Every once in a while we here at SocImages pick a fight and a couple of years ago we sunk our teeth into satire and didn’t let go. Satirical humor is often used to expose prejudice and bigotry and it can be damn effective, as many viewers of The Colbert Report will testify. But it’s also a risky strategy. It makes fun of by doing; so, for example, it exposes racism by being extremely, over-the-top, no-one-will-ever-believe-we’re-serious racist. Except for… someone might think you’re being serious. In fact, a significant proportion of political conservatives viewing The Colbert Report believe that he is conservative like them. They recognize that he’s trying to be funny, but they don’t think he’s joking.
In our effort to think more critically about satire, we covered Amy Sedaris’ hipster racism, Ellen DeGeneres’ CoverGirl commercial, a New Yorker cover depicting Obama as a Muslim, covers of the National Review featuring Bill Clinton and Sonia Sotomayor, and board games. We also featured Jay Smooth’s commentary on Asher Roth using the phrase “nappy headed hos.”
Now Anita Sarkeesian, of Feminist Frequency, offers another illustration of how satire doesn’t always work the way progressives would like it to. She takes on TV commercials, arguing that ironic racism and sexism is still racism and sexism. Ironic advertising, she argues, allows marketers to “…use all the racist, sexist, misogynist imagery they want, and simultaneously distance themselves from it with a little wink and a nod.” You be the judge:Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
C. D. Leavitt — August 19, 2011
I don't think those commercials were actually trying to be ironic. There is not so much disapproval in our culture towards men drinking beer with their buddies, admiring female college students, or playing with dashboard hula dancers that the only way they can get away with doing these things is by playing it for irony.
People can openly and honestly do those things and do so frequently.
Sam R. — August 19, 2011
Yeah, I agree with Leavitt above... Sarkeesian is off base here and giving waaaay too much credit to mainstream culture. You aren't supposed to watch these commercials and think "oh what a sexist jerk, haha how ironic." You're supposed to watch them and think "mm, how true." And then drink beer and eat fast-food. It's not retro sexism. It's just plain old-fashioned sexism.
There IS such a thing as over-the-top racism, sexism, et al. played for laughs, and this post does describe them. But Feminist Frequency misses on this one.
Claire Hummel — August 19, 2011
I'll have to second (third?) the opinion that these ads don't seem ironic or satirical at all- they seem specifically targeted at dudes who would potentially identify with the male characters in each of the respective clips, thus they're using T&A as exactly that. T&A. Unabashedly.
There's nothing tongue-in-cheek with these commercials when it comes to the sexism and potrayal of women. They're humorous, yes, but they're funny at the expense of the wife, at the expense of the girls at the pool being ineffectively hit on. Nowhere do these commercials seem to wink at the viewer and shame the guys for their douchey behavior.
Hooliganyouth — August 19, 2011
This is advertising. Rehashing advertising is sexist rhetoric is akin to saying, "Yup, the sky is blue."
But it works. I see a Carl's Jr commercial and, though I consider myself a forward thinking gender equality progressive social yadda yadda, I think two things: Damn she's effing hot and damn I wish I had a Carl's Jr where I lived. Total disconnect from reality. And? Advertisers manipulate my basest desires that have been set up me by societal constraints and the patriarchy. Even PETA does it. Commercials directed at women (particularly cleaning products) portray men as bumbling idiots who do nothin but create messes, stink, and are generally incompetent in the household.
Anonymous — August 19, 2011
Most of these products are marketed to men. Not that it's not sexist- because it really is- but I think the idea that women are being sent these messages with any real frequency is not the goal of the money these advertising agencies are spending. I think they're just particularly sexist messages because they're sent to a boy's club where a few might be disgusted but won't take personal offense at the way women are portrayed.
On the other hand, watch advertisements, packaging, and other marketing materials for cleaning products, cooking utensils, or dinner foods. Almost all of them not only shoehorn women into the buyer's role, but treat men at best like fixtures, at worst as (figurative or literal) animals.
LaCervezaMasFina — August 19, 2011
Yeah, I don't know if those particular commercials are are actually trying to be ironic or if their creators are really that clueless about how sexist they are.
But when it really is parody and people can't see it's parody and believe it's real, that's Poe's Law. And it happens A LOT, like with the example of conservatives not knowing Colbert is actually just parodying an extreme conservatism.
