This is a revised version of a diary I originally posted to DailyKos.
“But advertising exploits men, too! Look how stupid they are in so many commercials! That’s as bad as objectifying women!” Yes, it’s equally bad. But for the women. Not for the men. And here’s why….
In an earlier post, I explained objectification for those unfamiliar with the term, and discussed the objectification of women in advertising. This next post discusses advertising aimed at women that portrays men as stupid or incompetent.
Contemporary advertising does often denigrate male ability to successfully accomplish certain tasks. Take a short detour over to Stupid Man Commercials, where many of these ads have been collected by the son of man who is insulted every time they are aired. I’m sure you can also think of plenty of examples on your own.
I’m commenting on these particular commercials because they were posted by an offended guy as particularly good (bad!) examples of their type. I didn’t want to let my own biases get in the way.
Fiber One: A wife uses her wisdom to trick a stupid man into eating healthy food.
Windows 7/To The Cloud: Dad and kids keep fidgeting and moving and mess up family photos. Mom goes online to swap in better headshots to create the image of the perfect family.
Verizon: I’m not sure why the the viewer would think the man is stupid here. He’s the one who finds the cheaper phone plan. And it’s the wife who is the butt of the joke, since she’s earning minimum wage walking around in a taco costume. (And is her “first job” being a mom? Somehow I doubt she’s an attorney.)
Eggo: Dad relaxes while pretending to make breakfast and serves fast food. Mom snarks and asks if he made coffee, too. But everyone loves the fast food.
T-Mobile: Mother warns teenaged daughter not to associate with an alleged juvenile delinquint, but to pick better men. The girl asks, “Like Dad & Uncle John?” Mom affirms that they are good men. Outside, dad and friend play stunt tractor: boys will be boys. The teenager rolls her eyes and goes back to her phone.
Yoplait commercial: Stupid hungry husband thinks wife has lots of yummy desserts in the refrigerator because she mentions them while talking on the phone to a friend. But she’s really talking about all the wonderful yogurt flavors, and how much weight she’s lost. Stupid husband has teh sads.
Multi-grain Cheerios: Wife is eating cereal. Husband looks at the box and asks if she’s on a diet. Wife says she is not, and asks if he thinks he should be. She says the cereal tastes good Husband continues reading off all the weight-loss advantages of eating Cheerios. Wife is not amused and says again that the cereal tastes good. Husband realizes he should stop talking.
Sonic Hot Fudge Shake: Husband is afraid his shake is too hot to drink. Wife explains carefully that the shake is not actually temperature hot. Husband comments on how complicated the concept is. Wife points out the husband’s exceptional slowness.
Dairy Queen: Young daughter bilks stupid dad out of money by setting up a fake food stand in the living room, and getting dad to pay for DQ fast food. Asks his wife how his daughter performed this magic. Surprise, stupid man! Your wife bought you your favorite, DQ, for dinner. And your daughter cutely stole your money.
Yeah, these guys are really stupid. But let’s look at what they’re stupid about.
In all these ads but one, the guys are stupid about ladygirl stuff. Those dumb guys… they just can’t feed themselves or their families properly; they fidget like kids at domestic events; and, they’re clueless and tactless about mysterious women stuff like dieting.
In these commercials, at worst, women are mildly contemptuous of guys doing that crazy guy stuff. But they’re more often fondly tolerant. In addition to the male stupidity portrayed in these particular ads, you can flip channels in your mental TV and recall ads that show men being stupid about forgetting anniversaries, buying women presents, selecting and using cleaning products, not being able to recognize their own wives when the wife puts on a special make-up or perfume, and so on.
On the other hand, you almost never see ads focusing on men who are stupid in their professions, stupid at making political decisions, stupid about making decisions on very expensive purchases, stupid about serious subjects, or incompetent at running anything outside the domestic sphere… unless there’s another, smarter man in the same commercial.
The only ad that breaks the above pattern is from T-Mobile and features a teenaged girl. She seems to be questioning her mother’s definition of “good men,” and when she turns to her phone in the end, she’s apparently making her own decision. In that sense, the ad can be read as challenging stereotypes. But she’s framed very traditionally — as a (quietly) rebellious teenager who possibly doesn’t know what’s best for herself. After all, the guy she’s crushing on “used to eat pencils,” while boring dad is hard-working enough to afford big toys like riding mowers, and that nice house they’re sitting in. Mom stands by her man when his goodness is challenged. This commercial is pitched at the demographic represented by the teenaged girl, and so her subjectivity is showcased (a step up from a lot of other ads), but at the same time she’s gently rebuked by a mom who can tell the difference between a “bad” guy, and Good Guys horsing around. Futhermore, the teen’s “independence” is established by picking her own guy. And let’s think for a moment about the fact that Mom defends Dad and Uncle Joe. In ads where women are objectified or where their intelligence is insulted, do you often see one man contradict another man and tell him that women aren’t just sex symbols, or that they’re just as smart as men? No… pretty much the only time you see men standing up for women in ads is in stereotypically “gallant” ways, or comparisons in which “my girl is better than your girl.”
