Sexism comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be as prominent as the wage gap or as subtle as the words “manmade” or “mankind.” It’s important to recognize that subtle sexism is no less dangerous than sexism that is unmistakable. Sometimes, we have to focus on the tiny manifestations of sexism in order to understand how it becomes a larger, more systematic problem.
This week’s culprit? M&Ms.
Shocking, I know. How can that familiar, delicious morsel of chocolate encased in a shiny candy shell be harmful to gender equality? I had this epiphany last week as I toured M&M World in New York City. Suddenly confronted with an (arguably unhealthy) abundance of M&M merch, I realized that the M&M characters are — gasp! — mostly men. 1 of the 5 original M&M characters is a woman. That’s only 20%.
For the record, this is only slightly better than women’s representation in Congress — 17% in the Senate, 16.8% in the House. My sister argued that the brown M&M is, in fact, a woman. However, I encourage you to do a Google Image search for “M&M Characters.” You’ll notice that the entire first page of hits has no mention of the Brown M&M — she is not granted the celebrity status of the Red, Yellow, Orange, Green, and Blue M&Ms.
Suddenly, the Green M&M can’t have a character. She’s not allowed to be the Alpha Red, Doofy Yellow, Confused Orange, or Suave Blue. Why? Because she’s the token woman, and therefore her only characteristics are those which represent her “womanhood.” Her lips are constantly pursed in a “kissing” gesture. She poses seductively, with high-heeled boots, luscious lips, and long, accentuated eyelashes. She is a symbol of sex appeal, plain and simple. Most of the merchandise at M&M World that featured the Green M&M also had the inscriptions “diva” or “beauty queen” upon them.
Sorry, America, but once we start to sexualize our candy, we know something’s wrong.
My sister thought my anger was trivial. “It’s just M&Ms!” she said to me. But is it just M&Ms?
The answer to that is an overwhelming NO. It’s not just candy. The underrepresentation of women is an enormous problem in every single aspect of our lives. Congress. Business. Arts. Media. You name it! And when women are represented, they’re stereotypically beautiful and sexualized beyond belief. Their sole purpose is to serve their male counterparts.
Think about it: There have been hundreds of commercials which feature only Red and Yellow M&M. The plots of these commercials are clever, funny, and rarely sexual. But commercials with Green or Brown M&M are of an entirely sexual nature, and always involve the “male” M&Ms as recipients of this sexuality. The “Sexy and I Know It” commercial released at the 2012 Superbowl is a perfect example of this dichotomy.
So, is it just M&Ms?
The sexualization of female characters is not an isolated incident. It’s not just M&Ms. It’s not just Barbie or just that one song or one movie. This is a systemic problem, and in order to fix it, we have to work our way up from the bottom. We can start with M&Ms by raising awareness and opening the eyes of our peers and children to this one example of the sexualization of womanhood. Next time, we can focus on women in music. From there, women in film. Eventually, women in Congress. In order to change our culture, we have to change every aspect that is harmful to women, regardless of how “trivial” that aspect may seem.