Anonymous — August 19, 2011
Agreeing with the last couple commenters (Sam R. and C.D.) on the absence of irony. My take on these ads is that they are taking advantage of a climate in which people long for the "good old days" of blatant and unexamined sexism. People (specifically het men) feel empowered and pleasantly subversive in enjoying attempts to "bring it back" to the present.
Anonymous — August 19, 2011
Some of these spots (like the pillow fight) aren't trying to change the world. They are trying to portray it as it is.
Most hetero-american men WOULD stop and stare. Are we suppposed to pretend that they wouldn't?
You try making a commercial where there is no class, race, gender or religious difference in the world—no conflict at all—and see how good it turns out. People wouldn't just be bored to death by it, they would hate it on a visceral level.
It's not reality and therefore unrelateable.
Maeghan — August 19, 2011
I think retro-sexism is a thing, but I don't think it's being shown in those specific commercial clips. Those just look like sexism.
Anonymous — August 19, 2011
Awww. I have to agree, most of these commercials weren't necessarily supposed to be terribly ironic. The Twix one seemed to be, as did the Mike's Hard Lemonade one, but the Carl's Junior ones (at least the first one, can't tell with the last) and the Coors light one played on pretty established tropes that aren't really challenged too much by the mainstream public. The "stupid harpy girlfriend with too many feelings" is standard for beer commercials, so if they were trying for irony, they missed the mark based more on the fact that they weren't really any more over the top than any other beer commercial. Which is exactly what makes the Mike's commercial stand out as "ironic" (and it was actually pretty hilarious, IMO, until the "failed pick up line" bit). It's supposed to be an "alternative" to beer, and is often shunned by men who are concerned with their "manly" image for being a woman's drink, so showing traditionally masculine men saying "get over it, drink Mike's, your machismo will still be in tact" is kind of a funny jab at the type of men who mock others for drinking anything but beer and maybe whiskey, and the culture that breeds them. It's the last bit tacked on that makes you say "really?" The Twix commercial is ironic for the same reason; candy has nothing to gain in our society by being sexist. So the same "beer commercial tropes" (in this case, blatant sexism in a variety of ways) that don't get noticed when it's Coors light seem ~*~wacky~*~ and ~*~ridiculous~*~, wink wink, nudge nudge, when applied to candy.
frank jackson — August 19, 2011
When feminists like this try to tell women and men that only real feminists will be angry by the sexual images of women in the media, I wonder who really has women's empowerment at interest? Are you trying to empower women or push your morality? Feminism means empowering women to freedom, not pushing your morality and telling women actors they have to play perfect liberal-feminist caricatures and can't take roles that portray them as sexy or stupid. I'm a feminist and don't believe that parading women in flag outfits to sell hamburgers is sexist, and I don't believe a bobble head doll is both sexist and racist. Geez, get ahold of yourself. Yes, images can be used to justify inequality, but the images are not racist and sexist in and of themselves. In fact, they begin to become sexist and racist when someone uses them to justify inequality, or, as is happening here, some "enlightened feminist" claims they are examples of sexism or racism.
Alison — August 19, 2011
I see the point of people who say it's not ironic, but on the other hand if you confronted the makers/supporters of these ads about their sexism, they probably would say, "oh, it's meant to be ironic, stop being so serious". So it's still worth taking on the notion.
Charlotte — August 19, 2011
1. Recently I've realized that I am utterly paranoid about being "that girl" -- you know her, the dumb girlfriend, the nagging girlfriend, the girlfriend with PMS. This means that in heterosexual relationships, I conceal a huge swath of my emotional life. I wonder how many other women are doing the same thing. (I bet I'm not the only one.) I was raised in what (I thought) was a household geared toward gender equality. It literally never occurred to me, until I reached college, that I couldn't do something because I was a woman. THAT was a harsh realization.
2. Leaving that aside, can we also talk about the popularity of "Mad Men" and the even more horrifying "Pan Am" that ABC is planning for the fall. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMEske3ALcU...stick with it for the "natural selection, they don't know that they are a new breed of woman" part). It's not just commercials. It's entire SHOWS. Awesome.
MJS — August 20, 2011
Agree that these ads don't really seem to be making any real claims to irony, except maybe the first one (which wasn't even all that sexy and seemed more to be making a point about over the top "Team America" style patriotism). I also don't think many of them were trying to be all that "retro" either, they seem to be depicting fairly modern "dude, bro" behavior. I also don't know why the video continually brings up "racism" but doesn't actually show any example of it other than the Hawaiian bobble head, and frankly that one seemed like a bit of a stretch.