If you haven’t sussed out the overall pattern yet, advertising employs the “Trope of the Stupid Man” in ways that affirm, rather than challenge sexist notions of women’s work and women’s place. The son who put this commercial collection together for his father thinks that it’s men being dissed in these commercials, and he’s angry about it. But how stupid is it really to be (or to pretend to be) awful at the sort of work that guys aren’t “supposed” to do anyway? And to have the ability to get someone else to do it for you?
How many of you have kids (or roommates) or a significant other who does an assigned chore so badly that it makes you think you might as well just do it for yourself? In my circles, we call that “successful manipulation.” Ads are by nature manipulative — that’s their job. So let’s take a deeper look at what’s going on.
There has, without a doubt, been some significant leveling when it comes to the amount of housework and childcare that men have been taking on. But even after the alleged end of the “chore wars,” using Konigsberg’s conservative reckoning, on average women in childless couples are still doing more housework and childcare than men, even when they both work the same hours: about 20 minutes per day. And there’s a much larger weekly difference for couples that have kids under six. Now, you might say this isn’t much, but in the first case that’s over two hours a week, during which time men can put their feet up, and women are scrubbing the bathroom floor. In the second case, it’s five hours a week of diaper-changing and floor washing, during which time men are doing whatever they want. In addition, married women have a lot less “me time,” since they count outings with the kids and play dates as “leisure,” while dads seem to be able to spend a lot more time in the quiet of their study, or out and about with “the boys.” (More men are becoming more involved with their children through sports activities and spend some of their leisure time doing that, but the numbers haven’t started to balance yet between men and women in that regard.)
A 2008 study found that having a husband created seven more hours a week of housework for women, while getting married saves a man an hour of chores. It’s an interesting imbalance, and I don’t have time to go into it in detail here, but husbands seem to have an expectation that their house will be cleaner when they’re living with a woman, than it will be if they’re living alone. (Think about the stereotypical bachelor pad, vs. the expectations of married home life.)
Women have been raised to believe that they need to take care of men. It’s the whole “helpmeet” stereotype, the “behind every strong man stands a strong woman” stereotype (with emphasis on the “behind”). We are told from a young age that even when we are stronger, smarter, and better than the man we’re with, our real purpose is always making sure that he succeeds, and that his needs are met. Take a quick peek at the romance novel market and you’ll see that this is not only the script we’re fed, but it becomes the internalized script that satisfies us (or that is supposed to satisfy us): there’s something wrong with us if we don’t get ourselves a man who is stronger than we are. Even a hard-core feminist like me has a difficulty fighting down the urge to mindlessly fetch and carry for the men I care about, because, from tinyhood, I was taught that this is what women do. Sure, they have two good feet, but, well, you know, they worked hard all day and they’re tired. (This is a whole ‘nother post, in which I will expand on the problems with not wanting what women are “supposed” to want, the Urge to Serve, the nastiness of most romance novels, and how we learn to hate and fear our own strengths, but I want to stick with the ads for the moment.)
As I said in my previous post, ads follow the curve; they don’t lead it. So if ads are serving us men who are stupid at domestic tasks, it’s because those images still have sex appeal.
But why do the men have to be so stupid in the ads? How does that support patriarchy?
The notion of “separate spheres” for men and women is deeply ingrained in most Western societies: women “rule” the household in daily domestic matters, and men rule women… and the world. There’s a long, long literature on this separate but unequal division, and you’ll still find dyed-in-the-wool sexist pigs making that argument today. (Yes, the bulk of them are Republicans, but many progressive men can’t shake this notion either.) As a society, though,we’ve come a long way, baby. I don’t think you’ll find a single progressive woman or self-declared feminist who would time travel to any past era of Western culture and set up house there, unless she could be damned picky about the circumstances. I know I’d rather be alive today than at any other time (though I sometimes think I wouldn’t have minded the clock stopping in the mid- to late-1970s). But for all the progress we’ve made, there’s still some road to travel, and a hard look at advertising can tell us where we’re still mired in old-fashioned ways of thinking. When we want to understand those “sticky” sexist tropes, ads are a good resource because, as I said, they’re always slightly behind the curve.
Take a look at all those ads again. Is there a single one of them in which the stupidity of the man actually has a penalty? No, aside from some rolled eyes, there’s not only tolerance, but often fondness for the big lug (or the sweet nerd) portrayed in commercials. Stupidity in men, in the domestic sphere, is kind of… cute, at least in the world of advertising. It makes the women in the ads want to take care of them, and they’re actually better off for the stupidity, because they don’t have to worry their huge, wide-browed, masculine heads about trivial family matters. Instead they can make Hard Decisions about Real Things, or engage in Boys Will Be Boys play. We women, on the other hand, are reassured that, at least in some realms, confined though they are, we are the superior sex. Of course, what we’re superior at is taking care of men and raising babies, but, hey, sometimes we’ll take what we can get.
So the next time you see a stupid man in a commercial, pay attention to what he’s being stupid about, and see if that reinforces sexist stereotypes or challenges them.
There’s an ad I keep seeing in my head, and I don’t know if it was from a dream or if it actually exists. But it features a smart woman who is trying to explain to her stupid husband why they should buy the blue car instead of the red one. And the husband isn’t listening, he just keeps talking inanely about how cool the red car looks. At the end of the commercial, after she’s driven a hard bargain with salesman and made it clear she’s the car expert, they drive off in the blue car and he sits beside her, satisfied that she knows best.