Vintage Sexism: Marital Bliss Edition

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I don’t know about you, ModReaders, but as I watched this old school Folgers commercial, I felt like telling Harvey to go take a hike!

If you are anything like me, one of the reasons you love vintage clothing is the fact that, in addition to being functional, each piece is also an artifact of a specific time and place. Every garment serves as a witness to history in very personal, yet also very political way. The same, I think, is true for the media of yesteryear. In this new ModLife category, entitled “Vintage Sexism,” I will use advertisements, commercials, films, and more to examine and contextualize attitudes toward women and gender roles that existed “back then.” Then, I will invite you, ModReaders, to compare and contrast these artifacts and attitudes to those of today! It is my hope that together, we will engage in some intelligent, thought-provoking conversation!

More “Vintage Sexism” after the jump!

As we just saw, the vintage Folgers commercial did not shy away from using fear and guilt as marketing strategies. “The girls down at the office make better coffee on their hotplates!” Harvey says, implying that if his wife doesn’t learn to make a cup of coffee to his satisfaction, he’s going to start going to “the girls” to take care of his caffeine habit. Well now, isn’t he a winner?

[Images: beautyblitz.net and ipernity.com]

These next two ads (above) employ marketing strategies similar to those used by the Folgers commercial. The ad at left is for a soap called “Beauty in the Morning.” It reads, “Take a look in your morning mirror. See the memory your husband carries with him day after day. Is it a magnet alluring enough to draw him right home night after night? Or do you spend your afternoons dreading that hated phone call ‘I won’t be home tonight?’” Well, this woman is taking matters into her own hands and chopping down the telephone pole with a perky smile on her face. The ad leads us to believe that this woman can put a stop to her husband’s implied infidelity by…using a different soap?

In the adjacent ad at right, we see a wife whose husband has, in fact, returned home, only to have locked her out of the bedroom because her “intimate” body odor is so terrible. Her plea, in urgent capital letters at the top of the page, along with the symbolic locks on the door, labeled “doubt,” “inhibitions,” and “ignorance” (all the things that have prevented her from using Lysol), suggest that the woman is entirely to blame for her husband’s rejection. “Often” it is the wife who “fails” and “neglect[s]” to realize that it is she who is shutting herself out from “happy married love.” Hmmm.

[Image Above: pzrservices.typepad.com]

These next three ads send a similar message, but in a subtler, (slightly) more tactful manner. Rather than overtly attempting to convince a woman that her husband will leave her if she does not purchase such and such, these ads tacitly demonstrate that the wife is responsible for ensuring her husband’s marital bliss. If she is successful in making the “right” purchase, she will keep her husband happy, earn his parent-like approval, and the marriage will remain intact. Yup, that’s right, ladies. Just take your vitamins, and you will never, ever stop dusting the banister or baking casseroles.

[Image Above: my-retrospace.blogspot.com]

Women, when you want to impress your husband, buy the right dish detergent. He might even give you a gold star on your chore chart!

[Image: theinvisibleagent.wordpress.com]

Didn’t you know? “Husbands admire wives who keep their stocking perfect.” Wives, you’d best be taking care of your hosiery. Don’t believe me? Take a closer look at the direction of this gentleman’s gaze. He is staring directly at his wife’s stockinged legs, waiting for that run to happen.  The moment it does, he’s bound to throw a tantrum and high-tail it out the door.

What do you have to say about these advertisements, ModReaders? Do the ads or the commercial featured in this post remind you of any commercials or ads on television or in magazines right now (or ones that have been, recently)? Do you think our societal attitude toward women and construction of gender roles have “come a long way,” or do we still have a long way to go?

39 Responses to Vintage Sexism: Marital Bliss Edition

  1. Emily 01/12/2010 at 1:10 pm #

    I think society’s attitude towards women has drastically changed, but we have a long way to go before things are perfect. You still see commercials encouraging women to do certain things or use certain products to please their husbands.

    However, I find that society is more negative towards men now than women. It’s almost impossible to turn on a family sitcom that doesn’t feature the idiot husband and the wife who is never wrong. Yoplait currently has commercials featuring an intelligent wife and a dumb husband. Personally, I’m, sick of the “the wife is always right and the husband is an idiot” layout. I want equality.

    Eventually we’ll get there.

  2. JenB 01/12/2010 at 1:59 pm #

    I would so love to have the problems these women have! Staying home, taking care of the house, raising the kiddos, cooking, baking, keeping my husband happy, etc….basically being the heart of the home…that all sounds fabulous to me! And actually, I’m about to begin doing those things full-time in a few months when we add a little bundle of joy to our family in a few months.

