Mama's mop and Bachelor's soup

Although women shoulder most of the housework burden, men also vacuum, wash up and do the laundry. Kristine Bergström wonders why TV advertising persists in pretending otherwise?

Kristine Bergstrom, 9 June 2008

In an article relating to the controversial events surrounding the presidential election in the United States, New York Times journalist Kate Zernike raised the question of where society stands today on gender issues.

The story, headlined 'Post feminism and other fairy tales' asks: "Weren't we in what some people have long called a post-feminism era, when we thought the big battles were over - or at least that the combatants had reached some accommodation?"

This reflection immediately made me think of all those nights I have spent in front of the television here in the UK wondering why all housework related commercials - exclusively and without exception - star only women, especially in the role of apparently stay-at-home, usually white, suburban, middle class mothers? Why do men never feature in housekeeping TV commercials? If men do feature in these ads, they are there as experts telling women what to do and giving them advice on how to better assume their household duties.

Women work...

Whether it involves grocery shopping, laundry washing, cleaning, mopping, vacuuming, ironing, home fragrancing or cooking, in ad-world all aspects of household chores are taken care of by women. From the two mums doing their grocery shopping when all of a sudden a group of kids enter ("It looks like your sons are back, and it looks like they're hungry"), to the washing powder that makes two women smile satisfied as they smell their newly washed laundry while standing over the washing machine, and the mum who - thanks to Dettol the surface cleanser - can clean the fridge and feed her two kids almost at the same time!

So, if men do participate in the household work, albeit to a lesser extent than women, why do companies still choose to only feature women in their housework ads?

And the five women who have all tried oh-so-many different cleaning products when - a male voice tells them - all they need is "Cillit and bang! - the dirt is gone". Not to mention the Supermocio mop that helps a mom wipe every corner of the floor spotless clean while Tefal - "ideas you can't live without" - helps a woman refill her iron and thus facilitates her ironing.

Or the three successive ads showing men as experts, explaining to a woman how a washing machine works and how to improve the efficiency of her washing powder. Even in the Airwick rabbit family, the protagonist is a female! And she is telling us how much nicer her rabbit house smells after using the fragrance.

...men play

But still no men in the kitchen. Oh no wait! I see one. In fact, there are two. And they are both standing in the kitchen. Or to be exact, they are both playing in the kitchen, fighting with their forks as they make their way through the house. In the meantime the only woman in the group helps herself to some "Bachelor's Soup". It seems the only way for men to cook is by having fun, while cooking for many, like say a family, is boring, and reserved for women. For men, it's no work and all play.

Like for the happy chap who is playing on his silverware like a drum set and voila! The salsa is ready. Easy peasy. But it was not a chore. Chores are apparently for women only while men think, create, invent or play.

Participation...

Working in television, I know the importance of targeting your audience and TV commercials are obviously not an exception.

This would mean that if housework-related TV commercials only feature women, it's only to make women recognize themselves in this role and persuade them they need to purchase the product presented to them.

However, this sales argument could only be justified if women alone undertook all household tasks. So what do the statistics say? According to the British Office for National Statistics, in 2000 women still did the majority of the household chores, despite their increased participation in the labour market.

Women spent three hours a day average on housework (excluding shopping and childcare). This compares with the one hour and 40 minutes spent by men. Furthermore, ironing clothes is the least popular activity among both sexes. Two in five men do not do the ironing and a similar proportion does not do the laundry, while the proportion of women who skip these tasks is fewer than one in 12.

A 2005 survey confirmed the fact that women in all economic categories spent longer on domestic work than men. Women who worked full time spent 151 minutes on domestic work compared with 113 minutes spent by men who worked full time.

...representation

So, if men do participate in the household work, albeit to a lesser extent
than women, why do companies still choose to only feature women in their
housework ads?

No matter how far we have come in reality, the gender stereotype of a house-bound "mother maid" taking care of all the household chores is still prevalent and repeated on television ad nauseam.

Since men do undertake household chores, shouldn't they be represented on the screen? Television - like any other medium of information - has a responsibility in channeling images of what is 'male' and 'female', and companies should take greater responsibility when they conceptualise their sales ideas.

Domestic chores are not a pre-determined destiny for women, things have changed in the households over the years and so should television ads. Why can't companies recognise this progress by making gender-neutral ads? Isn't it time to start being innovative, creative and fight the stereotypes?

About the author

Kristine Bergstrom

Kristine Bergström lived in Paris for eight years before moving to the UK in 2006. She makes a living working for a television company in London and freelance writing

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