Mad World: Retro Sexism and

Anita Sarkeesian
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Marketers are increasingly using Retro Sexism to sell products. This form of advertising uses irony and humour as a way to distance itself from the sexist and/or racist representations and stereotypes they perpetuate.

Retro Sexism (n.): Modern attitudes and behaviors that mimic or glorify sexist aspects of the past, often in an ironic way.

Related Links and Articles:

* Definition of Retro Sexism found at WordSpy
* Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy
* The Sherman Foundation has a series of posts that discuss Retro Sexism
* A previous Mad World post discussed irony in advertising


* Carl’s Jr Racist Hula Commercial
* The current Mike’s Hard Lemonade campaign commercials are available on their site
* The current Twix campaign commercials are available on their site

Transcript available here:

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist media literacy advocate, pop culture critic and fair use proponent. She maintains an ongoing web series of video commentaries from a fangirl/feminist/anti-oppression perspective at her website

OH_Logo.jpg This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH’s grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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25 Comments Have Been Posted

Sexist PS3 commercial

There's a terrible PS3 commercial for a game called Uncharted 2:

Basically, the game is so great, and his girlfriend is so stupid, that she thinks the video game is a movie. Not sure if it's retro sexism or straight up sexism, though.

I was fortunate to be doing an online survey that asked for my reaction to this commercial, so I got to actually provide feedback. "What is the message of this commercial?" "--That Sony thinks women are idiots." Very cathartic; although the comments under the commercial itself on the link show enthusiastic approval from their male target audience.

Wow, that is seriously

Wow, that is seriously messed up! It's amazing how many commercials (that aren't cleaning commercials, since we are all apparently experts at that) frame women as totally stupid. I also love that they titled the man "Good Boyfriend." *facepalm*

PS3 Sexist Commercials

That ad series actually had a second problematic commercial as well. The second video on this article:
Sony apparently only wants to admit the existence of the "dumb girlfriend" or the "nagging harpy". They have a history of ignoring female gamers and gadget gurus and instead latching onto stereotypes made to amuse their target audience.


I have never seen these specific commercials before, but for a lot of commercials I have seen a common theme of: objectification of women. For example, women being used as sex-symbols to be associated with the advertisement of cars. It's interesting to see that other women actually see these things and that there are phrases already developed for it: Retro sexism. Thank you so much for posting this.

not ironic

I always feel caught in a bind whenever the "stupid girlfriend/wife/female-sex-interest" thing comes up because they seem to exist in some fantasy land where women get upset over there guys doing x behavior. Why do I care if my man wants to go hang out with his friends or watch the game? A relationship isn't a constant struggle between the little boy/dude trying to be free and/or getting away with something vs. the ultimate buzzkill who wants to monopolize his time and crush his spirit with chick stuff . But it's hard to complain about the ads that promote this weird competition without making it sound like you really care about the events within.

absolutely, relationships

absolutely, relationships are not all like that but I think the critical point and what we should be critical of, is that advertisers (and many sitcoms) are constantly perpetuating this myth of gender roles within hetero relationships.

It just so happens that...

Today in my Women and the Law class we were talking about Title VII, which of course brought us to Diaz v. Pan. Am. (for those who are unfamiliar with the case, Diaz was a man who wanted to be a flight attendant and at the time Pan. Am. only hired women to that position - the Court ruled in favor of Diaz). My professor brought up those old United Airlines commercials in which a stewardess encourages the audience to "fly me". He said that commercials like that don't really exist anymore because they don't work because of male flight attendants. I immediately thought of Korean Air's sexy ladies of the world/sexy walkin' lady flight attendants commercials. I see this one at least once a day. They aren't really ironic, but they feel retro to me because they are the only airline commercials I see with the sexy stewardess theme (please correct me if I'm wrong) these days.

I've got to admit...

I like that one. Why have I never seen it before?

Made for a different

Made for a different country? I don't think it got played in the US and the only reason I stumbled across it was because of one of those "best commercials of the year" specials.

