Gender and Culture

A friend sent me a link to the following video:

JC Penney: Beware of the Doghouse | Creativity Online.

In that video, a man is “sent to the doghouse” (a kind of prison for insensitive men) because he offered a vacuum cleaner to his wife. It’s part of a marketing campaign through which men are expected to buy diamonds to their wives and girlfriends.

The campaign is quite elaborate and the main website for the campaign makes interesting uses of social media.

For instance, that site makes use of Facebook Connect as a way to tap viewers’ online social network. FC is a relatively new feature (the general release was last week) and few sites have been putting it to the test. In this campaign’s case, a woman can use her Facebook account to connect to her husband or boyfriend and either send him a warning about his insensitivity to her needs (of diamonds) or “put him in the doghouse.” From a social media perspective, it can accurately be described as “neat.”

The site also uses Share This to facilitate the video‘s diffusion  through various social media services, from to Diigo. This tends to be an effective strategy to encourage “viral marketing.” (And, yes, I fully realize that I actively contribute to this campaign’s “viral spread.”)

The campaign could be a case study in social marketing.

But, this time, I’m mostly thinking about gender.

Simply put, I think that this campaign would fare rather badly in Quebec because of its use of culturally inappropriate gender stereotypes.

As I write this post, I receive feedback from Swedish ethnomusicologist Maria Ljungdahl who shares some insight about gender stereotypes. As Maria says, the stereotypes in this ad are “global.” But my sense is that these “global stereotypes” are not that compatible with local culture, at least among Québécois (French-speaking Quebeckers).

See, as a Québécois born and raised as a (male) feminist, I tend to be quite gender-conscious. I might even say that my gender awareness may be somewhat above the Québécois average and gender relationships are frequently used in definitions of Québécois identity.

In Québécois media, advertising campaigns portraying men as naïve and subservient have frequently been discussed. Ten or so years ago, these portrayals were a hot topic (searches for Brault & Martineau, Tim Hortons, and Un gars, une fille should eventually lead to appropriate evidence). Current advertising campaigns seem to me more subtle in terms of male figures, but careful analysis would be warranted as discussions of those portrayals are more infrequent than they have been in the past.

That video and campaign are, to me, very US-specific. Because I spent a significant amount of time in Indiana, Massachusetts, and Texas, my initial reaction while watching the video had more to do with being glad that it wasn’t the typical macrobrewery-style sexist ad. This reaction also has to do with the context for my watching that video as I was unclear as to the gender perspective of the friend who sent me the link (a male homebrewer from the MidWest currently living in Texas).

By the end of the video, however, I reverted to my Québécois sensibility. I also reacted to the obvious commercialism, partly because one of my students has been working on engagement rings in our material culture course.

But my main issue was with the presumed insensitivity of men.

Granted, part of this is personal. I define myself as a “sweet and tendre man” and I’m quite happy about my degree of sensitivity, which may in fact be slightly higher than average, even among Québécois. But my hunch is that this presumption of male insensitivity may not have very positive effects on the perception of such a campaign. Québécois watching this video may not groan but they may not find it that funny either.

There’s a generational component involved and, partly because of a discussion of writing styles in a generational perspective, I have been thinking about “generations” as a useful model for explaining cultural diversity to non-ethnographers.

See, such perceived generational groups as “Baby Boomers” and “Generation X” need not be defined as monolithic, monadic, bounded entities and they have none of the problems associated with notions of “ethnicity” in the general public. “Generations” aren’t “faraway tribes” nor do they imply complete isolation. Some people may tend to use “generational” labels in such terms that they appear clearly defined (“Baby Boomers are those individuals born between such and such years”). And there is some confusion between this use of “historical generations” and what the concept of “generation” means in, say, the study of kinship systems. But it’s still relatively easy to get people to think about generations in cultural terms: they’re not “different cultures” but they still seem to be “culturally different.”

Going back to gender… The JC Penney marketing campaign visibly lumps together people of different ages. The notion seems to be that doghouse-worthy male insensitivity isn’t age-specific or related to inexperience. The one man who was able to leave the doghouse based on his purchase of diamonds is relatively “age-neutral” as he doesn’t really seem to represent a given age. Because this attempt at crossing age divisions seems so obvious, I would assume that it came in the context of perceived differences in gender relationships. Using the logic of those who perceive the second part of the 20th Century as a period of social emancipation, one might presume that younger men are less insensitive than older men (who were “brought up” in a cultural context which was “still sexist”). If there are wide differences in the degree of sensitivity of men of different ages, a campaign aiming at a broad age range needs to diminish the importance of these differences. “The joke needs to be funny to men of all ages.”

