Working Moms Can't Have It All, But At Least They Can Smell Pretty

The other day I was in the drug store looking for something to kill cockroaches. Much to my surprise, the clerk suggested Enjoli perfume. (Good call, Mildred.) Inhaling the lovely fragrance got me thinking about those old commercials.

I've decided these ads are not just about selling perfume. They're also avant-garde commentaries on the trials of the modern working mother and the evolving domestic relationship between husbands and wives.

... Of course, they could be just about selling perfume, but that wouldn't be interesting, would it?

To refresh your memory:

Takes you back doesn't it?

At first glance, this ad seems silly, if not offensive, to our modern sensibilities. It's tempting to dismiss it as a cynical marketing tool trying to pass as a statement of female empowerment. It's no surprise, therefore, that this ad has fallen out of favor in feminist circles. (See, for example, this critique by NPR's Jennifer Ludden.)

I agree with the anti-Enjoli intelligentsia that this idea that women can "have it all" is absurd. In reality, as women like my mother know all too well, what "have it all" meant was that society "allowed" mothers to go to work, but only if they didn't let their their domestic responsibilities slide. So, if by "have it all" you mean two crappy jobs, one that starts at nine and one that starts at five, then yes, you sure could have it all -- and an exciting new scent to go with it! Ba-da-da-dum.

But this critique misses the bigger picture. Don't forget the second ad, which debuted in 1980:

They're different, aren't they? Viewed back-to-back, these two commercials tell a more complex story.

In the carefree days of 1978, society viewed the prospect of the working mother with wide-eyed, if naive, optimism. The first ad begins with the household chores mom does before she gets to work at "5 to 9." This is a brand new day, just let me get the wash done and the kids off to school, then look out world, here I come! I'm a good mom and a reliable employee. And gosh, don't I smell pretty?

In the 1980 version, we discover what happens after mom comes home from work. And it's not all good.

Mom had a great day at the office (check out that wad of cash). But there are problems at home. The kids are in trouble. No doubt they've been sitting in front of the TV for hours, latchkey urchins aching for mom's tender caress. They're just one Gilligan's Island rerun away from lasting psychological damage. But mom grabs a book and jumps to the rescue just in time. Reading to your kids fixes everything. Good job, mom.

We're not out of the woods yet, however. This is where dad comes in.

In the first video, the narrator calls it the eight-hour perfume "for the 24-hour woman"; in the second he says "for your 24-hour woman." Dad's now drawn into the commercial, literally and figuratively. No longer can he sit passively on the the couch, staring at the smokin' hot "mom" with the wispy Aqua Net hairdo. Dad's got some work to do. And it's not just buying mom more perfume.

The first ad begins with the reassuring image of mom wielding the frying pan like it was an extension of her body. Not so in the second. By 1980 we're ready to admit that mom can't be Mary Richards and June Cleaver at the same time. If the family is going to survive, dad needs to step up to the plate. It's your turn to cook dinner, pal.

But what about sex?!

We can't talk about this alluring scent without acknowledging the importance of sex in the Enjoli narrative. After all, the primary purpose of perfume -- aside from covering up the stink of an eight-hour day -- is to make yourself sexy for your man. And the alchemists behind Enjoli knew their pheromones like nobody's business.

But hold on dad, before you start revving your engine you've got some listening to do. Mom's making some changes around here.

In the first video, the sexy part of lyrics contain the line "and if you want lovin'... " The '78 supermom makes herself available to her husband, if and when he wants it. Dad's driving this boat.

In the second, the sexual relationship between mom and dad is more ambiguous.

It's all about money. In the first ad, notice how mom holds her cash: she's flipping it around playfully, like it was monopoly money. "Isn't this cute? I've got all these big bills, I don't know if I can count them all, giggle giggle." In the second, we're hit with that powerful shot of mom proudly, and tightly, holding her hard-earned wad of greenbacks in an outstretched fist. Mom's telling the world that this little career gal is serious; mom's telling dad she's got a little walkin' money.

But don't worry, dad, she's probably not going to use it. Even the second ad sends the clear message that a loving wife wants to make herself sexy. (And now that mom's got some dough of her own, dad probably doesn't have to spring for a new fur coat, just a bottle of Enjoli every six months or so.)

The real shocker in the second ad, however, is the message that sex is about her pleasure too. Watch mom's face light up when dad says he's going to cook dinner. You know dad's gettin' a hungry tiger tonight. RRRow, RRRow!

We're thus left on an optimistic note: the future of marriage is safe, even in the brave new world of 1980. Mom and dad might have to renegotiate the laundry, but in the bedroom it can still be win-win... just so long as mom doubles-up on her after-work perfume and dad doesn't burn the tuna casserole, again.

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