I’d like to spend some of your valuable time today thinking about a topic nearly everyone would call “sexism.” I’m not quite sure what to call it, myself, but when you look at this Buick ad, you will know exactly what I mean. Then we can worry about what to call it.
As you see, the ad is 25 seconds long. You can afford to watch it several times. It features a marvelously tolerant neighbor, Mr. Garcia, who waves cheerfully at his neighbors. His neighbors are peering at him through the kitchen window with the aid of binoculars. Very possibly, he knows they are lusting after his new Buick and that the binoculars aren’t for him, but for the car. Or maybe he just assumes that anyone driving that impressive a car is going to get stared at and he’s fine with that.
I wish fervently that I knew more about what Mrs. Garcia looks like. It would make a difference to what kind of ad it is. I am sure there were earlier versions of the ad that showed Mrs. Garcia climbing out of the car and smiling and waving at her neighbors and if there were earlier versions of them, Mrs. Garcia was probably a blonde in one and a redhead in another, rather than the brunette she is in the final version.
I think what I would really have liked is for Mrs. Garcia to have been a spectacular blonde who gets out of the car and looks adoringly at Mr. Garcia, who is her hero because he bought this car and lets her ride in it. The writers probably discussed that and concluded that it was so ham-handed that it would turn people off.
But the rest of the commercial, the part I want to talk about, is ham-handed too. The neighbors—I’m going to call them the Johnson’s because the ad didn’t feel it was important to name them—are ordinary looking people. Mr. Garcia is strikingly handsome; Mrs. Garcia is probably beautiful, though not glamorous.
Here are the Johnsons. He’s gawky-looking; she could be very attractive, but that’s not what they did to her for this ad. They are “the clunky neighbors.” Ah! But what would she look like if he had bought her a Buick as he should have? Mr. Garcia has been a good provider; Mr. Johnson has not.
You could probably get all that without the dialogue, but for people, like me, who are tuned to the spoken word, they add a sound track.
Mrs. It looks like the Garcias got a new car.
Mr. What’d they get?
Mrs. I don’t know. It’s pretty nice. Maybe he got a raise.
Mr. Good for him.
Mrs. Good for her.
Pretty plain, right? That’s why there is a video track to go with it. Mrs. Johnson’s “Maybe he got a raise” is speculative. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. We have something to explain (this nice new car); what would explain it? “Maybe he got a raise” is in the same mode. Nothing edgy; nothing nasty.
Here’s the first picture. Even in this one, you can see her yearning for a better life. This is still in the “Looks like the Garcias got a new car” part of the dialogue. All the attention goes to the car and the glamorous Garcias. But when Mr. Johnson says, “Good for him,” the relationship changes. It is not about the Garcias and their Buick any more; now it is about “Why didn’t you get ME a Buick?”
So Mr. Johnson, in this way of dividing the dialogue, didn’t have any way to understand the peril he was it. Beneath his wife’s simple puzzlement, there is a pit and in the pit are snakes; bad snakes. So when he expresses his approval of Mr. Garcia rather than his apology to his wife for being such a bad provider—although as one critic commented, the Johnson’s kitchen probably cost twice what the Garcia’s car cost.
Take a good look at this second picture. See the tight mouth on her? That’s where the resentment is. The eyes are still on the Garcia’s Buick. See the wary sideward glance by him? He has just heard the barb in “her” in the line, “Good for her.” He has just realized that the solid ground he thought he was standing on was illusory and that he will be falling into the pit any time now. He’s been in that pit before. You can tell by how quickly he picked it up this time. He heard it. It was familiar. He just didn’t hear it fast enough.
What makes this all work is that “Good for her” is not the reciprocal of “good for him.” Good for him is neighborly affirmation. Good for her is a spousal rebuke. Here’s how that goes. HE is providing good things for his wife; YOU are not. How can you just approve, as if the Garcia’s new car were not a slap in the face to me? Can’t you tell how humiliated I am, living with you next to the Garcias?
