Andi M. sent in a video created by J.C. Penney called “The Doghouse.” The ad tells the story of men sent to the doghouse by their wives for various bad behaviors, but mostly for giving bad Christmas gifts. A bad gift is a non-romantic gift, or a gift that is related to housework, or that implies a woman needs to lose weight or change her appearance:

As Andi points out, the ad portrays men as idiots or even actively mean-spirited. But I’m also interested in the way we define what are appropriate gifts for women. We often see “practical” gifts as perfectly acceptable to give to men. But increasingly, gifts for women are supposed to be essentially romantic, a symbol of love, not usefulness, a cultural trend the jewelry industry, in particular, has encouraged and benefited from.

In this ad, we have several “bad” gifts — more computer memory, a vacuum cleaner, facial hair remover, and a work-out accessory. All are presented as equally idiotic choices for men to make. So getting a woman something that might significantly improve her computer is just the same as giving her something to work out with, while actively mocking her body and eating habits. Any non-romantic gift is risky, even if accompanied by an attempt to be sweet (see the poor computer memory guy).

I’ve discussed before research on low-income women who complain when they feel that men waste money on romantic but non-essential gifts rather than stuff they actually need. On the other hand, I asked one of my classes about what they would consider an acceptable gifts, and I was (probably stupidly) surprised that many of the women in the class were adamant that useful or helpful items were nice to get, but only in addition to a romantic gift, never as the “main” gift itself. A couple said they’d feel bad if their female friends were showing off jewelry they got for Valentine’s Day or Christmas and they didn’t have anything to show, because their friends would assume their boyfriends/husbands weren’t romantic or didn’t love them very much. So it was less about whether they wanted jewelry than that they knew other women did, and thus feared their friends would judge their relationships if they didn’t get the right gift to “prove” they had good partners.

I think ads like this both reflect and reinforce this social pressure to buy the “right” kind of gifts for women. J.C. Penney tapped into an existing cultural norm about what kinds of gifts women want, and then reinforces it by presenting jewelry as the only means available to men to get out of the doghouse, and shows all women as being in complete agreement about what an acceptable gift is.

UPDATE: Reader Josh Leo pointed out that the ad also portrays the doghouse as a place men are tortured by having to do feminine things:

…all they are fed in “the doghouse” is Quiche and Chai Latte’s. This is clearly a statement that these foods are feminine an almost a form of torture for “Real Men.”