributing positively (I wouldn't be surprised if that was a highly contested statement, but it's the truth). It's unfortunate that we have to be so hyper aware of ads featuring women because they may, just may suggest something sexist and demoralizing.
So with that I say keep supporting companies (like Trek) that are doing so much for cycling, female and male alike. Be open and willing to hear all opinions and perspectives. Keep making the cycling community the supportive, amazing place that it is. And lastly, smash the patriarchy!