Have yourselves a sexist little Christmas?

29 November 2012

Jeremy Davies writes: Why are two of our biggest supermarket chains turning gender equality back 40 years in their Christmas adverts this year? Asda and Morrisons both portray mothers running around like demented scullery maids for weeks on end as they get ready for the festivities. Stocking cupboards, buying and wrapping presents, writing Christmas cards, decorating trees, kitting the kids out in nativity costumes, wrestling with turkeys…you name it, the mums are in charge, and their task-lists are never-ending.

These selfless, saintly backbones of the family ask no reward for their festive domestic servitude, save for a fleeting moment of satisfaction as they feast on the sight of their over-fed, useless husbands, children and assorted family members snoring contentedly, semi-comatose in a post-prandial haze on Christmas afternoon, twixt Queen’s Speech and an evening of charades. You see – it’ll be worth all the effort in the end, girls!

Where are the fathers in these outmoded, cliché-ridden depictions of 21st century domestic bliss? They’re in there, but only as bit players – carving the turkey, plugging in the fairy lights, staring incompetently as their better halves choose the right tree. At their most visible, they exist simply to display a childlike ignorance of the mums’ true sacrifice. Hence at the end of the Asda film we see mum finally get to sit down with a glass of wine after 2 months’ graft, as dad delivers the final, inevitable punchline: ‘What’s for tea, love?’.

Without wishing to be too ‘bah humbug’ about this, let’s pause to think for a moment about the realities of UK family life. Research shows that between the late 1960s and 2004 the time British men spent on domestic work (including cooking and shopping) rose from 90 minutes to 148 minutes per day, while women’s dropped from 369 minutes to 280 minutes. It’s likely that since then, the figures have continued to converge. Survey after survey shows that both men and women want a better work-life balance, and more sharing of their earning and caring responsibilities.

No, men are not yet matching the time women devote to domestic work, but we know they’re on their way – just as we know that women are increasingly going out to work, but are still more likely to work in less-than-full-time jobs – and that when they do work full-time, they tend to work in more family-friendly roles, with shorter working hours and commutes.

So why would the supermarkets choose, in the context of this convergence, to portray the average British family in such a polarised way, filling Britain’s homes for the next month with images of women revelling in unpaid domestic drudgery, pathetically grateful for the chance to labour unrewarded in the face of their loved ones’ ignorance and sloth? Presumably because this is what the advertising executives’ focus groups tell them we want to watch.

In fact, both men and women seem to have been annoyed by the Asda advert in particular. The Advertising Standards Authority has launched a formal investigation after more than 190 people complained, and more than 100 people have signed an online petition against it. Small numbers, perhaps, but given people’s general apathy about making complaints – especially about what might easily be dismissed as a harmless bit of fun – indicative that the public is growing to expect more of its big household brands, perhaps.

In its ‘Live well for less’ campaign Sainsbury’s has certainly shown that it’s possible to warm the cockles of our hearts with depictions of everyday, involved fatherhood. And with its snow-people John Lewis has again found an engaging way to portray the spirit of Christmas without resorting to cliché (although mightn’t it have been more interesting if it had been her ‘going the extra mile’ to find a gift for him?). Even Argos’ blue shopping aliens  present a pretty even-handed reflection of mums and dads getting ready for the festivities.

By contrast, Asda and Morrisons’ mum-centric dystopias feel like a depressing and much-needed reminder that for all the progress we’ve made towards gender equality since the 1960s, our cultural inertia around motherhood and fatherhood remains scarily deep-seated. In most British families, mums, dads and other family members will be working together to prepare for and enjoy the festivities. Let’s not allow the likes of Saatchi and Saatchi fool us into thinking otherwise!


Tags: , , ,


  • Agamemnon says:

    It is the tip of the sexist advertising iceberg. There are many single fathers who do 100% of the buying, housework, cooking (and catering during the high days and holidays) and it is insulting in the extreme – particularly in front of our children who may imagine, due to the adverts, that these are the ‘normal’ societal roles role for women and men – to see dads portrayed as lazy and incompetent in the home. Vote with your feet, if they advertise that their shops are for mothers only then don’t shop there.

  • I’m the ‘frazzled parent’. Every Xmas for 15 years. This idea that mums do everything whilst dads work all the time went out with the ark. There are millions of single dads doing two parents tasks every Christmas. You’ll find them in Asda. Asda may as well use the n word to describe fathers as that’s what we have become. It’s offensive.

  • LJD says:

    I for one am relieved that the incessantly lazy marketing drivel about motherhood is finally being questioned. For years men have been asked, quite rightly, to engage more in home life, with most of us taking an increasingly active share for a couple of decades at least, and in many cases these cliches have been reversed, as mums become breadwinners or just more equal partners. I both pay for and decide much of the domestic shopping in our home. As a predominantly Asda shopper, I find it deeply offensive that adverts like this show an utterly outdated mode of family life. It’s not just that men are increasingly involved, it’s that the stereotype is so damaging to all mums, dads and kids. Over the years, I’ve been witness to numerous Christmases in several households ruined precisely because so much pressure was put on various mothers to live up to impossible social norms such as these. I work with marketing and management information every day, so I know how figures can lie or hide real truths. Asda need to find a new ad agency, fast, or risk alienating a major growth market whilst damning their supposedly female-only current one to Christmas misery.

  • andrew says:

    Yes, this advert shows a father whose qualities most of us would want to disassociate ourselves from. Looks like this relationship won’t last. Post-separation this man will be very lucky to be granted much more than a contact centre in which to visit his children.

    Next, take the father who shares domestic chores with his partner and who picks the kids up from school, attends parents evenings, puts a plaster on his child’s knee when he’s fallen over, soothes his feelings when he feels dejected. No prizes for getting this one right! He gets an expensive fight in court, some fractious moments in mediation and very little time with his children. Odd weekend and a day mid-week if he’s lucky, all the time having to contend with a former partner who is trying to get on “with her own life”, a society that’s is waiting for the opprtunity to call him a feckless father and a bunch of agenicies who just don’t give a damn.

    Then we get the other father who is vitrually tied to the kitchen sink, who does nearly all the childcare because his partner is the main earner and pursuing her career. When he splits from his partner the matter ends up in court and bizarrely mother gets nearly all the childcare and father gets this thing called “contact” which boils down to that “fun and games only at the weekends kind of thing”. She continues her career placing the children in daycare while father is left to get a job and start providing financially for his now estranged family.

    Oh how sick we all are.

    Kind regards


  • Clare White says:

    I could not agree more with the comments above. Insulting to both men and women. Has anyone see the Fairy adverts? Because according to that only women look after children and do the washing up.

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.