The Most Insufferable Man in the World

How about those "Most Interesting Man in the World" ads?;feature=related</p><p>;feature=related

Oooo, what an exotic, manly world, where women exist only as accessories to make Dos Equis-drinking men more interesting. Of course, the Chuck Norris-style exaggeration is supposed to make the ads immune to criticism.

Female Chauvanist Pigs

I want to like this, but the Ariel Levy Reference kind of throws me for a loop. I wrote about it a little while ago in a reflection for one of my classes:

"Female Chauvinist Pigs? Hardly.

Upon discovering that Ariel Levy’s Book was among the required readings for this class, I must confess I laughed a little to myself. I own this book, and it was an important part of my introduction to feminism a few years ago; however, the lessons I learned were not found in the text, rather in an exchange with a friend—we’ll call her “V”—which followed both of our readings. This book was, to me, eye-opening: I had never really thought of exactly why things like Playboy, and Girls Gone Wild had bothered me, and initially, I thought that Levy Hit the nail on the head, but when “V” emailed me her thoughts, I was shocked to find that feminism was not as monolithic as I had previously, for simplicity’s sake, hoped. She indicated that Levy had written a “Feminism Lite” piece, which really ignored some important questions:

". . .like why women choose to experience their sexuality in this way. Why do women like looking at images of other women? (You can't completely ignore the homoeroticism here). Is there a possibility that performing an extreme version of femininity could expose the constructedness of gender in general? How does "raunch culture" affect men? (Men are equally pigeonholed)."

My response to this was a lot of deep thought. I looked back at what I had read, and what had appealed to me the most, and I think it was the “Feminism Lite” aspect of the book. As a newcomer, I wanted to believe that Feminism had “Golden Years” before the FCP’s rolled into town, but in having these questions posed to me, I realised I needed to re-read the piece. My review, the second time through was this:

"I thought that she simplified expressions of sexuality and gender, but she did point out something that should have been obvious to me but wasn't: that "heterosexual" female sexuality (if there really is such a thing) is a pastiche of real sexual enjoyment for the benefit of others… but she [Levy] ignores the reality that one can legitimately be turned on by the very act of putting on a show for someone, by titillating someone else. [In addition], she chose too broad of a spectrum of sexual identities and looked at them all from a heterosexist ('bois,' for example) point of view, and then slapped a show-stopping title on it."

In a convoluted way, I learned the value of questioning what I read, and looking critically at narratives that claim to offer a “truth” about the culture in which we live. Levy’s book, upon further examination, reads like any western trope about a “fall from grace” or “degenerationism”: there were good, blessed, and purposeful years (the second wave); these years ended, and the next generation was corrupt and ungrateful to their forebears (the third wave, sex positive feminists, and FCP’s); the world is in turmoil and needs to strive again for Eden (back to the good old eighties, when Feminists had a mission). Her narrative arc, from this perspective, seems reductive, not allowing for the complexities of performative female sexuality to be studied and even lauded.

Do I believe there can be feminist porn stars? Of course, in fact, there are. Can a feminist show her tits for a baseball cap? Absolutely. Is it disempowering for a suburban mom to learn pole-dancing? Only if she feels it is. Our actions are complicated, and it is completely possible that while they may be empowering to us, they could be disempowering to others; Levy assumes that we do not know that; indeed she assumes that we do not know ourselves, and that we are somehow being duped in our 'false consciousness' into buying in to all of this. Why must these performative sexual acts in which we engage must be either classified as good or bad for women? The world is just not that simple; feminists, women, men, all of us in-between… we are complicated beings."

In conclusion, I have grown to REALLY hate that book--it's condescending.

Thanks for sharing your

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the book, I have problems with the book as well but they are not the same as yours. Although she does provide a very simple power analysis (however briefly) she does not provide a systemic analysis in which to understand all of this, if I remember correctly she never utters the word Patriarchy.

However, much of the examples she provides plus framing it in terms of raunch culture I think is really illuminating for those of us who used to behave this way. I also disagree that she is being heterosexist for two reasons, 1. she is mostly addressing hetero women, it is a behaviour many straight women engage in in order to attract men, attain power etc. and 2. she does address this same raunch culture in the lesbian community which I have painstakingly experienced.

