Here are a few things I’ve observed about white women in my time working in advertising and market research.
Women in commercials mainly exist during their child-bearing years. Most women in advertising are white.
(Women experience sexualization in advertising from the earliest possible moment. So there is definitely the Lolita trope — and it plays out a little differently for white women versus women of color — and the industry must reckon with it, but I want to focus on white women of voting age today.)
If they do not already have children, they must be slim and attractive. They must have their finances in order, and their apartments must be tidy, and they should be well dressed no matter what job they have, and they should be wearing makeup but not too much makeup, and they should have girl friends, and maybe a pet. They are single — which means they are available! — and they are happy in that single-hood, though they would of course like to be in a couple. They are so happy in their single-hood that they happily eat salad by themselves, so they can remain slim and attractive.
They somehow manage to be exceedingly competent and in control of their lives, but also just a little ditzy — a little clumsy sometimes, a little silly or overly ingenuous. And they probably shouldn’t be in the big boss chair until they’re older.
Now, if they’re a bit older, they should have children, which transforms them from being women into being Mothers. And the thing about mothers, according to fast moving consumer goods brands, is that they are busy. This busy-ness makes them overwhelmed. They are frequently pictured throwing their hands up in the air and shaking their heads, rushing from one place to another. They drive cars now — no more taxis with their girlfriends, no more convertible coupes! — and these cars are SUVs, vans and crossovers.
If we are appealing to their general harried-ness, the kids are in the car with them, doing something vaguely obnoxious (but not awful because kids are great, you should totally have kids) to demonstrate how close to the end of their rope these incredibly busy and overwhelmed moms are. Sometimes we see her husband, who is childlike himself, which is to say that he’s messy and a bother. She loves him — as she loves her children — in spite of that, which you can tell by the smiling eye-rolls she executes while shrugging her shoulders and cleaning up the mess. But being overwhelmed makes everything hard — deciding, in particular, is hard. I mean, how do you choose the right toothpaste for your family?
If we are not appealing to their hurriedness, but showing an ‘aspirational’ vision of perfect white motherhood, well then, there is no indication of being overwhelmed. This mom is completely in control. She multitasks seamlessly and at speed. She knows the answer to every question. She drops off the kids at school and heads straight to yoga class before doing all the other things. She has her day accounted-for down to the last minute. There is still “no time” for things, but that is because her time is efficiently optimized for catering to her partner’s and children’s and pets’ every need. This is the ideal white woman — someone who has needs that she is fine sublimating to everyone else’s needs, which are obviously more important, and bears that sublimation gracefully because she has everything under control.
White mothers in ads usually don’t work because they need the time in the day to stay slim and attractive and to blow-dry their hair, and white mothers are almost never single. But it’s possible that a mom also has a job. If she does, it is one of two kinds of jobs. It’s either a ‘little’ job — she’s a dog-shampooer, or a cupcake baker, or something like that. Or it’s a ‘big’ job — she’s in a suit, she sits in the big boss chair, she has a smartphone and a minimalist office, and her hair is smooth. She is tough, but not frowny — no frowns! (She can be in pain and look anguished if the ad is for headache medicine.) She is firm, and in charge — but her employees are smiling and nodding at what she says. She points a lot and listens quite a bit, but we don’t usually see her saying much — just gazing beatifically on her efficiently humming workforce.
This ad gets it:
If she’s older yet, then she is obliged to have grey hair. This hair should still be rather chic, however. She should still be slim. She should have a Distinguished Older Man as a husband. She should live in a detached home. She should be into gardening and cooking. But! She is no longer perfect, so she should be one of two Older Women — an older woman who has figured out how to alleviate the various ailments that now beset her and still be slim and flexible and attractive; or an older woman who has not yet figured that out and is sad and in pain.
It was only after talking to a creative director in London about a toothpaste account that I realized how well established these tropes are. He asked me, quite earnestly, “Do women in America ever laugh? They seem to be rather easily overwhelmed.”
White women in America do laugh — if they’re young and unattached and not much bothered about toothpaste. But white women in America are obliged to be mothers — and once you’re a mother, well, laughing may not be on the schedule (unless you’re one of THOSE moms, who has everything under control and likes her spouse and probably still has sex with him). What you do have time for is smiling — you can smile in satisfaction with your toothpaste choice, or with your children happily splashing in the slip’n’slide. Of, if you’re one of those slightly older white women who are the Boss Lady, you can smile beneficently upon your direct reports, or the blueprints to that building, or that annual report. But white women laughing in an ad — unless they’re young, single and out with their girlfriends, no. Laughing makes them look hysterical.
This is the commercially available image of white women. Even the harried mom is aspirational. Walmart moms still want ‘name brands’ and they use straight irons and put on mascara before getting in the minivan. There are no obviously poor white women. There are no obviously uneducated white women.
White women are a kind of expensive chattel. They cost money to educate and groom and keep slim. They cost money to keep in name brands. Their children cost money, what with their ice cream and Cheerios and slip’n’slides and karate classes. The invisible hand in most consumer packaged goods advertising is the spouse with a good job who puts money in that checking account.
It’s mostly men (mostly white men) who come up with these ads. When it’s time to test them in research, we’re obliged to go find women more or less like this — or who want to be like these women. We go find women who don’t work full time, have at least some college education, and have children under the age of 18 in the home, with household incomes over $60k, and who prefer brands like X and Y and Z. And magically, we fill focus group rooms with white, middle-class, mostly-educated women.