    I just wish women who make different choices (i.e., decide to work full-time) wouldn’t look down on those of us who make different choices. By calling out these ads as “sexist”, they are essentially doing just that. Feminism is a choice – one that is unfairly shoved down all women’s throats whether we want “liberation” or not.

    And really, there is no reason why a woman shouldn’t care, even if only a tiny bit, about taking care of herself, her children, and her home in a way that pleases her husband. It’s not for nothing that the divorce rate is what it is today.

    • Lady 06/08/2011 at 7:14 pm #

      I don’t think these ads are being criticized for showing women working in the home. Instead, they are being criticized because they are insinuating that a woman’s worth and value rely on how well she performs for a man. They suggest that if something is amiss in a marriage, it is the woman’s fault and responsibility, to be remedied with whatever product is being marketed. I do not think people criticizing these ads would argue with your stance.

  3. Rebecca 01/12/2010 at 2:04 pm #

    I just took a course that was about Gender in Society. The issue of masculinity and femininity is such an entertaining one! Barbie’s first words in 1994, when they introduced a talking Barbie, were “Math Class is Tough!” This was in 1994!

    I love this post by Modcloth! I try to take the clothes and inspiration from yester-year and add a new definition to them… a definition without all the -isms! This vintage sexism also makes me miss Mad Men :( haha

  4. Whitney 01/12/2010 at 2:13 pm #

    Still have a very long way to go. I hate to say it but much hasn’t changed. Commercials have just become smarter in their approaches to sending these same messages.

    For instance, the new Fiber Plus commercial with a lot of skinny women trying to look super cute in order to convince me that I can look just like them. This is just the first one that came to mind but there are so many adds that tell girls how they need to be in order to be attractive.

    I have to get going though… need to get some Fiber Plus immediately.

  5. Jen 01/12/2010 at 2:27 pm #

    Haha! Whitney, you made me laugh. But you are right. There are a ton of “Get skinny” yogurt commercials (Fiber Plus, Activia, Light n Fit, etc.) is a great example of ads that target women. Have you seen this Sarah Haskins clip? http://current.com/items/88941392_sarah-haskins-in-target-women-yogurt-edition.htm

  6. Yo Mama 01/12/2010 at 2:34 pm #

    I’ll tell you where I’D pour Harvey’s coffee!
    We’ve come a long way, baby . . . but
    we’ve got a ways to go. Do women today
    have more choices or more pressures?
    Modcloth, you have quite a sophisticated
    audience and staff!

  7. Jayme 01/12/2010 at 2:36 pm #

    I’ve got to disagree with Emily that society has a more negative view of men that women. The ways men are sometimes depicted on TV and in advertising are seriously problematic, but I definitely think there are far more complicated and nuanced male characters on TV right now than there are female – women are so frequently shoved into niches like the smart one, the pretty one, the slutty one, etc.

    And the Jen that posted at 1:59 (I suspect you’re not the Jen who made the original post), regarding women who look down on other women, it’s definitely a two-way street – women who choose careers over having children or women who do both are bashed constantly in the media. Basically, no matter what we do, someone is going to disagree with it and call us selfish, and there is certainly no shortage of that coming from women who are privileged enough to not work outside the home and directed at working mothers or women who don’t have children. Feminism doesn’t dictate a particular lifestyle, it stresses that the choices that are available to us are often constrained by a number of factors – many women will never have the option of being stay-at-home moms. And it emphasizes that we ideally should make the choices we do because they are what we want, not because it’s what society is pushing us to do. Furthermore, there is no reason that men should not care about taking care of their children and homes, why should that be a solely female task?

  8. Desi Girl 01/12/2010 at 2:46 pm #

    Jen,
    I’m really curious what your definition of feminism is. Feminism is not about respecting women, and all the choices they want to make–whether it is to perform labor in the home, workplace etc. A bumper sticker I give my students reads, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” That said, i think the point these ads are making, as the author rightly points out, is that women’s labor in the home is NOT being respected.
    These ads aren’t so much saying, we think women should be given the choice to work where they want, as much as they are suggesting that women ought to be in the home AND look pretty. I think there’s also something horrendously wrong with suggesting that women are somehow culpable for the divorce rate. Women leave marriages for all kinds of reasons and to place the burden of a good marriage on women is grossly unfair and fails to take account of why and how divorce might have actually allowed women to make choices that are good for them.

    I think what feminism has allowed is a way for you to make the choice to stay home and have that be valued as legitimate work. Its just a pity that your logic continues to castigate women for societal problems.

