In the second of an occasional series of what is basically an angry man baying at the moon, Caulorlime, the foul-mouthed English teacher, turns his attention to television advertising.
My wife once bought me a Fawcett Society “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt. It doesn’t fit any more, which is good as I have reached, and passed, the age where writing across your flabby man tits is not acceptable, no matter how ideologically sound the message. However, I stand by the sentiment. It is partly in this guise as PC Brigadier and partly as an old man that shouts at the television that I have come to a new, and depressing, realisation.
Adverts hate us all. We know this. They hate all races, socio-economic classes, ages, sexualities and genders. They hate Londoners. They hate the Welsh. They probably hate kittens. There isn’t a single stratum of society that the advertising industry doesn’t vomit contempt over. But they really hate women.
This might seem an odd proposition in 2011, after all, adverts really hate men, don’t they? Men are the ones portrayed as selfish, child-like appurtenances who, on their best day, serve only to irritate and hinder their female masters, right? It’s men who are shown misunderstanding vitamin supplements; men who are weak and hypochondriac; men who, even when the advert wishes to appeal to them, are portrayed as cock-led sex pests. The advert a year or so ago (for some shit, I can’t remember what) that had the tagline “So simple even a man could use it” would never have been screened had the gender been reversed.* Right? Right, but file all this under “Adverts Hate Us All.” Yes, men are portrayed as arseholes, but if you want to see really sinister stuff have a look at the way women are portrayed in ads.
Mad Men has done a lot of things, including reminding us how cool it is to drink whisky in the morning and smoke fags all the live-long day, but it has also reminded us of the antiquated attitudes displayed in the adverts of our youth. I don’t mean the fifties and sixties, I’m not that old, but the adverts in the eighties and nineties weren’t all that different. Women basically had two roles in eighties advertising, and they were both defined in relation to men. They either had to clean up after, or appeal sexually to, them. (Or us, really, I am a bloke.) The archetypes were simple, a woman was either a wife or a hottie. This particular dichotomy is so well rehearsed that I’m not going to bother to go any further with it, other than to point out that there is another sub-strata of nastiness involved when the genre of representation is advertising. It isn’t simply that women were only allowed to be Madonnas or Whores, it’s that they could only aspire to those roles. The power that women had as consumers, the money that they had to spend, could only, according to the advertisers, be employed in the pursuit of looking pretty or washing-up well. Adverts in the eighties didn’t just suppress women’s aspirations, it limited and ignored them. So we should rejoice that things have changed so much, surely? Advert women don’t pander to men any more, they barely tolerate them. Isn’t this a good thing? Is not “Here Come the Girls” truly the anthem of a successful feminist movement? No, it isn’t. And here’s why.
The first problem is that, in advert world, housework is still very much women’s work. You can watch hour after hour of commercial television (or you could do yourself a favour and take my word for it) and you will see not one example of a man doing the laundry, the washing-up, cleaning the floors, wiping the worktops, hoovering or any of the necessary domestic drudgery. This is an unrealistic portrayal: men do do housework, although there are some interesting studies which show that they don’t do as much of it as they think they do. Some men, of course, live alone, and they must by necessity do their own cleaning, yet there is no representation of this in television advertising. In ad-land it is forever 1982 when it comes to tidying up. The same is true of childcare, where men might occasionally be seen playing with a child (or being outsmarted by one), but never changing its nappy or bathing it. Plus ça change, you may say. This is the same! You said it had got worse! How is this worse? Well, it’s worse for two reasons. Firstly, the archetypal 80s ad-woman was at least involved in some sort of contract. She did all the housework, but then her husband returned handsomely from work and smiled at her for making lovely gravy and keeping a clean house. The contract was, of course, entirely imaginary and existed solely in ad-land, but at least it made sense for the ad-woman to behave as she did. What does her modern sister get for all her hard work? Who cares if her husband smiles at her? He’s an oaf! Modern ads present a world where women do the shit just because they do, and men don’t just because they don’t. This is no improvement.
The other thing is that the vintage ad-woman was shown doing nothing else. In the fifties, when Don and Peggy were working their limited and depressing magic, this made sense as a fairly large proportion of women were housewives. This was no longer true by the eighties. By 1985 the number of housewives had dropped by fifty percent in the previous fifteen years, but plenty of adverts still behaved as if the little woman at home was the norm. Now that most people in their thirties are more likely to remember their grandmothers as housewives than their mothers, ads have had to catch up a bit. They can’t portray women as housewives when there simply aren’t any, so modern ad-women have to have jobs as well. They are shown loading the dishwasher before going to work or getting home late from the office to prepare a dinner party; they buy the groceries on their lunch-breaks and they do all of this smilingly.
