If Your Husband Ever Finds Out…

1946 Argentina cu

You deserve it!‘ says the caption, in Spanish.

It comes from an Argentinian food advertisement from 1946, in which the wife is encouraged not to serve her husband elaborate, hard-to-digest meals during the hot season. If she offers him instead a tasty plate of processed meat, he will be grateful – and this won’t happen to her!

The whole conception of the ad is irresistibly reminiscent of the more famous Chase and Sanborn advert of six years later, where the wife meets a similar fate after failing to serve appropriate coffee:

I’ve written a little about the dynamics of this ad here, and about its impact on subsequent imagery here. The other aspect of its impact, in our own contemporary world, is its prominent place on smug lists of ‘sexist ads’ from the last century ‘that would be banned today’.

At one level, that assertion is obviously untrue: the ‘sexist ads’ wouldn’t be banned today because nobody today would propose them in the first place. But using this ad and others like it to sneer at the recent past and congratulate ourselves on our own more egalitarian attitudes, entails a subtler and more insidious dishonesty. We can start to unpick it if we look at another notorious example from 1953:

1953.jpg

Anyone who supposes that half the human race is unable, on account of their gender, to open a sauce bottle, is an idiot. But anybody who takes the ad as straightforward evidence of how unenlightened people were in the 1950s, is also an idiot. The ad is a piece of ephemera, so it doesn’t speak for the people of its time: it speaks to them – and it is joking. It doesn’t assume that its readers will agree with the attitude to women it represents: it invites them to laugh at it. Of course, we can still take the ad as indirect evidence that sexism existed in the 1950s, but only if we also take it as direct evidence that the sexism it represents was not deemed to be normative. And since sexism still exists in the 21st century, you might say that, if the ‘sexist ads’ reveal a big difference between the generations, it is that then sexism was mocked whereas now it is denounced. The difference, in other words, is the disappearance of a sense of humor. Perhaps we have less reason to congratulate ourselves than we thought.

What I’ve said so far, then, bears on how easy it is to misrepresent the past, whether casually through intellectual laziness or deliberately to serve a cultural agenda, by taking bits of it out of context. But in the case of the Chase and Sanborn spanking ad, that argument is complicated by the existence of its Argentinian predecessor, because it seems to create a context that might indeed normalize the ‘sexism’ in question. We can take it even further by bringing in this flour ad from 1938:

1938 Kroger's Flour

It’s a historical fact that, for centuries, the usual division of labor within a marriage entailed wives taking responsibility for household management while their husbands went out to work to earn the money that kept the domestic economy afloat. The ads address some of the ways in which the wife might do a bad job, such as buying food that is too expensive or not fresh, or making inappropriate menu decisions; and they express the consequences, in what must be at least semi-humorous terms, as a spanking from her husband.

Now let’s widen the context a little, by introducing a second coffee advert that is unlikely to make the ‘Top Ten Sexist Ads’, because it only features one gender:

1944

Once again, the lady is being spanked for a bad household decision, this time burning waste paper she should have saved for salvage. (Her excuse is that she’s not sleeping at night, and the recommended remedy is to switch to decaffeinated coffee.)

But since it’s 1944, at the height of the Second World War, there’s no husband around to administer the spanking, so it’s done instead by her ‘Wartime Conscience’. Here’s the whole encounter:

Two things may be noted here. The first is that in this example the spanking is not just hypothetical, as in the other three, but metaphorical. And the other is that all four ads situate themselves in the world of the women to whom they are explicitly and exclusively addressed. So if there is an element of fantasy here, it is prima facie a female fantasy, whether it be fearful or latently erotic (or indeed both). And in case anyone wants to argue that these ads are addressed to women by men, it’s worth stressing that we don’t actually know that, and that a lot of distinguished advertising copywriters of the period were in fact women (such as, in England, the novelist Dorothy L. Sayers).

But to get a proper sense of the context, we must extend our range further, to take in the other half of humanity. Here’s another ad from 1938, this one for the Manhattan Clothing Company, and overtly addressed to men:

The caption underneath reads:

Not Recommended. When your wife gave you a horrible-looking tie last Christmas, we hope you didn’t turn the poor lady over your knee and yell, ‘Never buy me a necktie again!’

Of course not: what the Manhattan Clothing Company wanted was for him to encourage her to buy a more attractive brand of necktie, preferably manufactured by the Manhattan Clothing Company. Likewise, in 1972, the Missouri Power and Light Company offered its recommendation for resolving marital disputes:

1972 Missouri Power and Light Company

In effect, spanking your wife will only cause you further trouble; much better to buy her a new electric cooker – preferably from the Missouri Power and Light Company!

The modern response to ‘sexist ads’ tends to finish with a shudder at the implication that a woman’s place is in the home and that a man is master of the household. We can’t deny that this is, in some form, part of the historical context, nor that there has been some shift in attitudes and social organization between then and now. But if we stop at the ads warning wives, ‘You might be spanked by your husband,’ and don’t also consider the ones advising husbands…

… then we falsely exaggerate the differences between historic and present-day attitudes, and thereby libel our forebears. The past was a more diverse, more complex and more human place than we are currently being encouraged to believe.

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