Pirelli gets in the female empowerment game, but does its 2016 calendar signify real change?

With its 2016 calendar, Pirelli joins a raft of brands that are recognising the commercial gains in celebrating and empowering women, rather than objectifying them.

The 2016 Pirelli Calendar 2016 launched yesterday, and for once is not causing excitement for its nipple shots but instead for its surprising shift towards celebrating women for their intelligence and cultural significance. Among those featured are actors Amy Schumer and Yao Chen, musicians Yoko Ono and Patti Smith, athlete Serena Williams and author Fran Leibovitz. The calendar is shot by Annie Leibovitz.

Tyre brand Pirelli has long been known for its trade calendar, which famously is only sent to a select few. Its images are widely shared in the media each year though, and we are used to its style, which is high-end – photographers from Richard Avedon to Nick Knight to Mario Testino have shot for it, while models including Kate Moss, Lara Stone, Gisele Bündchen and Kate Elson have featured on its pages – yet titillating.

Top: Patti Smith; Above: Serena Williams
Top: Patti Smith; Above: Serena Williams
Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono

This year’s calendar is therefore surprising in a number of ways. Shot in black-and-white, the atmosphere is of power rather than objectification. Most of the participants are portrayed fully dressed, and those that aren’t – Amy Schumer and Serena Williams – seem to be making a point with their nudity, of athleticism or a gag. There is certainly no sense that this is a calendar where the subjects are not in full control of their image.

The press coverage, consequently, has been frenzied. And rightly so. But while Pirelli has been bold, it is in fact following a trend established in the last few years. Brands such as Always, Barbie, and Playboy, which announced in October that it is ending nudity on its pages, have all cottoned on to the power of being seen to back women, and in turn receive cheers and congratulations across the press and on social media.

It is important to question if this is simply a cynical commercial flash in the pan rather than a genuine cultural shift. Pirelli has made a move that should be celebrated, if cautiously – one year’s calendar does not five decades of sexual objectification undo. Yet in a year when we’ve had a renewed furore over the disparity of men and women’s pay, consistent reports of horrendous online bullying aimed at women, and a new UK passport in which it was felt that, in celebrating 500 years of British achievement, only two women were deemed worthy of inclusion, a brand that turns its back on a continuously sexist approach in favour of a celebration of women should be applauded.

Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer
Yao Chen
Yao Chen

Careful thought has also clearly gone into those who are featured. There are famous women, yes, but also cultural figures who are unlikely to be known outside their chosen spheres, and a wide range of ages and ethnicities included. In a era when all too often women shake their heads wearily at what is supposed to represent them in the world, it’s hard to find a huge amount of fault with this list.

And as a PR stunt it is of course a stroke of genius. Pirelli has received wide and detailed coverage across the media, and the endorsement of the likes of Schumer (2.66M followers on Twitter) on social media is enormously valuable to a brand trying hard to change its image.

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat

So 2016 can be seen as a new year zero for Pirelli, and proof that even the most seemly unreconstructed of brands can make a dramatic change in its style. The question remains whether this is a genuine new dawn or a one-off experiment, and only the 2017 calendar can answer that.

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