Sexism against men isn’t a topic you hear a lot about, but it may be on the rise.
Men, are you so dumb you can’t work a dishwasher? So immature that your life revolves around sports and Doritos? The trend isn’t new, but television and advertising portrayals of men as clueless lunkheads seem to be the gift that keeps on giving —and it must, otherwise product hawkers would be taking a different approach, right?
But isn’t it time to put an end to these shenanigans? Men certainly can’t get much more idiotic than the low rung on the evolutionary ladder from which they’re currently swinging. It’s time for tougher national standards on advertisements that depict negative gender stereotyping.
Since first flickering into people’s homes some 60 years ago, television has been rife with dumb dads and adolescent spouses. From Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone through Tim Taylor, Ray Romano and Homer Simpson, the prevailing concept is one of a bumbling, slavish, spoiled little man-child who somehow, just by the skin of his teeth, avoids both divorce and social rejection by the end of each episode.
And commercials only up the ante, churning out insane images of men as domestically inept, sports ’n beer-obsessed Neanderthals.
Here, for example, is the 1st for Women insurance company saying men are stupid enough to drive their car over a cliff (and that’s why they only insure women).
Here is a detergent company telling us that guys don’t know how to wash dishes so you’d better use Cascade gel plugs.
Think men aren’t stupid enough to try to pole vault the pool with one of those extended leaf skimmers? Apparently, they are that stupid.
Sexism against men sells
And the ads maligning men are having their effect, according to one survey last year which found that one in five men (20 per cent) agreed that advertising is too focused on portraying men as incompetent around the house and one in four (25 per cent) said that they find it hard to identify with men as they are portrayed in ads.
“The trend for using hyper-athletic male models and celebrities in advertising has grown significantly in recent years, giving rise to the term ‘Hunkvertising’ – and resulting in men today being just as sexualised in advertising campaigns as women,” said Jack Duckett, co-author of the report.
Writing on the survey for the Telegraph, Martin Daubney opined that the end result is a role reversal from mid-last-century. “Overall, this means that, increasingly, men in adverts are prized for their looks, but ridiculed for their brains – which is precisely where women were in the 1950s and ‘60s,” said Daubney.
Dr. Katherine Young is a professor emeritus of religious studies at McGill University in Montreal and co-author of a series of books on the treatment of men at the hands of modern Western society. Young’s focus is on misandry, defined as prejudice or contempt for men, and a parallel concept to the more well-known misogyny or hatred of women. While less in the public eye, misandry and men-bashing are at least now within the cultural conversation, says Young.
“When we first started out investigating this topic almost 20 years ago, no one knew what we were talking about, but at least now the word misandry is there, it’s in the dictionary,” says Young, in conversation with Cantech Letter.
Young says the negative portrayals of men in media and advertising have contributed to an attack on the male identity, making it more difficult for men today to figure out where their place is, not just in the home but in the workplace and society at large.
“There has to be a positive appreciation of man’s identity qua being men and that’s something that’s missing in our society,” she says. “Otherwise, every little boy grows up with negative stereotyping and they start dropping out of high school and university, which creates downward mobility for men and greater polarization between men and women.”
But if it’s that socially damaging, why is it still legal —not to mention acceptable— for advertisers to pump out degrading images of men as either vapid beefcakes or incompetent boobs? Haven’t we learned anything from feminism and the sexual revolution about the harmful effects of sexism and stereotyping?
Part of the problem is that we, the viewers, are not all that bothered by such portrayals, at least not enough to change our purchasing habits. A study last year by Advertising Standards of Canada (ASC), the ad industry’s self-regulating body which puts out its own code on integrity in advertising, found that among the kinds of ads that Canadians judged to be unacceptable, sexist depictions are right up there with other no-no’s like racism and bullying. But when asked how they feel after watching a sexist commercial, less than half (46 per cent) said they felt annoyed and only nine per cent said they were either angry or outraged.
“We are always looking at consumer attitudes toward advertising, and this is one area that we thought wasn’t explored fully,” said Peter White, senior vice-president of operations at ASC, to the Globe and Mail. “The biggest surprise is the fact that consumers aren’t that angry.”
In fact, more than half of those surveyed admitted that sexism in a product ad had either no impact or made they only “somewhat” less likely to buy a product —a conclusion that advertisers are surely keeping in mind as they continue to trot out their commercials with brain dead dads and bikini girls.
But ditching the dumb dad is possible. One example comes from the United Kingdom, where new rules have just been announced to crack down on sexist stereotypes in ads, with the target squarely on things like portrayals of men as idiotic buffoons and messages in weight-loss and beauty product commercials that “body shame” women.
Set up by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority, the push, which has been called one of the most comprehensive reviews of gender stereotyping in advertising anywhere in the world, stems from a consideration of the impact that such stereotyping can have on children and youth in the formation of their gender concepts. Ads that portray a mother as the sole domestic worker, for example, will be singled out, along with ones that show men “trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks.”
“Our review shows that specific forms of gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to harm for adults and children,” said Ella Smillie, lead author of the report, to the Guardian. “Such portrayals can limit how people see themselves, how others see them, and limit the life decisions they take. Tougher standards in the areas we’ve identified will address harms and ensure that modern society is better represented.”
Doubtlessly, it will remain a difficult task to know which ads to pull on grounds of gender stereotyping and which to leave in — how stupid can that husband holding the vacuum cleaner be before he and it cross the line?
But it can be done. Just like we have standards for obscenity and marketing to children, we in Canada, too, can have tougher standards for negative portrayals of men and women.