Vintage Sexism: Kitchen Appliance Edition

Geraldine Finster has a “secret weapon to fight the dull mediocrity in her life,” and that weapon is Mr. Clean. He has come to “put some excitement” in her cleaning regimen. As this commercial strives to show us, cleaning the kitchen can be an empowering task, and women like Geraldine will have a blast doing it, too. Right?

As 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. Indeed, there are a lot of women who would love to have the financial means to do so. But what these ads show us is that, no matter what a woman chooses to do — whether she stays at home or works outside of it, whether she gets married and has children or does not –she is still portrayed as the partner almost solely responsible for domestic chores. At least, that seems to be the consensus of the media, as well as advertising and marketing industries. What I would like to know is why cleaning/cooking/taking care of the kitchen is portrayed exclusively as a woman’s work?

Keep reading for more Vintage Sexism: Kitchen Appliance Edition!

[Images Above: and]

I must admit, I am a sucker for kitchen gadgets. It is my hope to one day own a refrigerator with a top-notch, built-in ice maker, and I’ve wanted a Magic Bullet ever since I first saw the infomercial. I don’t know what a “Bottling Outfit” is, exactly, but it looks like it might be fun.  The issue I take with these ads is not what is being sold, but how it is being sold, and to whom. In these three vintage print ads, the woman is always portrayed as the one who is receiving the gadget. While there’s nothing wrong with getting a gift, the repetition of the pattern is striking. We don’t see a woman buying her husband a nice electric mixer or top-of-the-line garbage disposal. Turn your attention to the ad at the right. The man is reclining in a relaxed (semi-seductive?) pose, with his wife in pearls gazing adoringly into his eyes. She’ll want to thank you three times a day” when you give her a garbage disposal? Shouldn’t it read, “you’ll want to thank her three times a day when she disposes your crap?”

[Image Above:]

I find this next ad especially mind-boggling. The electric mixer is qualified to hold the glamorous, professional title of “chef,” while the woman, who is doing most of the grunt work (which includes operating the “chef”) is only important because she is needed to perform the less glorified job of “cooking.” The fact that a kitchen appliance is held in higher esteem than a person is, in my estimation, rather unsettling. This is from the 1980’s, by the way.

The exchange of labor illustrated in these ads is formulaic and rather simple: a man gives his wife an appliance (or money with which to purchase that appliance), and his wife adores him, and her new kitchen appliances (that will be used to produce food/ create a pleasant dining environment for him).

[Image Above:]

But what about the Mr. Clean commercial? Instead of targeting a man (“buy your wife this”), the commercial is geared to a woman consumer.  And to be fair, at first glance, I think it does a pretty good job of making cleaning look exciting and even empowering. Geraldine gets to whip off her glasses and look sexy as she makes her way around the kitchen, blasting dirt away with her gun full of Mr. Clean ammunition. She appears to be an independent, intelligent, and educated individual who is cleaning her home so she can enjoy her book in a pleasant atmosphere. Unlike the advertisements above, there is no man present. Or is there? Mr. Clean might not be a real live human, but with his masculine voice, and the cleaning solution and the “gun” we associate him with, he takes on a distinctly male persona. His presence takes the place of the husband in the above ads.  This commercial is simply another (more nuanced and clever) version than the ads above.

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 the “separate spheres” portrayed by the media and advertising industries represent or reflect your personal experience or your own upbringing?


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  1. Avatar
    emily 01/26/2010 at 2:28 pm #

    I know nothing puts me in the mood like getting a new Saturn garbage disposer!

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    Natalie B. 01/26/2010 at 2:32 pm #

    I, for one, grew up in a home where both parents worked. However, the “domestic duties” still fell upon my mother. She would go to work, then come home, cook dinner, and do all the cleaning. My father cooking was a rare sight, indeed, but I also attribute that to the fact that when he cooked, the results were disastrous! He once made “Kahuna Tuna” – an abomination which consisted of tuna, pineapple, and Sloppy Joe sauce. My gag reflex is initiated thinking about it.

    However, I can’t say that this was because of how he was raised, because my grandfather (his father) does at least half of the cooking in his house! Somewhere in the Italian heritage, the ability to cook is considered a positive, masculine trait, and his spaghetti sauce is incredible. I can only assume that my mom taking on all the domestic duties (and her acceptance of that) came from external sources.

