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This term I took a 300-level Sociology class called Gender & Sexualities to fulfill a University Studies requirement at Portland State U. It's been a great class (though the schedule and structure could use some improvement) and I've learned a lot of interesting stuff. I just wrote a paper for it. The assignment was to watch two contrasting TV programs on different channels, note the portrayals of gender roles and identities in the commercials, and compare/contrast the difference between the commercials in the two shows. Being that I did this research the day before the paper was due (today), both of the shows aired on Sunday (yesterday). Then I stayed up til 3am writing it, so I wouldn't be surprised if there are some typos or errors I missed. Where I reference Kimmel, that's the author of one of our textbooks. Apologies if that reference doesn't make sense out of context; you, internet reader, were not my target audience.
Anyway, I'm just pasting the paper here because some people wanted to see it and this is an easy place to link to. kthxbye.

In studying the commercials shown during an episode of Sex and the City and the premiere of Kings, a new primetime series about war, politics, and business, I found that television commercials by and large perpetuate traditional gender role stereotypes, particularly of women, and rely on these societal ideals to sell products.

Sex and the City aired on the CW from 4:00 to 4:30pm Sunday. I estimate the demographic of Sex and the City to be middle-class women in their 20s and 30s. The traditional, ideal image of this woman is the beautiful, sexually attractive, heterosexual young mom and domestic goddess. All of the commercials that ran during this program employed some facet of this stereotype. There were hardly any men shown in the ads.

Most of the commercials during this half hour advertised beauty products, often covertly playing to insecurities of not being beautiful enough. The first commercial, for a Biore skin-care product, began with a female voice asking the question, “Too old for acne but too young for wrinkles?” As if to say, perhaps you think you’re safe, but your skin is imperfect at any age, so you should buy our product. Then I saw 2 anti-wrinkle products (from Aveeno and Avon) advertised just minutes later. Apparently you’re not “too young for wrinkles,” after all. Another commercial advertised Revlon lip gloss with a woman provocatively proclaiming, “I want it both ways” (meaning color and shine from one product). This is easily interpreted as sexual. A spot for weight-loss pill Hydroxycut had testimonials from women in swimsuits showing off their “after” bodies talking about how much weight loss improved their lives. A beautiful young woman with long tresses showers in an old-growth forest to advertise John Frieda’s Root Awakening haircare line designed for dry hair.

The commercials that weren’t for personal care products were for food and household items. Ghirardelli boasts an “intense peanut butter and chocolate experience,” as a beautiful young woman licks her finger. Chocolate is suggestively compared to a sexual experience, satisfying to the woman. The two other food products advertised were intended to be purchased by moms for their children: freshly baked Pillsbury cookies are served by a young mother to her son, and Toaster Strudel is touted as “the one kids want to eat” (as opposed to Pop Tarts). The one commercial I saw that didn’t seem to target women at first opened with a shot of a monster truck. But then then truck drove over two rows of lined-up Maytag washing machines to show how sturdy and durable the washers were, and I realized it was being shown to this demographic because, of course, moms do laundry. There was also an informative spot about the upcoming switch from analog to digital TV, directing viewers to a website for information on where to find and how to install the requisite converter box. A domestic goddess needs to tend to the entertainment needs of the household, but technology can be difficult to figure out!

Though not advertising a product, a promo for Friends was also shown. The two shows probably share a similar demographic, as both are syndicated sitcoms about relationships among 30-somethings in New York.

The series premiere of Kings aired Sunday night at 8:00pm on NBC. I would guess the target audience to be mostly men and some women between approximately 18 and 45. The commercials in this show portrayed more men than did the Sex and the City commercials, but women were still shown at least as often as men and in the same stereotypical situations: being beautiful and domestic. The portrayals of men ranged from stereotypical, truck-driving, tough guy to sensitive, emotional family men. This struck me as the “feminization of prime time” that Kimmel mentioned (p. 241). Women are watching the show along with men because “his [TV programming] is better than hers” (Kimmel, p. 240), and the women want to see some sensitivity.

A promo for The Biggest Loser announced an “emotional homecoming event” in which a father and son come home to their family after having lost weight, and the other son is proud and inspired. This is a “softer” view of masculinity that does not conform to the gender stereotype, but most of the other commercials did. In an advertisement for auto trade-in days at Timberline, a middle-aged man in a cowboy hat boasted, “you’ll get the best deal at Timberline or I’ll eat my hat!” A commercial for an RV show at the expo center showed RVs, ATVs, and trucks hauling trailers all driven by men.

Drugs were marketed to the older men watching. Benadryl was shown to help a middle-aged man stop sneezing so he could happily play in the park with his two kids. Plavix was recommended by a middle-aged man to his father to help reduce risk of heart attack and stroke.

Images of women, as I mentioned, were still stereotypical. Beyonce and 2 other beautiful young women were featured in a Loreal makeup commercial, saying proudly, “this is a compact revolution, and we’re worth it.” If a new kind of makeup is all we’re worth, we’ve got a ways to go. A young woman is seen in a kitchen, struggling with some food stuck in a pan while her husband and son wait at the dinner table until she remembers Pam cooking spray. Then she brings the food to table and the men are happy. An ad for Quilted Northern Ultra Plush bath tissue shows a young woman in a bathroom delighted by an “ultra plush” bathrobe and “ultra plush” cotton swabs. A Target commercial shows a young woman using self-tanning lotion to get a beautiful “vacation glow” and a mother and son in a kitchen baking cookies. Again showing beauty, motherhood, and domesticity. The same Target ad also shows a man riding an escalator up from a subway in a “power suit.” Very traditional gender roles here. A young man and woman hold hands on a beach in a short ad for Shilo Inns at the Oregon coast. Just a quick reminder that socially acceptable, stereotypical couples are heterosexual.

The other TV shows advertised were Medium, about a woman who solves crimes through supernatural visions, Southland, a new police drama about a rookie cop, and an episode of Law & Order: SVU about a “black widow,” a woman who kills her husbands. These shows may share a common viewer base, as they are all shows about law enforcement, but Southland seemed to be marketed more to men and Medium more to women.

I did see one refreshing commercial which did not stick strictly to traditional gender roles. It was an ad for Liberty Mutual Insurance showing a series of people doing various good deeds for other people, including a man picking up a dropped toy for a woman pushing a baby stroller, a man holding an elevator for a woman, a woman saving a man from falling boxes, a man helping up another man who had slipped, and a man picking up a dropped toy for a man pushing a baby stroller. This was a welcome break in monotony. Moreover, the ad seemed to reflect more current, equal gender roles, rather than relying on those same stale breadwinner model/nuclear family stereotypes.

Overall, though, my findings were that those traditional American gender roles dominated the images in the commercials I saw, especially the images of women.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 20th, 2009 07:12 am (UTC)
I like the way you write Eagle Beagle."A domestic goddess needs to tend to the entertainment needs of the household, but technology can be difficult to figure out!" That part was one of my favorites.
Mar. 20th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
Haha, thanks Eagle Beagle.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )