The problem with banning ‘harmful gender stereotypes’

The ban on ‘harmful gender stereotypes’ in advertising comes into force today. According to guidance issued last December by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), part of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), such stereotypes need to be banned because they are lowering viewers’ self-esteem, which is limiting ‘their aspirations and ability to progress in key aspects of their personal and professional lives’.

What kind of thing does the ASA have in mind? Examples given in the guidance include an ad showing ‘a man being adventurous juxtaposed with a woman being delicate or dainty,’ and an ad implying that a person’s ‘physique is a significant reason for them not being successful, for example in their romantic or social lives’.

A ban on depicting such images of men and women does seem to smack of social engineering. After all, men do often like to be adventurous and women often are delicate and dainty – and many men and women find such features appealing in themselves and attractive in one another. It feels a little like trying to ban human nature, trying to outlaw natural desire.

It also means that instead advertisers will have to depict other, perhaps less typical and alluring scenarios, say with well-built women impressing dainty men. Each to their own, for sure – but is it really reasonable or liberal to ban the one but not the other, purely because one is deemed to be a ‘stereotype’? What is the difference here really between a stereotype and what many people happen to do and like? Is romance a stereotype? From the writings of many feminists you would certainly get that impression.

And isn’t it just true that having an attractive physique can make a significant difference to one’s attractiveness to the opposite sex? To what extent is this just banning the representation of truth?

Also banned are ads which belittle a man for ‘displaying emotional vulnerability,’ even in jest, since ‘the use of humour or banter is unlikely to mitigate’ the offence caused. This seems unduly humourless. Think of the classic Walkers ad with Gazza crying because Gary Lineker stole his crisps. This seems to be the kind of thing that would be caught by this new PC ban – is that really what we want?

The ban also catches ads suggesting women do most of the housework, which again feels like simply trying to deny the experiences of many women. As Mary Wakefield says: ‘It’s irresistibly weird to imagine a Britain in which women slogging through the dishes are forced to watch a TV world in which only happy husbands do the washing up.’

It also feels like an attempt to hide the role of housewife from public view, pretend it isn’t there, which hardly seems like progress for women. The suggestion seems to be that being a homemaker limits a woman’s ‘aspirations and ability to progress’ and so the portrayal of women in such a role must be concealed from public display. Yet women do often take on a homemaker role, and enjoy it and find it rewarding. Banning depicting it in ads just seems false, and demeaning of the many women for whom this is their current and chosen occupation.

The motto of the ASA is ‘legal, decent, honest, truthful’, reflecting its statutory duty to ensure advertising is all these things. Why then is it banning advertisers from being honest and truthful in portraying the lives and aspirations of those they are targeting with their promotions?

‘We don’t see ourselves as social engineers,’ says Ella Smillie, project lead on gender stereotyping at the ASA. ‘We’re reflecting the changing standards in society.’ This seems to me disingenuous, or at least naïve. For while they are indeed reflecting the changing standards in society, they are doing so in a way that reinforces them to attempt to change the way people think and behave. Which is classic social engineering.

So overall I don’t think this new guidance is well-conceived. It is vague in what it prohibits, and the connection with the problem it is trying to address is at best tenuous (consider that female happiness has been declining since 1975 and the rise of the have-it-all ideal, which is hardly encouraging for the flight from ‘stereotypes’ that has dominated that period).

What constitutes a stereotype and how it differs from just what people often or typically do or like is very unclear, as is what it is about these things that makes them ‘harmful’. The whole thing seems to be ideologically driven, particularly as there is no ban on inverting stereotypes, which means advertisers can portray what is unusual or bizarre but not what is common or typical. This does not seem like sound, sensible, liberal policy for a free and healthy society.

I would urge those responsible for this ban and the guidance behind it to think again.

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