“There was a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image that I came to call the feminine mystique” (Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, p.9)
Advertising sells us much more than products. It sells us a lifestyle, values, an image, an ideal but what’s more it sells us the idea of ‘normalcy’. And it’s this idea of being ‘normal’, being acceptable and worthy by everything and everyone, which is the urgent issue. What is deemed and portrayed as ‘normal’ within advertising is often inaccurate. And nothing comes more inaccurate than advertisements aimed at and portraying women. Such advertisements are overwhelmed by fantastical ideals, which are in fact utterly unattainable in reality. However, the sheer repetition and vast amount of them, which engulf our day-to-day lives, have created the illusion of these ideals being completely ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and even more worryingly attainable.
Advertisements portraying and aimed at women have inevitably impacted what both males and females view as being ‘normal’. I will now explore how advertising has impacted our perceptions on what is feminine and female throughout history until modern day. I hope to prove that a ‘normal’ femininity is conditioned and naturalized through advertising, taken on unconsciously by the pure repetition and bombardment of them. This will prove that what is deemed ‘normal’ is just as constructed and performed as those who are viewed as ‘abnormal’.
First let me take you back to America in the 1950’s. The end of World War II saw the men coming back home and women being sent out of the factories back into the dreaded kitchen. Instead of fighting Germans they would now be fighting something much more irritating: germs. Women were now expected to fulfil their role of loyal doting housewife and mother, reflected and reinforced through advertising.
During this period women were often portrayed as consumers, particularly in terms of assuming domestic family roles such as homemaker, cook, mother, cleaner and as finding satisfaction in shopping, as this had become their day-to-day reality. It could be argued that these advertisements latched onto the supposed hereditary differences between males and females, which date back to the earliest civilisations. Women were to nurture, bare and rear the children, whilst men were to hunt, fight and protect. Thus, the role of dutiful housewife being depicted in these 1950’s ads portray a ‘norm’ which has been around and accepted for centuries, so why would anyone blink an eyelid now? Enter Betty Friedman, who recognised the dark notions behind such ads. She traced how American housewives’ ‘lack of identity’ and ‘lack of purpose…[are] manipulated into dollars’.
In chapter 9 of Betty Friedman’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’, entitled, ‘The Sexual Sell’ she shows that 1950’s advertisers tried to encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals who needed many specialized products in order to fulfil their housewife role whilst discouraging them from pursuing actual careers. Advertisers slyly persuaded women into thinking that they would not have sufficient time to do the housework successfully if they had a real job. In reality advertisers recognised that if women were not at home, household product sales would diminish, cutting into their ludicrous profits immensely!
The post-war climate meant that many women returned home whilst men went to work, which Friedan calls, “the mistaken choice” (p.204). As women were at home more, this meant they could buy more. But what’s more is that they had more exposure to television, magazines and therefore those infuriating advertisements. As a result, a large majority of advertisements were geared toward the American homemaker and housewife. Such adverts created a visual and constantly reinforced image of what every home should have and what every housewife should be. And people bought it.
Images of the newest cleaning gadgets being used by pretty smiling women engulfed the minds of males and females alike. And it’s quite understandable why. These adverts were vibrant and cheerful, depicting the housewife as beautiful, slender and pristine at all times-even whilst cleaning the floor! The image of glamorous and happy housewife was immensely popular to both males and females. Meanwhile, the products depicted were portrayed as super efficient, easing the housewife’s tough duties. Marjorie Husted, the creator of Betty Crocker stated that, “Good things baked in the kitchen will keep romance for longer than bright lipstick.” Reinforcing all the stereotypical interests of the housewife.
