I love football. Rather, I love watching football; I have no desire to get out on a field and play the game. I don’t get to watch games as often as I would like during the regular season, but I get to see a few important ones, and always catch the highlights online or in the newspaper. However, each year, without fail, I watch the Superbowl. And each year, without fail, I end up yelling at the television. Except I’m not shouting because somebody threw a great pass, or blitzed the QB, or made a bad call (okay, okay sometimes that’s why I’m shouting); I’m screaming at the because of the horrifying (and horrifyingly expensive) commercials that the advertising industry shoves down America’s throat each year. This past Sunday was no exception.
Don’t get me wrong – some of the ads were really terrific. My favorite was the Volkswagon spot with a little boy dressed as Darth Vader, trying to use the force to move things around in his house. It was innocent and fun and touching, if a bit precious. Oh, and there was a super cheesy spot for Budweiser that involved a bunch of old-timey cowboys spontaneously breaking into song and rendering Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in a crowded saloon. I’m a sucker for cheese. But all throughout, we were bombarded with what I will generously describe as “discomfiting” commercials that all had one thing in common: a strict adherence to traditional gender roles in their depictions of men and women.
Let’s see. There was a Teleflora ad with some jackass writing his girlfriend for Valentine’s day, coming up with the sweetest of lines: “You’ve got a great rack.” There were those two PepsiMax commercials, one with a pathetic first date scene (all woman thinks about is marriage, kids, and the future, while all man thinks about is getting laid, and, eventually, PepsiMax) and another with an angry wife micromanaging her husband’s life and finally chucking a can of soda at his head. Oh, and any one of the insipid GoDaddy commercials that show extremely scantily clad or even, this year, naked women in their attempt to sell internet hosting? (Huh?) I also watched a Sketchers ad with a sweaty and bodysuited Kim Kardashian and learned that new sneakers will give me a perfect figure and a hot guy to drool on me. And let us not forget my personal favorite, the Living Social commercial where a man “changes his life” by doing traditional “female” things (yoga, waxing (?), buying shoes) and turns into a woman. I could do an entire blog post about how absurdly and obscenely offensive that one was.
I want to reiterate that these were only some of the commercials that I saw on television. However, I was struck by the fact that even in 2011, even when the advertisers know they’re going to get flack for their (ahem) artistic choices, even when we all know that there is going to be a big, post-game critical analysis of the commercials and what was offensive and wrong, we still see these same stereotypes recycled again and again. What gives?
Why is it that we, as a society, always fall back on depictions of traditional gender roles to provide amusement, sell a soda, or, mystifyingly, promote understanding of the opposite sex (i.e., your boyfriend cheats, and it’s “just what men do;” your girlfriend refuses to talk to you because “women are like that”)? Why is it that with all of the criticism that surrounds such stereotyping, it still crops up all the time? Why do we get frustrated by these assumptions, but not ever really angry about them?
With all of the gains made to establish equality and understanding among all human beings, do we still, in our heart of hearts, go around thinking that there are not just fundamental differences between the sexes (like the incontrovertible differences in brain chemistry and socialization and physicality that do entirely exist), but that these differences can be explicated with 30-second television spots and cleverly named self help books?
Perhaps we fall back on these ideas for a very simple reason: stereotypes make negotiating our lives easier. In a world like ours where we interact with so many people all the time, every one of them with different needs, expectations, wants and desires, the idea that we can at least pinpoint some of what a person is looking for or some of what makes them tick is a comforting one. We are cautioned to take each and every person at face value, to learn about them and form opinions about them based on our experience. But when we encounter hundreds of people a week and thousands of people each year it does feel necessary to make certain assumptions about what others are expecting, if only to make ourselves feel more assured in our dealings with the world. I’m not necessarily sure that it’s wrong to make educated guesses about what other people would like to get out of a conversation, or learn from a friendship. I just don’t think those educated guesses should come out of assumptions about gender.
The thing is, when we make these assumptions and treat people based on them, we are helping to standardize gender-specific behaviors even more. People are inclined to live up to others’ expectations of ourselves, even when those expectations are flawed or even harmful. Witness the girl who starves herself to be sexy, the boy who works out to the point of tearing tendons to be strong; the smart girl who stays quiet in class, the popular boy who bullies others to stay on top; the fat girl who never has a date and the skinny boy with glasses that can say the same. None of this even begins to deal with the difficulty non-’traditionally’ gendered people have negotiating a world where there are two options, and neither necessarily includes them. Yes, these stereotypes exist but they do so because we insist on recycling them again and again in countless ways: social, economic, cultural. As a society, we have to be more conscious of how we perpetuate these flawed ideas, in seriousness or in comedy, for the sake of study or for the sake of entertainment. We need to reach a point where we have gone beyond dealing with gender by dividing, generalizing, and being entertained by such division, and to a point where we make assumptions based on what all people expect: Compassion. Understanding. Kindness. Love. And not being hit in the head with a Pepsi can.