    It is upsetting that cleaning products are exclusively marketing towards women, and I’m sure they would argue that it’s because women are their main consumers and purchasers, to which I would still inquire, “WHY?” Times, they are a-changin’, and I know that at my apartment, the responsibilities are shared between my partner and I. To us, it just makes sense. We both have full-time jobs. We both eat and get the apartment dirty. Thus, we both take responsibility for those tasks!

    Hopefully, the cleaning product industry will realize that this is not the sole duty of women, and stop reinforcing that old-fashioned belief with their ads. But, until then, I realized something else about those infomercials for the Magic Bullet and many other cleaning products (OxyClean, anyone?) – why are they being sold to us by men, if they’re “for” women? There are occasionally women, but for the most part, very masculine men are pitching these products. I’m going to go think about this one….

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    Dina 01/26/2010 at 2:56 pm #

    Jen, I love these blog posts! I’ve been reading this book ‘Something from the Oven – Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America’ by Laura Shapiro that would be right in tune with many of the points you make here. While it does talk a bit about cooking appliances it deals more with foods and cooking itself, and how those were marketed towards women after the war. With women returning to the workplace, advertisers and inventors of convieience foods thought prepackaged, ready-to-go items would be flying off the shelves, but cooking at those times (and perhaps stilll today) went straight to the heart of what it was to be a woman and take care of your family. Take too much cooking out of the equation and women felt as though they weren’t doing their duties. A really good read! Check it out!

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    Mary 01/26/2010 at 2:57 pm #

    Just wanted to add that Target Women with Sarah Haskins also does a fantastically funny job of examining the sexism in modern advertising. Google it and check her out! You’ll laugh, but also be slightly disturbed at how not far we’ve come since these vintage ads. Like your Mr. Clean observation, Target Women points out that many of the ads today are just more nuanced and clever versions of the ads above.

  5. Avatar
    Brittany 01/26/2010 at 3:00 pm #

    One of the reasons why household tasks have been delineated in such a dichotomous way is anchored in agrarian practices. Millennia ago, when small societies of people began to grow and harvest crops, simple tools were used, such as the hoe. During this time, women were highly regarded in society. Technology is to blame for the severe delineation of roles. Once agrarian societies began using the horse and plow method women were no longer a part of the growing process. It was not because men did not want them to be, but because unlike the easy operable hoe, women, who are expected to perpetuate the species, found it more difficult to handle a giant plow and a team of horses when pregnant. Hence roles became more dichotomous.

    The entire feminist complaints are out of touch. What about just simple humanism??

    A more forward discussion would be about the acceptability of women partaking in typical male roles verses the unacceptability of men partaking in typical female roles. How about our culture’s fear of emasculation?

    It isn’t the marketing campaign that you have a problem with. It’s society. Only in the last 100 years have women slowly been making headway, but this is fighting against centuries of delineation. It is going to take awhile.

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    Jen 01/26/2010 at 3:06 pm #

    Dina, thank you so much for the book suggestion. It sounds like a compelling read, and I can’t wait to check it out!

    Mary, I am honored that you brought up Sarah Haskins. I idolize her, and her Target Women videos were actually what inspired this blog category!

    Thank you so much for reading, and stay tuned for more Vintage Sexism!

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    Kendall 01/26/2010 at 3:34 pm #

    These ads remind me of a series of Lysol commercials that came out within the last few years. They featured women dusting in a glass-walled room, without a ceiling, then staying there for a week to see if the dust might settle. We watched the woman, like a fish in a bowl, sitting around, bored out of her mind. Even without the ceiling, she stayed in the room, waiting to clean again. The ad wasn’t outright offensive, but it left me sort of disturbed.
    I got the feeling that there was this invisible, conceptual barrier being created. This perfectly capable woman would not leave her box.
    I think this says a lot about sexism in the media today; it’s sneaky and underhanded – slightly harder to detect. And, honestly, just as bad.

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    Richard 01/26/2010 at 4:14 pm #

    Kendall, I remember those commercials! Like you said, they’re very sneaky, so at the time they were running, I don’t think I ever noticed the sexism. But now that you point it out, it really is quite disturbing! Ugh.

    From a guy’s perspective, that Mr. Clean commercial with the raygun makes me want to buy that product. I could live out my Han Solo fantasy while simultaneously cleaning my kitchen! No need to market that solely to women!

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    Jeremy 01/26/2010 at 4:22 pm #

    The mixer ad is especially disturbing to me as well. It even subjugates the wife gramatically! At least “that’s what wives are for.” isn’t in parens I guess.

