Vintage Sexism: Cheer Up! Edition

Image: Flickr user SA_Steve

Ever have one of those days when someone tells you to “cheer up,” or “smile,” when it’s the last thing you feel like doing? Or, worse, when people say, “Wow! You look exhausted!”?

After speaking with several college students, young professionals, and working mothers, I’ve begun to think that women, perhaps to a greater degree than men, often feel pressure to maintain a positive attitude, no matter what.  “Put on a happy face,” people will tell us. Even complete strangers will demonstrate discomfort or wariness whenever we don’t act like Miss Mary Sunshine. And, judging from some of these ads of yesteryear, this is a rather age-old experience.

In the above ad, a woman named Barbara expresses feelings of of erasure and invisibility when she believes she isn’t “exciting” enough. She blames herself for her lack of energy, confiding that, before she began popping the Vivarin regularly, by the time her husband came home at night, she felt “dull, tired and drowsy.” Jim, she says, “would look at television and, for the most part, act like I wasn’t even there. And I wasn’t.” But with Vivarin, a non-habit forming stimulant, she says, Jim could come home to a “more exciting woman.” Even here, Barbara calibrates her success in terms of pleasing another, and this time, it isn’t a friend or a stranger; it is her husband. Thank goodness for Vivarin?

Image: Vintage_Ads

In this comic strip-style ad for cereal, a woman called “Sis” faces the same kind of pressure to act perky. For Sis, it is not good enough simply to be beautiful; she must also demonstrate an appropriate “zip and zest!” There’s nothing wrong with eating vitamin-fortified cereal, of course, but this ad brings to light the societal pressures both men and women place on women to act cheerful and upbeat, and other emotions – sadness, anger, exhaustion – undesirable.

What do you think, ModLovers? Do you think that women today experience pressure to “put on a happy face” and look cheerful and energetic, even if they feel otherwise? Do you think men are under the same kind of pressure? We’d love to hear your thoughts!


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  1. Avatar
    Mary 07/21/2010 at 4:06 pm #

    How many of us have heard “You’re not the cheerleader type” and felt complete RELIEF???

  2. Avatar
    Katie 07/21/2010 at 5:09 pm #

    hahahaha… I dig it, Mary!

    I tend to think women are still socially conditioned to be the “emotionally well-adjusted ones,” because that’s not part of the little boys’ training to “be a man.”

    But… I just generally would rather be around people who are *all* cheerful. Not saying we don’t all have bad days, but we don’t have to have *only* bad days.

  3. Avatar
    Jenna 07/21/2010 at 6:24 pm #

    lol mary. that’s good.
    but i think that being somewhat happy is essential.
    i don’t know.

  4. Avatar
    Katharine Ellis Tapley 07/21/2010 at 6:27 pm #

    Meh. I don’t know about these days, but when these ads were out, certainly. It depends on where we are. As someone with a preschooler, and a toddler, and a home based business.

    For the most part, I find people really supportive and understanding when I’m not perky and cheerful. They see the stroller and totally get it.

    Sadly, I find schadenfreude from people on those days when I’m out with the kids and AM in a well rested, perky frame of mind. I get snarky “you must drink a lot of coffee.” comments.

    I do think these ads are icky, though. I think the media put the pressure on women, but the majority of actual people do not. They expect a lot of us to be tired, and are confused when we’re not.

    It’s all about unrealistic expectations. No one is ever one way ALL the time, be it full of…”pep” or not.


  5. Avatar
    Katharine Ellis Tapley 07/21/2010 at 6:29 pm #

    Okay, that’s odd. A chunk of my first paragraph got cut out.

    Should have read: As someone with a preschooler, and a toddler, and a home based business, I’m tired more than half the time, and I don’t expect anything from other people other than common courtesy (good manners should transcend moods).

  6. Avatar
    Shelby Petersen 07/21/2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Sometimes I am having a great day and I feel really good, but then someone says to me “Shelby, you look tired or upset.” Which immediately makes me feel upset and angry! Kind of ironic! Anyway, I never point out that someone is looking “down” because I know how it infuriates me.

    Those adverts made me laugh out loud. I cannot imagine flipping through my magazine to find that!

  7. Avatar
    Angela 07/21/2010 at 7:23 pm #

    Sure, but there’s still the converse expectation that women are more emotional, which implies oscillating moods. No matter what mood a woman is in, men will always feel uncomfortable at the fact that women have moods at all. Happy or sad, we’re women, and therefore, can’t be trusted with anything important.

  8. Avatar
    Allie 07/21/2010 at 8:33 pm #

    THIS IS SO SPOT ON. Just the other day, for example, I was on the fitting room line, and when the employee asked me how I was, apparently I didn’t respond cheerfully enough. He let me know. I get it all the time. I just want to be like, ‘excuse me sir, shove it!’ Why do I have to have a constant smile? Maybe I’m thinking about something. Maybe I had a bad day. Maybe I just don’t feel like straining my smile muscles for complete strangers!