  9. Kristina 01/12/2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Yo Jen, I think it’s pretty tough to not call these ads sexist. Sure, stay home and raise your kids, but if you are afraid of your husband’s wrath over a cup of coffee, you’re living the wrong kind of retro.

  10. nicole 01/12/2010 at 2:47 pm #

    In regards to the first Jen’s comments – I don’t think the author was at all implying that being a home-maker is not a respectable choice. I think she was trying to challenge the marketing and advertising tactics used in these ads.

    By explicitly pulling out examples from within the text of these ads, such as, “Husbands admire wives who keep their stocking perfect,” the author does even more to point out that she is not, in fact, calling stay-at-home moms “anti-feminist,” but she is saying that women, of all occupations and walks of life, should not be made to base their worth on superficiality (perfect stockings) or a man’s evaluation of them!

    I completely agree that a woman has every right to care about “taking care of herself” (although I certainly do NOT agree that women not doing such are the culprits of our society’s divorce rate!), I just don’t think women should be made to feel as though their looks are what their value is based on.

  11. Caitlin 01/12/2010 at 2:49 pm #

    Thanks for the great post! And while it’s funny to look back on these advertisements, it is important to realize that the “ideal” female archetype in our culture hasn’t disappeared, she’s only slightly changed. In addition to being a good mother who uses Lysol to disinfect every object in her home in order to be a good parent, she is also expected to be a high-powered-but-not-too-high-powered executive who takes Advil instead of taking a day off from her office job that pays her 18% less than her male counterparts. Sexism is still abound — we’ve just done a better job of ignoring it and making it more insidious.
    And no, television, making men stupider does not make up for it. I want equality!
    And for those who feel they have had feminism “shoved down their throats”, remember that there are millions of women around the world that don’t have a say in what kind of life they lead. I think the wife-at-home life is wonderful, but the ignorant and demeaning stereotyping that has been applied to women in ads like these isn’t fair to the wives who choose that life.
    WHEW!
    Also, yogurt commercials? Yeah! Terrible! :)

  12. Natalie B. 01/12/2010 at 2:52 pm #

    Great post, Jen! I love how you gave us specific examples of how the ads attempted to use advertising methods that were almost like “scare tactics!” While it’s amazing how far we’ve come, it’s too bad companies like Reebok are still using ads wherein the camera is so clearly designated as “the male gaze,” and women’s bodies are still being viewed as objects and commodities. C’mon, advertisers! You guys can be more creative than that! Sexism in ads is just lazy, nowadays.

  13. Emily 01/12/2010 at 3:25 pm #

    I feel we’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go too. Look at the media today and what do you see? Beautiful, skinny ladies with wonderful hair doing what women do best. Maybe they’re cleaning the house with some Febreze, cooking with some Hamburger Helper, or showing off the latest wrinkle-free cream that’s just come on the market. But whatever it is, and however bad it’s said, we need to remember that we still have come a long way from “Mr. Folgers” up there.

  14. Katharine 01/12/2010 at 3:33 pm #

    Second (third, fourth, fifth…) what everybody’s said so far. I don’t know if the media are that much more vicious towards men, but there are loads of food commercials that feature the hopeless dad (whose enterprising wife is out on business) who can’t open a can of soup, so he takes the kids out for dinner.

    But did anybody say this already? Um, *Lysol*??? They’re encouraging women to cleanse their privates using *Lysol*??

  15. Emily 01/12/2010 at 3:51 pm #

    I think that society has changed, but not necessarily for the better. Those ads from yester-year appealed to that society’s women by using what was relevant to that time period: being a good house wife and pleasing your husband. I think ads today, as people have mentioned above, appeal to women using today’s standards. Like the fiber and yogurt ads showing how to lose weight and stay fit.

    It’s not the advertisers’ faults for the “sexism,” they are just using the views of that society to appeal to their customers. Today, ads that feature cooking and cleaning items are STILL primarily geared toward women. But the motivation is a little different. Instead of trying to please the husband, today’s ads seem more about keeping up appearances and out-doing female friends (like with those Glade commericals where the woman lies to her girlfriends that her Glade candle is a designer candle or whatnot or the HomeGoods commercial that aired around Christmas that showed women at a gift swap being catty about the price and quality of their gifts to each other).

    While we discuss how ads from 50 and 60 years ago seem ridiculous, how will people in the next 50 years look back on us?

  16. Emily 01/12/2010 at 4:23 pm #

    To Jayme – I think you’re completely right about the way women are put into niches! (I am the first Emily that posted, btw). It didn’t even occur to me.

