Over the past few years, Super Bowl ads have been highly scrutinized for sexism. This year, Miss Representation even launched an app fashioned after their #NotBuyingIt campaign so tracking offensive ads could be easier than ever. And it seems that this year, corporations have taken note that sexism does not sell – or at the very least, that the outright objectification of women has the unexpected effect of alienating women.
While Sodastream tried to sexualize carbonated beverages through Scarlett Johansson and Oikos’ Full House reunion started with an awkward yogurt-fueled make out session, the rest of the ads refrained from good old-fashioned objectification. It’s a step forward, but there is still room for improvement. When Upworthy gleefully tweeted that the Super Bowl ads seemed much less sexist than in previous years, commenters noted that would be true if “less sexism” meant “very few women at all.”
This year, it seemed that the advertisers played it safe on the sexism front, figuring that a foolproof way to avoid being accused of sexism was to avoid women as much as possible. Of course, this is not what we mean when we say we want to see better representations of women in the media. But apparently it’s too difficult to come up with a concept that involves women without being offensive.
The Volkswagen “Wings” commercial was dubbed the most sexist Super Bowl commercial of the year by PolicyMic, and it illustrates the ways in which minimizing women’s presence can be just as problematic as objectification. The ad operates under the presumption that all engineers are men, starting from the initial statement that an engineer “gets his wings” each time a Volkswagen surpasses 100,000 miles. The statement is illustrated by showing exclusively male engineer sprouting wings throughout the commercial.
The first flag the commercial raised for me is the use of “his” instead of “their.” It is such a simple switch to make. To me, choosing to say “his” rather than a truly gender neutral pronoun reveals a lot. It reveals an underlying perception of the male experience as universal and the female experience as other. There will always be those who say this is picky, but I wonder how these people would react if the word “her” were to be used as gender neutral. I can imagine reactions ranging from just finding it bizarre to hear to long rants about how the world is becoming too feminized.
The only woman who was featured prominently in the factory sequence was poked by a male engineer’s wings in an elevator. The scene reminded me of a point made by Anita Sarkeesian in her video about the Ms. Male trope. Sarkeesian speaks about the Smurfette Principle, which occurs when there is a lone woman in a large group of men. These scenarios serve to reinforce the idea that men are the default, and women are a variation – a rare variation at that. This means that whenever content producers are trying to conceive a new character, they will tend to think of male characters as the norm, with female characters to be used only if a special reason calls for it. In the case of the Volkswagen commercial, the reason would be to throw in some sexual innuendo without shattering the heteronormative bubble we live in.
Women in STEM may still be fewer than men, but these women deserve to be represented as more than the butt of a sexual joke. Truthfully, I am not worried that a single ad will turn the women and girls who feel passionate about engineering away from a career in it. But I am concerned that ads like this one help reinforce a certain worldview that some factions of our society seem desperate to cling to. I want to chip away at the othering of women, at the idea that men and women come with predetermined interests and identities.
In contrast to ads that shied away from diversity to avoid controversy, I thought Coca Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” ad was the best commercial of the game. The commercial cuts between scenes of people of different races, genders, and sexualities going about their lives. Families were swimming, playing, having dinner, watching movies, and I felt that the scenes implied that these interests weren’t dictated by race, gender, or sexuality. Their entire identities weren’t predetermined by a single trait.
Eliminating women from the media is not the antidote to sexism in the media. Instead, advertisers need to break away from the idea that men are the default – except when it comes to household products, when they seem to think women are the default. There does not need to be a special reason to make the driver of a car a woman instead of a man – just like there does not need to be a special reason for a man to do the dishes instead of a woman.
What did you think of the Super Bowl ads? Let us know in the comments!
Written by Sully Moreno