Summary: Following Judith Lorber, patriarchy can be defined as simultaneously the process, structure, and ideology of women's subordination. Sexism, then, denotes anything that promotes or reinforces the system through which this persistent subordination operates. People often have trouble working with formal definitions, so illustrations from the real world, such as this thirty-second commercial from Allstate, can be helpful. The ad features an insurance agent chatting with a homeowner, who is quite pleased with the tree house he recently built in his backyard. "The boys love it," he boasts, "They are up there day and night!" Then with deft comedic timing, the agent informs his prideful client that the boys love their new tree house primarily because it looks into their neighbor, Mrs. Koslowski's, window. It is important to move beyond simply calling commercials distasteful. To articulate why this Allstate ad is sexist is to articulate how it contributes to the systemic subordination of women. It is an exercise in describing how patriarchy works. As I see it, the sexist problems with this commercial are of two sorts. First, the narrative relies on a very problematic myth about the irrepressible sexual desires of boys and men. Plainly stated, Allstate has conjured a scenario of three prepubescent boys in their new tree house with binoculars, but they are not there to play as children. Rather, viewers are to conclude that their incipient male sexual drive is leading them to seize upon a rare voyeuristic opportunity, and a non-consensual one at that. This particular representation of men is sexist because it attempts to justify an abusive and exploitative pattern of behavior among men as it pertains to women. While there is really no evidence that men's libidos ever render them incapable of moral behavior, it is fairly clear that cultures which assure men they have irrepressible sexual urges give men permission to act as if their libido occasionally renders them incapable of moral behavior. But if the first problem has to do with justifying predatory behavior among men, the second problem is the commercial's claim about what constitutes an appropriate response to men who behave as sexual predators. There is a sense in the ad that viewers are witnessing a family memory in progress, perhaps a funny story that might some day be told at a party. But it's important not to lose sight of the fact that the boys are engaging in behavior that is both morally and legally reprehensible (real world examples can be found here). The boys are committing a serious crime; yet the tone of the commercial assures the viewer that it is just another banal instance of boys being boys. Note that the agent is laughing, and while the father is clearly uncomfortable, his response is to spray the boys with a hose. On this last point, the commercial is sexist because it downplays the seriousness of this subordinating behavior among men. To paraphrase sociologist Michael Kimmel, the often made conclusion that "boys will be boys" really means that boys and men will always be violent, rapacious animals. Such a conclusion is a sexist posture of resignation.
Submitted By: Lester Andrist