The year is 1993. The place: a Catholic girls’ school in Ireland. The clothes are at best dodgy – sportswear and double (nay, triple) denim abound. There’s me, attired in bottle-green gym knickers and the arse-numblingly short regulation PE skirt, desperate to avoid sport at any cost. It’s freezing – we’re in Ireland for God’s sake. I am weedy. The tough girls kick gravel at me and bear down on me with camogie sticks (like hockey but with more screaming) . But it’s all OK. Why? Because I’m wearing deodorant. I can handle anything. I can free-run across the city, mountain bike through the Rockies, even bungee-jump off a bridge. That’s what the ads told me and I believe it. Of course, I don’t want to do anything of these things. I want to stay in the library and re-read Jilly Cooper’s Polo, but should I have a sudden urge to go bungee-jumping, then my deodorant will damn well support that decision.
Fast-forward twenty years and we’ve regressed at an alarming rate. If deodorant ads are a barometer of general sexism (I may write a book on the topic, Sweat is a Feminist Issue), then ladies, we are screwed. In the nineties we were confidently told we could run and dance and walk dogs while roller-skating (I suspect they reused some tampon ad footage, but no matter). Or we could ‘mooooove closer’ and get into some pretty steamy situations, such as rolling on a mattress in a bed showroom (phew! Scorcher!) Our pit-spray would be there for us however heady or dangerous the mattress-rolling and dog-walking became. But in 2013, the most stressful situation the makers of Nivea deodorant can envisage for a lady is to watch while her fella takes part in a quiz show. Yes, her man-friend is answering the questions. Not her. She can sit in the audience with shiny hair and fragrant sweat-free pits. Later he will take her in his arms and say, ‘Darling, without your perspiration-free support, I could never have won that barbecue set and copies of Roget’s Thesauras and Dictionary. Come, let us drive into the sunset in the golf buggy I won on the bonus Gold Run!’
What’s next for us, if we carry on telling women the most difficult thing they can do is watch a man? Will the deodorant companies start a helpline for wives? ‘Hubby has a big meeting today. I’m so stressed for him I’m perspiring as I iron his cummerbunds…can you help, Nivea?’ And don’t go thinking Nivea are benign lovelies who help us with our scaly skin. They also thought it was a good idea to sell their deodorant in Germany by pretending to arrest women at airports, making them cry, then revealing it was all a joke promotion about ‘stressful situations’. Nothing says hilarious like suggesting you’re about to be banged up for the next twenty years for drugs smuggling, right? In that situation what you absolutely need is a reliable antiperspirant, instead of say, the number of your consul and a damn good lawyer. Prison clothes are nearly always in man-made fibres, I hear, and you wouldn’t want your jailers to see you with pit-stains.
Anyway, I have to stop talking about Nivea now, as it makes me so angry I want to rip up phone directories (if you’re under 25, that’s like printed-out Google bound into a book). There is actually no way on earth to justify this ad except sheer, infantilising, contemptuous sexism. It’s the Kate Middleton effect. Look pretty! Wear beige courts! Be supportive! Maybe then a prince will marry you and knock you up! (I don’t mind if people get annoyed at me like they did with Hilary Mantel. I could do with her book sales.) And once I started noticing this effect, I saw it everywhere, in a hell of a lot of advertising. So I decided to draw up…
The Advertisers’ List of Stressful Situations for Women
1. Watching your man take part in a quiz show ( I can’t tell you the number of times this has happened to me).
2. Not being able to find the right shade of foundation (like that daft Boots ads where she sprints through the streets as if on as secret mission…which turns out to be buying makeup).
3. Anyone suspecting that you menstruate. In general advertisers assume periods are pretty fraught for women. (It happens EVERY TIME you want to go bungee-jumping, for a start.) What if it leaks? What if it shows? Dear God, what if there’s a smell? It’s true some women solider on for years with truly appalling periods, but most of us get used to it. Over half the human race has periods, so if we were any near as agonised about it as advertisers think, the world would have ground to a halt long ago.
4. Trying to choose a chocolate bar that isn’t ‘heavy’ (what the actual fuck? Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘God no, this bar has TOO MUCH DELICIOUSNESS, take it from my sight?’ ). See also turning down a Malteaser because it might have five calories in it.
5. Dealing with the collapse of the Euro and potential bankruptcy of Cyprus. Only kidding! That’s just one of Angela Merkel’s. She can’t be a woman because women only worry about shoes and makeup.
Then there are those things that probably are very stressful, but because of our extra X chromosome we’re supposed to love. Behold:
The Advertisers’ List of Women’s Favourite Activities
1. Changing a baby’s dirty nappy – we love it so much we sometimes kiss their chubby little arse-cheeks. Baby poo is like crack for mums.
2. Having to do all the housework and childcare while you’re ill, because your partner has a cold and is in bed, but that’s OK because aren’t men silly, eh? Let’s infantilise them and ignore all the men who do childcare/cleaning/an equal share of the chores.
3. Doing all the cooking for your ungrateful family and trying to please your husband instead of telling him to make his own damn dinner if he doesn’t like what you’ve whipped up from low-fat cream cheese and broccoli (urgh).
4. Being expected to believe yoghurt is an acceptable and delicious dessert. I find this really quite stressful because is it clearly LIES.
5. Doing something important in a workplace. This has never come up in advertising, or presumably, the life of a woman, so we can’t possibly know if it’s stressful or not. If you see women in work on telly they are a. Eating Ryvita and laughing or b. not eating chocolate, just gazing at it with the kind of tragic thwarted lust they should really be reserving for married Terry in Accounts.
In conclusion: get out your roll-ons, ladies – your husband will be home soon, and it’s time to help him practice for when he goes on Pointless next week.
-CM (who has a website and an upcoming book)