The old sexism of the past is over, we learn in the papers and on TV every day. But the old sexism is still alive in the part of our brains that the ad-makers think of as most important. Her job is to mate and bear healthy children. Her beauty is just a signal that she is healthy enough to do that. His job is to provide her the children and to keep the family safe and well-fed. That’s the old Paleolithic Bargain and it’s the deal the ad-makers are counting on.
In the old deal, his part was killing animals and bringing the meat home so the family didn’t starve, but if you call it “providing for the family,” right away you go to “what does the family need,” and, in an economy that runs on consumer demand, “what does the family want?” She—the only “family” he has, so far as the commercial is concerned—wants a Buick. She doesn’t want to have less than Mrs. Garcia has. That means that Mr. Johnson has to come up with whatever Mr. Garcia has or admit that Mr. Garcia is “a better hunter” and “provides for his family” better than Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Johnson is a “success object.” He is not treated, in this ad, as a person, but only as a provider. The more common, and equally sexist presentation, is for Mrs. Johnson to be a “sex object.” The treatment of women as if their sexual appeal were the only important thing about them is the common language of advertising. Beautiful women show up, as if by magic, for the man who drinks the right whiskey or who shaves with the right razor or who drives the right car. These women are there to imply that if the man buys the right commodity, he “deserves” these women and that the women will see that and flock to him. These women are sex objects only and not persons.
The treatment of men not as persons, but as the providers of whatever toys their wives can successfully demand from them, teaches us that men are “success objects” in a way that is perfectly analogous to the “sex object” role for women. That’s why I call it sexism.
Actually, I wouldn’t mind it so much if it were treated as a stage in the relationship rather than the constitution, the fundamental makeup, of the relationship. We don’t meet each other as persons; we meet each other as objects. That’s what “putting your best foot forward” is all about. That’s why high school kids agonize about “what to wear to school;” they are using the conventions of society to declare themselves to be sex objects or success objects or “I’m not playing your silly game” objects. Society provides the titles and we turn ourselves into the pictures.
We present ourselves as objects and then we learn to be persons with each other. So I don’t mind the “object” phase provided that it is superseded, when the time is right, by the “person” phase.
That doesn’t happen in ads, of course. Here’s Payton Manning driving a Buick. I’ve heard that Payton Manning is a good person, but the reason he’s in the ad is that he’s a football icon; he’s a winner. Therefore, presumably, a provider and he has put his champion provider stamp on this Buick so by buying a Buick, you can be or look like or aspire to being a championship provider yourself for only so much down and so much a month. It isn’t Manning’s personhood that is being presented. There were, after all, a lot of Eli Manning ads until his team started losing a lot of games. Did Eli become a bad person? Nope, just not an iconic “provider.”
So “sexism” turns people into gender-based “objects” who play “roles” according to the Paleolithic Bargain. It has been a very successful bargain for roughly the last 2.5 million years. It has brought human beings to a stable and successful productivity in every known habitat.
And it still sells Buicks.
I like the idea of “success objects” and it’s pretty easy to see how this fits in with “Keeping Up with the Joneses.” But I guess what I want to know is if this is fair. Is it okay that advertisers know and exploit our weaknesses? That they know which buttons to push and push them? Or is it not okay? Is this not fighting fair? Should we expect anything less than a full-force offense from our opponents?
Wonderful questions. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to find them. Advertisers played around with subliminal persuasion for a while; that scared me. I’d call all the conscious stuff “fair,” but also deplorable. No, we should NOT expect anything less. On the question of pushing buttons, I think we need to look at what our buttons are. We want to be sexually attractive and economically successful and politically powerful and intellectually persuasive and all that. No help. We could learn to laugh, I think, at the idea that the adoring blonde comes standard with the shaving cream or that buying a Mazda means that you can rip, ALONE, through the deserted roads of a major city. We are built to respond to images and that’s what we do, but we can buffer that response, I think, by reliance on having “buttons” they can’t touch and on maintaining a sense of humor about the ones we can’t protect.