I'm just as disgusted as the next feminist by this year's Superbowl ads. What's striking me more than the rotten way women were portrayed in the alternate universe of SuperbowlLand is the way the target audience--men, presumably--was depicted.
The Dodge Charger ad begins with men talking about not women, but The Man. The actors were shown giving a litany of promises: I will be at work by 8 a.m.; I will sit through two-hour meetings. It quickly becomes clear that being good middle managers is only part of the deal, though, as the list grows to include "watching your vampire movies," recycling, and other things we're supposed to see as tedium.
I often wonder who these sorts of overtly pandering ads are pandering to, exactly, since nobody I normally hang out with thinks that way, at least not openly. I watched the Bowl with three men, all of whom are thirtysomething beer-drinking football lovers--the Bowl's target audience--and the irony of hearing them groan just as loudly as I did at these ads was not lost on me. But reading reactions from car geeks and Twitter reactionaries (annoyed Tweeters appeared to be men and women in equal measures) revealed that it wasn't just my little self-selected group of men who were turned off by the blatant appeals to an outdated mode of thinking.
I'm guessing that the thinking of the ads creators went something like this: The economy ain't so hot >> men's status as breadwinners is suddenly in jeopardy >> ergo, men must be in an ENORMOUS PANIC about this >> let's assure them they're still men by getting them to spend money on these terrifically masculine products >> Dove body wash. (I bring this up not because body wash is gendered, but because the ad, even in pushing a product that has feminine connotations, relied on such lazy stereotyping of what it means to be a man--this from a company that has done some decent work in trying to show a more authentic version of its customers than most companies would dare. The Dove ad was by far the least gross of the don't-worry-you're-still-totally-dudely genre, but still.)
But what is so shortsighted about this is how A) outdated, and B) erroneous it is. Let's look at the erroneous part first: Yes, men have lost out financially more than women in this recession. But the logical way to assure dudes that they're still manly is not to tell them to either spend more money or treat women as the enemy: It's to widen and reconstruct what manhood is. Any man who has been in an equitable relationship that is supported by his peers knows it's a helluva lot more fun to have partner-as-partner, not partner-as-enemy. And you know what? Women who don't act as harpies and rip men's balls out via forced Twilight viewings? We, too, like to have sex, and it will be more fun than it would be with the constructed harpy, because neither party will secretly be dreading the act. (I'd bring up other benefits of equitable relationships--relationship health, stability--but as we learned from the Megan Fox Motorola ad, really all men can think about is sex anyway.) As for the other things that are supposedly culturally castrating men--the job, the recycling, the responsibility--those are no longer merely the province of men.
Which leads me to how outdated this line of thinking is. I'm reading The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment by Barbara Ehrenreich, which was written in 1987. It's, in part, about how constructed masculinity led to the epidemic of middle-aged crises among men, during which our fathers and grandfathers supposedly ran out, bought sports cars, and had affairs. I haven't finished the book yet so can't say what Ehrenreich's thesis is and how it stands up to today, but what's striking me is how much of what she's writing about applies to everyone now. Most women are in the work force now and are often the sole breadwinner. Escapist fantasies written by and for women in the '50s and '60s--when the men of 1987 were growing up--by and large reflected a desire to escape the monotony and drudgery of housewifery, because that was the feminine sphere then. There's no absence of that kind of tale today, but there's acknowledgement that women's lives outside of the home can feel like a trap too. I'm imagining an ad geared toward a unisex audience using the Dodge Charger premise: A series of close-ups of men and women listing the series of compromises they are willing to make in the world at large so that they can have this one amazing thing that will make them feel glad to be alive. That ad would be able to keep the marginally creative conceit without assuming that the audience secretly hates their lives. Hell, if you must, you could even still make it gendered by adding in the sort of daily work that is still often left to women (diapers come to mind). It's still gross on a consumerist level (whose life is made better for longer than a week by having a really cool car?), but it's not offensive.
I also don't think that the men-trapped-by-their-lives idea the commercials were promoting is as effective in 2010. Generation X supposedly created the nation of prolonged adolescence, without shame. Much of what Ehrenreich addresses as the cause for the flight from commitment is our idea of what constitutes "maturity," which doesn't have much latitude according to the rules that she cites. But with men and women getting married and having children considerably later in life, and with "bachelor" no longer being a euphemism for "homosexual"--indeed, "bachelor" now has a ring of glamour to it--men who once would have been considered hopelessly flighty or immature because they're choosing not to "settle down" now seem normal. As I wrote above, women are just as tired of men as the corporate grind--but more importantly, tales of alternate, noncorporate lifestyles aren't exactly hard to find these days. We're supposed to take glee in the fact that even though we may be married and bear children and maybe even actually like our boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife, we're still cool--isn't that why Judd Apatow movies exist? Isn't that why people liked Juno? Because they prove that we're different somehow from our yuppie parents? Maybe the answer is that as Generation X ages, we realize that we're not any different--maybe the Dodge ad is more relevant than I want to acknowledge.
There's another big loser in the Superbowl, besides men, women, and the Colts: creativity. I really couldn't care less about football; I watched it for what was supposed to be the showcase of America's collective advertising talent. (And for The Who. Which, really? No. Just, no.) I don't think the process of advertising can ever truly be creative, but from journalism school I do know that there are some brilliant creative minds working in advertising, and this was supposed to be their time to shine. I remember watching the hysterical Emerald Nuts commercial during the Superbowl a few years ago and thinking for the first time that maybe I was actually missing out on occasion by not watching more television ads. Last night, I kept waiting for the "real" ads to start--many of the ones that weren't ugly with sexism were just confusing instead of clever (why was there a whale? why was he pretending to be dead while eating Doritos?) or plain old boring (Shape-Up shoes couldn't have come up with something remotely clever?); and according to my fellow viewers, several of the ads weren't new at all. I get that this was a tough year for advertising, but c'mon! When Charles Barkley offers the evening's best non-football performance, something is amiss. At least he was just lovin' on tacos, not hating on women. Or himself.