It’s been said that the trouble with feminists is that they find sexism in everything. As a feminist myself, I’d rephrase it: the trouble with everything is that it’s usually sexist.
There are few exceptions to this rule, not even at this time of year. Take the Christmas advert. Many’s the time I find myself plonked in front of the telly, trying to celebrate capitalism in peace, and along comes sexism to spoil it.
It’s not that I don’t understand the problem. Creating a Christmas advert that doesn’t rely on gender stereotypes is tricky. After all, almost everything associated with the festive season – cooking, caring, family ties, sparkly things, giving birth in great discomfort in an inadequate setting – is associated with women (the whole patriarchal Son of God thing notwithstanding).
The options for advertisers are either to present Christmas as it is for most women (depressing) or to show them what it should be like i.e. by having David Gandy do the washing up (patronising, if appealing). If all else fails, there’s always the option of focussing on children, animals and root vegetables instead.
Most advertisers tend to do the latter. This is wise. My favourite of this year’s crop has been the Heathrow Airport bears finding their way home, at least until the shock twist at the end when they turn into humans, suddenly reminding you that actually, it wouldn’t be remotely delightful to have your in-laws turn up uninvited.
I am also a fan of Aldi’s Kevin the Carrot, mainly because my three-year-old son adores him. I’m convinced that thoughts of Kevin defeating Pascal the Parsnip are getting my little one through the long, lonely days when I’ve abandoned him in nursery due to my inability to freeze time and be a Proper Mum, like the one in this year’s BBC Christmas ad.
In this advert, a stressed mother who works in an office doing something or other (definitely nothing important) isn’t sure whether she’ll have time to meet with her teenage son. Teenage son is dejected. Mum feels guilty but goes to work anyhow, where her desk and screensaver show us pictures of her boy when he was younger (but she’s forgotten! Too busy indulging herself with all those emails and spreadsheets! It’s like Gin Lane, only instead of alcohol there’s Microsoft Word).
Teenage son wanders sadly around his seaside town, throwing stones into the waves and playing on arcade games. He looks like a runaway from some gritty mid-1980s CBBC drama. Thankfully, just before he takes to shoplifting, drug-taking and generally looking sulky, something weird happens, stopping time and motion for everyone except him and his mum. This enables the pair of them to spend quality time together, albeit in a drab, post-apocalyptic world where everyone else might as well be dead.
This advert definitely sets my Christmas sexism sensors tingling, and I’m not the only one to have felt this way. Perhaps the mother is supposed to be a female version of last year’s BBC Christmas advert dancing dad, but somehow the two don’t quite match up. Whereas the latter is a top dad who proves he’s been there all along, noting all his daughter’s dance moves even when it looked like he was busy fixing cars, the former is a crap mum who finally remembers The Things That Matter, albeit only when her computer goes on the blink and all other humans have turned into the crew from Ulysses 31.
Christmas adverts have a knack of making mothers feel guilty. Time was when you’d feel bad for not losing at least one limb in the rush for a Cabbage Patch doll or a Thunderbirds Tracy Island. Now the adverts remind you that all present choices for your little one will define their entire futures (current career options in the post-Brexit world: astronaut or Elton John).
Possibly the worst advert for mummy guilt is Asda’s infamous “Mum does everything short of sticking a broom up her arse and sweeping the floor as she goes along” production of 2012. Watch as a hapless mum runs herself ragged – cooking, shopping, wrapping, decorating, entertaining – while her ungrateful spouse and kids take it all for granted! Gaze in amazement as she cheerily tucks into Christmas dinner while crouched on a pouffe, because the rest of the family have taken all the chairs! Hurl baubles at the TV screen as she gazes lovingly at the bunch of oafs lolling on the sofa, while the voiceover informs you that “behind every great Christmas there’s mum, and behind mum there’s Asda”! Feel glad – yes, glad – that the last time you visited Asda, one of your kids threw up in the car park, which you now like to think of as an unwitting protest against the superstore’s passive-aggressive enforcement of the feminine mystique.
This particular advert prompted 620 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, who nonetheless deemed it not to be sexist. According to an Asda spokesperson, “eight out of ten mothers […] believed the ad reflected common experience, rather than outdated stereotypes”. While it’s certainly true that description is not prescription, the boundary between the two, especially in advertising, is not always clear. I hear the sequel, in which Asda mum “realistically” downs all the leftover brandy and tells her husband she’d always imagined herself ending up with a man who could stretch to Waitrose, was quietly shelved.
While one could, at a pinch, suggest that Asda’s take on gender at Christmas was well-meant, if misguided, this isn’t true in all cases. Take, for instance, Poundland’s laddish, Barbie-harassing elf of 2017. What was that all about? The whole thing was so weirdly misogynistic and dark – especially the “joke” about teabagging – that I’ve sometimes wondered whether I imagined it (particularly as my subconscious has blended it together with Greggs’ “Baby Jesus as sausage roll” scandal of the same year, to form a slasher-style nativity scene involving raw meat and evil goblins).
On the other hand, some Christmas adverts have been accused of misogyny when one might more accurately call them strange. The short-lived advert for Mr Kipling’s cakes, in which a woman gives birth live in the school nativity, is one such example. To be honest, I rather like it. If we’re going to go all-out and use the women’s work that goes into Christmas as a marketing tool, might as well go for the jugular.
Boots the Chemist have consistently dodgy form when it comes to Christmas advert sexism, their 2006 “‘Tis the season to be gorgeous” campaign forming a particularly egregious example. This shows a succession of models undertaking various mundane chores – shaving their legs, polishing their nails, drying their hair – which are sold to women as pampering treats to get stuck into once they’ve finished the housework. Why only engage in one form of soul-destroying, repetitive women’s work when you could be engaging in two? Hence we see these women doing their nails while stuffing the turkey, putting on perfume while drying the dishes, blowdrying their hair while vacuuming the floor, touching up their lipstick while decorating the tree… There is even, I kid you not, a woman peeling brussels sprouts while taking a bath. I realise that this is supposed to be humorous, a way of noting that while the drudgery of Christmas isn’t glamorous, that doesn’t mean you aren’t. But really, Boots. It’s bad enough that hair removal is meant to be a treat. Let’s not suggest it’s so self-indulgent that one ought to be doing the ironing at the same time.
By contrast, this year’s Boots advert did have potential, focussing on the fraught relationship between a middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter. There could have been plenty of feminist mileage in this. Mother thinks daughter is a libfem sellout for wanting eyeshadow shades with names such as “Slut”, “Bitchslap” and “Lapdance”; daughter thinks mother is a second-wave sexphobe for sticking to No 7 face wipes and Elizabeth Arden eight-hour cream. The two come together over a mildly innuendo-laden Soap & Glory gift set. Or something. Anyhow, Boots didn’t do that. Instead the daughter suddenly realises her mother is a human being with a unique inner life because she sees her singing carols with some other middle-aged women in front of a Christmas tree, No, I didn’t get it either. At least the mother gets a lipstick out of it.
It’s possible to read too much into yuletide advertising. After all, Christmas isn’t just about finding sexist ways to market brussels sprouts. It’s about virgin births and reindeer and various other things which are tenuously connected but seem to make sense after several mugs of mulled wine.
As long as there is Christmas, though, there will be a sexist Christmas advert lurking somewhere. Patriarchy is, after all, one of our most longstanding and respected traditions. Things just wouldn’t be the same without it. Think what a gift that would be!