Summer 2003

Retro-sexism

Judith Williamson
Essay (extract)

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.

There has already been a certain amount of commentary on ‘ironic’ or ‘knowing’ sexism (often as if the irony or knowingness cancelled it out) but what has been little analysed is the formal method of placing the ironic or knowing quote marks around that sexism. Moreover, given that every era has its visual unconscious – there is no possibility of total ‘knowingness’ – there has also been little investigation of the ways sexism and sexual power relations are portrayed without quote marks in ads today, because, of course, the concept of sexism is no longer being used without quote marks either.

There is not space here to analyse all the reasons why this is so, but just as the use of the term racism implies that the phenomenon it refers to is wrong, so the term sexism involves both a description and an implicit critique. And as the critique has subsided, the description itself seems to have vanished from view, despite the facts – to take just three – that women’s income lags far behind men’s, that domestic violence against women is frighteningly common, and that women still perform the bulk of domestic labour. In other words, sexism in society has not disappeared, but it seems to have disappeared from social consciousness: certainly you would never know from advertising images that those facts held true. In today’s ad world, women outperform male colleagues in the boardroom while husbands with skewed ties struggle over baby formula, and anxious young men worry about their spots before dates. The idealised imagery of advertising has, over a couple of decades, airbrushed away the grinding day-to-day sexism women still encounter in reality.

To complain about this would merely be to berate advertising for being itself; what has changed since the 1970s is not the process of idealisation but the content of the ideal. Where once this was portrayed, for women, as being loveable, now it is portrayed as being successful. In 1978 I analysed an ad for Birds Eye peas which went, ‘Birds Eye peas will do almost anything to get your husband’s attention’. Clearly they were identified with the wife trying to do just that, but it is impossible to imagine such an ad running today – the woman would seem too domestically subservient. Yet the 1970s was itself a period of great social change, with a high proportion of women working outside the home: the portrayal of the full-time wife and mother was already nostalgic, and the dominant retro imagery of the time was a sort of 1930s graphic style which conjured up a prewar social order (see, for example, the classic Hovis ads). Kellogg’s ‘Every Body likes a Taste of the Country’ (1977) illustrates this phenomenon: the wholesome scene of woman as provider, her hand reaching for the cereal while husband and son wave from the path, is as nostalgic socially as the pictorial style is graphically. The lines of the trees, the Rupert Bear painting-by-numbers light and shade, even the facial expressions, are a reference to an earlier period. It is the graphic style that fixes the social wish, preserving it while reactivating it – a process I will return to in investigating retro-imagery in ads today.

Looking at 1970s ads it is possible to divide their sexism into broadly two categories: social and sexual. Obviously these overlap in practice – just as the personal is political, so the sexual is social – but in tracing the genealogy of sexism in advertising it is useful to make a distinction, because develop-ments over subsequent decades have been asymmetrical between the two strands. What I would call social images (workplace, domestic, etc) have changed enormously in content, and are self-consciously contemporary…

Judith Williamson, writer, London

First published in Eye no. 48 vol. 12 2003

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EYE48