Sandberg posted the ad on her Facebook page, and wrote,
This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen – showing how stereotypes hurt all of us and are passed from generation to generation. [...] When little girls and boys play house they model their parents' behaviour; this doesn’t just impact their childhood games, it shapes their long-term dreams.It's true that the ad has a powerful emotional appeal, but I don't think Sheryl Sandberg is in the group she talks about. Because otherwise she would not be in the powerful societal position she is in. Clearly, whatever was modelled for her (if her theory of social engineering holds water) resulted in her empowerment.
Stereotyping definitely hurts us all – but it's the way stereotypes are perpetuated and not challenged in this advert that irritated me at first.
There's no question it's an arresting ad. The narrative is, at first sight, genuinely original. A father watches as his daughter, who seems to have come home from an responsible office job, immediately starts multi-tasking. She walks rapidly round their affluent middle-class apartment, starting a document on her computer, picking up toys, getting dinner on the go, making her husband a cup of tea (while the lazy blighter sits cradling his laptop and watching TV – he barely looks at her), putting on a wash, giving her father a plane ticket she has sorted out for him, in the middle of her working day. All the while cradling a phone against her neck. I found myself longing to tell her about mindfulness.
The father is dismayed. He sees that his daughter is overworked, at least in part because of the way she has been raised from birth, by him and his wife, to serve others, and to carry out all domestic chores, however much else she is trying to do. The implication is that she is doing at least two jobs, while her husband only does one. Yet she is only being paid for one – the other is simply her expected, unquestioned, allotted role.
And she does not question it herself.
The scales fall from the father's eyes, he writes a letter to her to apologise, and promises that he will try harder. We see him return home to his wife, and unpack his own suitcase. The last sequence shows his bemused wife showing him how to use the washing machine, and the punchline flashes up: 'Why is laundry only a mother’s job?'
I freely admit that I shed a tear when I watched it. I, too, posted it to Facebook (although I don't have quite as large a following as Sheryl Sandberg). It immediately provoked a lively debate – less because of the ad, however, and more because of my negative reaction to it.
My tears were tears of anger. I felt exhausted and cheated by the ad. My life is not like the daughter's in the ad, because I have worked long and hard to make sure that it is not, battling attitudes and assumptions, many of them internalised, others reinforced by people around me, usually other women.
I was watching a company that sells soap powder – mainly to women, since it is mainly women who do the family shop – tell me that:
(a) doing the washing is 'only a mother's job' (whether I like it or not)
(b) that 'dads' ought to share this load.
Well, Ariel India, the 'dad' I married already does share the load. Before I met him, he knew how to operate a washing machine, and he didn't lose that capacity because we got together. He's not a moron or a layabout. And I can tell you that, first of all, 'dads' aren't going to watch this ad. Secondly, they are not going to change their behaviour because of an ad, if they are already boorish enough not to share the load. Thirdly, since when has doing the washing been 'only a mother's job'?
So, somehow, men come out of the ad (well the father does) smelling of Ariel, while – unless I'm much mistaken – nothing much is going to change in anyone's behaviour. I wish it would, but I don't think a soap ad is going to wash it.
To my great surprise, however, my Facebook friends didn't agree with me. They felt equally strongly about this ad, but for different reasons:
1. It is aimed at newly middle-class Indian women: social attitudes in India are less progressive than they are in the UK, so anything that seeks to move things more towards equality is a good thing.
2. If the message is a good one, does it matter where it comes from?
3. It is noble in the father to humble himself to his daughter.
People were taken aback at the strength of my reaction. One person even asked if I was unwell (it was extremely well-meant, but nevertheless perplexed me).
So I started to think more about why I was so upset by the ad. It was when a friend gently said, 'Is it because you see a father saying sorry?' that I understood.
My father, who was born in 1919, the year after the First World War ended, was at home for much of my growing up, having taken early retirement. He pulled his weight all the time. He drove us to school. He paid for school. I remember him changing the sheets, and vacuuming. He supported my mother completely – woe betide anyone who criticised her work or her food. The only thing he couldn't do is cook (my mother had to freeze meals before she went away).
It never occurred to me that men and women did not share the domestic load until I left home.
What made me cry about the Ariel advert is that my father never said sorry for some of the other things he did – the shouting, for example. Actually I tell a lie. He did once say sorry, in the early stages of vascular dementia, when I was in my thirties. He raised a hand as if to strike me, and I coldly looked at him and asked, 'Are you going to hit me, then, like you used to?' and walked away.
Later, he came to my room, a guest room in my parents' house, where I must have been staying for a weekend. He said he was sorry, and we fumbled for words. I felt ashamed. All his strength was ebbing away. His raised hand was about his clouded mind, and not about the past.
Separately from my emotional reaction, however, comes my political anger. This ad might have been filmed for the Indian market, but if it resonates the world over, this is evidence, of a certain kind, that women the world over (however superficially progressive their societies) can still identify with the double standard that persists, as they are asked to take on more and more roles, while men continue to do and be praised for only one.
Oh, and I did one other thing as well as post the ad to Facebook, dear reader.
I taught both my son and my daughter how to put on a load of washing.
Because washing is boring, menial, necessary and has expanded exponentially since the days of the Monday Wash. We wash clothes every day. Sometimes I realise I have done three loads of washing in one day. We go through a washing machine every four years. And because a family is a team, not some individuals with an unpaid female servant.
Here, from my soap box, is my top tip for Ariel: don't tell me what I already know. Why don't you make some adverts that tell us how to do less washing, instead of trying to capitalise on social inequality to sell us more of your environmentally-damaging product?
Now that would be truly responsible.