[This article was published in Atgimimas in February 2009 (in Lithuanian). It was translated by professional translators for public procurement purposes. The copyright of the original article belongs to the publisher of Atgimimas, Pilietinės minties institutas, and the copyright of this English translation belongs to Gravitas Partners. The archives of Atgimimas are no longer available online.]
Recently, the results of a new study have been published in the media showing that Lithuanian women have better jobs and are better educated, compared to other EU countries. Nevertheless, while they are well-qualified and have jobs, their wages are far lower than that of their male counterparts and there are much fewer women in executive positions. The Lithuanian labour market remains highly segregated both horizontally (in terms of professions) and vertically (in terms of hierarchy, within an industry or a company). However, could the occasional discussions about this issue bring any change if we are bombarded by hordes of medieval stereotypes day after day?
What new things have I learned about women in one weekend, after watching more TV shows than I usually do? “It was my husband’s birthday and I caught a cold and … [after having used the right product myself,] I was the gift my husband liked most of all!” A pharmacist, looking for the most inventive way to promote their products, decided that a cold is, by default, not a bad thing for a woman. In another advertisement, catching a cold interferes with a man’s work, while it is one of the worst things in the world for a woman not to be able to prepare a feast for her husband and look bad in front of the guests. In being a woman, it is not health that is important but the things you can do with it for the benefit of your guests and your husband.
There was one more ‘gem’. The washing machine has broken down once again. Eyes wide open and in a voice thick with helplessness the woman calls her husband, a manager in suit and tie. Apparently, he cannot talk at the moment. The advertisement implies: alas, I was left to my own devices. Fortunately, there is just the “right” product that will help have the machine fixed in no time even by a dim-witted female. It does not seem to matter that the whole situation and the call to the husband is the purest absurdity. I can imagine a manager in a suit, after having come back from work, rolling up his sleeves and looking into a modern washing machine to fix it. At the very least a male character of a different type or profession could have been chosen, as it seems clear that the first man would not even know what settings a washing machine has – after all, a busy fellow has a woman sitting at home, who has no other things to worry about. Similarly, it is also evident that it is not the first time that the woman is doing the washing and she would know what to do with the washing machine better than her husband. In need of skilled assistance, she is likely to search for the phone number of a plumber rather than her husband. But really, who cares about this? The message is more important – “If your husband is unable to help you, we will be on hand to solve your problems”.
Another woman in the process of doing the washing is talking about how her children are growing up, how they have ambitious dreams for the future and – oh dear! – they get dirty because of this. “My son wants to become a chemist and my daughter, of course, a cook. Such was the dream job offered to a growing woman by the producers of an advertisement. The gender segregation is obvious: the slightly older and serious boy is to become an esteemed scholar while the slovenly daughter couldn’t be happier than going through books of recipes for the rest of her life. Of course, all jobs are to be valued and respected, but only when there is a conscious and individual choice, rather than a personality development model being imposed by visual, verbal and other social means.
And here statistics come into play. “80 per cent of women who have tried [some product for a washing machine] claim that their washing machines started working better.” Women and washing machines is a duo that is hard to separate. A washing machine probably stands for the embodiment of the cleanliness and comfort of one’s home, complemented by fragrant fabric softeners, promoted by female voices and compared to a mother’s touch. A broken washing machine embodies female frailty and the need for male assistance. Just listen to those almost erotically raised voices: “It’s clogged once aga-a-A-in!” Panic and helplessness beg for a strong masculine hand which can fix any device in no time without even getting dirty. A man’s help is vital to a woman in carrying out the act of washing, an integral part of the classic femininity prevalent in advertising. A calm and low voice soothingly replies: “Everything will be all right, just use [the right product].”
Thereby a washing machine becomes a medium through which the woman interacts with the environment. Its breakdowns bring her closer to her man and with a soothing voice he appears next to her. A fabric softener with the fragrance of a mother’s touch brings her closer to her children and helps to express her tenderness and affection; sometimes, perhaps, it even serves as a replacement for her, at times when she is busy – this is why the advertised softness is being compared to a mother. A woman’s ability (using the “right” products, of course) to deal with the piles of laundry serves as proof or her value: just look how they boast about being able to deal with the socks of their children who cannot stop doing floor skating. From now on all the members of the family can enjoy sliding on the floor, the dog can run freely, and the children can pursue their dreams in the fields of science and cookery – the successful rendering of washing clothes sets the family free. Otherwise it could be worse than awful – a woman would become tired and would not allow anyone to get dirty all over the place, if she knew that she would have to do all the cleaning on her own.
Finally, in one advertisement a woman is taken on top of a washing machine; then she is being shown raising a second child a few years hence. The older daughter – a soon-to-be woman – is sitting and waiting for her boyfriend to take her on the same washing machine. This is how the family traditions are passed on. According to the advertisements, one has to start learning laundry-type femininity from an early age, as soon as the childhood ends and one realises that the softener as a replacement of the mother’s touch does not come from nowhere.
The only difference is that, unlike a washing machine, (which, together with its related accessories, embodies softness, comfort and family values) a woman can never “break down”. Flu is no excuse for not washing clothes or not organising a husband’s birthday party. Let us not be blown away by the segregation statistics – although the European Council adopted a resolution on the portraying of women and men in the media and advertising more than a decade ago, the winds of change have not yet reached Lithuania and there have not been attempts to assess the damage caused by these visually represented stereotypes.