Sisterhood of the Travelling…Tampons?

Question: To what extent do ads (in any media) for feminine hygiene products rely upon a perceived universal community of women, in which all women are members of a sort of sisterhood simply for being born a woman? How do these ads establish and sell this sorority, and what is the unique value of this technique when marketing the product in question? 

I take the approach that advertising is a “cultural resource” which “seek[s] to give structure and stability to a shared social life” (Goffman in Jhally, paragraph 4). As we say in rhetoric, ads are cultural artefacts, and as well as creating new norms (the diamond wedding ring and the coffee break, as discussed in our lectures), ads reflect the cultures that create them. Of course, cultural artefacts tend to be created within dominant normative categories – and these categories often don’t represent the majority of the population. We aren’t all Richard Roepers (Pozner, paragraph 6), despite the billboards on our roadsides.

In any case, we tap into meaning in cultural artefacts through “information already stored in an individual” (Schwartz in Jhally, paragraph 4); we decode ads in part according to the interpretive framework handed to us by our culture(s), and hopefully in part according to our individual identities and experiences. The problem is, cultural frameworks often encroach on identities, and I would argue this happens in this ad from Kotex’s “Generation Know” campaign and this ad from Always’ “Like A Girl” campaign. Although both campaigns implicitly claim to challenge patriarchy, they reinforce other oppressive norms, notably a trope of “womanhood as sorority.”

For example, the Kotex ad features sexperts (activists, a doctor, and a historian) who debunk myths, create grassroots information movements, and generally break the silence around the semi-taboo subject of periods.[1] The Always ad, meanwhile, challenges linguistic manifestations of sexism. However, both ads enact their own sorority of womanhood tropes, and this is problematic. It’s not much good ridiculing an ad that normalizes and trivializes PMS (Kotex, 0:31) if your own ad presents only heteronormative, conventionally attractive, middle-class, university-educated, and mostly white women; your campaign becomes as normative as the one you critique. To follow Goffman’s approach, there are socio-cultural signifiers that define the sorority in each ad,[2] telling us who the “experts” in the ads are, who the “people on the street” are, and who we, the viewers, have to be to fit into the cultural narrative set up by the ads:

  • Class – economic status in both ads is signalled through styles of clothing, hairstyles, dialect and register, and by physical settings (home interiors) and social settings (college campuses) in the Kotex ad. With increasing social mobility for the “lower middle class,” these signifiers have become increasingly hazy, but it’s undeniable that the ads avoid signifiers of poverty. They don’t interview “people on the street” who are unkempt, or visit high schools in neighbourhoods like mine, with peeling houses. Television networks may think viewers aren’t ready to see peeling houses any more than to hear the word “vagina” (O’Leary paragraphs 4—5), but for the viewers who live in these neighbourhoods peeling houses are everyday reality (as are vaginas, for a lot of people). In fact, their neighbourhoods may be communities that they love and that they’d like to see represented.
  • Race – the majority of people in the ads are white. This takes us into related subjects, such as the impacts of institutionalized racism, intergenerational trauma, and misreading of cultural models, leading to skewed representation in education and other areas. Simple numbers in the population may also be at play, although I question this. In any case, it may not be Kotex’s and Always’ fault, but the fact remains that the ads are racially quite homogeneous.
  • Gender binaries – the women represented in the ads are conventionally feminine. Some have fashionable short hair, but they all dress, speak, and move within dominant norms for women in this society and time period. Some of the college students dress less fashionably, but not such that norms are challenged. No one featured in the ads has a non-normative physical appearance. Obviously you can’t know who someone is or how they identify from how they look, but again, what is left out is as significant as what is included.
  • Body type – there are some very thin women and some heavier women in the ads, but no one is represented who is “obese”, in the way that I understand that label.[3] As Pozner points out, “The ad industry has equated starvation and drug addiction with women’s beauty for decades” (paragraph 12), and despite their supposedly empowering messages, Kotex and Always seem to be doing the same. As was pointed out by a student in today’s lecture, representing only people with certain body types Others people with body types that don’t conform to that representation.

So, the Kotex and Always ads obliterate “marked” (in Greimas’ sense) identities through non-representation. The areas of silence in the ads are in fact spaces of silencing, and the silencing act becomes “unmarked” and invisible. The sorority trope draws close to the sense of “sorority” as an exclusionist university tradition: All women are supposedly part of the sorority of womanhood, but to be a part of it, you have to conform to heteronormativity and be wealthy, university-educated, young, and physically attractive according to dominant beauty standards for this culture. Otherwise, you can only watch the sorority’s meetings through the windows of the sorority house.

Then there’s the problem of silence about variance in experiences of periods themselves. Although the campaigns distance themselves rhetorically from 20th century period product commercials, there is still the sense that all women experiences periods – and by extension, female identity – in the same way.[4] As with their representations of other identity markers, Kotex and Always enact a sorority trope by remaining silent about diversity of experience in periods. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the ads don’t discuss the whole period experience. As advertisers, the creators of the campaigns walk a fine line between social commentary and making sales. Still, their silence on this subject, like their avoidance of non-normative representations in other areas, establishes a norm: Namely, “There’s only one way to have your period – the Kotex/Always way! So buy our products and you will actualize your womanhood.” Creating a norm might arguably help a company dominate the market, because other markets are eradicated through either assimilation or silencing. Whether this is ethical, or indeed would prove more successful than diversification, is another question entirely. (According to O’Leary, “in the [Generation Know] campaign’s first month, the brand has seen a 68 percent increase in YouTube traffic and a 379 percent rise in the amount of social conversation” (paragraph 8), which suggests that ostensibly breaking norms can be a successful strategy – although there’s no mention of whether this impacted Kotex’s sales.) While it’s important to recognize overlapping experiences to create community and in particular, to identify hegemonic norms and other forms of oppression (and yes, Pete Barry, to sell stuff), it’s also important to recognize diversity; otherwise, you risk creating a new hegemonic norm.

[1] In this post, I will use the terms “period” and “period products” to create positive normalization of (some representations of) female biology, within a plain language paradigm.

[2] It’s more or less the same sorority trope for both campaigns, so I’ll refer to it in the singular.

[3] I don’t like labels, but sizes are also labels. You can’t know someone’s weight and clothing size by looking at them – people are frequently wrong about mine. Here, it’s a case of choosing one label over another and being reflexive about the choice.

[4] In addition, within this norm you have to experience periods to be a woman, which excludes trans-women, and intersex and cis women who don’t menstruate.


Always. Like A Girl. Accessed January 23, 2015.

Jhally, S. “Advertising, Gender and Sex: What’s Wrong with a Little Objectification?” Accessed January 22, 2015.

O’Leary, N. “The Straight Talk Menstruation Ad That’s Causing Quite a Stir.” Adweek. February 25, 2013. Accessed January 27, 2015.

Pozner, J. “Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ Backlash.” Women In Media and News. Published in Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Issue 30, Fall 2005. Accessed January 22, 2015.

U by Kotex. Change the Message: Take Action with Generation Know. Accessed January 23, 2015.