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Despite Giggles and Leers, It's Sexism Stripped Bare

March 16, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

It's unclear why the construction worker in that new Diet Coke commercial has to strip off his shirt before downing his drink, but all I can say is, honey, it works for me .

I happen to be very fond of that silly spot. You know the one: Female office workers get up from their desks for what you think is their morning break, only it turns out it's the gorgeous hunk's morning break, and they want to be at the window to witness his every rippling, Coke-hoisting muscle.

Who can blame them?

Stuck as they are at their work stations, in the heart of a pink-collar ghetto, taking home a fraction of what the thirsty construction worker earns, they need a little fantasy to liven their dreary workaday lives.

So off they trot to the window each morning, staring lustily at the object of desire down below.

And all I can think is: Wouldn't it be nice if we had some construction going on outside our offices?


The commercial has caused a fuss, which, of course, is exactly the point. As my friend the ad man has taught me, "You're nobody till somebody hates you." Likewise, your commercial is nothing till somebody starts hollering about it. And voices are rising over this one.

I've heard women object on the basis that it's pure male fantasy that women leer at men the way men do at women.

I've heard men cluck about "reverse sexism" and ask how anyone who calls herself a feminist--how anyone who thought the Swedish Bikini Team was a new low in beer flogging--can approve of this sort of exploitation.

Easy, I say.

On a superficial level, the commercial works precisely for the reason some people object. It turns sexism on its head. Which makes it funny, because in the context of the rigid gender roles of television advertising, you don't expect a lot of mousy little secretaries to have any sexuality at all, let alone a leering, ooh-baby-ooh daily ritual of communal lust.

That's the easy part, the part that makes some of us feminists chuckle.

What doesn't make us laugh--but what should hearten folks who object to this role reversal--is what's happening on a deeper level. Far from being an example of reverse sexism (a false concept anyhow, to be addressed in a moment), the commercial is business as usual: plain old-fashioned sexism in a new wrapper.

It patronizes women by keeping them in their place. First off, the ogling women are clerical workers, toilers unleashed from their desks during pre-appointed 10-minute breaks. Second, they do their fantasizing in secret, from afar. Women are not allowed the boisterous expression of sexuality allowed construction workers (we know what nasty labels await the ones who violate this social taboo). Women are to be unseen and unheard, like children at the top of the stairs, looking down at Mommy and Daddy's dinner party.

Said one advertising agency's creative director in a Newsweek story about the commercial: "These women are ogling secretly; they have a distance that separates them. It's not a glass ceiling but a glass window."

Pretty perceptive. For a man.

That was a sexist joke. But it wasn't reverse sexism. I don't believe in the concept, and even if I did, it isn't present in this commercial. Reverse sexism implies there is a parallel world where women control the economy and the government, where men are expected to serve biology--their highest calling being stay-at-home father--as they fight for their rights.

If the Diet Coke spot were based on reverse sexism, the man would have to be working for a woman-owned company, in which women consistently out-earned the men. The men would have to be frustrated by the lack of men at the top. They would have to bemoan the fact that a huge chunk of their paycheck goes for child care and that every time their kid gets sick, they have to take time off from work or arrange for special care. The male middle managers would have to feel they just had nowhere to go but sideways after reaching a certain level of success.

Down at the bottom rungs, the construction worker would have to feel that he was hired only because his physical package is so perfect, and that pounding nails better than all the gals wasn't enough to get promoted; that taking his shirt off was the only sure way to get noticed by his bosses.

To really drive home the point, our bare-chested young man would have to be just a tiny bit nervous as he walked purposefully to his car every night, looking straight ahead, wondering if one of those leering ladies from next door might be capable of actually harming him.

An impossibly silly scenario, isn't it?

But, honey, it works for me.

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