Mind you, of course they’re smiling. They’re happy! They’re serene! They are surrounded by equally smiley female friends! This, of course, is the second big problem. Now hold on, I imagine you saying (just as I fondly imagine you still reading this) how can women being shown having female friends possibly be a bad thing? I accept we were wrong when we questioned you earlier, but now you go too far! Well, you’re right, of course (imaginary, but right). Historically there’s been far too little depiction of female friendship in popular culture. A quick test to prove it – go to the shelf with your DVDs on it and see how many of them you can remember including a conversation between two women about a subject other than a man. There aren’t that many, are there? And your DVD shelf is full of great stuff, too, so if the acres of Kurosawa and Fellini you’ve acquired don’t yield much representation of women’s lives lived independently from men, then how much do you think there is in Spielberg, or Michael Bloody Bay? Answer: fuck all. So you’d think I’d rejoice in all these female foursomes on show in-between the programmes, but I don’t.
The reason I don’t is that adverts offer female friendships, and indeed all women-only relationships, first and foremost as replacement husbands. The friends on show in adverts are there primarily to judge the protagonists, and to applaud them for having bought the right products. Friends are shown complimenting each other on extremely specific aspects of their appearances; recommending beauty and cleaning products, and discussing bloody air fresheners, etc. It all seems fairly innocuous, but it drapes a veneer of judgement, and therefore of fear, over the whole idea of friendship. After all, if a woman approves of her friend losing weight to the point of literally applauding when she wears a particular dress, then might she not also disapprove of her friend not losing weight? Is it really OK for friends to arrive at your house bearing, not just tickets to something (probably fashion-related, women like clothes, you see. And chocolate) but also hair dye? Ultimately, these adverts suggest that the very existence of friendship is somehow contingent upon purchasing the right product, and as such, looking and behaving the right way. Don’t eat Special K? You won’t fit into that dress and your friends won’t like you anymore. Grey hair? Dye it before coming out with me, lady.
Modern ad-world female friends occupy exactly the same role as the smiling husband from the perfume/gravy adverts of yore; by the eighties, the judgement of women by their husbands had to be subtly, and positively, portrayed, ‘cos of women’s lib and that. The husbands were shown being surprised at how nice their wives smelled after they’d bought the perfume, not repulsed at how they smelled beforehand. Thus, the women in adverts judge their friends on their appearances and habits in the same way. In ad-world’s Skinner Box, the food pellets are on show while the electric shocks have to be imagined. Some advertising campaigns raise the stakes still further by presenting worlds where all inhabitants are women of the same age; the men aren’t irrelevant anymore, they’re simply absent. We see these women going on holiday and attending birthday parties where no men, children or old people exist. These are aspirational, clearly, but also bloody terrifying. If family has been totally removed, then not winning the approval of your friends is basically akin to being forever alone. Female friends have become the sole arbiter of women’s worth. To me, this adds another layer of unpleasantness to the arrangement, as if all the judgement is shown to be positive, and it all comes from other women, it is therefore supportive and sisterly. Advertisers have found a way of scaring women into buying their products, and appearing feminist at the same time. This, you have to admit, is pretty fucking clever.
Anyone writing a social history of the last fifty years of TV advertising would be unlikely to see the lot of women improving in that time. To the observer, it would appear that we’ve moved from a situation where: women did all the housework and made themselves look pretty. They did this because their husbands liked it and they wanted to make them happy because they liked their husbands. They had time to do this and felt good when they did it well. The current situation, as portrayed by advertising, sees women doing all the housework because their husbands, who they find to be aggravating and vapid hindrances, simply don’t do anything. Today’s women fit doing all the housework around having paid jobs and make themselves look pretty to satisfy their female friends. And these are friends who wield huge social power and who may withdraw their companionship if the women don’t conform. Is that seriously better? Is it any more achievable? It seems to me that putting a ribbon in your hair, making nice gravy and submitting to the patronage of a moustachioed bank manager is preferable to cleaning a house, supporting the children, disciplining the husband, holding down a full time job, dyeing your hair, losing weight, eating chocolate, salsa dancing, lunching with three other friends and fighting the seven signs of ageing. Here come the girls, the song goes, only these days, that sounds more and more like a threat.
A different, some would say lesser, writer might have felt the need to dilute his argument with YouTube videos of the adverts he had in mind. I didn’t want to restrict myself with extensive research or specific examples – I feel I have touched on a wider, and deeper truth. You may, of course, think otherwise.
I must also, on pain of being demoted to PC Corporal, acknowledge the assistance of my wife and editor in the writing of this piece, both are women, and between them came up with most of the decent points and jokes.
* “Why isn’t there a minister for men? Why don’t universities have Men’s officers, eh? Where’s my heterosexual Pride parade? Etc.” Shut up.