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article imageOp-Ed: The advertising image of women, sexism and culture

By Paul Wallis     Feb 6, 2013 in World
Sydney - The image of women has changed a lot, not necessarily for the better. A new look at old advertising shows a world which did actually exist, but it’s a pretty strange looking place now. Some things, however, will be quite familiar.
Sydney Morning Herald’s The Vine is running a slideshow of what are now called sexist ads from the last 50-60 years. If you’ve ever read men’s magazines, you may be under-stunned by the content of some of these ads. There’s lots of skin, implied nudity and all the usual stuff, but there’s also a “male” element which anyone under 40 wouldn’t even recognize.
The cultural background is simpler than most people realize. In the 50s, what’s now called “sitcom culture”, The Flintstones/ Honeymooners/ Leave It To Beaver lifestyle arose. With it came a supply of clichés which are still staggering around to this day.
US Navy
The image of women in those days was double sided. Women were the main target of advertising. Everything, in fact, was directly or indirectly sold to women. The man’s new car was to impress women, as well as for social status. The Great Appliance Plague of the 60s is ongoing, bigger and better than ever, and who are the targets? Women and domestic environments, to which advertising is still gluing the entire female sex.
The story of the images doesn’t require a lot of explanation. What does require some thought is how these images and the mindsets behind them produced both real feminism and real change and what I call “pseudo feminism”, modern lip service without results as an insular service industry.
The real feminist issues in these ads are mainly female roles, presentation and overt sexuality. You don’t have to look hard to understand the issues. These were real female roles. There were bashed housewives and fundamentally oppressed women behind all those cosmetics and the debris of the “Happy Families” mythos. You and your broken bones could go out and buy some lip gloss afterwards. Idyllic, isn’t it? These are the Good Old Days that never were.
On the other side of this much tarnished coin, you can see a few other issues. This, such as it was, was the humor of the times. These things were funny, and it’s reasonable to say that people didn’t really take them all that seriously. Women made a point of not being in situations like that, and men, as usual, just looked at the women. These are not literal cultural definitions in that sense, but derived from culture.
That’s not to say it was harmless, either. Misogyny requires no excuses. The fact is that most people don’t go out and act like advertising images. Strange about that, but as fodder for misogyny, they also acted as a reinforcement/enabler for gender discrimination which was already embedded in the society much earlier.
Virginia Woolf recounts in A Room of One’s Own a harrowing, not to say grotesque, incident in which women were “not allowed” in to Oxford University Library without male accompaniment. This was real discrimination. She had more right to be there than they did. She also tells of male writers, of all people, saying women couldn’t/shouldn’t write, years after Austen and the Brontes, and contemporary with Woolf herself and Dorothy Parker.
Can’t write? Since when? Didn’t write, certainly, for millennia, but really- Can you imagine an all-male writing “fraternity” these days? It’d be a bitching session like no other. The women civilized writing, and added multiple dimensions to the testosterone-charged load of perennial cultural outpourings of their societies and the human race as a whole. I defy any male writer to “outwrite” Woolf, Parker or a virtual encyclopedia of others, particularly on their own ground. Male writers may be very different, but I have yet to see any basis for calling them better writers in decades of reading.
In the workforce, to this day, women are still subject to the truly dinosaur-like structures of a male environment. (Just a word of unasked-for advice, ladies- The glass ceiling is made of the same material as their brains and jaws.) You can see the typist/steno/office girl image regularly throughout the slideshow. This image arguably did more damage to women and did more to disqualify women from managerial roles and careers than anything else in history. Talent wore pants, according to that culture, and that was that.
This slideshow is a real testimony to cultural realities with all the bad points built in, and in plain sight. Check out the “I wish I was a man so I could join the Navy” ad. See any thematic hyperbolic inferences? Also see the “Is it always illegal to kill a woman?” ad, with a postage meter presumably as the motive for murder. Then try to figure it out.
The slideshow is what it is- A reflection of an actual historical set of ideas, translated into selling products and selling to ego-needs, male and female. It’s about as subtle as a hand grenade.
Now consider the direct lineal descendants of this stuff- girlie mags, stunningly unoriginal skin-based advertising, naughty non-ideas, and copy which is even more banal than this load of proverbial brilliance. What’s changed? Is the equation “There are sexes, therefore there is sexism”?
The trouble is that everybody tacks on agendas and ideology to imagery and social roles. Advertising, marketing, PR, merchandising, politics, publishing, TV, internet, books and films are loaded with various sexually based roles.
Are people sexless? Is society sexless? Is humanity simply doing the kindergarten “boys vs. girls” thing endlessly? Are people reading or watching media supposed to take a vow of chastity, or more likely a vow of total ignorance, before interpreting what they see?
This is one double standard too many in the “modern world”, (if you can call a collection of talentless rehashes modern), and it’s ridiculous. Deny your own sexuality, suspend your disbelief, and buy whatever’s sold to you? Imagine being sold a bikini on the basis of it making you look like a car, with no “this is about you” element. Imagine buying guy stuff on the basis of some sort of puritanical lack of interest in sex, personal image or equally unlikely reason.
These old ads are sexist, yes, in a sexist society. The modern version is just as bad, aimed at the same targets. Sexism doesn’t just go away with an ideological pronouncement. It evolves, it varies. The idea is to grow up and recognize it for what it is.
Special important note: Didn’t have space to include copyright information (or find it) for these images. Please note that some of the images on The Vine’s slideshow relate to currently existing brands and can be reasonably suspected of not being public domain images. These images in general are only 50-60 years old in some cases, so copyright ownership can fairly be expected to still exist in at least notional form.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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