Dani Garavelli: Commercial break with gender stereotypes

There's much more at stake than misplaced nostalgia for the OXO lady in the ASA's enlightened advertising ban, writes Dani Garavelli

The advert for Aptamil baby formula is a prime example of reinforcing gender cliches
The advert for Aptamil baby formula is a prime example of reinforcing gender cliches

The news that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is to ban gender stereotyping was greeted with predictable equanimity by the commenters on the Daily Mail website. “So they’ll advertise floor cleaning products with – what – a man?” asked Paulusmac from Chester, who is clearly as much of a stranger to a mop and bucket as he is to the nuances of sexual politics. “Whaaat? – OXO mum banned? The stupid PC snowflakes have won,” added General ChaosThe idea that you would be so attached to the sight of Lynda Bellingham bringing a hotpot to the table that the thought of losing it would bring on an aneurysm is baffling; but these are the kind of blokes who pine for the days when Britain was great, the Daily Mail was a broadsheet and mothers prepared the Sunday roast while fathers puffed on pipes and followed the war news; the kind of blokes who want to “take back control” on both the home and the continental fronts.

For those of us who have moved with the times, however, the move is long overdue. The kind of adverts that portray men as workers and women as homemakers no longer reflect our increasingly diverse world where families come in all shapes and sizes and the majority of couples juggle their professional and caring roles.

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New rules set to ban gender stereotyping in adverts

At the same time, however, these adverts may hold back the rate of progress or serve to stigmatise those who refuse to conform to convention, so girls will shy away from science or boys from becoming stay-at-home dads.

Indeed, of all the pernicious stereotypes, the hapless father may be the worst, because it is so all-pervasive and used even by those who consider themselves enlightened. Some – including deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson – trace the trope back to Homer Simpson, whose preferred method of discipline is strangling Bart and who uses “daddy-daughter day” to exploit her knack for picking winning horses (and make a packet), but, wherever it came from, it is ubiquitous: from Daddy Day Care to Outnumbered, it seems men simply cannot be trusted to look after their own children.

Perhaps it started as a way to big up taken-for-granted mothers and the daily challenges of childcare: “Look, guys – it’s harder than you think.” But, if so, it quickly backfired both for fathers, who are demeaned by it, and for mothers who have to put up with the attitudes it perpetuates: that men just can’t cope without them.

If I were a father who regularly collected my children from school, oversaw their homework and cooked their tea, as some of my friends do, I would be utterly hacked off by the constant undermining of my role. But equally the trope provides a get-out for those men who don’t really want to be involved, as well as a barrier for those who would like to be, but fear the repercussions. The notion that men are second-class parents certainly won’t increase the uptake in shared parental leave which stands at around two per cent.

The “bumbling” dad is just one of the gender stereotypes the ASA has ruled unacceptable; others include the woman doing all the domestic chores – including floor cleaning – a woman prioritising her appearance over work and ads that suggest men are strong and adventurous while women are frail and emotional.

Adverts that would surely have fallen foul of these new rules include the one for Aptamil which shows a little girl growing up to be a ballet dancer and a little boy growing up to be a scientist.

This circumscribing of ambition is damaging. There are still so many professions which are either predominantly male or predominantly female. Despite the efforts of Women in STEM, science and technology still struggle to attract women, while nursing and teaching struggle to attract men.

They also want to ban ads in which men are mocked for displaying emotional fragility. Attitudes to male mental health are changing, as the Green Brigade’s tribute to Leigh Griffiths (“It’s OK not to be OK”) demonstrated. But suicide is still the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

There are, of course, adverts that do actively challenge gender stereotypes. There’s the famous Always sanitary protection ad that asks a set of seven-year-olds and a set of teenagers to “run like a girl” (the seven-year-olds just run, the teenagers flounce in an exaggerated manner, thus demonstrating the extent to which girls’ perceptions of themselves change as they grow).

More recently the telecommunications conglomerate Verizon produced one which shows a little girl who shows an interest in science being told she is pretty and not to get her clothes dirty. Things have started to change because ordinary people have called advertisers out, and some have responded. The ASA ban will consolidate this progress.

But adverts are only one source of influence for young people. When it comes to toys and clothing, a lot of the problem is with the products themselves. The likes of Lego, which used to be gender neutral, now has boxes clearly marketed at girls, and Clarks were pulled up for selling a range of girls’ shoes called Dolly Babe and a range of boys’ shoes called Leader. As you might anticipate, the boys’ shoes were chunkier and more robust than the girls’.

Even now, when as many women study medicine as men, it is easier to buy doctors’ outfits for boys and nurses’ outfits for girls. As they get older, children are vulnerable to falling down the YouTube rabbit hole where gender stereotyping teeters over into misogyny.

Earlier this year, Zero Tolerance launched a campaign to encourage gender neutral play in the early years. But it isn’t just down to nurseries; parents also have a responsibility to give their children the freedom to explore their own identities and interests.

Swinson has long been a campaigner on gender equality issues. Earlier this year, she told me how she and her husband, Duncan Hames, make sure they watch “girl” as well as “boy” films with their older son, Andrew. Thus, he is a big fan of Brave and Frozen. She also reads him Boys Who Dare To Be Different and Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls.

Ironically, even as the notion of gender becomes more fluid, subliminal messaging about the different way boys and girls should behave is everywhere. If we want the world to change, then it is up to all of us to be on the look out for damaging stereotyping; to call it out when we see it and to make sure we don’t perpetuate it in our own homes.