  17. Richard 01/12/2010 at 5:04 pm #

    If I can just put my two cents in, in response to JenB above: I don’t think that the writer of this blog has said that women should be ashamed to be stay-at-home moms/wives. It seems to me that she’s simply saying that women should not feel obligated to be subservient to men. My understanding of feminism is that it’s about empowering women to be in control of their own destinies, that women get to choose their own path whether it be that of a homemaker, doctor, lawyer, construction worker, teacher, executive, or what have you.

  18. Rachel 01/12/2010 at 5:24 pm #

    I agree they’re sexist…but that was the mindset back then. How is that any different than the commercials of soccer mom’s putting Tyson chicken nuggets on the table?
    I think it’s cute, though. :)

  19. Christine 01/12/2010 at 5:33 pm #

    YoMama asked whether women have more choices or more pressures – we have both. Women today feel incredible pressure to “do it all” because there is so much to do. I think women are finally beginning to realize that we can’t have it all – not all at once anyway.

  20. Lauren 01/12/2010 at 5:37 pm #

    I would just like to add that hot-wife-bumbling-husband sitcoms are merely a half-hearted stab by men at gender equality. “What do you mean she isn’t funny and gets no storylines of her own? She’s the smart and pretty one!” Making her more attractive is a male fantasy of trading up. Sure, she’s suppose to be smart, but rarely is she more than a stay at home mother, and her intelligence is mainly expressed through nagging. She’s more foil than moral support to her husband who, though dumber, is far more likeable to the audience. Nothing feminist there.

  21. Jacky 01/12/2010 at 9:41 pm #

    I think Jen misses college heh

  22. Jayme 01/12/2010 at 9:46 pm #

    Rachel, I think that’s part of the point. In my opinion, sexism in advertising today is generally more subtle than in these advertisements (with the exception of the ads of companies like American Apparel and Axe), but it’s most definitely still there, like you said – put me in the “long way to go” camp.

  23. Becca Boo 01/13/2010 at 2:39 am #

    This why I don’t watch TV or buy from corporations. You watch the commercials and buy the product, you watch the shows and give them air time, If there was more of a negative response through boycotting they would have to change. We have a super long way to go and I hope my daughter will live in a more aware world. I lived in South Dakota for a few years, and trust me these ads are how they live. Not everyone there is like that but a definite majority is, sexism is very prevalent. There is nothing more disgusting then men like Harvey!

  24. Whitney 01/13/2010 at 12:15 pm #

    Jen: Ha that made me laugh. Very truthful too. Yogurt is apparently the cool thing to do.

  25. Katharine Ellis Tapley 01/13/2010 at 1:48 pm #

    I agree that these ads are sexist, but all advertising is, no matter when it was created. It’s just a matter of where the sexism is specifically directed. These days it’s a lot more subtle, but it’s still there. It is virtually impossible to create three dimensional characters in advertising, so most companies go along with stereotypes because they’ve already been determined by history and they’re less work to come up with. I think these ads seem shocking to us now, solely because no ads would be this direct today. If you look at the TV commercials for Glade or virtually any other household product, the message of “you can keep your husband/family happy by purchasing things” is clear. My husband works in advertising, though not on consumer products, and he has seen things that would make these look as though Gloria Steinham had penned them.

  26. Katharine Ellis Tapley 01/13/2010 at 1:50 pm #

    I think the last time I saw a commercial for a product geared towards my demographic (25-30, educated, stay at home mother) that I actually wanted to buy…it was for the SlapChop.

    That was in spite of the obnoxious man trying to sell it.

    What does THAT say about me?

  27. Maggie 01/13/2010 at 5:59 pm #

    What an incredible post. Way to start a dialogue, Jen!

  28. Karin 01/15/2010 at 11:13 pm #

    Re: Emily
    I totally agree in that we have a long way to go yet before we are truely equal… in many ways.
    However, I don’t think that the idiot men in commercials nowadays are a sign of men being in a weak position, but rather a consequence of the fact that it’s ok to hit upwards but not to hit downwards.
    In society today, it’s more accepted to want equality between the sexes than it is not to, and thus it’s nearly taboo to promote supression of women. It’s therefor very sensitive to put women in a weak position in for eg commercials. Since men are the norm in society, and on a deeper level acceptable and right just as they are, it’s ok to make jokes about their faults. We all know that it’s just a joke then, after all, it”s being male that’s the MOST normal way to be.
    I’m glad that articles like this show that we’ve at least come a long, long way since the fifties!

  29. bekky O. 02/13/2010 at 11:57 pm #

    To: JenB

    Right On!!

