A chorus of “sorry’s” rings out as two glossy-haired women scuttle out of a man’s path on a subway and a conference room. A mom apologetically hands off her toddler to her husband. Two women meekly interrupt their male coworkers.
What’s really startling about Pantene’s new commercial featuring these women is how organic the events in question feel. The beginning scenes of the commercial seem extraordinarily ordinary and relatable, giving many viewers pause at the familiarity. Though the commercial takes a turn for the cheesy (a woman proclaiming “sorry not sorry” as she proceeds to hog all the bed covers), it’s gotten people talking about a tricky topic that’s anything but.
The secret weapon of sexism has always been subliminal messaging. In a time when it’s no longer permissible to state outright in advertisements or colloquial life that women are weaker, less important, and less able, that information must now be leaked subtly through subconscious channels.
For example, Google put out this commercial in 2013 for new features on Gmail. The ad opens with “inboxes can be overwhelming” and proceeds to follow a woman while she buys shoes, plans a date and procures a mani-pedi coupon. While this kind of commercial is less overtly sexist than some, its methods are just as insidiously effective. This commercial is subtly saying that women would only use technology for fun and leisure, and that such technology needs to be specifically geared to be light, easy and unserious, or they won’t want it.
This kind of advertising is unfortunately ubiquitous. We’re influenced by it every time we see a fashion ad showcasing a starving woman, teaching us that to attain perfection, we must be too hungry and weak to achieve anything else.
We’re influenced every time we feel pressed to buy scores of makeup products, since being beautiful is our only facet of value. We’re influenced every time we steer clear of But perhaps what’s most disturbing about this socially acceptable sexism is its effectiveness. The constant subliminal put-downs have seeped into the way women act. As the Pantene ad demonstrates, it has become standard to portray women as in the way and wasting space.
My most memorable AP English class from my all-girls high school occurred when my teacher slammed down her textbook and angrily demanded that we all stop qualifying our comments with “I feel like” or “I was thinking” or “Going off what she said.” She told us that until we start speaking like we deserve to be listened to, we never will be.
There’s not much we can do to fight billion-dollar corporations that push us to be thinner, prettier and more obsequious. But in our own, small, vitally important lives, we women must straighten our spines, carry ourselves with confidence and show the world that we deserve to be here.