We're not in "Like a Girl" territory anymore.
As one Adweek editor thoughtfully put it this week, "Female strength is the new female empowerment." And while Always' charming campaign may have begun that conversation, far more powerful elaborations on that message have appeared since, each improving on its predecessor in nuance, style and complexity. (Come on. Are you really going to say you weren't blown away by Lemonade?)
This powerful new film from U.K. department store Selfridges, created in-house to promote its new Body Studio—as well as the fascinating variety of underpants from the shoot—hinges on the notion that contemporary women's underwear is made with the male gaze in mind. (To wit: Victoria's Secret's big secret? It was founded by a dude.)
And in a step toward releasing women from the nonstop bullshit party they submit to from gendered birth onward, that's something we can change right now, beginning with the brands pushing the panties.
The four-minute video, directed by Kathryn Ferguson and choreographed by the Royal Ballet's Wayne McGregor, features a diverse cast of ladies—creative collaborator, business partner/muse Michele Lamy of Rick Owens; founder Sharmadean Reid of Wah Nails; model and body activist Naomi Shimada; trans activist and Nail Transphobia founder Charlie Craggs; and Ruqsana Begum, a British Thai Boxing champion and designer of sports hijabs.
But before we get to their voices, the video kicks off—controversially enough—with a handy mansplain:
"Men dream of women. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at. Women constantly meet glances, reminding them of how they look, or how they should look. Behind every glance is a judgment. Sometimes the glance they meet is their own."
It's still a pretty strong statement, not unlike Malcolm X's short but resonant soundbyte in Lemonade: The voice is that of John Berger, taken from his 1972 documentary Ways of Seeing. His work is a precursor to the study of gendered looking relations.
So the stage is set. Let's move onto the good stuff. The first female voice we hear is that of athlete and sporty hijab designer Begum, who states, "I feel powerful like a Ferrari—fast, furious and strong." Throughout the video, she's seen sparring, her movements a celebration of both grace and force.
The next voice is trans activist Craggs: "I don't dress to please other people; I don't dress to please men. I dress to please myself."
But the inspiration for the video's name, "Incredible Machines," comes from Shimada, who was a "straight model" before gaining weight at 22 and moving into the plus-size market. "I think we should treat our bodies kindly," she says. "They are actually incredible machines that can do so many amazing things very well, and I think we take that for granted."
With mysticism, balletic elegance and strength, the film weaves in and out of our stars' narratives as they reflect on their bodies, childbirth, identity, size, age and ideas about beauty.
There's a lot to unpack. Craggs talks about transgender identity. Reid muses on pregnancy and the black female body (of note: her delightfully piquant "This body's created life. What have you done today?"). Shimada laments on sizeism. Begum touches on sports and the significance of the hijab in the Olympics. And Lamy talks about age. But the identities of the women are just as laden as the things they say, or how they look.
Lamy, for example, is the oldest woman in the shoot and appears here with black-tipped fingers, ethereal, light and dark at once. Her husband, Owens, is known for his controversial Fashion Week shows, which have included full-frontal male nudity and human backpacks.
"There is not a body and a soul; it is one person," Lamy says. "It's something you owe to yourself and to the world to make it as mobile, and what you think is the way of being beautiful."
Scenes are broken up with a recitation of words, which are so significant they transcend explanation and so charged they feel like mantras. In one such pause, each woman states a body part in succession: "Face. Abs. Eyes. Legs. My mouth."
Their smiles, their visible pride, are all the context we need: These are the parts that make them feel good, a welcome contrast to how women often bond by trotting out the body parts they like least.
One of the most stunning aspects of the film is its way of following women from the back, which creates a sense of intimacy, but also privacy; featured in any other angle (often meeting eyes directly with the camera), it feels like it is on their terms, not a response to the thirsty gaze of an invisible voyeur.
And, since they must, they discuss underwear.
"For two decades, I spent my life wearing the wrong gender's underwear, and I was so uncomfortable," says Craggs. "I've fought my battle and I've won—and I'm wearing my glory."
We'll leave it to you to discover the rest. You can also learn more about the new Body Studio, a 37,000-square-foot space devoted to house lingerie, hosiery, loungewear and sportswear.
Director: Kathryn Ferguson
Choreography: Wayne Mcgregor
Producer: Shabana Mansuri
Writer: Phoebe Frangoul
Creative Direction Assistant: Kirsten Wilson
First Assistant Director: Cordelia Hardy
Runners: Katerina Zaharieva, Quentin Hubert
Featured Extra: Chanelle Sadie Paul
Art Director: Clementine Keith-Roach
Art Assistants: Mary Clohisey, Wendy Keith-Roach, Caroline Byrne
Stylist: Nicky Yates at One Represents
Stylist Assistant: Papillion Sheard
Selfridges Stylist: Joe Mills
Makeup Artist: Daniel Sallstrom
Mua Assistant: Thuy Le
Hair Stylist: Karin Bigler at Jed Root
Hair Assistant: Hannah Joy Bull
Nails: Tinu Bello at One Represents
Director of Photography: Sara Deane
Focus Puller: Alice Hobden
Second Assistant, Camera: Kat Spencer
Digital Imaging Technician: Ashley Hicks
Steadicam: Max Rijavec
Sound Recordist: Nina Rice
Gaffer: Simon Mills
Sparks: Matt Moffat, Steven Cortie
Spark Trainee: Chris Broomfield
Editor: Carly Baker
Intro Dialogue Editor: Filipa Corvacho
Colorist: Dan Moran at Coffee&TV
Music, Sound Design: Peter Duffy at CLM
Storyboard Artist: Duncan McGonigle
Graphics: Lily Dunlop
Special thanks: Anna Cleaver, Sarah McCullough, Becki Dyer, Hayley Donovan, George Walker, Lorraine Smith, Kayleigh Dyke, The Townhall Hotel, Martina Paciarella, Olivia McEwan, Kingsway Music