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Letter From Elsewhere: Back To The Future?

Letter From Elsewhere with Anne Else

Back To The Future?

Where you as bemused as I was by the election? All of sudden, thanks mainly to a media beat-up about the way 100 undecided Auckland voters twiddled their knobs, an virtually unknown little designer party called United Future NZ shot up from almost nothing to over 6 percent. The final tally was eight MPs, most of them formerly associated with what was once the Christian Coalition.

As the Listener has pointed out, United seems to metamorphose into something new and strange with each election. The party list this time was almost completely different from the 1999 list, which was almost completely different from the 1996 list.

Whatever the party’s official policy, most of its new MPs seem to hold personal views which are firmly stuck in the 1950s. This has me worried. Ever since the election, I’ve started to notice signs that something very odd indeed is going on. Is history starting to run backwards? Are we caught up in a giant time travel experiment run by aliens from outer space?

Take Changing Rooms. My husband has threatened me with instant divorce if I ever let those designers so much as set foot in the street. They’ve always been quite strange (though they’ve never managed to match the team on the original British version and smash a whole prize collection of teapots).

But lately they’ve gone positively troppo. Suddenly everything they do, too, is straight out of the 1950s. The colour du jour is puce. They slap it up everywhere, even in a totally blokey room called a “sports bar”. And last week, they actually made a kidney-shaped coffee table, covered in little bits of solver foil.

Then there are the extraordinary time-travel ads suddenly appearing everywhere. I don’t mean those quite clever ones that use an obvious 1950s parody to make us laugh and feel superior about how much more sophisticated we are now. No, I’m talking about what seems to be a galloping trend to reinvent those good old Ad Land days when women came in only three models, depending on their age: dumb blonde, docile wife, and battle axe. If you were selling to women, you told them that whatever it was would make their boyfriends or husbands love them more. If you were selling to men or to people in general, all you had to do was to make sure you stuck the dumb blonde model into the ad somewhere. If you couldn’t fit in a whole one, a piece of one would do.

Last weekend the local paper ran a small box ad for a firm that sells and repairs watches. Alongside a drawing of a slim, elegant watch was a crude sketch of the back of a pair of Barbie-doll legs with stocking seams, ending in high heels.

What, I asked myself, could a pair of legs have to do with watches? A shapely wrist, yes, but legs? So I phoned the manager to ask him. “They’re Swiss watches”, he said. “The ad came from Switzerland. It was a one-off.” All right, I said, so you didn’t personally design it to represent your company. But why the legs? “It had a hand with a pen in it, but we left that out.” A pen? I said. “Yes. The hand was drawing the slimline watch and the line…” Oh, I get it, I said. You mean the stocking seamline down the back of the leg? “Yes”, he said. Well, I know women used to draw stocking seams on their legs in the 1940s, when they couldn’t get nylons. But what has that got to do with selling watches in the 1990s? Is it because Switzerland didn’t give women the vote until recently? Now it was his turn to sound puzzled. “What’s the vote got to do with it?”

I tried as politely as I could to explain how I, and some other women I’d shown the ad to, felt about bits of women being tacked meaninglessly onto ads for watches, and that it wasn’t a good look for his company. He got a bit huffy at that point, and told me that was my opinion, and we left it at that.

Next day the bus stop had a giant ad for a soapy Australian drama. It showed a ten times life size photo of a dress covering a pair of boobs. Just under the boobs were the words, “The views are better in the country.”

I know I’m supposed to shrug all this off with a bright boys-will-be-boys kind of laugh, or even to find it somehow flattering that the guys are so fond of women that they’ve gone back to flashing pictures of bits of us around all the time, no matter what the context. And I know that some women today feel so completely equal to men that when they get one of those glamorous ad agency jobs, they go in for using bits of women and risque little lines of innuendo about the bits too, just to show how totally liberated they really are.

But they’re wrong. Those hilarious bits of women everywhere went with judges making jokes about rape cases, forced childbearing, battered women suffering in silence, and the kind of rigid gender apartheid in the workforce that was more like an iron curtain than a glass ceiling. A sniggering carve-up of one affected us all back then, and it still does.

I haven’t yet seen anything quite as appalling as the ads we used to collect for the Hogwash page of Broadsheet as late as the 1970s – like the one for asphalt (yes, asphalt) that featured a crude sketch of a dark-skinned young woman alongside the line “Hot, Black and Easy to Lay”. But we seem to be heading back that way quite fast.

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