In my view, the most irritating commercial on TV right now is about socks. I can’t remember the details well enough to tell you what brand is being advertised, but the narrative arc revolves around a man dipping his feet and his kid’s feet in glue, in an attempt to keep their socks from slipping down their legs. Eventually, Mom comes home, shakes her head at all of the manly idiocy happening in her home and saves the day by tossing her boys some new socks that stay up on their own. The whole thing is so, so stupid.
Lucky for us all, there are a billion more commercials just like it. Like the one with the dudes who track mud in on the carpet and then lie about it, because they’re clueless. Or the one about the dad who can’t cook without destroying the kitchen, because he’s clueless. Or the one where the guy doesn’t know the difference between yogurt and pie, because he’s clueless.
I recently read a great little blog about the Pixar movie Brave—which is ostensibly a sort of female-empowerment twist on the same old princess trope. The blogger, Michelle Lee, pointed out how nice it was to have an independent-minded heroine, but wondered why every male character had to be so absurd. When I saw the movie, I, too, felt like Pixar oversold just how strong and exciting their heroine was: Anybody would look like a hero next to the dunces that were the male characters, who were pretty much there just for comic relief. Lee took it a step further: “I can’t help but wonder,” she wrote, “if we’re now teetering on the edge of empowering girls at the expense of boys.”
Lee is, I think, onto something. I realize that what I’m referencing here is just a series of commercials and a kids’ cartoon, but there’s an underlying subtext in these tiny slivers of pop culture. Consider: We’re living in a moment when boys seem to be lagging behind women in school; in college admissions and performance; and—as my colleague Sandy Hingston pointed out in her fascinating piece last March—even in life to some degree. Is it so crazy to wonder whether boys are getting the message that our society simply expects less from them? That’s it’s okay to be … clueless?
In any case, I would argue that any message—no matter how sneakily or stupidly it’s delivered—implying that one gender is in some way superior to another is bad for all of us. Those idiotic commercials aren’t just unfair to the men who are being belittled as fools, but to the women who raised them, the women who love them, and to the women who are still getting the message that they have to do everything home- and family-related because well just look what happens when you trust a man to do your job. Disaster! They try to glue socks to themselves!
I grew up in a household where the sole male—my dad, who worked fulltime—did nearly all of the grocery shopping, some of the cooking and quite a bit of laundry, vacuuming, dish-doing and homework-helping. He was clueless about how to do a ponytail but beyond that, he could do nearly anything. Don’t get me wrong—my mom was no slouch, either—but the reason I grew up never feeling that my gender defined me was not only because my parents told me that women could do whatever men could do, but also because I saw the reverse to be true, as well. Looking back now, it sometimes seems like the time I spent in that house was the only time in life where the world didn’t seem like a he/she dichotomy, where one group was the loser.
And that’s one thing that none of people who are so keen to post vitriolic rants against feminists ever seem to get: It is the feminist in me that rejects limits or put-downs or blanket characterizations based on gender—any gender. To be cool with the implication that women understand life in a way men don’t is just as offensive as it was for the centuries that society insisted the reverse was true. Women are still suffering the long-term effects of that faux hierarchy—but turning the tables on men, making the other sex the butt of all jokes? It won’t help.
And it’s not even that funny.