Sunday, August 5, 2012

She *really* likes it: Eroticizing women's labor

I definitely do not look this happy when I am scrubbing the tub.
Image from Deviantly Domesticated (with funny commentary on lots of vintage ads)

Image from wonderfriend
Have you ever noticed how happy the women are in ads for cleaning products?  These advertisements  often glamorize domestic labor and imply that women are positively euphoric while cleaning (at least with the right product in hand).  You too can love cleaning and be floor-happy . . . with our product!  But some of the ads go further, implying that cleaning is an erotic experience for women.  In the Hoover ad below, for example, the woman is in a prone position, touching the vacuum lightly -- there is something intimate, almost romantic about the way they are situated (as well as putting her in a submissive position).   

I bet she'd be happier if
you promised to do the cleaning.

Image from SA_Steve on Flickr

This Pine-Sol ad, on the other hand, presents the woman in an orgiastic glow, presumably due to the stimulating qualities of the cleaning solution.  Who needs foreplay when you have Pine-Sol?

Pine-Sol -- with new aphrodisiac action!
Image from ThoughtCatalogue, who provides an
interesting retrospective of the Pine-Sol lady.

A series of Swiffer commercials imply a love affair between women and their mops, with the traditional mop as a rejected ex-lover in favor of their new love, the Swiffer mop.

(Of course, if we are going to imply that women are erotically attached to their mops, let's go all the way, as in this dance performance, which parodies the glamorous, sexualized image of cleaning offered to women.)

Fine, you say -- the advertisements are sexist.  Who cares?  They are just silly, meaningless commercials.  But research has found that exposure to commercials and other media with sexist messages affects us, more than we suspect.  It can impact our future career plans, our body image, our (dis)satisfaction with ourselves and our relationships, and how we judge others (Collins, 2011; Geis, Brown, Jennings, & Porter, 1984; López-Guimerà, 2010; Rudman & Borgida, 1995).  The messages in the media do make a difference in our lives.

What are the messages in these advertisements for cleaning products?  They perpetuate a number of gender stereotypes, such as the idea that cleaning is women's work. Women and men are still portrayed in very stereotyped ways in commercials, with women more often than men to be depicted in the home and using cleaning products (Collins, 2011; Furnham & Mak, 1999; Furnham & Paltzer, 2010).  In addition, these ads continue to sexualize women and girls.  Women and girls are still more likely than men and boys to be sexualized in the media, stereotyping women and girls as sex objects and commodifying women's sexuality (Collins, 2011, Zurbriggen et al., 2007).  These effects alone are certainly worrisome, but there is another, deeply troubling aspect to the idea that women get off on cleaning.

It's a lie.  It's a lie that makes us more comfortable with the status quo.  It is a lie that let's us conveniently gloss over the gender inequality that is represented by holding women primarily responsible for domestic labor.  Sure, she does all the cleaning, but it's ok -- she likes it!  This myth is one of many that justifies our system of gender roles, a system that disadvantages women (and men, in many ways).  We cultivate a systemic belief that women do women's work because they enjoy it and are naturally good at it.  That way, we don't have to feel bad when she is scrubbing the floor, because we can pretend it makes her happy (possibly even aroused?) to do so.  It's a dangerous lie and one of many that work to prevent any critical examination of the inequalities of the gender system in our society.  (Beliefs that exist to protect the status quo with regard to inequalities of gender, class, race, etc., are what Jost & Hunyady [2005] have termed system justification ideologies.)

In some ways, it reminds me of the idea of the "girlfriend experience."  Among men who patronize prostitutes, many seek what they call a "girlfriend experience" (GFE), in which the prostitute is enthusiastic and acts as though she is not being paid for sex (Holt & Blevins, 2007).  In short, although these men are paying a woman to have sex with them, they want to believe that the woman is not primarily motivated by money, but rather by genuine enjoyment and feelings of intimacy. 
“As one man declared, ‘nine times out of ten it’s good sex, that’s that’s what happens is it’s good sex because normally I find that nine times out of ten that the sex worker whether they say they enjoy it or not, I think they do actually’. . .  Another man admitted in part that ‘I mean sometimes I know I’ve had sex with girls and they haven’t come’ but went on to assure himself ‘I don’t believe the majority of the time they’re faking yeah so I mean you feel like you’ve done sort of something for them and they’ve done something for you.’” (Plumridge, Chetwynd, & Reed, 1997, p.236-7)
Even though clients know that the sex worker might have been faking as part of the service, they convince themselves that their interaction was mutual and special.  "Clients often want to believe that, although the prostitute is a paid laborer, in their particular case she enjoys her work and derives sexual and/or emotional satisfaction from her encounter with them.” (Davidson, 1998, as cited in Yen-Wen, 2007, p.325).  In part, this stems from the men's belief that they can accurately detect faking, as in these quotes from clients:
"'If she doesn’t enjoy her work, she should get an Oscar for her acting ability.’” (Holt & Blevins, 2007, p. 112). 
“‘I know it was satisfying to her. Trust me it was more satisfying to her than it was for me'” (Sanders, 2008, p. 408).
There are, of course, many reasons that clients would want to believe their sexual encounters with prostitutes are mutually enjoyable.  For many men, being a good lover (being able to satisfy one's partner) is closely tied to their sense of masculinity and self-esteem, and these self-image needs persist even in commercial sexual encounters (Sanders, 2008).

