Ann is in the kitchen helping Mammy make the dinner. Barry is in the garden helping Daddy mow the lawn. Nobody knows what Mammy and Daddy talk about if they ever meet in some strange in between place, but it’s definitely not the equal division of labour or gender fluidity.
And they aren’t alone. Despite the fact that poorer women, those in family businesses and farms always worked, and that the marriage bar was really just a blip in Irish history, the depiction of gender roles in the media has gotten steadily more fixated on a bizarre 1950s model that never really even applied in Ireland.
Just last week we had outrage over an ad from Mothercare depicting little girls playing with toys like cleaning trolleys and kitchens. So far, so eye rollingly, obviously sexist, but the dodgiest part of all was their costumes – 1950s housewives straight out of a catalogue, headscarves, rollers and pinnies included.
The weird thing about this is that very few little girls these days would even recognise that costume. Neither would their mothers. Mine never wore a roller or a pinny in her life – those went out with my grandmother, the last woman in our family to adhere to the traditional women’s role. Given her extreme dedication to the cause (nine children), my Grandad probably had more household skills than most men of his generation, so his children were used to having dinner cooked by their father.
Most toy ads are firmly aimed at children, reeling them in despite the protestations of their parents. But that Mothercare campaign was interesting in its strangely conceived attempt at pitching to parental nostalgia. Either way, it backfired, because consumers are sick of being condescended to by sexist – not to say lazy and unimaginative – advertising companies. And now a steady barrage of complaints about ad campaigns featuring outdated stereotypes, belittling images and confidence-denting narratives is being met with action from authorities.
The advertising standards authority in the UK has carried out a major review of gender stereotyping in advertising and intends to address the stereotyping of both women and men.
After taking on companies that body shame women – following outcry over an unrealistic ‘beach body’ ad for Protein World last summer – the ASA is now tackling ads that promote or propagate gender stereotypes. While it won’t be banning ads that, for example, show women doing housework or men doing DIY, it will look dimly on those that feature all the family enjoying themselves and making a mess while a woman cleans up alone, or that feature a man failing miserably at a household task. Admittedly, it’s going to be a tough one to police.
It’s a far cry from the kind of ads to be found in newspapers from the 1950s, with copy in one famous Heinz soup ad suggesting that “nowadays, most men have stopped beating their wives”. But the ongoing, backward gazing glorification of a gendered ‘golden era’ that never really existed, combined with an increasingly extreme sexualisation of women and girls in advertising, is the kind of messaging that makes people vote for Donald Trump. It encourages men to believe women are a) there to serve them and b) sexually available or pointless, and encourages both women and men to believe that men couldn’t possibly do caring, cleaning or household work, even if they wanted to, because they’re really just giant, money making babies.
Encouraging women to think of men as rather stupid, childlike creatures that exist to bring home money and can’t be trusted with a spatula isn’t any more helpful than letting men believe women are there to feed them, iron their shirt or have sex with them.
All of which makes me wonder what’s wrong with the advertising industry in the first place. As an industry it seems limited to watching old episodes of Mad Men and cogging Don Draper’s homework, but 50 years too late for the jokes to be funny.
The ASA crackdown on sexist ads seems a little unnecessary. But if the carrot approach – you know, actually selling more of the product you’re advertising by using imagination, innovation and actual ideas rather than tired old tropes – doesn’t work, it’s time for the stick.