Super Bowl 2014 Will Serve Up New Crop of Sexist Ads, But This Year You Can Tweet Back
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Some are suggesting that this year’s advertisements are less sexist than the past. Is this true? Probably not.
The people at Superbowl-commericals.org seem to have confused sexy with sex ist, suggesting that the issue is lewdness rather than political rudeness (recall that the members of the fictional band Spinal Tap had the same problem). While there might be less (female) skin this time around, that doesn’t mean that sexism in advertising has gone away. It’s simply going underground.
The number of sexist ads aired during the Super Bowl has been so extreme in recent years that calling them out is as easy as falling off a log. But marketers are getting smarter about their audience and how to grab our attention. This means, at first glance, it might seem like there’s some progress. The Volkswagen ad with “brainy engineers” calls out sexism and stereotypes in a humorous way, and this works. At the same time, only the male engineer in the duo has a speaking part. The female engineer is totally silent through the whole ad. To suggest that this year’s lineup is less sexist is like being a little less pregnant.
Axe Body Spray has come under a lot of criticism for its ridiculously sexist ads. Now it's rolled out “Make Love, Not War.” I got goosebumps when I watched the soldier in his military tank soften into an embrace with his girlfriend. I’m glad the company is promoting a message about global peace. But the ad is still full of gendered stereotypes such as the notion that men are warriors who can be tamed by the love of a good woman. This ad might not be in-your-face like a woman sucking up a sloppy burger while lying on her bed in lingerie. But the stereotype that women are inherently more peaceful is on the sexist spectrum.
There’s a problem when advertisers relentlessly portray women as hypersexualized objects. But there is also a problem when white men are overrepresented in ads. When men are featured as active agents, inventors, funny guys, even lovable losers, and women are excluded, we become invisible. Women’s full range of human capacity gets erased from the public view. As viewers, we are so used to seeing men in lead roles we don’t even notice that the women are missing or don’t talk. (See The Smurfette Principle and The Bechdel Test for more on this.)
Women’s invisibility sends a powerful message about sex and gender. This message is even more powerful because we don’t notice it.
Here’s something we do notice: Izabel Goulart's underwear. In the Super Bowl ad, the Victoria’s Secret model dances around in her panties, takes selfies in bed and nibbles a little piece of food (possibly her lunch). Obviously, this is how all women spend our time alone: We dance around the house in slow motion, wearing bikini underwear and kissing photos of ourselves. I can’t believe they let this secret out. (Kidding!) The problem is not the treacly slo-mo camera work. I refuse to slutshame women or girls, and I don’t hate underwear. The problem is that naked is one of the few ways we repeatedly see women displayed. During Super Bowl ads, we rarely see men in states of undress, never while dancing, and if we do, the guys will be buff, in the gym, or it will be a joke. It’s hard to think about women as presidents and CEOs when we’re so used to seeing them relatively powerless in panties. After all, lingerie does not convey messages of strength, authority and capability—except as all this relates to sexual fantasy.