Pink Bic Pens and Man Crisps might be patronising, but we buy them

At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. It's more troubling when companies start prescribing gender roles to infants.

I sit here writing on a sturdy black laptop, drinking coffee from an oversized, dark blue chunky mug. If I get peckish later I might pop out for a chocolate bar, or Man Fuel as I call it, or maybe a packet of crisps - Man Crisps, naturally, none of your effete, wispy, prawn cocktails for me, washed down with a sugar-free soda branded with something snappy and butch like Max or Zero. Real men don't count calories. When work is done and the woolly mammoth dragged back to the cave I might treat myself to a beer, and of course it will be a proper beer with proper colour, not one like this. I am man. Hear me burp, fart and whimper with indigestion.

OK, I'm exaggerating, but not much. Although on any given day you're more likely to find me gripping a spatula than a lump-hammer, like the vast majority of the human race, I perform my socially-decreed gender roles thoughtlessly and effortlessly. It is there in what I do, how I do it and, above all, what I buy.  Nutritionists say we are what we eat. In truth we are what we eat, drink, wear, drive, play with, use and otherwise consume.

The wags of social media have been having fun for the past week or so with the Amazon page for the new 'Bic For Her' ballpoint pens. If this has somehow passed you by, just a few of the customer comments have been helpfully collated by Jezebel and just about every other blog on the internet. There is something inherently ridiculous about a cheap biro specifically designed for the female scribe, and many of the witty barbs are well aimed, but ultimately this product is no more ridiculous than the countless products marketed needlessly at one gender or the other.

The 'Bic For Her' line caught the imagination for two reasons, firstly it served as a long-awaited sequel to the classic Bic Pen Amazon review game, and perhaps more importantly  because the manufacturer eschewed  any attempt at subtlety in their gender marketing. The company could just as easily have produced something called the 'Bic Chic', perhaps, with the same pastel colours, slimline design and feminine curves. We would all have known exactly what they were doing and why, but I doubt there would have been the same collective urge to point and laugh.

There's a popular urge to yell 'SEXIST!' at advertising campaigns which overtly, unashamedly play to exaggerated gender norms and stereotypes, but personally I find them less offensive - and I suspect they may be less socially corrosive - than the constant drip dripping of low level gender role stereotypes that serve as inescapable mood music to our lives. I mean the likes of the vile Proctor and Gamble Olympics ad, 'Proud Sponsors of Mums' which attributed the glory of British Olympians to the mothers who stayed home washing the sports kit, presumably while the dads were out teaching the budding athletes to run, jump and throw. I mean the Oven Pride 'So easy a man could do it' campaign, and dozens  more like those.

Devoid of the knowing, self-mocking irony of the McCoy's Man Crisps, for example, these campaigns present a representation of our modern society that is largely archaic and crass, and to some degree cements in popular culture a reactionary model that excludes diversity of gender roles, sexuality and lifestyle. I don't believe such adverts should be banned, but they can certainly be condemned.     

Capitalist producers and public consumers have a symbiotic relationship. Each plays their role in creating demands to be supplied, manufacturing needs to be met. At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. Our purchases add up to our public personae, and of course our gender is a key component of our identity. As autonomous adults we can choose the extent to which we want to play along with such constructions. It is rather more troubling when companies like Argos start prescribing gender roles to infants with strictly demarcated Toys for Boys and Toys for Girls.

Gender diversity, allowed to flourish freely, individually and without constraint, is a healthy and beautiful thing. If a woman enjoys buying a pretty little pastel-coloured biro, I'm happy for her. If she decides the crudely gendered marketing is patronising and insulting, then I'm pleased for us all. Ultimately, the true social media superstar of the gendered marketing debate is the eloquent little tyro at the heart of this YouTube hit. Give 'em hell, sister. 

Bic For Her! Because women need special lady pens.
Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.