Friday, March 30, 2012

One More Reason to Fight the Right Wing’s War on Women - The Portrayal of Women in Advertising and on Television Through the Decades

Guest Post by Ebbtide

After writing my post on the ongoing, escalating War on Women being waged through legislation at all levels, on all fronts, by the Right Wing, I was asked to make a presentation to my political peeps relating to Women’s History Month.

Knowing the wingers are always talking about “taking back our country” to those halcyon days of the 1950s (or, in Rick Santorum’s case, the 1650s), I looked into how women were portrayed in advertising and on television through the decades.

I’ve been involved in advertising throughout my career, but some of these ads shocked me with their condescending, insulting attitude toward women. I now invite you to stroll through the decades with me to further impress upon everyone how important it is for women (and the men who truly care about women) to move FORWARD, not back.

In the 1950s, women didn’t have much of a voice. Most were stay-at-home moms, and those who were in the workforce were primarily in subordinate positions to men.

On television, women were homemakers, wearing shirtwaist dresses and pearls as they went about their daily housewifely duties on such shows as Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, The Honeymooners (nothing says respect like Ralph saying, with clenched fist, “To the moon, Alice”), Make Room for Daddy.

Advertising at the time, had basically two ways to portray women—The first was as dim-witted, emotional housefrau.

Those early “Mad Men” thought women would be delighted receiving appliances for gifts, and when it came to medicating women, two products stood out in my search that truly caused me to gasp.

One was this wonder drug that could get that pregnant, puking with morning sickness, mother-to-be out of bed and back to where she belonged, cooking for her man.

The other was a whole series of ads for Lysol, which was recommended (I kid you not) as a feminine hygiene product.

Even when 1950s women weren’t in the kitchen, they were suffering all sorts of indignities

And, if they had the audacity to enter the workforce…

The actual text in the Pitney-Bowes ad tells the tale of a secretary who fought progress that her super-smart boss was suggesting. Once she realized his superior intelligence, she welcomed the machine with open arms, saying, “Kinda cute, ain’t it…now the mail is out early enough so I get to the girls’ room early enough to hear all of the dirt.”

THE 60's
The 1960s was a tumultuous decade, with the JFK, RFK and MLK assassinations, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the rise of the hippie counterculture and the beginning of what is termed the “second wave of feminism” more concerned with equality and ending discrimination against women than with voting issues.

On television, many 50s shows continued, and were joined by popular shows where women could only succeed by having magical powers, like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. Then there was Julie on the Mod Squad, That Girl (a career girl, but still so reliant on her boyfriend, Donald, and her dad) and finally, in 1968, a woman of color (and a single, employed mother) as a lead character who was not a servant,  when Julia hit the airwaves.

But Madison Avenue was a bit behind with ads like

THE 70's
The 1970s brought us Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, Jim Jones—Jonestown, Microwaves, VCRs, the Sony Walkman and the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (which legalized female suffrage). 1972 was the year of the Equal Rights Amendment (passed both houses, but not ratified by enough states—thanks, Phyllis Schlafly), and 1973 brought Roe v Wade. Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” became somewhat of an anthem for feminists, and TV women had careers, lived alone and were single mothers as shows The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Alice, Maude, One Day at a Time, Laverne and Shirley and Rhoda became popular.

In advertising, the 70s got off to a slow start in the portrayal of women…

But by the end of the decade, women were beginning to be portrayed as capable, competent forces to be reckoned with.

THE 80's
In the 1980s, we experienced yuppies, personal computers and the startup of MTV (great bit of trivia—the first video on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star.”)
There were more women in the workplace than ever before, and women keeping their maiden names became more popular.

Women on television shows were professionals like Cagney & Lacey (although it took 8 years to get that show on the air after they fired the first Cagney for not being feminine enough), strong, capable Vietnam War nurses on China Beach, and lawyer Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Women’s supportive relationships were portrayed on such shows as Kate and Allie, Designing Women and the Golden Girls. And there was the ultimate strong woman in the character of Murphy Brown.

Aside from the mostly terrible hairdos, women were featured in advertising as having come into their own, and women of color received recognition as achievers.

The 90's
In the 1990s email became popular for communication, more and more people had cell phones and the Spice Girls sang about girl power. The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas imbroglio as well as Clinton and Monicagate put focus on the trials of women in the workplace, and a record number of women were elected to high office in the US.

However, in 1992, the "Year of the Woman," when President George H. W. Bush was asked when his party might nominate a woman for President he said "This is supposed to be the year of the women in the Senate. Let's see how they do. I hope a lot of them lose.”

Women on television were lawyers (Allie McBeal), judges (Judging Amy), self-supporting actresses (Cybil) and self-empowered individuals (Ellen.)

Although women were still often portrayed in bikinis, they were held up as smart and capable (and even able to buy their own Rolexes.)

The 2000's
This decade is fresh in our minds—Hillary Clinton made a serious, realistic run for President (OK—that other thing did set us back with her vice-presidential nod), Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House, and Lilly Ledbetter brought the whole issue of pay inequality to life.

In advertising, appliances no longer tied women to the kitchen, and they were portrayed as enjoying leisure and “adult beverages” just like a man.

But as that decade and the new one we’re currently in progressed, for every
Gilmore Girls, Harry’s Law, The Good Wife and The Closer, there’s America’s Next Top Model, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore, all the Real Housewives franchises, and horrors like the Duggars and that other ridiculous show that took place in Alaska.

And, (with apologies to those who love it—I personally can’t stand the show) Mad Men. As Marie Wilson, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post "it is difficult and painful to see the ways in which women and men dealt with each other and with power. It's painful because this behavior is not as far back in our past as we would like to think. Our daughters continually get the messages that power still comes through powerful men. And unfortunately being pretty is still a quality that can get you on the ladder-though it still won't take you to the top." (see Palin, Sarah for further reference!)

Two Steps Forward—How Many Steps Backward?
And now, as I wrote in my earlier post on the subject, there is a multi-front, full throttle War on Women going on, brought to you by ALEC and their wingnut representatives in Washington and in state governments across the country.

So, in honor of Women’s History Month, I ask every woman, and every man who cares about women, to spread the word and share the power—to shout from the rooftops that we’ve come a long way, and we’re not about to go back to being second-class citizens.

To repeat the sentiment of my original post:

Note by Kathleen

Thank you Ebbtide -- this is an excellent post to round up Women's History Month. 

If you haven't done so already, and Ebbtide's thoughtful and revealing post has stirred you into action, please do not forget that on 28 April, 2012 you can stand up against the recent blatant attacks on women by joining in actions which are taking place in every state across the USA to say "Enough is Enough".

More information can be found about actions in your own state at the following links:

Unite Against the War on Women

Facebook Unite Against the War on Women

Overseas Americans can join this group.

WOW - Overseas Supporters on Facebook

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