When I was a boy there was a very popular game titled King of the Hill. The title of that game implies all there is to know about it. Ideally, playing it required only a hill and a rush of testosterone. But hills are hard to come by in Brooklyn. So, boys would find a mound in an empty lotif possibleor simply designate a certain area on the pavement as ‘the hill.’ Sovereignty on the hill was maintained by its occupant until some other boy knocked him out of it. As far as I know, girls did not play that game.
When girls of my generation became women they were largely excluded from grown-up games. Virtually all TV commercials featuring competition between men and women reflected the prevalent sexist fantasies of the time. Males were depicted as better suited than women to make the right choice of products, including cars. In auto commercials, women had surrogate sex with sparkling new automobiles, usually lasciviously draping themselves around the body of the car, stroking and caressing its upholstery with fervent desire and tenderness. In commercials with a mate, her participation in choosing a car was limited to the selection of its color. At that time the female’s domain was the home. She reigned supreme only in the choice of appliances, detergents, food products, and disposable diapers.
That was then. Now, no one seems to noticelet alone criticizea sexist reversal in most (if not all) TV commercials featuring male-female competition. On the bright side, women are no longer portrayed as patriarchal helpmates. Good. However, male superiority has been replaced by another cliché wherein the gender roles are reversed.
One of many similar commercial scenarios that come to mind is that of two men frustrated, confused, and disappointed because they have not chosen Verizon as their telephone company. As they fumble and grumble with their cell phones, a woman in the foreground serenely manipulates her vastly superior cell phone, smugly smiling to herself and shaking her head in abject disbelief that men can be so stupid.
This is not an isolated example of sexist commercials. Current commercials with male-female competitive behavior invariably depict women superior to men when in competition. Female characters have retained their superiority in choosing detergents, but they have also uncannily attained superior expertise when in competition with males whether it be choosing detergents, insurance policies, or painkillers. And cars? Just watch them out-race men as they burn rubber!
A PCMatic commercial depicts a married couple. The wife plays her scene as a PC wizard. She is articulate, well groomed, and condescending. The husband is a dodo. Grabbing car keys off a table, she turns to us confidentially and says, ‘girls night out.’ When she flurries out of the house, dodo looks out at us dumbfounded with an expression reminiscent of a Marx Brothers skit.
Women are still extensively seen in commercials that highlight sex as a selling point. But there is a double standard in the unspoken rules of engagement when men and women interact to make a sale. Although it is commercial suicide to depict women as ‘sex objects’ for men, advertisers have no fear of commercials depicting men as sex toys. Fine. But consider the following commercials:
Taking a break from climbing the corporal ladder, three women in an air-conditioned room ogle a male laborer stripped to his waste outdoors on a very hot day and sensually quenching his thirst with a Coke. Looking through their office window, they look forward to their next break.
Mind you, I wish I could be that guy, but as I understand it he is being exploited. (Would that I could so be exploited!)
Two women express their admiration for a man who is examining the wonders of his brand new car. One of the women delivers an unequivocally sexual line: “I wonder what he has under the hood.” Can you imagine the uproar from NOW if the genders of that commercial were reversed!
In the tradition of Irish folklore, a commercial for Irish Spring soap depicts a scantily clad male washing himself in a spring. Two or three women are surreptitiously admiring him. He spots them and flashes a charming smile in recognition of their admiration. (see: last line of Item 1 above)
As far as I know, there are neither individual celebrities nor male organizations that cry out about male sexual exploitation. That is not the case on the distaff side of gender.
Yet, despite myalas, unfulfilleddesire to be admired for my skin-deep attributes, objectivity demands that I thoroughly respect the perception of women who are offended by sexploitation. Objectivity also demands that the same standards apply to males. The sexual subtext of the commercials cited above doesn’t bother me. It’s the double standard that I find objectionable.
A skin-deep reversal of roles is one thing, an intellectual reversal is another. To whatever extent the former may adversely affect TV viewers, the latter carries far more serious consequences, especially to impressionable young minds. None of my grown-up friends have noticed the widespread reversal of roles in commercials just as they had not noticed the implied male superiority in commercials of our generation. As we know, children and teenagers unconsciously absorb societal attitudes, including those imbedded in commercials.
Laws are in place banning commercials from images of people drinking alcoholic beverages or smoking cigarettes. Perhaps it’s time for advertisers to be discouraged from intoxicating viewers with sexual fantasy and from inhaling sexist images.