After so many years of incredibly degrading, sexist, and sexualized ads, the ways women were represented in this year’s Super Bowl commercials, overall, were much less problematic and insulting. It sure seems like advertisers have been listening to what gender equity activists have been saying for many years.
So this is great. Sexism in the Super Bowl is over! We’re there, right?
Viewers certainly did see fewer objectified women, some quite depressing ads (Nationwide Insurance, “I died in an accident.”), awareness-raising PSAs (NFL’s violence against women), and even a healthy dose of girl power (Always, “Like a girl.”), and more exhortations to be an involved father (Dove). In fact, focus group researcher Frank Luntz says that the “dad” commercials do much better among female viewers than male ones, as women are looking for men who are “good dads”. An ad doesn’t need to show women to be targeted to women.
But despite what may be one of the least-sexist ad collections I’ve seen in years of watching the Super Bowl in order to critique the ads, gender stereotypes are very much alive. Let’s not forget that any image of sexualization is bad for girls. According to a report from the American Psychological Association, feeling sexualized and objectified inhibits a girl’s cognitive functioning and self-esteem. Girls still saw the T-Mobile ad featuring Kim Kardashian’s breasts and “outfits”. And there were a few others.
Three ads this year reminded me of the kind of sexism women have put up with for decades: A Carl’s Jr. ad where a seemingly naked woman is partially hidden by melons and other fruit; a Victoria’s Secret ad showing highly sexualized models posing to the song “I’m in the Mood for Love” (that is, “I’m available for you to have sex with.”); and an ad for a video game featuring a woman in some very ineffective armor that displayed her voluptuous cleavage coming out of the top of it. In a strange twist, the tone of these three ads stood out as out-of-touch and outdated.
But they still affect girls in the same ways, and perhaps we all noticed them even more because they were different than the rest.
It didn’t stop with the ads. During the halftime show, which was quite tame compared to previous years, Katy Perry’s dancers strutted around suggestively in a Lolita-style dance to “Teenage Dream”, a pop ditty about how girls turn boys on (“I’ll melt your popsicle.”).
Disappointingly, it says a lot about how bought into sexism we are that the talk around the Internet and Twitter during and after the Super Bowl is that women fared “pretty well”. There were only 7 to 10 sexualized women! And that “Like a Girl” ad was so powerful! We should celebrate!
It’s important to keep our eyes on the truth: The Super Bowl itself still oozes gender stereotype as an American tradition. Seemingly inherent in the Super Bowl is the hypermasculinity of the violent game, the tiny female cheerleaders bouncing around (which television viewers rarely see because they dance during commercial breaks), the extremely high level of competition. This spectacle is rooted in subtle and blatant gender stereotype.
So regardless of how little overtly sexist advertising there is, it’s still there, and it’s unacceptable. There’s something about the juxtaposition of hypermasculinity and the cleavage of the woman in the Victoria’s Secret ad that can be extremely unsettling for a woman who needs to wake up Monday morning, go to work, and wonder how her male colleagues see her as they banter about the game at the water cooler. Or a girl who needs to go to school and wonder how her male classmates see her.
It’s not time to be resigned and think that everything’s getting better, and we’ve made it to the post-feminist finish line. We haven’t. So this year, amplify your voice by praising all the “good” ads via tweeting companies, writing their CEOs, and contacting NBC, the network that broadcasts the event. But let’s also be sure to keep the drumbeat of complaint going companies that objectify women until they realize they’ll make even more money if they quit insulting half the population.
Jennifer Berger, Executive Director of About-Face, is an expert in how media shapes our sense of self.