Vintage Sexism: Who Wears the Pants? Edition

Images: Found in Mom’s Basement (left), Found in Mom’s Basement

In previous Vintage Sexism posts, we’ve looked at some of the ways women are portrayed as objects of a “male gaze” in advertisements for everything from acne medication to deodorant. This week, I thought it would be fun to shake things up, and take a look at four different images in which these power roles seem reversed. These ads – which are for (coincidentally?) men’s pants – make me pause and wonder, who is actually “wearing the pants,” here?

Turns out, this kind of “role reversal” in advertising– that is, the existence of a kind of “female gaze” – is nothing new. We see it in the ad at above left, circa 1966, which reads, “We put something special in slacks,” and shows a girl on a motorcycle, checking out the two men wearing their super sexy Broomsticks pants in the foreground. The ad at right, which dates from the turn of the 20th century, depicts an elegant lady in a very poofy hat making eyes at a row of studly, trouser-clad gentlemen.

One might argue, then, that the men in these ads are the objects being perceived and judged by women,  just like women in ads for acne medication or deodorant or what-have-you are portrayed in ways that suggest they should purchase a particular product in order to appeal to men as objects. I cannot help but wonder, though, if the women in these “reversed roles” only appear to occupy positions of power, while, in actuality, their images are being “bought” and “sold” as much as the slacks themselves?

Images: Found in Mom’s Basement (left), Found in Mom’s Basement

If the first set of ads seems to place women as perceivers in positions of power, this second set of ads portrays women who are perceivers, yes, but perceivers in positions of powerlessness. The ad on the left features not just one woman, but two, and reads, “Chickers. Make the right jump and you’re king,” implying that women can be “collected” and “won,” just as checkers can. The ad at right for Mr. Leggs slacks is perhaps the most striking. The copy reads, “A display of affection is great…but enough is enough. She couldn’t keep her hands off him. Always the little hugs, the pats on the cheek. Sly pinches. It could drive a man to the license bureau. It all began when he wore his first Mr. Leggs Slack.” True, the woman in this ad may be exercising a “female gaze,” but she is doing so from a position of complete submission and utter powerlessness. She is buried up to her neck in sand, for crying out loud. Her eyes are the only thing she can move.

What do you think, ModLovers? Do you think such a thing as a “female gaze” exists, or are the women in these ads actually being exploited and used as commodities, even if they appear to be in a position of power? Do these ads demonstrate that sexism works both ways, or do they merely reinforce an age-old double-standard? Can you think of any ads or commercials today that reverse traditional power roles? If so, are these ads empowering to women, or ultimately detrimental to reaching equality of the sexes?

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  1. Kat Overton 08/04/2010 at 5:15 pm #

    I feel like today’s products are spun more to empower you. Gilette razors, the rebranding of kotex, even acne cleansors seem to have an empowering overtone.
    Male advertisements are surprisingly preyful on men’s insecurities. If they don’t feel insecure about that stubble, or lack of a certain scent…well they should! Because the ladies will not be attracted to you when they could go for some other Old Spice man. It’s so funny! I had never paid attention to it until my boyfriend’s roommate had pointed it out.

  2. Sophie 08/04/2010 at 9:27 pm #

    While these still sort of give men the power, I do think that it sort of plays on a man’s desire to be desired. Not every man in these times looked like those models, I assume, so some insecure guy whose wife isn’t grabbin’ all over him would probably respond to this.

    Also, I’m with Kat on today’s ads. During the Super Bowl a lot of the men’s commercials were basically like “So what if your girlfriend makes you hold her purse in public or you have to drive a minivan? All is not lost! Fight your slow emasculation with our product!”

  3. brittany 08/05/2010 at 9:52 am #

    “Strong enough for a man but made for a woman”-is one example of advertising that tries to empower women but still implies that a woman cannot be as strong as a man. I agree with Sophie and Kat too.

    Great post Jennifer^_^

  4. Kenzie 08/05/2010 at 3:32 pm #

    Well, if we compare the world’s strongest man to the world’s strongest woman, the man will be stronger. Very much so.

    Physically, women are not made to be stronger (a lot aren’t even as strong) as men. This isn’t a feminist issue, it’s a biological fact. Women can’t even achieve six-packs – the closest we can get is a four-pack, whereas the total for a man is eight.

  5. Kenzie 08/05/2010 at 3:33 pm #

    Of course, I was only talking about muscle. There are many other types of strength.

  6. Jayme 08/05/2010 at 5:34 pm #

    Kenzie, I don’t understand what muscle and physical strength have to do with the positions of power the OP is discussing here. And I think talking about physical strength distracts from the really valid points in the post about how gender, gender roles, and social power are coded in advertising.

  7. Brenda 08/06/2010 at 5:45 pm #

    I’m absolutely loving this series of blogs.
    I’m a total Mad Men fan so I like looking at these ads.

  8. Queni 08/08/2010 at 5:21 am #


    Like the post (-:-D

  9. Stephanie 08/09/2010 at 9:26 pm #

    It seems that the females depcited in these ads, aren’t really in a position of power at all! I don’t think it goes both ways, women ogling men, etc. They are displayed as the commodity to be won over should these men buy their products. Because of course women are so stupid that we’ll be won over by a guy in a good pair of pants…

  10. Carolina 08/09/2010 at 10:16 pm #

    ugh! the one of the woman buried up to her neck – that is actually one of the worst ads I have seen!

    In the real world, there is definitely a difference between women oogling men, and men oogling women. Men oogling women is often offensive and at times scary. I am sure a lot of women have been felt uncomfortable, vulnerable or even outright exploited by some ooglers. And in some cases, the uncomfortable oogle can lead to much worse… (I don’t know crime statistics off the top of my head, but I feel pretty confident saying that violent crimes by men against women are considerably more common than vice versa)

    but “Broomsticks” pants! That has to be the best name ever. Where can I pick up a pair for my guy? – of course, maybe I don’t want to get him a pair, considering all those motorcycle babes that are going to oogle him in his fitted, tapered Broomsticks…

  11. Vix 08/10/2010 at 10:32 am #

    I love this series of blogs, so intriguing to see things through the eyes of another decade. Thanks!

  12. Carolyn 08/10/2010 at 5:40 pm #

    Ahh, the myth of reverse discrimination. Marginalized groups (women) cannot discriminate against groups that hold the power (men).

    It’s like the argument I learned in my sociology class: men may say “Oh, being a man isn’t all that great. I mean, men aren’t allowed to cry.” But! Such an argument is invalid because by not crying, they uphold their “masculine” and powerful image. I think this is another instance of that kind of thinking.

    The women in this ads aren’t necessarily in any more power than they were before. It’s just a different marginalization of their power.

  13. hannah 08/22/2010 at 6:20 pm #

    thank you so much for these posts!

  14. Jennifer 11/03/2010 at 11:54 pm #

    As much as I respect and agree to a point with what you’re saying about men oogling women, do you really think that men are completely comfortable with being oogled by women? I know many who are not. Discrimination is discriminiation regardless of who it’s been committed by and against.

    I’m not going against anything you say, just adding another opinion. So many times women get offended by another woman commenting on her comment. Us girls should stick together! Oh and the other ad… that was the height of fashion back in the day. Aren’t we glad we don’t have to wear all that now?

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