"To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; This, is to have succeeded." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Modern Man According to the Media

Sexism in the media is not a new topic. It's been a problem since the dawn of corporate advertising, but is often discussed in the context of sexism against women. Today I want to shine the spotlight on sexism again men in advertising. Before I start though, I want to make clear that by drawing attention to sexism against men, I am not downplaying the problem of sexism against women, which is a serious issue, but an issue for another post. I understand that even in the ads I'm highlighting below for sexism against men, there's also pretty blatant sexism against women. I understand that this continues to be a pervasive problem, but I also believe that sexism is sexism, regardless of who is being stereotyped. It's not a competition, and even if sexism against women is more prevalent than sexism against men, it doesn't make sexism against men any less important. So, with that little disclaimer out of the way, let's begin.

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.

http://www.wilsonsalmanac.com/images/voodoo.jpg

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. 

4 comments:

  1. First I want to mention that the last ad is EXACTLY like the description for the Spinal Tap album "Smell the Glove" (minus the glove smelling).

    Although yes it's true that there is a level of sexism in these commercials towards men as bumbling idiots there is a difference between the portrayal of 50s housewives and of the millennium man.

    The reason why men are viewed this way in commercials today is because they are targeted at women who (stereotypically) do the grocery shopping. Whether these ads are viewing male buffoonery in a negative or nostalgic light, every woman can relate to a time when their partner--whether often or only occasionally--has been clumsy or inept. What will help the female shopper remember your product? A humorous ad campaign portraying an inept husband.

    I agree with your perception of sexism however it should be noted this sexism is portrayed differently by gender:

    The 50s housewife is viewed as weak/frail/dependent/docile, while the millennium man is viewed as clumsy/forgetful/and not particularly good at household chores. It is easier to go "Aww shucks, occasionally I can be clumsy by not reading the rear/front labels on the stove and accidentally burn a loaf of bread left on a burner." Rather than "I can't take the lid off of a bottle of ketchup or roll my husbands cigarettes."

    Ask either gender and they would rather be portrayed as slightly clumsy than as physically dependent on another being.

    One thing worth mentioning is the "Strong enough for a man, made for a woman" campaign for Secret deodorant. I feel like it took a long time for women to reject (or forget) the original basis behind the campaign and go "Hang on, I can be just as sweaty as a man. That's offensive!" and they changed it to "Strong enough for a woman, made for a woman." The new version being aimed at female empowerment rather than "If a sweaty fat dude doesn't get BO wearing this deodorant, neither will you."

    Really what the issue at hand however is, is that we have not reached a level of post-feminism yet where women can be poked fun at for these types of stereotypes. Those who can poke fun of themselves are easily drowned out by those who are offended. As we all know from university or news - the ones who are typically the most offended are the ones who are the loudest to support their cause.

    Perhaps the closest example we have of a post-feminist ad campaign is the Old Spice "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign where both men and women seem to enjoy it without any excessive complaints of sexism (though I might be wrong).

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  2. @Chris J - Excellent points, and definitely a very realistic sociological interpretation of the reasons behind these types of ads - and the reason they continue to be successful. I'm glad you got into the whys, because I ended up leaving out a lot of my own theories on why this happens because the post would have turned into a novel if I'd tried to include all my thoughts about the whys, but I definitely agree with a lot of what you've mentioned in terms of why this happens.

    That said, while I totally agree with your explanation of why it currently happens, I also stand by the fact that just because there's justified sociological reasoning for it doesn't make it right, and just because the sexism against women is still worse, doesn't make sexism against men okay. I totally agree that it's worse to be portrayed as a lesser human being than it is to be portrayed as simply clumsy, but it goes back to what I said about how equality isn't a competition, so I guess what I take issue with is justifying mild sexism against one gender simply because the sexism against the other gender is worse.

    I also totally agree with the statement "we have not reached a level of post-feminism yet where women can be poked fun at for these types of stereotypes" - but while I totally agree, I think the solution is to show respect for both genders, rather than just make fun of men because it's not acceptable to make fun of women, if that makes sense?

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  3. I completely agree to the fact that sexism is not just a one-way issue mainly including women. Men are often pushed into stereotypes of drinking beer and needing many young and obviously attractive females to prove their masculinity.

    I'd also like to state that while a woman is not allowed to be made fun of publicly in this modern age, such as in advertisements, a fair amount of sexism is now deceptively put into their everyday lives, such as job requirements to simple prejudices against them. A fair amount of men put down females but simple sayings such as "you throw like a girl", "are you on your period?" and "don't be such a girl/a pussy" (excuse the language). All of these very popular sayings are all related to the physical, mental and emotional capabilities of a woman to bring both the recipient of the insult down as well as women everywhere.

    Still, sexism in both genders is unacceptable publicly or in the general moments of our lives. I also agree with the fact that until both genders respect each others strengths and weaknesses and doesn't let it affect the major parts of their lives, sexism will always be an issue. In a perfect world, an add about a male being clumsy to appeal to a woman's needs or an add about a man with many submissive woman around him to appeal to the male's needs would just be that - an way to get a product across to a specific group of individuals who need it, and not another way for the media to degrade either gender.

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  4. "Because we all know dads can't cook..."

    Although this is about sexism against men, I just want to point out what that idea says about traditional gender roles. Equality isn't about making women look greater than while keeping older sexist ideas like women being the cookers/cleaners, it's about actually being equal.

    Just bugged me.

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