Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gender Stereotyping with a Side of Product Promotion

I know that my pop culture junkie-dom (junkie-hood? junkie-ness? addiction.) suggests otherwise, but I actually don't watch television very often. We don't have cable (we're some of those Netflix defectors) and we have pretty busy schedules.

I normally run around the track at lunch, but today when I got there the treadmills were open (a rarity). So I hopped on one and stuck my headphones in to listen to the TV. Now, I'm running and Let's Make a Deal is on, so it's not like I'm really in my scholarly critic zone. Nonetheless, the commercials were so blatantly full of gender stereotyping that I really couldn't ignore it.

First I saw a commercial for Fiber One 90 Calorie Brownies:

In it, a woman pushes aside a bouncer in front of a red curtain and goes through to join a horde of women dancing around with boxes of brownies. The voiceover tells us "They've been off-limits to dieters since time began. Not anymore." When the woman bites into one of those brownies, her face lights up and the scene around her moves in slow motion. Meanwhile, a couple of young men peer through the red curtain at the dancing scene with looks of amused confusion. 

So, what's going on in this ad? Well, the bouncer who's keeping this woman out of the fun-filled brownie rave is represented by a very muscular, hyper masculine white man. All of the women dancing in the brownie room meet the same narrow standards of beauty: they're thin (though, admittedly, more realistically thin than many portrayals); most have long, flowing hair, and--as far as I could tell--they're all white (at the very least all of the prominently featured women are white). 

So, here's a traditionally attractive woman who has been denying herself brownies "since time began" to meet those standards of beauty. That denial has been maintained by a hyper masculine bouncer (representative of a male dominance on those standards). While her casual pushing aside of this male gatekeeper might be seen as a power play, she's not actually working against the standards to keep her in her place; in fact, those standards are the whole selling point of this product. "Don't eat a brownie! My god! Oh, it's only 90 calories? Go ahead." 

Let me ask you something. If a pre-packaged, foil-wrapped, 90-calorie brownie facsimile is good enough to make the world move in slow motion and literally light up your face, then how good is a real brownie? And if they're that good, why can't a woman (or a man--I'm not discriminating little curtain peekers, go ahead and come in) have one now and then?

So, as I'm running and telling myself that was a pretty narrow portrayal of women, I'm met with this gem for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese:

Here we see a bickering couple and then a little boy on a couch informs us that "Dad's in the doghouse again" because he brought home a client for dinner without telling his wife. She, being the perfect model of domesticity and grace, is prepared. She whips up a box of Homestyle Mac n' Cheese that she keeps on hand for just such occasions and they sit through an awkward, tense dinner. The little boy then turns to the camera and whispers "Dad really screwed this up."

What a horrible promotion of gender stereotypes from both sides. Women are shrewish nags who have to keep the home together while their absent-minded provider husbands bumble around and mess things up. The little boy doesn't seem upset by his parents' fight. In fact, he seems to take joy in seeing them so miserable, indicating that this family dynamic isn't very healthy. 

Finally, what's the selling point supposed to be? Always keep Kraft on hand so that you can have sub-par, awkward dinners with guests who clearly don't want to be witness to your Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque meltdown? Not selling it. 

On a plus note, Kotex Natural Balance has an ad that parodies traditional maxi-pad ads by laughing off the notion of women on their periods gleefully exercising in all-white clothes and pointing to all all-male panel of "experts" while sarcastically saying  "these maxi pad wizards really get me." 

Then again, that ad might be a little too prescient for comfort:

All-male panel at the hearing on birth control 


  1. There's another hideous Fiber One brownie commercial where a guy grabs the woman's hand as she is reaching for brownie crumbs and basically says "don't eat that, eat this one. it's only 90 calories!"

    1. I'm all for promoting sensible eating, but the idea that you have to deny yourself joy (and eat chemically-altered ultra-processed products) is terrible.