I recently read a post on Mental Floss titled “Selling Shame: 40 Outrageous Vintage Ads Any Woman Would Find Offensive,” and what amazed me more than the almost overwhelming collection of startling ad copy (“If men ‘hate the sight of you,’ read this”) was readers’ responses to it.
“[T]here’s nothing funny about these ads,” one commenter wrote after other readers chuckled at the nostalgia. Another called the ads “ludicrous” and “atrocious.” There was lots of conversation about how oppressed women were and how society has evolved in many ways.
And then, if those readers are like me, they finished the Mental Floss post and clicked back to Facebook, only to read an article about a new Fisher Price exercise bike that is disguised as the latest “toy” but is really a subtle reminder for mothers that they shouldn’t let their children outside to ride actual bikes.
You see, the vintage ads in the Mental Floss post were aimed at making women better wives. Fortunately, through the lens of 2017, that makes them seem absurd.
“So ashamed of her complexion, she locked herself in her room!” one ad reads, with a “It’s no use! I won’t see him” thrown in for extra measure. Another ad promises, quite literally, that you can find romance if only you increase your bust size. And still another reads, “My husband almost had a fit about my RED HANDS!” Those red hands, and the marriage, supposedly benefit from softer, gentler dishwashing soap.
The conundrum of these ads, of course, is that on one page consumers were taught the rules to being a good wife — have his cocktail ready at 5:00 p.m. — but on the next page, those same women saw ads that subtly showed them how they’d never measure up — but don’t look like you worked to do it.
We laugh at the notion, and we say prayers of thanks that we are wives in 2017, not 1950. How did anyone think they needed to do all that in order to be a “good wife”?
But then we click on the next thing and fully consume and accept news, feature articles and advertisements that tell us (1) good mothers have healthy, smart, active children, and (2) you can’t have those healthy, smart, active children unless you supervise them every hour of the day, provide adequate intellectual stimulation, don’t let them outdoors (thus the Fisher Price exercise bike), and, yes, make the best birthday parties, too.
What ensnares women today is not that different from what ensnared them when our mothers were young. Instead of being the best wife, however, we’ve moved on to being the best mother. And even if we follow all the rules and recommendations, more rules will come along to show us that we’ve failed (that Fisher Price bike holds an electronic tablet for more ridicule-worthy screen time). We no longer worry about what our husband thinks of our hands, but we sure do worry that our son’s packed lunch won’t measure up to the one we saw on Instagram.
Of course, I write this as someone who just spent the last week making a slideshow for my youngest son’s 10th birthday, because I did the same for his older brothers and I want everything to be fair. I write this as someone who spent the weekend making a Death Star birthday cake for said son’s party, which will feature a Lego-themed scavenger hunt.
Just because I can see the absurdity doesn’t mean I’m not also trapped inside it.
But I will not buy a child’s exercise bike.
For me, the Fisher Price exercise bike is the dishpan hands of the 1950s. You told Mom that her husband needs to come home to a clean house (that means wash the dishes), and then you told her that he’s going to hate her red, chapped hands. Later, you told me that my kids will be kidnapped if they play outside alone, and then you said they might not be getting enough exercise. So you tried selling me an exercise bike.
But I’m not buying it.
We are trapped just like our mothers were in a vicious circle of “here’s what you should do” and “here’s why you’ll never be able to do it.” And just like our mothers before us, we’re made aware that we risk being unloved — by our husbands or our children — if we can’t somehow figure it out.
In 50 years, people will look at media from today and laugh at the impossible parenting standards that were placed on us. Our grown children and grandchildren will be puzzled by the fact that we worried so much about packed lunches, birthday parties and unsubstantiated threats of kidnappings (Really, the world is safer!)
They will say it was absurd. Atrocious. Ludicrous. And not at all funny.
In fact, they’ll probably say it was dangerous and wasteful — just like a wife spending her days perfecting her hands, or her bust, or her skin, all so that a husband who already loves her will continue to do so.
Our children will look at that vintage media and ask, “Why did you think you had to do all that just to be a good mother?”