The Vagenda

Asda Meets The Ghost of Christmas Past

So, sit down on the couch and tell me about your childhood. I’m ready to hear it. It’s getting cold again, so tell me what your normal family Christmas was like. Did your mum cook the turkey? Did she coordinate your festive costumes for the school’s annual vegan multi-faith play over a bowlful of quinoa in Maida Vale? Or, like me, did you win the Easter hat competition in Newcastle when she attached a discarded chicken toy from a Kinder egg to your forehead with masking tape (‘it’s in a nest’)? Whether your holidays leant more towards ‘tofurkey and cuddles’ or ‘sledge ride home from the pub on Christmas Eve because Dad’s too drunk to stand up’, it was probably almost always your mum who was pulling the weight. There’s a reason why Iceland’s strapline is ‘because mums are heroes’, and it’s not because of a renewed fetishisation of femininity. It’s because everyone knows that most of the time, especially when kids are involved, women are lumped with the domestic labour.

Now, it’s worth qualifying immediately there are a million and one exceptions to this rule. My own single father coordinates his own house and holidays fine, thankyou very much (and that pizza we had for Christmas dinner last year was as delicious as it was good value.) But there ain’t no use pretending that we don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about steaming veg. Or ironing, or washing up, or turning up to put another tired smile on a tone-deaf daughter’s rendition of Little Donkey at the third night running of the Christmas carol concert. Society is changing, and has changed, but we still see women reporting in surveys that they do more than half of the domestic labour and childcare in their households, even when they work full-time or the same hours as their partners. 

And here we come to the crux of the Asda Christmas advert that everyone’s tweeting about. Built around the same idea as Iceland’s ‘heroes’ gag, it portrays the mum who does everything. She puts together the costumes for the school play, prepares all the food, shepherds in the relatives, wraps and buys all the presents, blows up the inflatable mattresses, decorates the tree, entertains an entire cohort of children from her extended family. She ‘makes Christmas happen.’ And then, at the end, she finally gets to settle back into an armchair next to the reclining males, and her (presumed) husband turns around and asks: ‘What’s for tea, love?’ Oh, ho, ho. How that good-natured wifey laughs as she settles her feet on the ground, rather than jumping up and bludgeoning her partner to death with the wood-carved nativity scene we just witnessed her place on the mantelpiece. Fade out, and Asda reminds us that ‘it doesn’t just happen by magic.’ No, we should all remember that Christmas is the mother’s domain – and Asda is the backbone to it all.

Or rather than the backbone, is Asda actually the rod for her back? Because we all know that women still struggle not to be seen as the ‘homemakers’ of society, the girlfriend who quietly gives out Doritos while her boyf and his mates watch Chelsea play Tottenham, the mother who’s expected to cart around the kids while Uncle Ben and her husband break out a six pack and let the Pussycat Dolls’ latest music video play ‘in the background’. These are tired, overdone stereotypes, and they’re as insulting to men as they are to women. Most dudes are more than willing to lend their fair share, rather than sit back and watch their wives do all the work as they complain, Homer Simpson-like, about their various domestic incompetencies before standing up to assert their masculinity through the carving up of a dead bird. And suddenly, the media’s gone all ‘fifties’ on us.

The thing is, there’s a difference between recognising the fact that women have and often still do the majority of domestic labour, and celebrating it. These retro ads with their cheesy ‘mums are magic’ messages make me feel like the manager of our local store might see me loading up on roast potatoes and lean over to pat me the head (or the bottom, actually – that is Asda style, after all.) Actively reveling in the idea that mum does more – in a pre-Christmas advert that then seems to imply mum will do more this holiday, since it’s the done thing, darling – seems as tasteless as a thong under the tree from your pervy uncle. Recycled gifts are already a total faux pas, and here’s Asda serving us up a badly gift-wrapped steaming pile of historical patriarchy. Thanks a bunch.

