Did you watch the Super Bowl this year? If you didn't, you should have: the comeback victory by Drew Brees and the Saints--and the hope and joy it restored for a time to a city forever associated with tragedy--will live on in American sports lore. And even if you're not a fan of the NFL, the telecast on that given Sunday was exceptional in one sense: the game was far better than the ads.
Normally, many viewers tune in to the Super Bowl not only to see the game; they also want to see the best that Madison Avenue has to offer during the commercial breaks. But if the offerings we saw this year were any indication, there are some serious problems in the industry. We were treated to a series of misogynistic ads that ranged from the unbelievably offensive to the mildly irritating. And that doesn't even mention the fact that Focus on the Family, of all groups, got to air an anti-choice ad during the pre-game show.
But there's a deeper problem afoot. If it were just one or two offending ads, it would be easy to dismiss them as the product of an insular, all-male marketing department (iPad, anyone?). But with so many spots all harping on the same theme, it would be intellectually lazy to sit back, slam everything and fail to examine what it could mean that so many advertisers think that they can sell their wares by such an overt appeal to emasculation.
The truth is, many men are feeling dis-empowered.
Now that you're done laughing, let's examine this concept in greater detail.
We've come a long way since 1999. After a full decade of nearly unmitigated prosperity, movies like American Beauty, The Matrix and Fight Club touched on a feeling of middle-class malaise: was there life beyond khakis, Ikea furniture, and a respectable job? Those films and many like them had as their subject shedding the stifling constraints of stable conformity in the search of meaning and the true self. Films like these likely had a more significant appeal to men, who felt they were the primary victims of cubicle culture, the "political correctness" movement, and the now-famous Ikea lifestyle.
Unfortunately, we've gone in entirely the wrong direction. Little more than 10 years later, it seems that we would give anything to have that opportunity back. The renegade aspirations of the last millennium had an underlying assumption: that stability was always achievable for men who did not have the testicular fortitude to pursue their iconoclastic fantasies.
The Great Recession has impacted everyone, but it's important to note that it has not been an equal opportunity unemployer. The recession was caused primarily by meltdowns in two sectors: housing and finance. These industries are, of course, dominated primarily by men. As a result, nearly three-quarters of all jobs lost since 2008 were formerly held by men. That, of course, is a massive loss of economic power. And despite the fact that conservative fundamentalists still think that gay marriage is the world's biggest threat to marriage, economic stability is likely a leading factor as well.
As the seminal article from The Atlantic linked above indicates, job losses by men have resulted in many other social ills, including increased divorce rates and, more troubling, higher domestic violence rates. These are problematic enough, but a more alarming challenge to the strength of our social fabric lies in the conflict between economic reality and gender self-identification:
In Identity Economics, the economists George Akerloff and Rachel Kranton find that among married couples, men who aren’t working at all, despite their free time, do only 37 percent of the housework, on average. And some men, apparently in an effort to guard their masculinity, actually do less housework after becoming unemployed.
It would be very simple to claim that some men out there are simply being controlling and can't adjust to the idea of not being breadwinners and dealing instead with the seemingly more menial tasks associated with household and family maintenance. Arlie Hochschild's crucial book The Second Shift explored this double-standard more fully: the current economy requires women to work, and yet household responsibilities are still often seen as the primary responsibility of the woman in heterosexual relationships.
But our economy is transitioning: as the Atlantic article points out, it is entirely possible that in the next few months, more jobs in America will be held by women than by men. And while the feminist movement has sought to equate the importance and stature of domestic work with salaried work, men are not the only one who see themselves as rightful breadwinners:
Edin’s research in low-income communities shows, for instance, that most working women whose partner stayed home to watch the kids—while very happy with the quality of child care their children’s father provided—were dissatisfied with their relationship overall. “These relationships were often filled with conflict,” Edin told me. Even today, she says, men’s identities are far more defined by their work than women’s, and both men and women become extremely uncomfortable when men’s work goes away.
Economic reality is changing faster than gender self-identification can keep up, and men are not the only ones responsible. So what does this have to do with those misogynist Super Bowl ads? A lot.
The feminist movement has long recognized that unequal economic power is one of the primary factors that enable other forms of gender discrimination, especially in terms of household decision-making. Economic power is still certainly not equal between genders--there is still a very large pay gap, and it was only last year that President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. But despite the work that remains to be done, we are still much more equal than we ever have been in the past. This increased economic power gives women increased independence--and therefore, increased leverage to be influential in financial and household decisions, from a structural point of view. Unless you're a member of the Taliban or a fundamentalist conservative (the American Taliban), it goes without saying that this is an unqualified good.
But with greater power comes greater responsibility. Let's imagine that two hypothetical commercials had aired during this year's Super Bowl. These commercials feature women who are weary of pleasing their husbands by attending their events, or helping with their side projects, or sitting around with them watching sports because he doesn't want to do anything else. And as a reward for her perseverance, she purchases some product that appeals to her in order to reclaim some happiness in her existence.
Would these hypothetical ads have generated much outrage, despite a strong hint of misandry? Probably not, because the paradigm of long-suffering women working their way through their husbands' inadequacies is culturally acceptable. Two of the more maligned misogynist Super Bowl ads--the Dodge Charger ad and the FloTV ad--had very similar themes, except with the genders reversed. And while the thought of reclaiming one's identity through any purchased product--especially a two-inch TV--is ludicrous, any advertising that seems to insult an entire gender should be considered unacceptable.
The feminist movement has sought--with all moral justification and authority--to reshape the self-identity of women from powerless to powerful, no matter whether that is manifested culturally, economically, artistically, sexually, or athletically. But that has required a new self-identity for men too: our previous identity--the one of the rightful breadwinner, the decision-maker, and the one who "wears the pants"--has rightfully needed to be stripped away to ensure an equal place for women at the table of life.
But this has created another issue. While feminism has worked consistently to build up a new positive self-identity for women, there does not seem to be a concomitant positive self-identity replacement for the other half of the population--and without that positivity, in these tough economic times the most available replacement is the misogynist, dominant and often violent self-identity we are all hoping to eliminate. As the paradigms of gender roles and equality continue to shift, consistent expectations of what men should be would serve as a well-oiled transmission.
P.S. None of us should forget two facts:
- The feminist movement is and will be vitally necessary to the social fabric of our country to reduce and eliminate pay gaps, gender discrimination of all kinds in employment, healthcare and other aspects, and violent crime against women.
- The fact that we can discuss the relative merits of advertisements in a sporting event is a luxury. Conditions for women in many parts of the world remain deplorable. Reversing these atrocities cannot be a fight for women alone: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
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