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The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has produced a report putting its new guidelines against gender-stereotypical imagery into effect. These guidelines are meant to reduce or eliminate the “harm” caused by advertising that shows men and women doing the things that women and men stereotypically do, in an effort to sell products. It’s reductive, tacky, and thoughtless. In short, it’s a basic bitch move.
According to The New York Times, “The report came on the heels of a few British ads that perpetuated negative assumptions about women, including one for Protein World, a weight-loss drink, which paired a bikini-clad model with the question: ‘Are you beach body ready?’” The most problematic of the ads noted was a Dove ad that revealed a white woman in a light shirt after a black woman removed her brown shirt. However, the removal of this insensitive and just plain weird ad came after complaints from consumers. The big hand of government wasn’t necessary in getting this one off the internet. It should be pointed out that this is not the move of the Tory government, but the “standards authority” whose purview includes all advertising. It’s a group of unelected bureaucrats that has made this call.
While there has been some renewed debate of late on the efficacy of these gender stereotypes, there is one identity movement for which traditional gender stereotypes have been the entire basis for understanding, allocation, and identification. Trans identity—the feeling that a person is meant to be the biological gender they aren’t—is largely rooted in the appearance and practice of gender stereotypes.
If women and men can’t be defined by the performance of gender stereotypes, and the definitions aren’t based in any sort of biological, bodily reality, then how would a person identify as the one they aren’t? Can the feeling of being female or male be rooted in something other than either the body or behaviour? If neither of these things can be a definer, perhaps there are no definitions. Maybe the words and their identities are just extra at this point.
You can’t address, challenge, or rail against “heteronormativity” if you cannot reveal what the stereotypes you are resisting are. The desire to pull heteronormative gender presentation from advertising will not remove the expectations associated with gender, instead they will present new gender expectations. These new expectations will eventually become normative, and then stereotypical because that’s how language works. What this act of censorship will lead to is a compelled “new normal” while eliminating the context that led to this “new normal.”
Advertisers should keep in mind that women do most of the buying. They will sell more products if they do. “Women are the world’s most powerful consumers, and their impact on the economy is growing every year.” The reality also is that women do most of the housework. Is the idea here to show women that they should not be doing most of the housework? Or to show men that they need to chip in more on housework decision making?
What these ad regulations that bar the portrayal of men not helping around the house are doing is refuting the lived experience of most women. Women who do most of the housework will no longer see themselves and their experience represented in advertising because they’re not “supposed” to have to do all the housework. Those women who continue to do the bulk of the housework, despite directives from advertisers, may feel guilt and shame over their condition of drudgery. They may feel like they need to hide their experience because it’s not in line with how their lives “should” be. Is replacing one set of stereotypes, those based on traditional gender roles, with a set of aspirational stereotypes doing anything other than shifting what the unachievable expectations are? Why are advertisers being told to be in the business of selling life choices as opposed to products?
Maybe these regulations could go further, and also demand that actors who espouse unsavory views, visibly participate in non progressive practices, or play roles in films and television that rely on gender stereotypes for their characterization should be disallowed also.
Per the ASA, “the new rule in the Advertising Codes … will apply to broadcast and non-broadcast media (including online and social media) …” Across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms, advertisers will have to comply with these new regulations. One wonders if advertisers who cross the line will be banned, shunned, or booted from these sites, or if they’ll be given a second chance, despite ill-presented opinions.
Perhaps it’s expecting too much from advertisers, that in addition to selling their wares, they promote certain acceptable values, not just with regard to advertising to children, which has been standard since the 1970’s, but to adults as well. The pandering to viewpoints and positions that are based on the vague idea that someone may take offense, or be unduly influenced, will not stop at advertising. This long reach into what views and perspectives are acceptable to be aired will necessarily reach into other aspects of speech, including political advertising. Perhaps the ASA, or other regulatory commissions, will determine that there are political or social views that are simply too likely to offend, and those will be removed as well.
Here’s the thing. If stereotypes are so toxic and harmful, then we must not stop simply at gender. Perhaps all stereotypes must abolished. Perhaps any ad featuring any religious, ethnic, racial, cultural stereotypes should also be eradicated. It’s not just the soccer moms we have to get rid of—no more pious priests, wacky chefs blowing chef kisses, country bumpkins, no ladies falling and being unable to get up, beer drinking on boats, hormonal teenagers, volleyball at beaches, middle-aged swingers, dancing at weddings, old men with erectile dysfunctions golfing or nerds playing video games.
No more jokes.
As the old saying goes, offense is taken, not given. It has been common knowledge that advertisers will do whatever they must to sell products, and that consumers should heed the monied interests behind the messaging. But right now, it feels like we’re giving up, and letting bureaucrats issue directives for behaviour that we should be able to parse for ourselves. This is an authoritarian imperative implemented by bureaucratic hacks because of their presumption of the public’s ignorance.