When I think of the portrayal of men in contemporary advertising, I can think of two primary stereotypes. In ads that are trying to market products to women, men are often portrayed as the dependent, bumbling, inept husband who can hardly even dress himself without the guidance of his wife. In advertising that aims to sell products to men, men are typically portrayed drinking beer, watching sports, and surrounded by supermodels - feeding the stereotype that this should be every male's fantasy.
This ad below from the 1950s makes it onto a lot of 'top 10' lists as one of the most sexist ads of all time. It's not surprising - the sexism is blatant and obvious - and I'm sure we can all agree that this ad would never be allowed today.
But wait, let's take a look at another more recent ad, a TV commercial this time:
Maybe it's just me, but I'm not seeing a huge difference between the phrase "You mean a woman can open it?" and "So easy, a man can do it". Well, except for the fact that the first ad ran in the 1950s, and the second ad ran in 2009. The second ad was also reported to the Advertising Standards Authority. 700 times. Despite these complaints, the ASA ultimately ruled that the ad "was light-hearted and comical", and "did not portray either gender in a way that stigmatised, humiliated or undermined them by using harmful stereotypes".
Now I enjoy a good parody. I think poking fun can be totally harmless if done well, But I do have a problem with double standards. A lot of people argue that this is 'obviously an over-the-top parody' - and I would agree in this case - IF I genuinely thought the same ad could run with the roles reversed and still pass for parody. To me, this doesn't say witty satire about gender roles in the modern age, it says tasteless low-budget attempt to use conventional stereotypes to sell a product. And if you do see this as a parody, a parody by its nature is making fun of something, so that reinforces the fact that the portrayal of men as helpless and incompetent is prevalent enough in advertising to warrant satire.
I'm trying to think of a context in 2010 where an advertiser could get away with using the phrase "so easy, a woman can do it" - even if it was intended to be satire - and I can't say anything's coming to mind. If you ran an ad about power tools or barbecues or do-it-yourself oil changes or any other stereotypically 'male' domain and used that line to sell it, there would be outrage and I have a feeling the ASA wouldn't call it comical. THAT is where it becomes a problem for me - that the standards aren't being applied consistently.
I don't have it in my blogging budget to actually film my reinterpretation of that commercial, but here's my rough breakdown of how it would go.
A woman is standing next to her car with a vacant expression on her face while her angry-looking husband stands next to her, rolling his eyes and tapping his foot angrily, holding a bottle of motor oil. Suddenly he slams the bottle against her chest, while a voice-over says "X Motor Oil - So easy, a woman can do it!". Meanwhile, the woman begins changing the oil in her car with an overjoyed expression on her face while her husband continues to glare at her menacingly. The ad wraps up with the voice-over repeating the tag line, while a disclaimer goes across the screen saying "No women were hurt in the making of this ad". Maybe I'm wrong, but I honestly couldn't imagine an ad like that even making it to air, let alone passing the screening of the ASA.
Sadly, this isn't an isolated example. Here's a few modern classics:
Pushing your partner out of a moving vehicle and leaving them lying in the dirt? Totally hilarious - as long as it's a woman pushing a man out of a car. This ad never would have made it past the brainstorming session if the roles were reversed and the ad featured a man pushing his girlfriend out of a moving car.
Ah, the classic "I do everything around here because my husband and children are useless slobs" sales pitch, which for some reason continues to successfully sell products to women.
Because we all know dads can't cook...
And then there's just this.
Again, reverse the roles. Would an ad featuring a man walking with two naked women on leashes be allowed? No. Yet, this ad ALSO received multiple complaints for sexism, and the complaints were all thrown out by the advertising authority because the ad "represented a satirical comment on a patriarchal world".
To me, equality of the sexes is about equal respect, not equal disrespect. Equality is not about fighting to see who can be more offensive for the sake of payback or revenge. Objectifying men won't make up for the fact that women have been objectified for centuries. It's a twisted, backwards reaction to a serious social problem. Marilyn French once reflected that "men seem unable to feel equal to women: they must be superior or they feel inferior". I wonder if that's what fuels the problem on both sides - an inability to truly grasp the concept of a world where there is no dominant gender, where women and men are actually equal, not constantly battling for superiority? In order for progress to truly be made for equality, we need to learn what equality actually feels like, and fight the notion that there always has to be somebody winning and somebody losing.