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.
Getty
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times