I also disagree with your last paragraph because I do not think that those acts you bring up (pornography, pole dancing etc.) should be viewed in terms of individual empowerment but in terms of systemic oppression. Sure, if there was no patriarchy and there was actual gender equity then this would be a very different conversation. (I'll just leave it at that to avoid this spiraling into a pro/anti porn debate).

Even with the lack of a solid analysis, I think this book has a lot of value and that 'feminism lite' is a good way to describe it, it's a starters guide, and those are important, easy to read, accessible texts to facilitate comfort into more feminist thought. And although I already considered myself a feminist at the point in which I read it, I found it incredibly satisfying to hear someone articulate what I couldn't quite explain.


I also find this line of advertising really demeaning to men, because they are so obviously liars who would star at college girls when they should be parenting, and really a lot of them aren't that.

It is also all these other things, but I think that in some ways it's a chance to sell things to women by making fun of how stupid men are -- particularly true in cleaning products, etc, but also true in some of these ads. BUH.

Also. Yes to all the retro sexism. This isn't disagreement, just another angle.

Susan Douglas and "Enlightened Sexism"

The subject of "ironic" or "retro sexism" receives a really good treatment in Susan Douglas' new book "Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done."

Douglas' approach is historical, so she gets at where such advertising and programming came from, what it replaced, and where it is headed. What I found amazing is the extent to which the media landscape has shifted dramatically since the early 1990s. Not that that the late 1980s were great or anything (on this issue and many others), but it certainly featured a different brand of sexism.

Thanks for this. I've felt

Thanks for this. I've felt similarly for a long time, especially regarding the Twix commercials. I've seen many iterations of the "need-a-moment" guy, and it's always, despite a change in actors and scenery, the same thing: a man getting one over on a woman. Actually, they really bother me. I used to like Twix. I used to find the Dos Equis commercials mildly amusing, kind of in the same way I find the Old Spice commericals ("I'm on a horse!") amusing, but they're getting old, too. And, as usual, these commercials remind me that, according to advertisers at least, women aren't worth considering as consumers, at least not for all the "fun" stuff like cars, beer and candy.

Also bad for love!

In addition to being racist and objectifying, the other really big problem with Carl's Jr hula girl commercial is that it clearly supports the idea that if men can't exercise their sexist and/or racist privilege over women by having all of their demands met within a relationship, then they should go elsewhere to play out the racist, sexist, and/or misogynistic fantasies that they have been socially conditioned to believe are their right to seek out and fulfill. It perpetuates the idea that heterosexual relationships are either one-sided in favor of the man and only exist to benefit his sex/fantasy life and his need to be pampered, or one-sided in "favor" of the woman where the woman has "trapped" an unwilling man-boy in an adult relationship from which he must try to regain his freedom (freedom being his uninhibited ability to objectify women, drink beer with his friends (as if women are opposed to people drinking beer and hangin' with friends, so that doesn't even count as something for which he should be "fighting"), etc.). But it's not really in the woman's favor as the man can always leave if the woman expresses any expectations, desires, or needs of her own and go find someone who is instead willing to consciously or unconsciously sacrifice her own needs for his benefit. (Or, if that doesn't work, he can objectify woman by literally making them into objects.) The commercial goes against the fact that most heterosexual, monogamous relationships are (or should be) hard sometimes and that they involve two equal individuals who can both expect to be treated as equals and human beings.... and not objects. Or sex toys. Or obstacles to beer, hamburgers, and a fulfilling sex life. It's another strike against real intimacy and understanding between the (binary) sexes!

I know that Carl's Jr probably thinks that it can't make money any other way than to objectify women and perpetuate stereotypes (about Hawaiian women and/or Indigenous people, women in general, men, relationships, etc.), but that's untrue. Carl's Jr is just taking the easy, uncreative way out instead of thinking up a commercial that could appeal to various demographics of people in non-offensive ways. In fact, most advertisers are guilty of lacking any sense of creativity and resorting to the "ironic" (or not ironic) boobs = moving products schtick. Hasn't anybody realized that there are better options?

Capitalism kills love.


