Having never seen the movie Mr. Mom, Mia avoids referencing it in this post on Enlightened Sexism, but is pretty sure it’s exactly what she’s talking about.
One of my least favorite commercials is, innocuously enough, for a carpet cleaning company. Now, if you’re in any way familiar with “commercials,” then you’re probably aware that ads for cleaning products tend to be stubbornly and cheerfully sexist, insisting, firstly, that only women clean, and secondly, that they find a sort of transcendent female happiness in doing so. Perhaps they’re even empowered by it.
In the Stanley Steemer commercial to which I am specifically referring, we are presented with a series of harrowing incidents: children (who, we can only assume are being both seen and heard) jumping on a contemporary leather sofa, a teenage boy (in a backwards baseball cap, a symbol of his devil-may-care attitude and deteriorating morals) spilling a dark soda on a perfectly beige chair, a dog (more resembling a beast from Dante’s hell than a friendly domestic companion) sullying the kitchen floor with his muddy paws and, finally, a hapless husband, apparently unable to grasp the basic properties of liquid, spraying a smoothie from an uncovered blender. The folksy narrator asks us, “Kids, teens, pets and husbands: ever wonder how you can keep your house clean?”
How, indeed, do women handle being the only capable adults in such scenes of unsanitary anarchy? The answer may be that most men aren’t, in fact, glorified children. Listen up gentlemen: I’ve got your backs.
The woman who is half-wife/half-mom to her husband (think of most sitcoms) is a prime example of Susan J. Douglas’ definition of enlightened sexism. See, ladies? Men are actually helpless slobs – you have all the power! (Except when you don’t! Which is most of the time! But it’s funnier to think of women as cold-hearted, neurotic homemakers who boss around their ne’er-do-well husbands, right?)
You might think this vision of the “woman on top,” who is the master of her husband and home, is just a marketing strategy used to lure in female customers and female viewers, except we see it in male-oriented media too. Douglas writes that the men’s magazine Maxim justifies its sexism, not only by presenting it as ironic, but by making it clear that the women it objectifies are smarter, more attractive, cooler and generally more put-together than the guys who are reading about her. Here’s the message: they’re hopeless nerds, and she’s a goddess, so you have to forgive them for not knowing how to interact with her.
But who benefits from this warped vision of gender relations? I’m inclined to think that we all lose.
When we hold onto this stereotype of the bumbling dude who doesn’t know how to do a load of laundry or how to talk to a woman without staring at her chest, we’re doing both men and women a huge disservice. We lower our standards of what we expect from men, and we expect women to pick up the slack. We send boys the mixed message that they can and should help out around the house as much as girls do, but “Oh you know boys – so messy!”
And maybe low expectations doesn’t sound like the worst thing to a lot of guys, but take it from a woman: when other people tell you time and again that you just can’t do something because of your gender, you start to believe them. And then you’ll never learn how to make a smoothie.
Now I’m not suggesting that these stereotypes about incapable man-children are quite analogous to stereotypes about incapable women (who, I’ve heard, have too much estrogen flowing through their veins to think straight) – at the end of the day, our society’s power structure is still tipped decidedly in favor of men. But when we condition men to think that doing laundry (and I know a lot of you guys can do laundry, so please insert any traditionally womanly chore here) is a) very difficult and b) the province of women anyway, we’re boxing men into very specific, very rigid, very “masculine” roles. Oh, and we’re still making women do all the laundry.