Retire the Bumbling Husband: He Isn't Helping

The Bumbling Husband is that lovable but incompetent man who just can't seem to keep himself out of trouble, much less keep a house in order. He is Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin.
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In Buzzfeed posts like "15 Ridiculously Sexist Vintage Tobacco Ads," modern women can look back at the offensive portrayal of women in the not-so-distant past of print advertising. The female character of today's commercials are a far cry from mindless, objectified woman of the Mad Men era of marketing -- the women we see in television marketing today are often shown in the workplace, multitasking with ease and even taking the driver's seat.

But in what appears to be a genuine effort to elevate the portrayal of women in the home from that of a vapid housekeeper to a confident and thoughtful consumer, it appears that an equally damaging gender stereotype has also emerged -- the Bumbling Husband.

The Bumbling Husband is that lovable but incompetent man who just can't seem to keep himself out of trouble, much less keep a house in order. He is Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and the father so immersed in the Big Game that he puts a diaper on the dog and gives a chew toy to the baby because he simply can't tear his eyes from the screen. He is constantly disappointing his eternally competent wife who loves him despite his inability to contribute to the running of the house.

In 1963, Betty Friedan pointed out in The Feminine Mystique that it is both insulting to men to suggest that they are simply incapable of keeping a house and limiting to women when it becomes the assumption that housekeeping is, by default, a woman's responsibility. Still, commercials which draw on the idiotic/incompetent man trope make up a large part of what we see on TV today, particularly when it comes to the marketing of goods that have to do with housekeeping -- particularly child-rearing, clean up and home maintenance, and food preparation.

In his 2012 article "No more dumb old dad," CNN reporter Josh Levs writes about a father of three who plays a game with his wife to, "try to see who can be the first one to spot the idiot husband or father" because the Bumbling Husband trope is so common. The humor in this commercial for the Home Depot is that the father is apparently an idiot who thinks home improvement includes blasting giant holes in the side of his house, much to the dismay of his well-meaning wife. In a flu-induced week of excessive TV watching this summer, I found that in a typical commercial break of about 8-15 commercials, more than half tended to feature the Bumbling Husband (a non-scientific study, but revealing nonetheless).

Ultimately, I think men and women alike can agree that the Bumbling Husband trope has seriously negative side-effects in terms of how we understand masculinity. In an attempt to empower the female character by gracing her with the ability to flawlessly run a busy household, the Bumbling Husband not only discounts male competence, but also reinforces Friedan's assertion that this means that the running of the household is a necessarily feminine responsibility. It suggests that it is only natural, and in fact excusable, that a man would be so out of place trying to do a woman's work. That savvy, smart female character is still constrained by that "problem that has no name," and that silly man preserves his masculinity because even though he fails, he fails at work no man could be expected to complete well because of that pesky Y chromosome.

So why does the advertising world seem stuck in these traditional portrayals of masculinity when the actual practice of masculinity in America has evolved so much since the 1960s? It is refreshing to see women in advertising who make responsible and well-informed decisions about the products she uses in her home. It would further advance the feminist cause if advertisers would show male housekeepers display that same competence, or see equally capable partners make a collective decision.

This awkward misinterpretation of feminism in advertising which attempts to enhance women by dumbing down men only perpetuates the fear that feminism strives for the dominance of women over men. The Tumblr "Women Against Feminism" features repeated messages of concern by women that feminist advocacy is at the expense of male dignity. While many are quick to dismiss the women on this blog as ignorant, a day of watching television reveals that advertisers who rely on the Bumbling Husband trope to elevate the perceived competence of the wife might share their confusion.

Feminism is a movement which strives for equality between women and men. Advertisements for housekeeping products can still be targeted to attract female consumers, but the justification that these products should be selected by the woman because her male partner is just too stupid to do so needs to be retired. It's time advertisers pay attention -- equality is empowering. Show us all some respect.

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