I am SO SICK of the old "But it's IRONIC!!!!" apologist excuse!!!!!! SO SICK!!!!! It just doesn't fly. An easy way to illustrate this would be to take one of the historically famous persecuted groups, i.e., Jews or Blacks, and imagine the same ad but with and about them. For example, instead of the scantily clad porn star-like woman "washing" the car in the Carl's Junior ad, imagine a Jew washing a Nazi's boots ... "ironically", of COURSE>< . Instead of the naive wife with the baby whilst her asshole husband oogles college girls half his age, imagine a Black man picking cotton whilst the slave owner "IRONICALLY" looks on happily. We can't even begin to fathom those ads because the dehumanization of those two specific demographics have been so emblazoned on our brains that it's unthinkable. How is it then, that we can be so fucking willfully blind to the dehumanization of other demographics? It's lunacy.

Keep pointing it out.

So right!!!!

You are 100% right!!!! That is the argument I have always made, that if these commercials showed minorities in a derogatory way, they would be banned but sexism in media is alive and well!


KY gel commercial where the woman tells the husband to lock the doors so she can apply the gel and he can continue to thing that "he's the man"! disgusting!

...I find it ironic that this

...I find it ironic that this is hosted on "bitch" media... women talking about ironic feminism are bitches?? VERY VERY IRONIC.

That being said, I think that comedy has never been meant to portray deep truths. The characters in these commercials are totally one dimensional and are simply meant to be amusing not to make comments about how people should act. There are many commercials, tv shows, and other forms of media that portray men as stupid and after only sex, or women as conniving gold diggers for example. These are not meant to be role models for us, we are meant to be laughing at these characters expense.

It is frustrating that there is not more media showing individuals behaving uniquely, with integrity, and with genuine kindness... but when was the last time that made you laugh?

"comedy has never been meant

"comedy has never been meant to portray deep truths"
i don't think you've read any Shakespeare then... :P
Comedy doesn't have to be stupid, wit, by definition is very clever, and most certainly doesn't have to . It just takes more thinking and less going along with the lowest common dominator.

a quick search of youtube, i found this one:
manages not to be offensive, and manages to be cute and funny.

this one is very funny, because who doesn't love swearing, and who doesn't love beer (when it's not sold to you in a sexist way):

it is possible to have advertising that is funny, clever and not sexist!

here's another one that is (kind of) funny and not offensive:

and this one?


Maybe I'm a bit misinformed.. but can "BITCH" magazine really get away with talking about retro sexism without seeing hypocritical with having the most demeaning word for women on the cover of their magazine. After being aggressively called this word far too much for far too long by fellow coworkers, students, strangers, and indirectly by the mass media through the portrayal of women in advertising and lifetime specials, I think I can safely say that a feminist magazine called Bitch Magazine may come off a bit retro sexist itself. I know that you know that I know the word Bitch, being a term that has and is being used in the most harmfully sexist ways is ironically sexist seeing as though the magazine is primarily marketed to a feminist audience, (a group that is primarily dominated by women like myself who wish for things like the word bitch to disappear from the English language). I admire that the magazine would reach out and talk about retro sexism, but I would like an answer that justifies the title of this magazine and proves how the title is not being ironically sexist. I am making the assumption that maybe someone has touched this subject before, but does it defend itself against this faction of sexism? Forward me something or reply, because I would personally like to know. :) p.s. sorry for the run-on sentences, I'm not trying to be a bitch...

well... corrections

At a friends house and wrote that really fast.. when I wrote seeing hypocritical I mean seeming hypocritical. Grammar and spelling really are not my specialties, but at least I'm putting effort towards it. Any other errors, hopefully you understand what I meant and look at the message not the technicalities! Thank you!

The title


The title of this magazine is not meant to be retro sexist or ironic. Instead, it is meant as a reclamation of the term "bitch," which has long been used to insult strong, outspoken women. We also like it because it's not just a noun, it's a verb as well. In verb form it's used when someone (typically one of those aforementioned strong, outspoken women) speaks up about something she doesn't like. Since we speak up about feminism and pop culture, <i>Bitch</i> works for us.

Hope that helps!

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