Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mad, Madmen

I love football, but I didn’t get to watch much of the Super Bowl last week. A few of the ads drove me from the room. And, I think, that is exactly what they were meant to do.

The Dodge Charger, FLO TV. That about sums up my experience of Super Bowl XLIV.

Coors Light and your frisky, tasteless obsession with twins, how I miss you. I had no idea objectification was so preferable to vilification. And, “villain” is the role we women have been assigned. The helpless victim in need of saving, however, is no damsel in distress. If we buy into the method behind these Madmen, it’s the American male.

The Kellogg School of Business Super Bowl Review explains:

“The most interesting creative theme (of the Super Bowl ads) was the domestication of the American man. Four advertisers tapped into the insight that men in the United States are feeling weak and powerless. We suspect there is some very compelling research backing this up. Certainly the recent unemployment and payroll data suggests that many men are indeed having a tough time.”

The admen must have surmised that after thousands of years of male dominance, it was only fitting that when “times get tough” the tough blame their mothers. Or girlfriends. Or Wives. Basically, whoever has a job and control of the remote control.

It’s all a myth, of course, which is what they’re in the business of selling. But, this one, which I first thought was simply anti-woman, comes at just the wrong time.

Why? Seething rage and hostility are rarely great things to cultivate, but doing so now seems reckless. It is an urban legend (and fallacy) that Super Bowl Sunday brings about the highest number of domestic violence cases, but it’s a fact that poor economic times do. And, just when women and girls are gaining ground on many fronts, is it time to belittle them on a national scale? For a car that will lose 70 percent of its value in three years? Who’s conning who?

But, my concern, and my blog, is focused on parenthood. The more I thought about what message these ads send, and the picture of manhood they define, the more I realized I saw the problem from only one point of view. I have two girls. The ads may be insulting, but I can explain them away in a few conversations. If I had boys, I’d need weeks. Or, a lifetime.

The small-minded devotion to dudeness these ads exalt, or what I might call perpetuating the idiotcracy of jockocracy is infinitely worse than making someone put the toilet seat down.

First, the unemployment rate. I know Kellogg is a business school (we theatre students could spot the Kellogg grads a mile away because they wore, if you can imagine, khakis), but I am going to call their theory: The Rice Crispy Defense. And, yes, it's a bit soggy.

Can it be that because women have survived the downturn with fewer job losses than men, there is warranted uneasiness about the gender gap?

The Dodge ad actually depicts men with jobs—but ones that they apparently hate and begrudge their wives for making them hold. Still, it is true that the unemployment rate for men has never been higher. But the industries that have seen the most job losses are construction and manufacturing. Do you want to guess how many women were employed in these industries before the downturn? If you don’t invite someone into your frat party, it seems a bit odd to blame them for not paying dues.

Never mind that women still make 77 cents to the dollar that men do, and that the jobs they’ve been able to maintain in this climate are more often part-time, reduced hours, and, according to Heidi Hartmann, the president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, (USA TODAY, 2009), still not the majority of higher paying executive positions, the real problem with shunning all things feminine is the reduction of options it leaves men in the current employment field.

The areas that are actually showing job growth? Hold onto your iPads: Education. Health Care. Government.

But, it’s hard to earn a teaching degree if you’re too busy watching FLO TV. Which leads us to the other aspect of the myth of jockocracy: that real manhood thrives in a metaphoric mancave devoid of women and any academic rigor not approved by SportsCenter.

If boys are experiencing a crisis in school, as Raising Cain and the ensuing outcry against the “feminization” of school that followed have led us to fear, then the message of FLO TV is actually more harmful to boys than it is to girls.

By dissing women, there is an implicit rejection of anything female—including education. Carrying a TV around all day is another good way of doing this, but that’s another post.

The real secret, of course, is that actual jocks, as opposed to those watching them on FLO TV, are busying training, studying, and improving themselves, and not forming an exclusive relationship with an electronic device.

Although scandals crop up faster than I can type, it’s interesting to note the report released last November by the NCAA Research Staff. Division I athletes are actually graduating from college at a higher rate than the general student population. For the class entering in 2002, it was 64% to 62%. A modest win, but within some groups the difference was huge. African-American student-athletes gained nine points over their counterparts in the general student body. For African-American females, the rate is even higher: fourteen points.

And, what about the claim that unless school becomes less feminine, boys will not keep up with the overachieving generation of girls? Is FLO TV just giving them a safe niche to call their own, giving them more confidence to be themselves?

Seems a little out of date. A 2008 report released by the American Association of University Women was the first of its kind to look at how gender, family income level and race worked together to determine academic success.

“The past few decades have seen remarkable gains for girls and boys in education, and no evidence indicates a crisis for boys in particular…..if there is a crisis exists, it is a crisis for African American and Hispanic students and students from lower-income families -- both girls and boys.”

But the message from FLO TV, and Dodge, is quite different. Manhood is threatened. Perhaps, doomed. Just think of the actual title of the ad from Dodge: Man’s Last Stand.

It’s a military term, and it usually means a force is about to be defeated by a much stronger one. Those taking the last stand might do it for pride, or duty, or because they can inflict some worthwhile damage to the opposition, but loss is inevitable.

Are the ads a rallying cry, or nihilistic reproach of the parts of our culture that can endure hard times? If Dodge and FLO TV had any interest in bolstering real manhood, they’d drop the ‘tude. And, they’d not be pitching the surest roads to failure.

I climbed up on my lunchbox this week thinking women had been attacked by some pretty explicit and hateful ads. But, the real victims are boys, who are being sold something far worse than just a lemon.


Anonymous said...

Excellent essay,Sarah. I had the exact same reaction to those ads, wondering why they were so blatantly hostile. And I'm a football-loving male.

オテモヤン said...
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Houston! said...

Should I be worried that my son has learned how to use the remote in such a way that he can flip back and forth between an NBA basketball game and Olympic Hockey? Yeah, that's what I thought! Good thing he still likes doing theatre so we can balance out all that testosterone. The American Media is responsible for so many blatant and subtle tragedies against humanity. This is just another one. A friend of mine in High School used to go through stores and put post its on any image that was degrading to women, such as the Land O'Lakes butter package, with a phrase "this demeans women" on it. I wish I had that kind of time. And it is worrisome when you are trying to raise children to be whoever they want to be...yet, they are constantly battered with imagery that speaks in generalities and falsehoods to them. "Boys don't like tea parties," said my daughter tonight. Where does that come from??? The only tea parties she has ever had have been with her brother, father, or me!!!! When in doubt, blame Disney, right? :)

Rachel said...

Did you see this video response to the Dodge Charger commercial yet?