Summer 2003

Retro-sexism [extract]

Judith Williamson
Cultural analysis

The bleak reality of sexism, however 1970s, or ‘cool’, demands a critique

Sexism in advertising. It sounds almost quaint. The very words have a retro ring to them, conjuring up, on the one hand, scenes of be-aproned housewives serving casseroles to hungry husbands, and on the other, posters of leggy models in platform boots and hotpants with – and this is a key image in the scenario – feminists in dungarees slapping ‘this degrades women’ stickers all over them.

For sexism isn’t just a phenomenon, it’s an idea: and has no currency as such without people who actually hold it, discuss it and apply it. Without some public airing of the critique it involves, the idea itself falls out of fashion. Of course, what then becomes passé isn’t actually sexism, which is doing just fine, but the concept of sexism, in advertising or anything else for that matter. Unlike ‘racism’ – a term which, similarly, refers to both actions and attitudes – ‘sexism’ has fallen strikingly into disuse in recent years, and is now rarely employed in public debate. Therefore our view of the situation it describes becomes locked in the moment when the term flourished; and ads themselves, as I will show, present sexism as a kind of stylistically ‘Seventies’ phenomenon, so that it becomes at once past and present, ‘innocent’ and knowing . . .

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