This seems like a valid topic, but this video really failed to find good examples to back it up.
Mark Richards — August 20, 2011
I agree these ads are just plain old sexism towards women. But we should never forget to highlight the (albeit less profuse) flip-side http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzT7v4DUjSY
spiders — August 21, 2011
A good example of ironic sexism is the TV series Mad Men. "See how backwards our culture used to be! Good thing that doesn't exist anymore."
William B. — August 21, 2011
You're engaging in typical academic overthink. The ads are just plain sexist. It's that simple. The "irony" stuff is over-thinking, but it's also unnecessarily--yet revealingly--trying to rationalize why blatant sexism has returned to mass media--"Oh, they slipped something over us by using irony." Baloney. It's returned to mass media--never actually left in fact-- because no one seems to give a damn, and no one giving a damn points to some possible failures of feminism, or maybe it reveals the delusions of feminists who thought they could change the gender situation by pestering to get a few laws passed, and by modifying the lexicon, or by hectoring and lecturing people until the audiences just didn't give a damn any more. Or, more likely, by writing more papers and articles to justify and rationalize all that degree work--giving life meaning.
Who are you people politically, racially, and socioeconomically? Why, truly, does this site exist, who does it really exist for, and how do you think you're changing anything by doing articles and videos like this? "Awareness raising" isn't an answer, it's just another unexamined rationalization. You need to ask questions like this--engage in self criticism on a deep systemic level. You've filled up a page here by pointing out the obvious to a readership that is almost certainly mostly predisposed to be sympathetic (and uncritical) to your ideas--the phenomenon is called "preaching to the choir," or to a niche market. Now what do you propose to do about this problem you've outlined? What *can* you do? How does this flickering virtual page here in front of me connect with any Reality? Does that even matter, or is the primary goal having an online presence solely so you can say you have an online presence? [Hint: listen to yourselves when you talk about any of this. Physician heal thyself].
My education is in clinical psychology and communications. I'm on my way to a doctorate in anthropology after having worked in the "real world" for some time--specifically in the marketing and PR department of a global corporation where I was highly regarded as an effective troubleshooter. That business experience jarringly removed me from wheel-spinning academic-system think to real world results-driven *activity*. I encourage anyone who believes they are going to change the world by publishing papers, posting videos, and accumulating credentials to try involving themselves in reality this way. It's an often humbling experience to realize how hard it is to really make a difference.
[PS: I worked ceaselessly to remove unthinking and liminal sexism, classism, and even mild racism from our promotions and advertising, and worked harder to humanize and diversify the images of people that we projected onto the world. My activities impacted on--I have been told--millions of *ordinary* people, especially children. I owe nothing to any feminists and never studied the subject. In fact during the high tide of militant feminism I abandoned any interest in the activities of a bunch of mostly white, mostly privileged, over-educated & angry women. Their efforts were self-serving, impotent, and even counter-productive--but again this was a largely academic movement and it wasn't result-driven in any way that would benefit ordinary women. I also saw perceived class issues that still are ignored by feminists.]
MJ — August 22, 2011
The irony comes in in our relationship to the actors. The actors aren't saying to us "Women are dumb sex toys" in the way your teacher says "George Washington was the first President." That would be straight-up sexist.
We as viewers are supposed to think it's funny that they're stupid enough to be sexist. That's where the irony comes in. There's a disconnect between the seriousness of the actors and the implicit seriousness of ads, and how silly the whole thing really is. That's where the humor is supposed to come from, typically. Granted, these aren't great examples of this. Michael Scott's racist/sexist rants on The Office are probably better examples.
CTD — August 22, 2011
You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.
Isms — September 10, 2011
This would have been a much more useful insight if the "other sides" of this issue had actually been explored. But, as usual she put on the "oh woe is me" feminist goggles and left out all the adds where males and people of all races are abused in this "ironic" way by their own stereotypes.
benerese — October 25, 2013
It also makes it okay for this kind of behaviour and attitudes to be perpetrated in every day life... I have some acquaintances that are constantly making blatantly sexist, racist, and otherwise offensive remarks, and when I call them out on it, proclaim loftily that they obviously didn't mean it'...
I've also heard this kind of behaviour referred to as "Schrödinger's racism/sexism"... Where an offensive comment is made by a person, and if they get a good reaction... They 'meant it'. If someone objects to the comment, THEN 'it was just a joke'.