Every major retailer seems to feel a need to make massive sexist gaffes on a regular basis, like they somehow haven’t learned from the gazillion cases before, or they think people have suddenly decided not to care about sexism. This time, it’s Land’s End’s turn, with a ridiculously gendered set of advertising for girls’ and boy’s schoolbags.
For one thing, don’t get me started on the fact that they’re divided by gender at all, and that the girls have pink and refined patterns while the boys have bold, blocky prints. Because everyone knows all girls like frou-frou shit and boys need manly patterns to feel secure in their masculinity. This kind of sexism is par for the course, and while it is infuriating and does need to be addressed, it would be unfair to single out Land’s End for specific attention for it.
No, Land’s End decided that it needed to embed some sexism right in the ad copy. The girl’s bags inform us that girls are bad at math and homework, while boys are, well, tough superheroes.
This joins, as Julia Magnusson points out on BlogHer, a whole list of products with similar kinds of messaging; girls are bad at homework, girls are too pretty for school, math is hard, and so on. Magnusson says that what’s really insidious about this is that it’s aimed at parents in this case, because that’s who’s buying book bags for young children. Little girls aren’t poring over the Land’s End catalog in search of the perfect schoolbag; their parents and guardians are.
And when adults are receiving the reminder that girls aren’t supposed to be good at academic pursuits, it sets them up to repeat the same damaging messaging to the young women in their lives. And young women listen to it -- and internalize it. The American Association of University Women noted in a 2010 study that women would self-assess their skills at a given task as lower if they were told that women weren’t as good at it. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Meanwhile, the boys' bags inform us that boys are messy, but tough; boys are “superheroes” who can drag their bags along the sidewalk to school if they want to, because the material will hold up. Apparently girls can’t be superheroes, and they don’t maul their schoolbags because they’re too busy being ladylike and tidy.
The core message that Land’s End is trying to convey is that this line of products is light, but tough. The lightness should appeal to parents concerned about loading their kids with heavy bags, while the toughness ensures that the bag will be lasting, even if a kid is hard on it. Those are two good things; hell, they’re things I look for in a bag as an adult, because I tend to be pretty rough on my belongings, and I lug too much crap around to have to pile it all in a heavy bag.
Surely, it should be possible to convey that message in a fun way that doesn’t involve the use of gendered stereotypes. I don’t expect Land’s End to do anything radical like poking fun at gendered advertising, because that would be too much to ask, but there are so many different ways to deliver the underlying information: Buy our bags because they’re easy to carry and built to last.
It would be easy enough to have a single splash page of mixed schoolbags of a variety of prints and colors in the catalogue, with no gendered messaging at all. People could pick the bags most suited to their children’s personalities and expressed wishes, rather than having to worry about the fraught implications of purchasing a boy bag for a girl and vice versa. And they could buy bags without being told that girls suck at schoolwork.
Yet, Land’s End chose to go with seriously gendered and sexist advertising. Even though the company is surely aware of the numerous blowups that have occurred in response to sexist ads from a variety of companies; every few months a company releases some monumentally ridiculous product, the Internet explodes, and the company is forced to withdraw it and issue a shamefaced apology.
Magnusson thinks Land’s End made an innocent mistake.
I’m actually not inclined to agree. I can’t help but wonder if it was actually a very calculated decision, because, trust me, copy teams think carefully about every word in an advertisement. What better a way to attract attention for Land’s End overall, and for the bags specifically, than to put them at the centre of a controversy? If that was the goal, Land’s End is definitely on the way to achieving it; the company is only a petition away from becoming an Internet phenomenon.