I’d like to haphazardly discuss yet another example of the stealthy pervasiveness of gender stereotypes in U.S. culture. This example is from a nationally (and maybe internationally) televised commercial for Bounty paper towels. Perhaps you’ve seen it of late.
This commercial makes use of what I would call harmful gender tropes to market its product to consumers. Because it was created to be mass-mediated and appeal to as many (female) consumers as possible, one might argue that such commercials have to extend to and re-create certain structures of cultural categories, no matter how stereotypical and harmful these representations may be of culturally created groups of people. Otherwise, they would not be comprehensible to a wide audience. But I argue that such use of stereotypical representations are yet another example of gendered norms being held up as natural, with implications for what roles differentially gendered people are expected to play in our culture.
This commercial in particular offers up women and men as possessed of differentially valued sets of knowledge by virtue of their being women or men. This has to do with how gender intersects with the notion of separate-spheres: the idea that people generally inhabit either the public or private sphere on the basis of their being women or men. (Things are never this neat in real life, of course, and never have been.) However, the intersections of these false dichotomies (men:women :: public:private) is the assumption upon which one of the messages of this commercial rests: that women “know better” than men how to clean up messes because of the particular knowledge they have thanks to their primarily inhabiting the private sphere.
Now for a description of the commercial itself. Please note that the voice-over quote is most likely a paraphrase, as I could only find the commercial online en Espanol. To see for yourselves and to have a better basis to disagree with my analysis, here’s a link to the commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCbSCzvMYxY (The sound is off by a few seconds.) And if you don’t want to watch it, I’m going to describe it, anyway. Lucky you.
Two young girls (sisters?) are baking and dancing in the kitchen as a woman and man (one or both of the girls’ parents) go about their daily lives nearby. Theirs is an open floor-plan, so one can assume that the adults are “supervising” from the adjacent breakfast nook or dining room table. Mom’s at the table working on a laptop computer, Dad’s relocating a small houseplant to an undisclosed location. The houseplant is never heard from again. When Dad’s slightly behind Mother, they both look over to the kitchen and smile at the girls who are having so much fun mixing ingredients with dancing.
Because this is a Bounty commercial, a sudden mis-calculated hip-check delivered by older girl to younger sets off a chain reaction, sending a glass flying. Its contents spill neatly across the counter. (Finally, Bounty thinks. I’ve been off-stage for quite long enough, thank you.) Father bends over to look at the mess as Mother walks behind him. Her voice-over says, “My husband? Thinks this is a three-sheeter.” She pauses and smiles at his somewhat befuddled worry, then continues walking to the roll of paper towels, which the older of the two girls has pulled in anticipation of the clean-up. Older girl, presumably taking a cue from Father’s view of the world, offers about three sheets worth.
Not so fast! Mother stops the spinning in the nick of time and cheerfully reprimands this folly, half-wagging her finger and half-using it to indicate that no, they only need one sheet of paper towel. Because Bounty’s just that awesome. Older girl relinquishes the end of the roll to Mother, who winds it back and deftly rips off just one sheet. Then the requisite test: women’s hands do the side-by-side cleaning of Bounty-vs-notBounty paper towels. Cut to Mother cleaning up the mess the girls made with that one sheet. The two girls are seen in the background, talking and smiling in a corner of the kitchen. (Why aren’t they cleaning up their own mess? But that’s another issue.) Mother smiles at the now-clean counter. Thanks, Bounty.
Cut to the happy ending. Older girl carries a now-finished cake of Dr. Seuss proportions over to where the rest of the family stands, ready with a stack of plates and say-cheese smiles. Everyone basks in the ridiculousness of the cake. They are proud. Then the cake implodes, sinking into itself. Four human heads trace its spatial deflation in familial whimsy. Cut to more paper towel vs. kitchen counter action. Take that, spilled fruit punch! BAM: BOUNTY. (don’t forget to try our napkins!)
So, remember up there when I was talking about separate spheres? I sussed that out from that one-line voice over, but a lot of the images and the attitudes that the mother and father characters visually exude back this up. The mother addresses the audience and expects us to identify with her exasperation over her husband’s misguided counting: “three sheets, he thinks—three! Silly man with his man-knowledge…clearly he knows nothing about cleaning with Bounty—am I right, ladies?!!”
It is the woman who is held up as the correct one in this scenario; the adult who has the privileged knowledge about cleaning and cleaning with Bounty in particular. Her authority comes from the fact that she is the woman, the mother: that she inhabits the female role that is relegated to the private sphere, where the household cleaning is done. The mother’s knowledge is situated here in the home—laptop-work notwithstanding—and gendered female, and because the scenario is taking place in this sphere, her female private-sphere situated knowledge is privileged as authoritative.
The husband’s assessment of the situation and the solution it requires is rejected because he, being a man, is not privy to the privately-situated female knowledge about cleaning kitchen counters with Bounty paper towels. Poor man, how could he know—he may be carrying a houseplant, but his knowledge is still mostly male. His male knowledge comes from the public sphere, where there are no kitchen counters to be cleaned. Without getting into second- and third-order indexicality, just trust me when I say that these gendered associations correlate in all directions.
The commercial uses these gendered associations in order to connect with its audience: ladies, don’t you find it hilarious when men don’t know how to economically dispose of waste? Aren’t you happy to be so wise in the ways of housework? Now get back in that kitchen where you belong. Where you are the master of disaster because you are a woman. This conglomeration of gendered stereotypes is harmful to both women and men: it makes a joke of men attempting to take on more traditionally “female” roles, effectively keeping them from mastering housecleaning tasks because the stereotypes assume that, being male, they do not possess the requisite knowledge to clean house effectively. They are laughed away from the merest hint of an attempt to understand the situation of cleaning up a kitchen counter spill. Men are simply no good at this; everyone knows that. (This is where I could go off on a tirade about 90s 3rd-wave feminism that sadly persists today, whose power comes from reinforcing gendered stereotypes with a favor for femaleness instead of maleness, and taking pot-shots at men and their stereotypical male ways. But I will refrain from delving into this issue. For now.)
Back to the gendered assumptions in the Bounty commercial. I’ve discussed why they are harmful to men. These stereotypes are harmful to women because they assume that by virtue of their gender, they are automatically better-equipped to handle crises of the home variety. This effectively relegates them to the role of home-maker, expecting them to know how to cook and clean, etc. To have the knowledge/expertise to do so efficiently, and with the right branded products.
The overall effect of the proliferation of mass-mediated images and other representations that employ gendered stereotypes is that society as a whole loses by forcing everyone into a binary system of gendered roles and expectations. We are capable of so much more! So much more variation if we only allowed ourselves to be open to them… Woe betide the gendered person who tries to cross these lines separating tasks based on gendered spheres: you will become the butt of a joke in a commercial. Or worse yet, the punch-line to joke numbers 1-26 on a sitcom. In America, we still create images that reinforce these gender stereotypes and mass-mediate them, further entrenching them into the social consciousness. Mother knows best when it comes to kitchen messes, and Father is just a helpless bystander to be pitied for his lack of female/private-sphere knowledge. Am I right, ladies?