More magically, they tell us that they are indeed busy and overwhelmed and harried. That their lives do revolve around their kids, that their husbands don’t pick up after themselves, that they are in charge of the grocery shopping and the cooking and the cleaning. They make sure we know that they love their kids and their husbands, because if they did not affirm all of these things they would be deeply undesirable.
We do research that reinforces this view of white women. We keep the focus entirely on them, and their successes and failures as women. We don’t usually ask questions like, “Do you have help around the house? Who else does the grocery shopping?” They were recruited to be doing it all themselves. Every creative brief aimed at moms includes the notion of moms as “busy and on the go” as an “insight”. Since mainstream advertisers rarely see another version of white women, it’s no wonder they don’t show any other version of white women. It’s no wonder that 90% of women say advertisers don’t understand them. Ninety percent of women aren’t in our ads.
But, even with this careful recruiting, you can see the cracks in the edifice. For example, one thing many of these women in our focus groups are not, is slim. Who could be? The truth is there isn’t the time, and there isn’t the money, for those yoga classes. Besides, to go to a yoga class, you should already be thin. Instead, they do weight loss programs, calorie count and read labels, and drink diet soda.
Sometimes, if the conversation goes too deep into the subject of anything adjacent to beauty, they might tear up a little, betraying just a glimpse of unhappiness. And if they’re in the room with another woman or two who are thin, you can see how this divides them — the thin woman must be richer than me, because she is thin. Thinness = wealth, free time. But it also = self-worth and self-discipline, demanded and rewarded by the male gaze.
There are other glimpses — of uncertainty, of knowledge that they are on shaky ground. As children become teenagers, and teenagers start to think about college, moms express a kind of filtered anxiety. About the cost of education, about their children going away, about getting older, but also about their own identities and worth. What will they do when the kids leave home? What will be expected of them if there are no playdates to coordinate, and no kids to clean up after? How long will their husbands let them get away with not having a job? And what kind of job will their husbands think is acceptable? What will the measure of their lives be, if they are no longer actively mothering? What will make them valuable, now?
These beliefs, attitudes, images, are strongly embedded in the culture. We don’t need gamer-gaters and Googlebros to tell us that. It’s just in our heads, all the time, telling us what we need to know about who we are.
As a college-educated white woman myself, I remember young women in the dorms and dining halls talking a lot about getting their MRS — a term I had never heard before and had to ask my mom to find out what it meant. These girls were raised to be a certain kind of expensive chattel. They knew that. College was for finding a husband — a husband whose family was well off, or a husband who was ambitious and a hard worker and a good networker, who would be a good provider and a status maintainer or improver. My first roommate did everything, including a lot of drugs, to get the guy whose family owned a jet. I thought this was a sorority-transmitted disease, to be honest. But it’s not.
I’m now a 40-year-old white woman — I work for myself and I don’t have kids. I’m married though, and I have a house, and a car, and a dog. I garden and I cook. I’m handy. But I am not in any B2C marketer’s segmentation — I should have kids or be a CEO or have some kind of chronic illness. The marketing that is most likely to speak to me is actually for my dog.
So no, I’m not surprised that white women failed to vote for Hillary Clinton. She was too much in charge, too ambitious — yet somehow not ambitious enough. She didn’t break the ties of white womanhood, she sublimated her career to her husband’s, and baked cookies, and blowdried her hair and always wore makeup and struggled with her weight and defended a man who cheated on her… She was simultaneously too much like them to be aspirational, and too little like them to be relatable.
And I’m not surprised that women who supported Trump are more likely to say they will never abandon him. I would bet they believe their husbands will never abandon him (even though about half say they would), so they must to prove their loyalty. They see their friends and family members posting on Facebook, making certain that the social expectations are clear. Women are not especially ‘in charge’ of white supremacy, but many are willing accomplices to it — perhaps in part because they derive their own financial and physical safety from it, because they are raised for it. If they work against the power structures of whiteness, they turn white men into ‘cucks’, they are termed race traitors. It can be dangerous, and if there’s anything white women have been raised to do, it is to protect themselves until they can find a protector.
In this day and age, we say to ourselves, they should be freer to speak up and speak out, to reject these ideas, to get free of white supremacy. Yet there seem to be many ways in which white supremacy — a thing on some level we all know is always there in America and some experience acutely and violently every day — snuck up on white folks over the last two years.
I have seen highly educated, affluent, working women, married to highly educated, affluent, working white men, experience a dawning awareness of the loyalty their husbands (and their in-laws) are willing to express to the institutions and beliefs of white supremacy. In their minds, though, by the time they discover that their affably conservative husband is a Trump supporter, it’s too late. And so, to keep the peace, they go along.
Trouble is, after you’ve gone along for too long, you start to think that this is the way.
We know that white women voted for Trump more than Clinton. We know that 74% of women who voted for Trump are ride-or-die. It’s easy to criticize white women — as part of an oppressed group, they should understand oppression and resist it, especially because their whiteness ensures they have relative power. I suspect that this criticism and these data points do not reflect a complete understanding of that power structure (hell, I’m a white woman and I don’t fully understand it). Surveys won’t tell us much about that power structure, even if they can measure its effects.
We have the tools to understand first and condemn later — it mostly involves talking to humans. It doesn’t take forgiving them, but it will require listening. Personally, I think it’s on white women who aspire to wokeness to take on this project. My hand is raised.
You’d think I might start calling for advertisers to do a better job of being more inclusive, and more demonstrative of many types of women — by race, and class, and everything else. I’ve already done a lot of that, but there are people doing that for a living now, so I’ll point you at them.
Nevertheless, I will show you this one ad — which I think is the first one I’ve seen that seems to truly understand the needs of women (and not only white women) within the context of its category.