When Ikea sells women's lib, it's time to move on

Chintz is too girly, says the furniture retailer. But it's also telling us that feminism is nothing more than a lifestyle accessory
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The Independent Online
What the modern woman needs is obviously not feminism but furniture. I know this because I have been transfixed by the Ikea ad with its revolutionary slogan, "Chuck Out the Chintz". All these years we've been worried about trivia such as equal pay and domestic violence when all the time liberation was lurking in a bit of flat-pack furniture.

As the ad makes crystal clear radical reading no longer means Mrs Pankhurst but the Ikea catalogue. The ad by the groovy agency St Lukes features a protest song, "We're battling hard and we've come a long way, in choices and status, in jobs and in pay," which is sung while women of all descriptions throw out their flowery bedspreads, Victorian lampshades and old sofas on to skips. Revolution burns along this street with women marching arm in arm spreading the message.

Free of these dreadful symbols of oppression, these newly freed women can recline in their stripped-down homes full of maple flooring and tasteful prints.

Using the language of political revolution to sell us products is nothing new. Liberation, freedom and revolution have been sold to us via cars and bras, cigars and sanitary towels. Ikea only makes this process more blatant, borrowing its narrative thrust entirely from some Seventies idea of women's liberation.

For those in the know the whole thing may simply be another example of Seventies retro; for the rest of us it is merely irritating. The women troop down the street in all their GLC-type diversity demanding change, throwing out the old and unpacking the new. Men are entirely absent and when the new homes are unveiled they are full of women communicating intensely in their modern little habitats. Though these women may be waking up to their new found power they are not interested in recycling -that old Victoriana goes straight out the window. Planned obsolescence is the order of the day. Having seen the rose-tinted light of Scandinavian Modernism they see the error of their ways: "That sofa's so girly, so silly and twirly."

What the ad connects up so cleverly is both the perception that female taste is innately prissy and anti-modern with the idea that feminism has achieved its aims and is therefore irrelevant except as a lifestyle accessory. Women clearly have to be coaxed into the hard and minimal lines of modern living, which is just too brutal. Ikea with its softened version of Modernist design it well placed to do it. That the Ikea catalogue gets more chintzy year by year, or that we replace the faux-natural chintz of Victoriana with ethnic artefacts or still secretly aspire to country living is neither here nor there. If women are achieving more, then their homes should, it seems, reflect a more masculinist notion of design. As a nation we do not have good taste. Or not as the design fascists would classify it. A visit to the Ideal Home exhibition will confirm that most people's ideal home has little to do with space and light but everything to do with plump cushions and pot pourri.

Social aspiration means, however, that we understand the way we should live even if we can't quite manage it. Minimalism requires maximum resources and control. Minimalism is problematic if you have messy children around, if you have any possessions at all, if you don't have a cleaner and if you have to live in just the one house.

Maybe that is why in the past Ikea has flirted with gay men as the shock troops of style that will eventually filter down to the general population. Its ad featuring Steve and Ben buying a table as, and I kid you not, "a sign of commitment", again managed to reduce sexual politics to pure consumerism, something that the gay community has done quite successfully for itself anyway.

Feminism is harder to pin down as sheer lifestyle. This ad wants us to believe in some Seventies notion of women's liberation even though, with a nod and a wink, it assumes that we belong to a post-feminist era. We have, it appears, achieved most of what there was to achieve and now that we know that interior decor reveals our very soul we must strip away the signs of old-style femininity. The discourse of purity did at one time occupy a central place in feminism; natural women wore no make-up, kept themselves hairy and wore natural fibres. Decoration and artifice were male constructs to keep us oppressed. Now, apparently, so were pelmets and pretty little bedside lamps.

Now we are positively dripping with irony, kitsch and sex. We don't want chintz. We want tack. We also like our homes to look different from our grey, functional workplaces.

It is more difficult to to define feminism these days because it is nomadic. The days of women's libbers marching around making demands are conjured up in this ad as ancient history. And they are. Yet if the problem with feminism was that it couldn't sell itself to "ordinary women", how come it is being used to sell them wardrobes? Perhaps the difference is that feminism still makes a lot of people uncomfortable by pointing out what is wrong with men. Ikea is the only institution that I can think of that makes us realise that there is something right with them. They are the only ones who can put those damn flat-packs together. But believe me girls, if liberation has come to this, you had better chuck it out.