Friday, September 25, 2009

Corona commercials and female stereotypes

by Nick Cox

Watching TV commercials is a very good way to get a feel for what the cultural status quo is at any given moment. This is especially the case for current attitudes toward and feelings about gender, probably because the goal of a TV commercial is generally to stir up some form of erotic desire in the viewer, and to make the product being advertised the object of that desire. When the assumed viewer is a man, the commercial will try to imbue the product, or at least associate it, with qualities that men in their focus groups found appealing. All things considered, advertisers probably know more about gender than even the savviest gender theorists, although they use their knowledge for what some might consider dishonorable ends.

I saw this Corona commercial (embedded above) Wednesday night on ESPN, during a baseball game. A beer commercial screened during a sporting event: obviously it was aimed squarely at men. So let's look at what happens: A man and a woman—presumably boyfriend and girlfriend—are sitting on the beach in matching beach chairs, facing the surf with their backs to the camera. They are both sitting motionless and looking straight ahead, which is kind of weird. Between them is a table holding two Coronas with the customary slices of lime protruding from the necks. A fetching blonde in a white bikini walks by, and the man looks up at her and follows her with his gaze. After the blonde has left and the man has resumed looking straight ahead, the woman—without moving her head at all—reaches her left hand out to daintily pluck the lime out of the man's Corona and squirt the juice in his face, making him flinch slightly. She puts the lime slice back in the bottle and returns her hand to her lap, he wipes his face a bit, and the commercial ends with the message "Relax Responsibly."

Now, if this blog were devoted to evaluating the artistic merits of TV commercials, I would give this one nothing but unqualified praise. With its minimalist composition, its deadpan humor and its flawless comic timing, it is everything a beer commercial should be. I laughed, and I'm sure millions of other guys laughed as well. But as much as I appreciated it, I also noted that, from a feminist standpoint, it has some problems—or rather, it reveals some problems that are present in society at large. Commercials are engineered to appeal to their target audience as much as possible, so in general it is fair to say that anything problematic about a commercial is merely a reflection of a broader cultural problem.

The commercial has three characters: the guy (who is the protagonist), his girlfriend, and the woman in the white bikini. The latter is a timeless cultural archetype that feminists have already chewed through thousands of times: the Blonde Temptress who makes all the guys heads turn. The interesting person here is the girlfriend, who represents just as much of an archetype as the blonde does. The Uptight Girlfriend also appeared in The Hangover (which was aimed squarely at guys), in the person of Ed Helms' character's kiss-withholding girlfriend. In that movie her venomous uptightness was pushed to absurd extremes, but the underlying character is the same. For what it's worth, both the girlfriend in The Hangover and the one in the commercial are brunettes who wear their hair in ponytails; and the stripper that Ed Helms' character eventually falls for is, like the woman in the white bikini, a blonde who wears her hair down.

Feminists are more or less unanimous in their hatred of the Blonde Temptress, but the Uptight Girlfriend may be an even more worthy target of criticism. The reason is that it represents a superficial concession to feminism while remaining just as harmful under the surface. It would be easy for a feminist to watch the commercial and, without thinking about it very hard, say "I like this, because the woman asserts herself when the man does something objectionable." While this is true, it fails to acknowledge some important things. First, the woman does assert herself, but she does so in the most petty, impotent way imaginable; she even puts the lime back his beer after squirting him with it. Second, the thing that the woman objects to—her boyfriend looking a bit too long at someone else—is a pathetically small thing to get upset over. So the woman might get her revenge, but ultimately she is still the weak one. In The Hangover, remember, boyfriend ends up breaking up with the girlfriend.

Between the Blonde Temptress and the Uptight Girlfriend, neither is any sort of a desirable archetype from a feminist perspective. But what would be? I will say things: when the guy was gazing at the blonde, I was expecting that the girlfriend would steal his beer. That would be a woman who uses the man's weaknesses to her advantage instead of punishing him for them. The Woman-as-Trickster is not very prevalent in our culture right now but I think it is due for a revival.


At September 26, 2009 at 1:08 PM , Blogger John Gibbon said...

Couldn't it be said that the woman's response is proportionate to the offense?

At September 27, 2009 at 2:38 PM , Anonymous Overcoming Bias said...

My interests starts mainly from being puzzled by what kinds of inequality bother people, and what kinds do not. In much of social science, gender, race/ethnicity, and class are such overwhelming issues that someone like the political scientist blogger Paul Gowder states his positions on his about page. And most discussion of these “sensitive” categories is about various associated unequal and presumed unfair outcomes. Policy discussions are often overwhelmed by concern for how policies may differentially effect sensitive categories. And intellectuals face enormous social retribution should they ever be seen as speaking generally and negatively about a presumed unfairly maligned sensitive group.

Yet other “insensitive” categories are associated with huge inequalities, which few folks seem interested in talking about, much less considering how policy might influence. There is no social pressure whatsoever against maligning these groups. Especially striking are inequalities in attractiveness as a friend, lover, etc. not mediated by sensitive categories. These factors include physical appearance, vigor, charisma, personality, height, etc. Folks are well aware such inequalities exist, but have little concern about them, and no interest in policies to reduce them.

An especially striking example is inequality among men in their ability to attract women as lovers. If you don’t like “alpha/beta” labels, then call it what you will, but there are consistent correlations among men in this regard, which are consistently correlated with insensitive categories. While this inequality has large consequences for utility and happiness, there is no interest in reducing it, and people feel quite comfortable insulting these type of “losers”.

At September 28, 2009 at 2:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At October 15, 2009 at 10:16 PM , Blogger Educator & Citizen said...

Stumbled across this but did read the entire piece ... without meaning to be too blunt - from a liberal male perspective - what typically gets lost in posts/discussions of this nature is the simple fact that men just don't care ... meaning - if the girlfriend took his beer (male thinking), so what? The waiter is a snap of the finger away or better yet maybe the blonde was walking over to a cooler. If the girlfriend squeezed the lime and then tossed it at him, so what? He probably wouldn't notice. What matters to the man is whether or not it is going to be a thirty minute (or more) conversation at some future point, when things are more intimate, about his lack of focus or over focus on something so trivial. The bottom line is (regardless of sex): the more power either person in a relationship has, in the wider social sense, he/she (whether that is hetero/homo) will always feel empowered to push the boundaries of the relationship b/c they can. Almost as a constant dare, the habitual behavior is either accepted at some point or the relationship ends b/c too much time is directed toward working through these situations and the individual who believes they have more social capital will exercise their right to exit the relationship and shop on the open market.

Early thirties - married - hetero male w/ a family sharing one opinion

At October 19, 2009 at 9:57 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my God... have we completely lost our minds??? A guy looks at a strange woman's butt. The girfriend gets mad, but keeps her composure. Get a life people.


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