On a positive note, it’s clear that the Ghost of Christmas Past has found himself a money-making scheme this year on the board of a major supermarket, and we love his work. But if we have to turn back the cultural calendar at holiday season, can’t we just start harassing our neighbours at their doors for figgy pudding again? At least there’s the promise of something at the end that doesn’t leave a sour taste in our mouth (although admittedly, figs aren’t usually our first choice at the dinner table.) And next year, maybe we can put the past to better use, and forget the idea that your mother has to hoover up all the pine needles and then giggle seductively about it. Because, kids, a feminist Christmas doesn’t just happen by magic.

6 thoughts on “Asda Meets The Ghost of Christmas Past

  1. I’m glad you wrote this, as advertisements which ‘celebrate mums’ have always irked me. I complained to the NUS this year about their Mothers’ Day campaign which did something similar; “Here’s to all the mums who cook and clean for us” etc.

    My mother has worked full time my whole life. She has provided my family with an income which in turn meant I could have an education, take part in activities, holidays, go to uni, and in general live a relatively privileged lifestyle. My father never earned a regular income, but brought up three daughters with no child care and ‘kept’ the house including all the supermarket shopping. Over the past two and a half decades he has encountered abuse and suspicion, not least at ‘Mother and Baby’ groups. Together, my parents helped me develop a career I adore, respect for others, and an utterly open mind concerning gender roles.

    Last year my mother was a victim of the government cuts and lost her job. I’ve realised again the general assumption of society that it probably doesn’t matter too much to her or our family because women seemingly work for ‘pleasure’, and actually most people expect women to be mothers and housewives in the most traditional sense. Of course in our circumstances it is a double blow: not only is my mother grieving for an academic career she has spent the past thirty years immersed in, her family (older now but still in part dependent) has also lost its income.

    It’s so important to challenge the norm, and push for a REAL choice for women- not just the Morton’s Fork of never being a ‘whole woman’ anywhere, at work, at home, at play. A woman who does not make a ‘magical’ Christmas for a family is absolutely NOT a failed woman. A woman who decides that she won’t be the ministering angel is NOT to be shamed.

    P.S. I think challenging these stereotypes is also particularly pertinent to gay men and women and am always surprised if I hear gay men profess to be uninterested in feminism (happens to me quite often!); surely we’re in this one together!?

  2. I too would have happily smacked the husband at the end of that advert!
    In my house it’s nearly always my Dad who does most of Christmas dinner and because he genuinely enjoys doing it, not just because he wants to give the little woman the day off. My parents have always shared a lot of the domestic duties too, and now they do so whilst both looking after 2 small children (as well as me I suppose!)-Dad works but comes home in time for bath/bedtime most evenings! (Mum can’t work due to slipped discs)
    Another advert that’s irking me at the moment is the Flash one-where they show a segment from each of the adverts back to the 50s and it’s ALL women you see doing the cleaning. I’m sure when I was younger (maybe 10 years ago?) Flash did a whole series of adverts where there was a bloke cleaning the house with ‘Flash magic’ which while I admit might not have been the most progressive thing ever was still an actual man actually cleaning on television. Yet in their montage he doesn’t feature anywhere, it’s only the smiling happy housewives. Well done Flash, way to regress.

  3. Glad I found this post. Jason Manford has very recently caused a right shit-storm after he made some very intelligent (not) comments about said advert. Exhibit A:

    “Listen ladies, I’m not saying this ASDA advert is sexist, all I’m saying is if the the Mum is doing all that stuff for Christmas, who’s paying for Christmas eh? Dad, that’s who! ASDA should be thanking Dad otherwise she wouldn’t be able to shop there! ;-)”


  4. I don’t think Asda is telling people how to distribute the Christmas labour. They’re trying to present something the majority of their target market identifies with. You’re shooting the messenger.

  5. …and in doing so they have irritated or offended the rest of their target market (er, people who eat food at Christmas and buy it in shops? Isn’t that most of us?) Lots of us don’t identify with it.

    And what do adverts exist for if not to influence people and tell them what to do? They’re designed to tell you what to think! So we women have every right to get angry when we see the world being told that women are the ones who do everything and Christmas and that this is basically ok.