  30. Kylah 02/25/2010 at 2:29 pm #

    To JenB:
    That’s great that you find happiness in staying home to take care of your house and children and to “please your husband”, but don’t forget that you two are EQUALS and that you do not exist solely to please or serve him. And yes, the divorce rate is somewhat higher these days,and that may have a correlation to the feminist movement. But is that necessarily a bad thing? In the past, domestic violence and emotional abuse was much more commonplace in marriages because women were brainwashed to believe that they were doing something wrong and that the husband was always right. Nobody should be forced to stay in a marriage like this. And honey, if you don’t want to be “liberated” by the modern equality movement (which you call “feminism”), then maybe you would be happier living in a country like Iran. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with being a stay-at-home-mom, but if you believe that your husband (or males in general) are at all superior to you, then you have been sadly misled. Equality is not a CHOICE, but a scientific fact, and a right all human beings have.

  31. Jessica 02/25/2010 at 4:41 pm #

    I think we’re looking at these ads totally wrong. We’re assuming the women of these times were stupid enough to actually look at the ad and go “OHMIGOSH!!!! Folgers is right, I AM a horrible coffeemaker, and I sure DON’t wanna incur my husband’s wrath!!!!”
    When in reality, they were just as smart, if not smarter, and probably viewed the ads as silly and amusing. We, in today’s society see women-based ads as sexist and rude and oh-so-out of touch with women. I think we are more offended by marketing and take it much more personally, than our grandmothers did. I mean, I definitely remember my G-ma being a sharp, critical, and often cheeky and humorous woman. Who maintained her dignity and tact, unlike the women of today’s standards.
    Also, I agree with first Jen’s comments entirely. My right to be a stay at home woman has entirely been eradicated due to the fact that a household can’t run on one income.

  32. Jessica 02/25/2010 at 4:57 pm #

    As for equality, sure, we are all mentally equal, but anyone that says the male form is not superior in strength and build than the female form is refusing to acknowledge biology. Just Sayin’.

  33. Kaley 03/05/2010 at 11:49 pm #

    Wow, good point about the yogurt/activia commercials – never really noticed that before. Also modern-day clothing, and even towel commercials, that show husbands and wives cuddling and being all cute, swathed in their new purchases. It’s like – “Buy our sweater! It will make you act like a newlywed again!” Eh, annoying.
    And I def don’t think that there is anything wrong with staying at home, raising up the next generation and keeping a nice house – I think that’s an amazing, powerful job, just as influential as any high-powered exec, if not more so. But these ads aren’t glorifying that – that’s not what’s sexist, it’s the fact that they’re actually belittling it. These women choose to stay at home, and these ads and fictional scenarios are making that look small, cutesy, and limited.
    They limit the husband, too – think about it. They show these men as being so easily impressed or put off by unimportant things – id est, wildly enthralled because their wife can wash dishes quickly, or unwilling to come home because their wife isn’t pretty or has runs in her stockings. Or spurred to a grown-up tantrum because they got a bad cup of coffee. I think the real reason these ads are so offensive is that, while they put most of the pressure on the woman, they disrespect ALL parties involved.

  34. Amy 03/22/2010 at 4:04 pm #

    If you want to go ahead and stay at home and pop out babies like a good little wife, go ahead. Just know I’ll be making more money than you’ll ever see in your life from me being a doctor and my husband being in the Navy. I chose career over kids because I didn’t want stretch marks. Selfish? Surely.

    • Katie 05/23/2011 at 12:46 pm #

      wow- did you really post that? Ya know, you don’t have to be nasty and aggressive to get ahead in medicine. Just sayin. You don’t have to have children…. But you don’t have to put down those that do. Is there something so horribly wrong with choosing to have children and then being home with them? Seriously?

  35. Katie 05/23/2011 at 12:27 pm #

    I don’t think much has changed at all. Commercials are just more suggestive than overt. Who do we still see in cleaning product commercials? Women. Who do we see in the commercials for breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks? Women….all providing healthy, nutritious meals for their families. Who do we primarily see in diet commercials? Women. I could go on and on but I think I’ve pretty much made my point. They don’t come right out and say “you’ll lose your man to the secretary at work who makes a better cup of coffee”…but they do a good job of suggesting it.

  36. Anonymous1973 06/15/2011 at 8:43 pm #

    Don’t forget that these ads were written by men, drawn by men, and put into papers run by men. They fed on and created the fears of women who now did the shopping and had more money to spend after the war and depression.

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  1. ModLife » Blog Archive » Vintage Sexism: Kitchen Appliance Edition - 01/26/2010

    [...] many of you pointed out in the last Vintage Sexism blog post, there is certainly nothing wrong with choosing to be a stay-at-home mother/wife/professional. [...]

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