Gender

Leave Ms Washing Machine Alone

In its grand feminist project, Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad ad aims to sell feminism to women while only catering to its primary consumer – men.

Early this year, Ariel Matic decided to join the bandwagon that tries to sell us feminism through consumer advertisements. Or rather, sell us products through faux feminism.

Following numerous advertisements that faced criticism for being counterproductive to the cause they were piling onto, Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad campaign seemed harmless at worst. The ad-film titled Why is Laundry only a mother’s job? Dads #ShareTheLoad was specially chosen for praise.

In the ad, a father, now in his later years, decides to rectify the mistakes he made as the patriarch of the household. The road to redemption must begin where it all started. He decides to help his wife at home. “So what if I can’t become the king of the kitchen,” he says. “I can at least help her with the laundry.”

By helping with the laundry, he means feeding clothes into the washing machine. But who can blame Ariel, you might say? Their primary aim is to sell their product. What would be the use of Ariel in the kitchen? Ariel Matic is made for washing machines, and how could the laundry be done any other way?

Handwashing comes with its own set of complications. In an upper-class household (the only place where women’s liberation and a dialogue about feminism can occur in consumer ads) it can’t be that the father mixes the detergent with clothes in a bucket, beats them, wrings them out, hangs them on the clothesline and then shows his wife how white her saree is – as she leaves for work to get that deserved promotion which she hasn’t been rewarded yet only because her sarees weren’t white enough.

A washing machine prevents us from seeing the beauty and decorum of the urban, upper-class household disturbed. It spares us the mess that we do not want the man to be in. It spares us seeing the man don a visibly feminine domestic role. And most importantly, it helps us achieve the illusion of women’s empowerment, a departure from the masculine order without actually going anywhere.

If that sounds confusing, remember that gender is everywhere. No “man-made” creation, no architecture, artwork, technology or machine escapes this trap.

How to train your machine

From gaudy, ineffective and overpriced women’s razors, to epilators and mobile phones that look like jewellery boxes, the free market has exploited our most hackneyed beliefs.

The masculinity and femininity of products are often defined by their appearance, but the space they occupy in our lives plays an equally important part. There is a clear distinction between women’s space – the home, comfort, consumption and femininity –and men’s space – the world, production, risk and masculinity. Even in ads that show the two spaces converging, the action is orchestrated to maintain a status quo. The contrast between motorbikes and scooties is one example: Both represent freedom and adventure, but in ads for scooties these are limited to the city, never going as far afield as motorbikes can.

If the divide is so clear in our perception of the machines we use outdoors, where do we even begin with the ones that come labelled ‘domestic and home appliances’? These machines are female not only because of the space they occupy within the house, but also because they help the woman perform activities she would otherwise have to do manually or with domestic help. The husband’s interaction with the machines ends with their purchase, and the need for it arises again only when the machines need “fixing”.

Female machines are dutiful, coy. They occupy the domestic space and function efficiently. They are handled by women, and sometimes men who teach their women how to push a particular switch or hold the head of the mixer grinder as it whirs. Once women are acquainted with machines, they become their missing woman companions of the house.

She, the machine, is safe because she does not talk, eliminating a third person for the man of the house to handle – a man likes less female chatter, as you would know. She, the machine, is visually appealing and becomes a symbol of opulence for the household. She helps cook that perfect meal for the husband which can be shared over Skype (think the Airtel Boss ad). Seema and Ajanta mixer-grinders, two female-named and popular middle-class Indian brands, have done that for ages for the Indian housewife. Microwaves and washing machines, late entrants into the middle-class life, followed suit in the same tradition.
One might argue that a washing machine has replaced the community dhobi or washerman, but the washerman was always an outsider not allowed through the doors of the house – unlike the washing machine, known to live in the most private quarters of the home.

The washing machine, once the pride of upper-class households, is now growing ubiquitous with the rise of middle-class aspiration and purchasing power. It has entered literature in exactly that manner – as a companion of the lonely woman. In the title story from Anu Kumar’s collection, The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories, the main character has been married off with a washing machine as dowry and finds her world in it. At the home of her in-laws, which remains an inhabitable prison of sorts, she sits inside the machine admiring its walls. It becomes her home, her companion, a sisterly equivalent of the motorbike of the man’s world. Through its stillness it allows observation and through its openness to listening, the machine forges a bond that can perhaps only be formed between women in our society.

Who is sharing the load?

Seen through this lens, the magnanimous effort of Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad seems more like a load of hogwash. In its grand project to redeem the old patriarch, it aims for an amicable solution between men and women, while catering to only its primary consumer – men. It tells women that societal order will not be disturbed even if they have become earning consumers.

When the father feeds the clothes to the washing machine, instead of putting in the effort to wash them with his hands, he is merely passing off the domestic chore from one female to another. The system of entitlement remains unbroken, and you wonder how long women in consumer ads will have to settle for their husbands’ illusions of their liberation.

Debojit Dutta writes from Delhi. He is a founding editor of Antiserious.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Domestic products are a convenient way of co- opting any sort of ideas including feminism and egalitarianism. This type of ‘ pseudo- feminism’ in the garb of genuine women emancipation is a gimmick played by corporates to boost sales. Corporatism and feminism interlinked for monetary gains and increasing market shares…!!