    I really enjoy these posts. They make me examine the popular world in a whole new way. This year, for my birthday, I’m asking for a Sink-Erator. I just hope its magic works for men too!

  10. Avatar
    Richard 01/26/2010 at 4:39 pm #

    Nice to see another male perspective on here, Jeremy!

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    Amy 01/26/2010 at 5:10 pm #

    I saw one of my “favorite” recent sexist commercials a few months ago, advertising some sort of laundry detergent or stain remover. Someone was heroically instructing a group of seemingly air-headed women how to use the product. This someone, of course, was a MAN – the only man in the commercial. Thank you, sir, for kindly enlightening the women how to properly do your laundry.

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    Maddie 01/26/2010 at 5:39 pm #

    I love me my magic bullet as much as the next, but could you imagine the sexual inuendos that would fly if you ever saw a man use one? I agree that consumerism plays a heavy hand in social and gender rearing, but who exacerbates it?

  13. Avatar
    Annalisa 01/27/2010 at 12:21 am #

    Great post! In recent years I’ve been keeping an eye on gender roles in domestics commercials and I have yet to see one where a man is dusting, vacuuming, scrubbing, or helping with the laundry. I find two companies’ promotions particularly aggravating: the Electrolux series, with its slogan, “be even more amazing” (as though housewifery were the only way to achieve amazing) and the Eggland’s Best commercials, featuring a male chef and his mom… who uses only Eggland’s Best eggs to cook for her son, the chef. He gets to be a professional, but she just gets to be his mom.

    On another note, my dad does an equal share of housework in my parents’ home. Too bad the advertisers don’t want to solicit his business!

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    Casey 01/27/2010 at 12:18 pm #

    I don’t think that cooking or cleaning should instantly be deemed the woman’s work. My parents have been married for thirty years and my father can’t even make the bed for himself. My mother does all the laundry and cleaning with no help from him, and she even does the yard maintenance which is stereotypically the man’s job. My father does, however, help with a majority of the cleaning. So I guess, for the most part the stereotype for women holds up in my house, excluding myself, of course, for I refuse to conform.

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    Ashley 02/25/2010 at 3:07 pm #

    My hubby is a fantastic cook. So much so, when we got married, he basically took over the kitchen himself. (He wants to be a restaurateur someday.) I still love to bake though, and it’s a good thing, since he couldn’t frost a cake if held at gunpoint.

    I do however subscribe to the Proverbs 31 woman idea. A woman’s place trule is in the home, because no one else can make a house feel more like home than a wife. Does that mean women need to STAY home all the time? Nope. Just means every home needs a feminine touch.

    As a side note, hubby also does laundry (albeit poorly, and I wind up going behind him to fix it.) vacuums (A job I HATE!) and loads the dishwasher, (though I much prefer to do it by hand.) He leaves all the decorating (Doilies, throw pillows, candles and furniture) to my discretion, and as long as I don’t break the bank, together we make our little apartment as homey as possible.

    As to what the media has to say about a woman’s place in the home… has anyone noticed it doesn’t go away? When was the last time you saw a vacuum, dust wipe, or disinfectant commercial with the product being used by a guy? As Pastor Gungor says, “Men tend to remain through life as they came into it…. clueless.” (He meant it tongue in cheek of course.) 🙂

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    Ashley 02/25/2010 at 3:19 pm #

    And Kendall, that was a Pledge commercial, not Lysol. It was demonstrating the allergen and dust trapping abilities of Pledge furniture polish and other products.

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    Ashley 02/25/2010 at 3:24 pm #

    Oh, and one more thing, when it comes to fixing things around the house…. guess who does a better job? Hubby knows my favorite gifts are usually from the power tools department. When asked what I wanted for Christmas, I responded “An off-set ratcheting screwdriver!” 🙂

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    Robyn 02/26/2010 at 2:02 pm #

    You never see a Swiffer commercial with the old duster or broom targeted at men (you know the ones, the duster/broom has been replaced and send the woman flowers or radio song shout outs with really cheesy love songs).

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a paper towel commercial where the hubby is cleaning up the mess (if he’s in the commercial at all, he’s probably making the mess along with the kids).

    I am really enjoying this column, Jen. Wonderful insight and really makes me think that maybe we haven’t come as far as we like to think in the last 50 or 0 years.

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