Mary Wakefield Mary Wakefield

Oh brave new gender-fluid world…

Everyone feels much freer to be who they are – yet we mostly behave according to stereotype

Later this year, the Advertising Standards Authority will reveal to the world their list of rules designed to wipe out ‘gender stereotyping’ in TV ads. I’m already looking forward to it because the ASA’s first thoughts on the matter, published in July, were fascinating. An ad for baby milk which showed a girl growing up to be a ballerina was deemed quite unacceptable; KFC got flack for featuring one man teasing another for not being manly enough. Stereotypes on TV contribute to ‘unequal outcomes’ in reality, explained ASA’s chief exec.

Of course no one wants boys and girls to feel forced to conform — some boys are feminine, some girls boyish — but that wasn’t the issue here. What seems to trouble the ASA is that gender stereotypes exist at all. It sees them not as a caricature of the real differences between men and women but as a fiction, an embarrassing legacy of our misguided and misogynistic past.

The only sadness of that first review was that (after some weighing of the matter up) the ASA decided not to actually ban ads from depicting women at the sink. It’s irresistibly weird to imagine a Britain in which women slogging through the dishes are forced to watch a TV world in which only happy husbands do the washing up.

I had thought in July that perhaps the ASA was particularly po-faced and PC but over the past few weeks it’s become clear that their philosophy, the notion that all stereotypes are imposed with no basis in biology, has become fashionable again. The ASA episode was followed by the strange case of James Damore, sacked by Google for suggesting that men are better suited to computer engineering. And then, hot on Damore’s heels, has come a rush of pieces claiming that when left to their own devices, baby boys don’t prefer cars or football and that girls have no intrinsic liking for pink.

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