  9. Avatar
    Trishna 07/21/2010 at 8:59 pm #

    I used to hear that a lot that I am too serious or not fun enough to be aorund all the time. I do not understand why there is this pressure on us women, to be cheerful, perky, good looking and giggling all the time when there is no such expectation from men.

    I believe women should look beautiful because they want to and it makes them feel good. They should smile because they are truly happy . And they should be perky and interested because the things around them are truly interesting, and she does not have to pretend. 🙂

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    Elizabeth 07/21/2010 at 10:54 pm #

    You’re right, Angela, and I always want to counter, is anger not an emotion? Not irrational thinking? You men never feel joy or regret or jealousy or rage or grief or surprise? Ever?

    Maybe Barbara should have realized she was bored by her husband.

  11. Avatar
    Anne 07/21/2010 at 11:06 pm #

    I GET THIS ALL THE TIME. As someone who is generally pretty happy and has a positive outlook on life, I don’t get it. Come to think of it, though, the vast majority of instances when I have received a comment (always from a dude) like “oh, cheer up” or “why aren’t you smiling?” or “tired already?” is when I’m out at a bar, usually when I’m waiting to get a drink or something. It infuriates me because especially in those situations I already feel like I’m somewhat “on display,” and apparently I’m just not cheerful or perky enough all the time. I really can’t ever imagine a woman casually saying that to a guy at a bar, though. Maybe these two experiences, and the projected male expectations of us as women, go hand in hand?

  12. Avatar
    Kendall 07/21/2010 at 11:19 pm #

    I definitely feel that I’m required to “put on a happy face,” especially at work. I make coffee, so of course customer service is part of the job, but my coworkers and I find that the female employees are constantly being pressured to smile and sweet talk, while the male employees are never asked to do anything but make a drink and perhaps drop in a polite “how are you?”
    My mom was also raised being told to “smile and act friendly” every time she stepped out the door. So maybe her defiance in the way she raised me has lead me to notice (and resent) those remarks more.

  13. Avatar
    Kim 07/22/2010 at 7:51 am #

    I totally agree with the comments about the 1st ad especially – women not only have more pressure to have a positive attitude, they also blame themselves more often when they don’t deliver what’s expected of them. I mean why should the wife be the one to add more “pep” to the relationship? Why can’t her husband put some effort into it? It takes two to tango! I find if women don’t present the positive front they are considered “cranky bitches” or something, where as men are maybe just seen as “stressed” or “overworked”

  14. Avatar
    Sara 07/22/2010 at 10:08 am #

    I think that women are always thought of the ones to have a “cool head” for a reason. It’s like a mom who doesn’t freak out when her child comes in with a broken arm, just to keep him/her calm, or has a bad day at work and comes home and puts it all behind her because the most important thing is family and that’s all you need to be happy. I think that to be empowered, we need to take control of how we feel and not allow how we feel take control of us. Being able to put a smile on, even in the worst of times shows our resilience.

  15. Avatar
    Jamie 07/22/2010 at 10:45 am #

    i agree. i don’t think it’s completely one-sided as well. in today’s world, men and women are even busier than before and it seems only natural that they may lack energy or the stamina to “go, go, go” all the time.

  16. Avatar
    Mary 07/22/2010 at 1:01 pm #

    I’m just sayin… REAL emotions- (not “cheerleader” ones) are what give us women a colorful, fulfilling life-

    If the lady in the first ad thinks her life is “boring, dull, tired, and drowsy,” she should spice it up for HERSELF not the dude.

    …I prefer “Raw” over “Rah Rah!” 😉

  17. Avatar
    Natalie 07/22/2010 at 1:32 pm #

    I’m a very contemplative person. I’m more likely to sit back and listen to a conversation in a group of friends than to be interjecting at every moment with my opinion. I’d rather stare out the window than try and make small talk on a bus or car ride with acquaintances. Like Shelby, I’m perfectly content and happy, but I get accused of being sad. When people ask me what’s wrong, I get kind of annoyed because nothing is wrong, I’m just being me. So my response sometimes sounds defensive, totally making it seem like something is indeed wrong. =(

  18. Avatar
    Marie 07/22/2010 at 9:00 pm #

    I’m a college student working at a factory as a summer job, and I have this kind of problem all the time. Just last night, I had 3 different male coworkers (2 of whom I had never spoken with previously) tell me I should smile more. Ugh. Next time I’ll tell them I only smile when I have reason to.

  19. Avatar
    Kit 07/23/2010 at 1:44 am #

    I’m more a quite person, I’m not ‘bubbly’. I like to listen to people and I think alot about things…
    And all the time I get people thinking I’m grumpy or sad because I’m not smiling ALL the time…I get comments like “Are you having a bit of a grumpy day today?” or “Aww, you aren’t having a good day today are you?” in such a condecending tone, always from the males I know ( and sometimes complete strangers). The fact is my natural face position isn’t a smile…or joyful looking. And when people do make comments, the comments actually then makes me unhappy and it ruins my day!
    I’ve had times where I’ve been just SO happy then all of a sudden someone makes a comment and it kills my whole day…I don’t know, maybe it’s just something wrong with my face?