However, I think this rhetoric of mutuality might also help assuage concerns about inequity and exploitation related to commercial sexual encounters.  Clients may well feel uncomfortable about the exchange of sex for money and be concerned they are taking advantage of women with few economic options other than the sex industry.  This sense of discomfort is alleviated by the belief that she isn't just doing it for the money, but actually enjoys her sexual encounters with him.  If he is a regular client, he can come to see their relationship as akin to that of boyfriend-girlfriend, rather than one of economic necessity on her part.  In other words, the belief that she enjoys it serves to make him more comfortable with an inequitable relationship.  The myth of mutuality makes him feel better about himself, in part because it obscures the possibility that he is contributing to, and benefiting from, a system that is deeply inequitable with regard to gender and social class.  Of course, this ends up being an additional burden on the sex worker, as she is taxed with providing a convincing performance of pleasure in addition to the sex acts themselves, to support this myth of mutuality.

What does this have to do with ads for cleaning products?  There are, of course, important differences between these examples, and do not wish to oversimplify the media or the sex industry.  But I do see some parallels.  In both cases, women's pleasure is commodified.  A woman's sexual enjoyment is no longer purely her own, but instead, it is packaged with the commodity being sold.  In both cases, a system of gender and power directs women to take up particular types of labor (domestic, erotic).  This system of power is then hidden behind a mythology that tells us that women deeply enjoy this labor and find it erotically fulfilling.  What makes this mythology particularly convincing is that some women do enjoy aspects of domestic or erotic labor, at times.  I'm not claiming that this labor is inherently unpleasant.  But let's be real, here:  The idea that most (or all) women get off on cleaning is patently absurd.  The promulgation of this belief is merely serving to sell products through a mythology that justifies a system of inequitable gendered labor.  Blogger Samhita at Feministing makes a similar point, reminding us that "advertising is not just something that exists to get people to buy products, but also to create a really specific social order."  (I'm reminded of the classic piece, Housework, from Free To Be . . . You and Me, in which we are reminded that the women who seem so happy in the ads are being paid to act happy in the commercials.)

We need to question these beliefs.  The beliefs that make the status quo seem inevitable, appropriate, and enjoyable are especially problematic because they blind us to the inequities of our social system.  They smooth over our discomfort and assuage our concerns, lulling us into believing that everyone is exactly where they would most like to be, doing what they like to do.  We then demand that the workers do the emotion-work to support this fiction -- put on a smile, or a convincing moan -- to convince us that they really do enjoy their work. 


Collins, R. L. (2011).  Content analysis of gender roles in media:  Where are we now and where should we go?  Sex Roles, 64, 290-298.

Furnham, A., & Mak, T.  (1999).  Sex-role stereotyping in television commercials:  A review and comparison of fourteen studies done on five continents over 25 years.  Sex Roles, 41, p. 413-437.

Furnham, A., & Paltzer, S.  (2010).  The portrayal of men and women in television advertisements:  An updated review of 30 studies published since 2000.  Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 51,  216-236. 

Geis, F. L., Brown, V., Jennings, J., & Porter, N.  (1984).  TV commercials as achievement scripts for women.  Sex Roles, 10, 513-525.

López-Guimerà, G., Levine, M. P., Sánchez-Carracedo, D., & Fauquet, J.  (2010).  Influence of mass media on body image and eating disordered attitudes and behaviors in females:  A review of effects and processes.  Media Psychology, 13, 387-416. 

Holt, T. J., & Blevins, K. R. (2007).  Examining sex work from the client’s perspective: Assessing johns using on-line data.  Deviant Behavior, 28, 333-354.

Jost, J. T., & Hunyady, O. (2005).  Antecedents and consequences of system-justifying ideologies.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 260-265.

Rudman, L. A., & Borgida, E. (1995).  The afterglow of construct availability:  The behavioral consequences of priming men to see women as sexual objects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31, 493-517.

Plumridge, E. W., Chetwynd, S. J., & Reed, A. (1997).  Control and condoms in commercial sex: client perspectives.  Sociology of Health & Illness, 19, 228-243.

Sanders, T. (2008).  Male sexual scripts: Intimacy, sexuality and pleasure in the purchase of commercial sex.  Sociology, 42, 400-417.

Yen-Wen, P. (2007).  Buying sex: Domination and difference in the discourses of Taiwanese Piao-ke.  Men and Masculinities, 9, 315-336. 

Zurbriggen, E. L., Collins, R. L., Lamb, S., Roberts T.-A., Tolman, D. L., Ward, L. M., & Blake, J.  (2007).  Report on the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, Executive Summary, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

1 comment:

  1. So interesting. I was just listening to that free to be song recently and laughing over it because I think a part of me still really does believe there are vast numbers of people out there who genuinely love housework that much. When you look at the eroticized messages it makes it clear what a sham it is, and what a sexist one at that. Thanks for pointing it out.