Linda Ong, CEO and Founder, TruthCo.
How can advertising alleviate or exacerbate the unseen costs of women’s equality?
Back in the Eighties, when women donned their power suits and started taking over the world, there was lots of talk about “having it all.” Remember Diane Keaton’s pinstriped mom changing diapers in between meetings from “Baby Boom?” Her J.C. Wiatt was an aspirational role model for women like me, messaging that work, babies and love were in reach if we just wanted it enough.
Turns out that was a trap. A woman couldn’t be a great executive AND a great mom AND a great lover – typically you could pick two out of three – so, many women had to settle for being really good at one or two of them, or feeling lousy at all of them.
Media and advertising images of “career women” let us down by trumpeting an unattainable illusion of perfection that ending up pitting women against each other in the office and at PTA meetings. Women were all so busy trying to be successful at everything, they forgot to have each others’ backs.
Now with the fourth wave of feminism upon us, there’s a new message. It’s no longer about “having it all,” it’s about DOING it all – an acknowledgment that “women’s work” is about taking charge in a post-recession world.
Even content’s change agent Netflix is channeling this cultural theme in its Emmy-busting spot, “She Rules.” If it seems that women are doing more of everything it’s because they can, but also because increasingly, society now expects women to do the heavy lifting.
And that makes sense, because today, roughly 40% of breadwinners are women. And yet:
• Women are paid 79 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same job, according to estimates, but among small businesses, it’s closer to 25 cents.
• For decades, studies have proved women still are responsible for the majority of chores and child-rearing, even when their spouses are sharing the load. And more women than ever are single mothers.
• Recent medical studies have shown that heart disease in women is on the rise, while for men it is decreasing.
• Rates of alcoholism and depression in women are increasing.
So basically, at the same time of increasing economic power, women are literally suffering. This paradox – the heightening cultural pressure on women to actualize their professional potential while making them do more for less – is what I call “The Breadwinner’s Dilemma.”
Perhaps this conundrum is best expressed by the fact that despite all of the recognition for the solid progress women have made economically, it’s widely unacceptable for a woman to be taller than the man in her life. So can a woman achieve equality if she’s still expected to calibrate the height of her heels to a vertically-challenged date?
Advertising has long advocated progressive ideas in culture (same-sex couples, multiracial families, people with disabilities, even dads who do laundry). But the industry has also long perpetuated societal codes that foster low self-esteem by equating consumerism with confidence–guilting women into buying products by making them feel less capable without them.
Culture has already made the shift. Led by the Peak TV boom, pop culture is changing the way we talk about and show women. In this paradigm shift, complexity is valued over one-note positivity:
Like the “Difficult Men” that preceded them in network drama (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper and their ilk), women today are complicated creatures that can range from bad moms in Pamela Adlon’s caustic FX comedy Better Things to dark superheroes like Jessica Jones.
These complex women aren’t just fictional characters. Ask Lena Dunham, whose Lenny Letter interview with Amy Schumer revealed her feelings of body-shaming by Odell Beckham Jr. at the Met Ball. After an intense takedown on social media, she publicly apologized for being a flawed feminist.
Pop culture’s poster child of feminist bonding, Taylor Swift, embodies the emotional support women rely on today. Her band of diverse and famous friends represents a seismic paradigm shift in portrayals of women by no longer pitting them against each other in catfights over men. In an era when conventional boyfriend-girlfriend relationships are practically non-existent, #SquadGoals allow women lean on each other to mutually build self-esteem, self-identity and sisterhood.
And not unlike Taylor Swift’s revolving door of relationships, shows like Halt and Catch Fire and Unreal portray the ups and downs of BFFs with the same intensity as conventional romances. In a feminist world, we fight with, not against, each other – for the things we believe in.
New Body Images
Teyana Taylor’s breakout performance in Kanye West’s “Fade” video is disruptive on many levels, but we haven’t seen raw physicality like this since Grace Jones pulled up to the bumper. And Alicia Key’s Insta-worthy decision to go make-up free is definitely news in an industry where glam squads have been cost of entry.
Thanks to strong campaigns by Dove and others elevating feminist ideals and non-traditional shapes, traditional women’s advertising is now held to a new standard. But now it’s time for all advertisers to depict and celebrate unique body types, laying waste to pseudo-aspirational norms that damage the self-esteem of most women and that drive skewed perceptions for everyone else. And even the TV industry has room to step up. Imagine if the contestants on The Bachelor looked less like Barbies, and more like Orange Is The New Black?
These are just some of the ways advertising can break the paradox of “The Breadwinner’s Dilemma.” By championing women’s success AND breeding a cultural desire for their total well-being, marketers can change the conversation to take the pressure off of women.
Maybe then, society will see that a woman being taller than a man in a relationship as a sign of progress. In really nice heels.
About the Author
Linda Ong is the CEO and Founder of TruthCo., an omnicultural branding and insights company that analyzes the current cultural landscape to deliver actionable recommendations that keep entertainment brands and their offerings relevant. Connect with TruthCo. at www.truthco.net or on Twitter @TeamTruthCo.
Join Linda at Advertising Week New York on Monday, September 26th at 9:45 am for The Revolution Will Be Feminized: What Feminism Means in Pop Culture discussion at Thomson Reuters with Jessica Grose, Editor-in-Chief, Lenny; Liz Gateley, Head of Programming, Lifetime; Madonna Badger, CCO/Founder, Badger & Winters.
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