Joan Smith: Wimps may draw the laughs but 'victimhood' doesn't help women

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The Independent Online

When an advert features a woman making fun of a man, or mocking the general uselessness of the male sex, there is a brief moment of recognition. It's all about stereotypes, we know that, and not much better than the old habit of depicting women as demented housewives in soap powder commercials. Was anyone really convinced by those beaming women, claiming to be on the point of orgasm as a result of using a new floor cleaner?

But stereotypes contain a grain of truth, which is why advertisers use them. My mother's generation, at whom those commercials were directed, were vulnerable to the suggestion that they were somehow not quite up to the job. They really did worry about the state of their kitchens, just as women today agonise over how they're going to get the kids to school, do full-time jobs and spend time with partners who are often as exhausted as they are.

It is that anxiety, and the resentment it gives rise to, that advertisers appeal to. Men are useless, they suggest, echoing a thought that sometimes goes through women's heads and raising a weary laugh as they do so. No one has enough time, and the statistics show that women still get a raw deal: paid less for the same jobs, taking on more than their share of childcare and housework, missing out when it comes to pensions. After decades of feminism, men and women are still trying to find new ways of living together – and advertisers have homed in very effectively on areas where these problems have not been solved.

The result is as demeaning to women as it is to men. It is a new take on the old notion of a sex war, which assumes that the interests of the sexes are invariably opposed; it is a piece of role reversal, in which women are encouraged to get their own back for decades of male put-downs. This might be funny the first time it happens, but bickering is not a healthy long-term strategy for either sex. And some of the shortcomings for which men are blamed in this adversarial culture are really part of a larger problem, the consequence of an aggressive form of capitalism that demands too much of everyone.

What these adverts do in the end is encourage women to see themselves as victims. No doubt some of them feel comfortable with this self- perception, which is why they identified so closely with the late Diana, Princess of Wales – a woman who built a career on telling the world she had been badly done to by a succession of hopeless men. But being a victim is ultimately paralysing, for all it invites is self-pity and a dependence on quick-fix solutions.

Advertisers and their clients see the benefit in this, because discontented people of either sex are easy targets, especially if you flatter their sense of grievance. Adverts may use the language of feminism, in a degraded form, but their object is to make women more susceptible consumers. To sell things, that's all.