Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dumb Dads in Ads

If you watch free-to-air television, you will be intimately familiar with “dumb Dad”. While your mind may wander during advertisements, if you trawl through your mental archive, you’ll be able to see the quizzical look on his face as he ponders the complexity of pouring a drink or removing a stubborn stain. I could no longer ignore him after his most recent manifestation in a cordial ad. Dumb Dad is summoned to the table for dinner by the name “Elizabeth” because, as we discover, he was too domestically inept to believe that the wonders of modern science have made possible a super-concentrated version of Fruit Cup.

The question is whether “Elizabeth” is more demeaned than the hapless star of an air freshener commercial who is visibly bemused by the product’s capacity to spurt forth a chemical concoction approximating gardenias at pre-determined intervals.

What we do know is that it is time to cue a shake of the head from all-knowing Mum. Because in all of these dumb Dad advertisements it takes Mum to really know how the home should function. Sure, in reality, most of the bridges we drive over are engineered by men, almost all of the surgeons we entrust our lives to are men, and most of the CEOs of the business world are men. In ads for domestic products, though, a medical qualification or an MBA can’t help anyone with XY chromosomes work out how to add half a cup of water and a knob of butter to a packet of pasta and powdered flavouring.

We’ve always had the Tip Top Mum who could be relied upon to rustle up a wholesome sandwich after school, while Dad was conspicuously absent from snack duty. Yet it’s an entirely new development for mum transmogrify into a super-being reminiscent of a Transformer in order to shield her children from the ominous threat of household germs. Clearly she needs to take on this superhuman role against streptococci because Dad is still on the couch ruminating over the erratic behaviour of the air freshener.

Of course, in the advertising world women are often sexualised, whether draped over a pair of Windsor Smiths or clutching a Chiko roll, and men are frequently injected with a heavy dose of “bloke” that sees them get “it” lifting and shifting, as VB would have it. Now advertisers are hell bent on convincing us that men are incapable of cooking or cleaning and women are clever and heroic for taking up the slack. The reason for this trend is not male-bashing, as some would argue, but a veiled affirmation that women’s rightful place is in the home.

Part of the canny strategy of advertisers may be to appeal to mothers who perform the majority of the housework and childcare. Let’s all pretend that scouring congealed pasta sauce from around the hotplate ring is a mark of achievement that a man can’t manage, rather than contemplate that women are still doing most of the domestic chores and the child-rearing while conducting work outside the home. Perhaps we might be able to attain an honorary doctorate from Spray and Wipe College (an affiliate of the Ponds Institute) to compensate for women’s inability to break through the glass ceiling.

Advertisements, with their polite and clean children, are not reality. Yet they are symptomatic of wider trends that present men who are competent in the home as anomalies. The recent documentation for the federal government’s paid parental leave scheme that will come into effect in 2011 observes that the payment is “usually” reserved for mothers but can be “transferred” to fathers. This wording conveys that a man taking primary responsibility for the home is unusual.

The continued idea that only women are truly capable of maintaining a home that infuses many ads is a key reason why it is women’s careers that are affected by a couple’s choice to have a family. A mother needs to consider the implications of her absence from the home because in her absence her partner will be reduced to Steve Guttenberg in Three Men and a Baby. Yes, a male partner can close a million-dollar deal, but, no, he cannot work out how to affix the adhesive tabs to a nappy. Who knows what kinds of damage will be done to the child who does not have Transformer-Mum on hand to ensure that domestic order is maintained and soap pumps are safely free of germs.

It is a clever sleight of hand trick that these ads don’t seem as conservative as the stereotypical advertisements from the 1950s that showed ever-smiling, well-groomed mothers drawing forth apple pies from the oven upon father’s arrival home from work. Instead, it seems that men are now the victims. After all, they are the ones who are shown as helpless domestic imbeciles.

We must be clever enough to recognise that these ads aren’t detrimental to men, but continue to contribute toward women’s inequality. By suggesting that only women possess the innate ability to ensure cleanliness and cook dinner, the weight of caring for the family remains firmly on women’s shoulders and men escape its pressure and any impact on their own career. The idea of the men who occupy the majority of senior positions within our corporations and professional fields throwing up their hands in confusion at the prospect of removing mould from the shower is not really demeaning towards men. After all, they’ll still return to their respectable, high-paying positions once Mum has finished shaking her head knowingly. Instead dumb Dad is really an underhanded way of reaffirming that women should rightfully cook, clean and care for children and forget about work outside the home.

No comments: