I was in John Lewis yesterday. As I was making my way on the escalators up to the technology and gadgets floor, I passed the sewing department; a colourful array of pin cushions, needles and fabrics.
And I remembered that someone told me, not long ago, that the only place in the shop where you could buy tampons was in haberdashery.
How things have changed, I thought.
But that’s before I saw the advert. The YouTube clip, which is to the soundtrack of a Billy Joel song, has become an instant success, with women all over the nation weeping into their computer keyboards (see thread on Mumsnet) and an avalanche of internet comment praising its genius.
According to its fans, the ad is poignant and heartwarming (see article on Mumsrock) which I don’t contest. But I’d like to offer an alternative explanation as to why it works so well, and also propose why the whole phenomenon of John-Lewis-ad-philia is just a little bit sinister.
With the cadences of Billy Joel, John Lewis has struck a chord.
But at what expense? The first thought is women. This is a stereotypical tale of a woman’s life journey: from birth to childhood to first kiss, marriage, children, home life and grandparenthood. There is no glimpse of her life outside the home. And John Lewis home products and furniture feature throughout.
John Lewis sells office clothes, it sells iphones, it sells suitcases – but the advert makers chose to depict the woman as the perfect homemaker, not the perfect career person and not someone who does both.
So why do women like it? Why does it stir up so much sentimental emotion? I suggest that the reason is that it represents the perfect, traditional stereotype. If a woman were to be a housewife, bringing up kids, then she would probably like a house filled with expensive, tasteful furniture and a longlasting marriage during which the only hiccups are her child throwing flour in the air while she’s on the phone, and her parents-in-law bickering while she’s trying to surf the net.
But of course it’s completely unrealistic. Women go out to work, have careers, get divorced, marry again, have relationships with other women, become widows, have affairs, never get married. Families take many different forms these days – you only have to read yesterday’s Guardian article by Evan Harris on the backlash campaign against the Tory marriage tax allowance to realise that.
But I would guess that the ad is popular precisely because it is unrealistic. The ad conveys an alien world, but one which resonates with what women are expected to be like. After all, that’s what all women were forced to do only a few decades ago.
For women who do have children, the ad is (perhaps) a lifestyle to aspire to – at least as far as it sketches a picture of a life with no worries, impeccable taste, love and happiness and belonging.
For women with no children, and who work, it offers a snapshot of what life could be like if they made a different choice, or if circumstances were different. Working fulltime is hard. It’s only natural that every careerwoman wonders fleetingly what it would be like to be the ‘perfect housewife’, as the ad portrays. The ad makes it look easy! (Of course it isn’t easy at all.)
No wonder, then, that the ad has triumphed. It gives the impression that women – if they want it – have an ‘escape route’ from a challenging job. They have chosen not to, but it’s there just in case.
Men don’t have the same choice. Or, rather they do, but it is not considered as acceptable to be a house husband. They are considered ‘less of man’. This is tragic, because many men want to do it. They may not want to be the breadwinner. They may want to stay at home with their children and host children’s birthday parties and do some baking, but this work (which is equally as challenging as a fulltime job) is viewed as less worthy.
Men like homemaking and childcare too. The John Lewis ad is sexist. It shuts men out and doesn’t let them do what they want to do.