Friday, August 7, 2009

In defence of oafism

My colleague Christopher sent me a new column, written by a friend of his at the Globe and Mail, about the rash of stupid and goofy male stereotypes in advertising:

If they're not messing up your house, running into glass doors or trying in vain to outsmart an air freshener, you'll find them eating the inedible or falling down for no reason whatsoever.

At least, that's what some advertisers would have you believe. More and more marketers are trying to tap into the overwhelming buying power of wives and mothers at the expense of their other halves. Dads are dumb, boyfriends are bumbling and husbands are utterly hopeless as brands strive to relate to women by showing men as especially goofy or incompetent.

The article quotes a women's marketing specialist who decries the apparent double standard. "If we ever did that to women, it would be so politically incorrect."

This is not the first time "oafism" has become an issue in current popular culture. From the Honeymooners to the Simpsons, TV shows have always found the "bumbling male with a heart of gold" stereotype successful.

As a bumbling male with a heart of gold who writes ads, I don't really have a problem with it. It may aim for the cheap seats, in terms of humour, but I don't think it's really harming the status of men. There are very few stereotypes you're still allowed to make fun of these days. I don't mind that one of them is mine.

The worst you could say is that cardboard stereotypes like Ray Romano's old TV character show creative laziness on the part of writers, and don't really give male or female audiences a lot of intellectual or cultural credit. On the other hand, classic literature has been using antiheroes to get laughs since time immemorial.

While it was once dumb-ass noblemen with witty servants, since the 1950s the stereotype has been oafish husband and clever wife. What interests me now is that women seem more offended by what the stereotype implies than men — perhaps exactly because making fun of "the man" shows that the societal power relationship is still all-too-often lopsided.

But why do men put up with being put down?

A couple of years back, I was in a focus group where we were testing several TV concepts in storyboard. One of them featured a lovable yet goofy everyman. A woman in the audience complained about the apparent sexism. "Why is it the man who always ends up looking stupid?" she insisted.

A man in the group countered: "Because we like it that way. That's how we get away with dumb stuff."

Amen, brother, but keep it quiet! Now excuse me while I pretend I don't know how to boil an egg.


  1. I laugh at that Dairy Queen commercial every time, but I read it more as men being blindly competitive than stupid. Sometimes you just have to eat paper to prove a point (or hide a secret...).

  2. Does *cough* anyone *cough* know anyone who'd be interested in reading article and would create a stimulating discussion.