The Quebec context is, I think, different. While we do perceive the second part of the 20th Century (and, especially, the 1970s) as a period of social emancipation (known as the “Quiet Revolution” or «Révolution Tranquille»), the degree of sensitivity to gender issues appears to be relatively level, across the population. At a certain point in time, one might have argued that older men were still insensitive (at the same time as divorcées in their forties might have been regarded as very assertive) but it seems difficult to make such a distinction in the current context.

All this to say that the JC Penney commercial is culturally inappropriate for Québécois society? Not quite. Though the example I used was this JC Penney campaign, I’m thinking about broader contexts for Québécois identity (for a variety of personal reasons, including the fact that I have been back in Québec for several months, now).

My claim is…

Ethnographic field research would go a long way to unearth culturally appropriate categories which might eventually help marketers cater to Québécois.

Of course, the agency which produced that JC Penney ad (Saatchi & Saatchi) was targeting the US market (JC Penney doesn’t have locations in Quebec) and I received the link through a friend in the US. But it was an interesting opportunity for me to think and write about a few issues related to the cultural specificity of gender stereotypes.

4 thoughts on “Gender and Culture”

  1. I hope you realize that part of what is meant to be “funny” in this commercial is not only that the silly male “insensitivity”, as you call it, is revealed and “corrected” in the plot with the doghouse metaphor. The worse gender stereotype – which of course is meant to appeal to the viewers’ sense of humour – is the brutality and insensitivity of the women in the story.

    1. I do. But I interpret it as mere reversal of the other stereotype.
      In fact, one issue with this, for me, is that a conception of women as insensitive is rather common, in Quebec. So, to see those women being so insensitive doesn’t make me laugh. In fact, it caused me a bit of pain. But that’s a personal issue.

  2. Yes, the idea of women as demanding and insensitive is a global stereotype, and that is why this “buy her jewelry instead, and get out of the doghouse” video is a successful production. Both men and women will laugh when they view this, but for different reasons. The sad thing with the commercial is that it makes the “women are greedy and brutal” statement look like a funny and good thing for the women themselves. So, probably it makes female viewers laugh about the stupidity of men, and feel good about the “girl power” bit that shows it as completely natural to get exactly what you want – or else send the giver out in the cold.

    Reversed stereotypes can be fun, when they are absurd enough. There was a Norwegian or Danish film I saw in the 1970’s – I think it could have been made after the book “Egalia’s Daughters” by the Norwegian writer Gerd Brantenberg, who showed a society where the women dominated in the public life, and the men had to stay at home and do less important things, like worry about if they would get a nice new dress for the wife’s office party.

    As a satirical comment about male dominance and the real troubles women have in some societies and in some families, the reverse stereotype of dominance can be effective as a help to understand and change the situation. But this ad – the question of diamonds contra vacuum cleaners – is reactionary crap. Yet, it says something about the ancient collective myth – or maybe reality? – that men actually fear women more than anything else. A musical example: Wagner’s “Siegfried”, who can attack all the father figures in the story and kill the dragon without knowing any fear, but who is scared for his life when he encounters the sleeping beauty, Brünnhilde…

    So, why do you interpret the behaviour of the men in the commercial as “insensitive”, in the first place?

  3. Because it’s the interpretation which is forced on us. When I noticed that the gift was a vacuum cleaner (the shape was obvious enough), I was still trying to guess whether it was a macrobrewery/macho-style ad. But I realized quickly that vacuum cleaners represented thoughtlessness and insensitivity in the context. In the section about the ab trainer, the man is especially insensitive, from my perspective. Not because of the gift. But because of his overall attitude. I reacted very strongly against that.
    The “female insensitivity” I’m talking about is, to me, radically different from the one displayed in the video. As I said, part of it is from personal experience. But there’s also something about Quebec culture. As I’m currently thinking a lot about Qc culture, these days, the video made me think about gender relationships around here. And I’ll have to spend more time clarifying this, at some point, but there’s something special about the portrayal of women in Quebec as “overwhelmingly assertive.” It’s not the “she might put you in the doghouse” type. Nor is it Brünnhilde. To put it simply, it’s more of a «femme libérée» (“liberated woman”) thing. Not sure which example I could find which would really flesh this out. And, come to think of it, it did change quite a bit since the Brault & Martineau commercials, ten years ago.
    If I find an appropriate YouTube video, I’ll post it.

    Thanks a lot for your comment and links!

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