However, adverts had to be careful not to scare women with the prospect of making these products so efficient that they would have free time. What were they to do then?! And so the darker connotations begin to reveal themselves. These 1950’s American advertisements exhibit rampant stereotyping and gender bias, the idea that a woman should live for her husband and family, which became a dominant and majorly influential image. These vivacious ads reveal a sexist, degrading and sometimes violent attitude towards women. In the 1950’s, ‘normalcy’ for a woman, was to be a housewife, who would please and attend to every need of her husband and children, whose whites would be whiter than white and kitchen equipped with all the latest gadgets, whilst also looking irresistible at all times.
Marriage brought social status and respect, thus women often had to choose between career and marriage. As being a doting housewife was portrayed as the ‘norm’ career aspirations were lost the aim of ‘domestic containment’. Domestic containment was the ideology between the 40’s and 50’s-the idea that a woman should devote herself to being a housewife, mother and wife, thus containing her in the domestic, nuclear family environment. Essentially this is oppression, which was reflected through advertisements. Women even stayed in unhappy and abusive marriages to uphold the family ideal. Due to alimony laws and lack of child support women were trapped, feeling unable to pursue personal fulfilment and empowerment. Sounds ridiculous right? But has much really changed? Do we still see this as ‘normal’ and strive for such ideals?
The reason this stereotype, this ‘ideal’ of femininity lingers is because many women did conform to this housewife image. However, I’d be naive to say that conforming and contentment went hand-in-hand. Nonetheless, women bought into this ‘ideal’ and strived to be just like it. Who doesn’t want to be adored and complimented by their spotless home, satisfied husband and beautiful 1.2 children, whilst retaining a beautiful smile and fabulous dress? It may sound accentuated to some extent but we all want to be perceived and live up to this ideal in some way shape or form. We all want to have a secure loving home and family and retain our youthful beauty. This evidences how what we accept as ‘normal’ links with our ideas of happiness and fulfilment. If we live out such portrayals we’ll just be as happy and accepted, right? This ideology links to my research on Judith Butler and the heterosexual matrix.
For Butler, we are all abiding by a compulsory heterosexuality, which has influenced our ideas on sex and gender and sexuality irrevocably. What we believe is ‘normal’ is controlled by the heterosexual matrix when in reality this ‘norm’ is culturally and socially constructed. This is evident in the portrayal of women in 1950’s advertisements. Women were seen as doting happy housewives who would do anything for their husbands. People saw it, believed it and took it on, all because this was seen as ‘normal’. If we had turned around and questioned these portrayals feminism and women’s rights may have come around a lot sooner!
Overall, the portrayal of women in 1950’s advertisements is sexist and degrading, yet evidences what we still, to some degree view as ‘normal’ for a woman. Whilst women have gained much more empowerment and working rights since the 1950’s, the concept of women being soft and nurturing still remains. We still idolize those women who look beautiful and retain a successful marriage and have children. We still idolize and strive to look pretty at all times.
Whilst I recognise that these advertisements are seriously damaging to the perception of a ‘normal’ woman, such degradations are evident both subtly and aggressively even today. Perhaps, their aim is less associated with cleaning products but advertisements still put out what is expected of women. Thus, the idea of a ‘normal’ femininity I feel is still associated with sexual passivity and doting upon men, which I will evidence further. But why do we follow such ‘normalcy’? Simple. It’s everywhere. Advertisements, sex, ideals and femininity consume our lives both male and female. All industries: fashion, food, magazines and so on sell to women, first and foremost. When it comes to purchasing power and influence, women are the norm. As a result, the portrayal of women in advertisements and the sheer repetition of women as nurturing, sexy and willing, have inevitable become the norm. We buy these products we buy into these images and in doing so inevitably want to be like them.
“We need a drastic reshaping of the cultural image of femininity that will permit women to reach maturity, identity, completeness of self, without conflict with sexual fulfilment.” (Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p.364)
Friedan, B (1963) The Feminine Mystique. London: Penguin Classics.
Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. Vintage, p. 60-70
BGSU (n.a) Stereotypes [online] available from <http://americanmemoryofthe1950shousewif.bgsu.wikispaces.net/Stereotypes>[18 February 2014]