  20. Avatar
    Stacy 07/23/2010 at 4:42 am #

    My own mother and father do this to me!
    But I get that from guy friends pretty often. It’s like for THEM, they’re allowed to behave like little school boys. Not me though! I just need to smile and be bubbly and hide all my emotions for the sake of being perfect.
    See, this makes me sound so bitter and angry, when I’m really a very outgoing kinda girl. But I LOVE going up to sad-looking guys at bars and asking them about their day. It’s like payback for what I hear. I just wish society didn’t see us as cranky, controlling bitches all the time, either.

  21. Avatar
    Syd 07/26/2010 at 6:26 pm #

    I often feel afraid to share my true feelings when something’s bothering me. I don’t want to be a drag on my friends, especially when I know that there’s only so much they can do to help me anyway. But yeah, I sometimes feel pressure to put on a good front and seem happy with my life.

  22. Avatar
    Jacky 07/28/2010 at 7:45 pm #

    ahh I get annoyed when people ask the “how are you?” bullshit question, because you know everyone expects I’m fine. How is your meal? They expect “good”. I didn’t respond last time the meal was terrible I just looked away. Its silly really. Its not really just about women, its an expected optimistic vibe people expect with everything. “How was your 8 hr drive here?” well lets see it rained the entire way and I got stuck behind two trucks in the fast lane and Border patrol questioned me for 15 minutes.. “oh it was good, went faster than I thought”

  23. Avatar
    katie bee 08/03/2010 at 12:09 am #

    I’m surprised no one else talked about that silly constant “is it that time of the month?” question that usually accompanies the “aw, not happy?” type questions. It drives me CRAZY! Thankfully, my husband has figured that out. and katie, YES, I so agree about having good and bad days. We are allowed to have both.

  24. Avatar
    Lady Viviane Mae 10/06/2010 at 11:42 pm #

    I am having one of my ‘bad days’ and so this really gets to me. Hiding negativity behind a mask that everything is ok only makes it worse. I should know, I do it all the time, because if I didn’t I know I would be unbearable to be around.
    I love the look and the feel of these vintage ads, but I still think this pervading sense of ‘cheer up’ when you don’t feel that way is contributing to a worldwide increase in depression, anxiety and yes I’ll say it, Suicide.

  25. Avatar
    Lew 01/01/2011 at 11:55 am #

    I’ll never forget when a man told me to smile as I was walking on the street. It caught me totally off guard and I just looked at him. I did not smile. Again, he told me to smile and again I did not. He then proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t that pretty after all!! But, I think this happens to the younger gals more? It’s very interesting, I look quite a bit younger than my age, but have the confidence and wisdom of a 40+ person and so when a fellow says something like that these days I snap right back with a reply! Now, they’re the ones caught off guard!

  26. Avatar
    Amanda 02/22/2011 at 4:15 pm #

    Some of you girls are probably introverts. Popular culture in American society is all about extroversion and if you’re not the equivalent of a hormonal teenager on speed then there’s something wrong with you. People are so over-stimulated by the various types of media constantly bombarding us, that when they come across real human beings, they are subconsciously expecting exaggerated dramatic encounters.
    There really isn’t anything wrong with you. Your brain just processes things differently than extroverts. I think also your astrology chart has something to say about it as well. So be kind to yourselves and don’t let anyone pressure you into being a clown for their amusement. : )

  27. Avatar
    Miriam 08/21/2011 at 10:32 pm #

    I have a guy friend who, on days at school when I’m not my usual smiley self, for whatever reason, will say,
    “Show me a smile.” I always reply, “Give me a reason to.” And I mean it. If you want me to cheer up, fine. I would love for you to cheer me up. Go get a joke book or something. It is not my job to be cheered up by your concern that I’m not cheery. Make me laugh, and both sides win.

  28. Avatar
    Moddy 12/17/2011 at 8:42 am #

    I don’t get what’ supposed to be sexist about this ad. Is it because it’s written by a woman instead of a man? It’s hardly a stretch to a marriage failing if ‘Old Jim’ had this problem instead.

    Seriously, what’s sexist? People say this schmidt to men all the time too.

  29. Avatar
    Beth 01/05/2012 at 11:40 am #

    well, i’ve been married for four years and have had three kids in three of them (stay-at-home mom, LOVE IT) and yes i am tired and haggled looking by the time my equally weary husband gets home. but the days i change into something that doesn’t smell like baby spit-up, put on make-up and a smile, my husband transforms into a bright smiling guy. My bf told me that men think we are beautiful, they just wish we would make the effort to show and act like it (for ourselves, that is). I can totally relate to the add, and what is the matter with trying to make someone you love happy? It makes me happy to do it.

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