It’s interesting to reflect on how much has changed in society and sexual politics since the 1980s. The world was a very different place back then. In general, men went to work and women looked after the kids. We had a female Prime Minister but it was A Really Big Deal and the presence of topless women on Page Three wasn’t such a big deal. The word ‘feminist’ carried connotations of bra-burning and unwashed women camping at Greenham Common.
In the world of television advertising, women did the dishes, the Shake ‘n’ Vac and served Sunday roast. They ate chocolate suggestively in overflowing baths. Men ate chocolate while driving lorries. Thanks to Bruce Feirstein’s 1982 book, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, they didn’t eat quiche.
It took a long time for things to change. Even by 1994, Wonderbra’s ‘Hello Boys’ campaign provoked controversy for sexism but Dove’s ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’ ten years later signalled a change featuring, as it did, women with more fulsome bodies and a more empowering message at its core.
The zeitgeist is, of course, very different now. In many western countries, same-sex marriage has been legalised. Women’s rights are championed by politicians of both sexes across the ideological spectrum. More women are in positions of power in business and politics. The prospect of a female president of the United States doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did.
Recent campaigns such as This Girl Can and Nike’s ‘Better For It’ have focussed on female empowerment. It is more common to see men cooking and carrying babies but women are still predominantly shown in domestic roles or fretting about their hair, their skin and their weight.
In the quarter-century since my youth, much has changed. Transgender news stories such as that of Frank Maloney and Bruce Jenner remind us that gender and identity are sometimes anything but simple – and let’s not forget: we all carry the X and Y chromosomes.
In 2015, in many Western societies at least, what it means to be a man or a woman is becoming less important than what it means to be human. We live in an age of same-sex marriage, LGBT acceptance and parental roles less divided by gender.
However, we still live in age when rape is used as a weapon of war, when female genital mutilation still takes place and violence against women is commonplace.
Crucially, in popular culture, there is a growing emphasis on girls’ and women’s self-esteem and empowerment. Brands can and should lead this gender agenda. It isn’t the sole preserve of women and its spirit is perhaps best expressed by the T-shirt promoted by many male celebrities: ‘THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE’.
Jonathan Staines is planning director at BWP Group