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Do advertisers believe women are people yet? Not really.

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, May 9, 2011 13:18 EDT
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This week on the podcast, I was lucky enough to interview the amazing Stephanie Coontz, who is one of the nation's experts in the evolution of family life and women's roles in the 20th century.  In it, we spend some time talking about the amazing levels of overt misogyny women faced in the 50s and 60s, and though the words "mad men" were not uttered, rest assured, she's basically confirming the accuracy of that show's portrayal of the era.  The notion was unchallenged in many parts of the country that women were a) stupid and b) unambitious and perfectly fulfilled by fetching bourbons and wiping asses, and while <i>The Feminine Mystique</i> has many flaws—which we also talk about—it was still an important book because Betty Friedan was able to reach people who may not have been exposed to the idea that women are people before. Her recent book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, is well worth checking out.

Via the newly-moved Man Boobz, I found this Goodyear ad that encapsulates exactly the attitudes that Coontz is talking about:

Like David says in his post, one of the most stunning things about it is that it's not even cheeky.  The idea that women are literally too stupid to be expected to drive cars with minimal competence is taken as a given.  I'm reminded of the first episode of "Mad Men", where Joan says, without irony, that the typewriters were designed to be simple enough for women to use.  This, even though it's clear that her entire staff went to two-year colleges where they did nothing but learn things like how to use typewriters, and this despite the fact that many men in that office probably couldn't use the typewriters.

Anyway, I got to thinking about this ad and how feminism has managed to lay to rest many of the media narratives about women's lack of basic competence.  It's not that women aren't still considered stupider than men—as any woman who's had to endure mansplaining (aka, all) can tell you—but much of the time the areas in which women are considered stupid are more abstract.  I find that I'm talked down to more when it comes to understanding abstract concepts or complicated systems, but very rarely will you see anymore the ready assumption that a woman cannot operate basic machinery or work other systems that require competence more than abstract intelligence.  If anything, we're entering an era when women are considered more competent than men much of the time, which is why women are populating competence-oriented jobs in low and mid-level management and administration, while the glass ceiling is still firmly in place when it comes to more exciting life-of-the-mind kind of jobs. (You even see this divide in the sciences, with women gravitating more towards biology than sciences deemed more abstract, like physics.  You also see it in publishing, as Ann Friedman parodied brilliantly, pointing out that full-time, high profile writing jobs are mostly reserved for men, whereas women are the workhorses doing the thankless, behind-the-scenes work of editing.) But the idea that women are too stupid to breath is being put to bed, and even replaced often with an image of women as hyper-competent at tasks like cleaning, organizing, and other basic competencies, while it's often men who are portrayed as too bumbling to handle certain tasks.  The divide is no longer men smart/women stupid, but more men having higher intelligence/women excel at learned skills, but aren't so creative.  Still sexist, but with a little more space for women to be considered valuable.

On the home front, women aren't being portrayed in the media anymore as daft housewives who can barely hold it together, and men aren't playing the role of exasperated husbands who could easily do a better job at women's work if they had the time or the willingness to be so emasculated.  You don't really have TV ads where a wife has bumbled some easy task at home, been screamed at yet again by her husband, and is rescued from her own stupidity by a product—the implication behind this Goodyear ad and this coffee ad, which also brings up the threat of male infidelity to bully women into purchasing the product:

Still, that doesn't mean that misogyny is gone from advertising.  Far from it.  In fact, I would say that advertisers haven't abandoned misogyny so much as they've shifted the narrative about why women suck. Nowadays, it's less that women are exasperating because they're stupid, but that women are exasperating because they're annoying, screeching harpies who need to shove a cock in it.  If anything, women's growing reputation as being competent is being held against us in advertising, as more evidence of why we're overbearing.  Oh, we're so organized and shit!  Well, that's annoying to the men who have to tolerate honey-do lists that proliferate in the absence of men actually creating those lists for themselves. 

We've drifted from "women are stupid" towards "women have no value to men beyond sexual release and are otherwise annoying", and since our society still judges women's value on what use they are to men, this means women have little value in this media landscape. Take this infamous Bridgestone ad from just last year:

Another aspect of this stereotype is that women are portrayed as having a basic, if banal intelligence, but also as being dull workshorses who are unable to experience sensual or transcendent pleasures. This view comes out in two ways, one that's more "egalitarian", where men are shown as condescending to women for being so boooooring, and women are shown as exasperated by men who won't play by the rules governing social relationships held together by banalities.  Take this Bud Light ad:

The women in the ad are competent people.  They can read a book and understand its themes and characters.  But in this ad, they have no passion for literature.  Book clubs exist in the media landscape to show women as people who read because it's what you're supposed to do in order to be a Good Person, and the clubs are there to hold together female relationships in the absence of true shared passions or affection.  The man is portrayed as a rude loaf, but he's also—and this is important—portrayed as someone who actually lives.  He doesn't drink beer because it's there, he drinks beer because he can experience pleasure and will go out of his way to do so.  He's impulsive and fun-loving.  We in the audience aren't expected to wonder why his wife puts up with him, but to simply understand that women tolerate this bad behavior from men because men are our only door to a world where actual passion and lived experience resides.  It's the higher intelligence vs. competence thing, spun in another direction.  It's unclear what men get out of this arrangement, besides a steady supply of beer on the table.  Which is why the Bridgestone ad comes into play—at the end of the day, this is still basically misogynist and women are portrayed as being annoying and lucky that men will have them at all.

Of course, some ads don't try to balance the message "women are oppressive, dull-minded machines that will ruin your life by draining your soul out of you" with a little humor about how men are a bit childish.  Some just portray men directly as victims of women's dull-minded conformity.

The assumption is that men resent having to be responsible people who get shit done, and women relish it.  In a way, it's that different from the 50s, when the assumption was that women are completely fulfilled by wiping asses and men and only men needed to have a public life with meaningful work to feel fulfilled.  In fact, it's basically the same message.  The one thing that's improved dramatically is the notion that women are too stupid to tie their shoes without a man's guidance, but the underlying message that women aren't really people continues to dominate much of advertising.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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