Old But Still Good: Gender & the Olympics

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Family, family, family, and in particular, MOM: This was the theme that dominated commercials during the Olympics this past winter.
If I had a nickel for every time moms in particular got pointed out in the stands, I’d be…well, you know.
Most noticeably, the announcers talked endlessly about ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie’ White’s moms (and occasionally about the moms of their Canadian competitors, Scott and Tessa). But they talked more about Meryl and Charlie’s moms (and yes, they said moms), by first names, like they were all old friends, with a lot of emphasis on how they’d been there from the beginning, so this was for them too. No mention of dads. Maybe they have no dads? But in fact, a google search of “Charlie White dad” turned up first, a recent People magazine story of headlined with a quote from Meryl, “Our moms are kind of our lucky charms.”
But another headline highlighted Charlie’s dad commenting on the Sochi victory.
In People, an article that pre-dated their gold medal, included this paragraph:

“Charlie is very anti-superstition – we don’t have any concrete good luck charms we rely on,” Davis shares. “But I think our moms are as close to good luck charms as we have.” The pair’s moms, Cheryl Davis and Jacqui White, have never missed a competition, Davis says, “and one tradition we have is that before we compete, we take a moment to give our moms a hug before we warm up.” Davis and White are involved with P&G’s’ “Thank You, Mom” campaign, which gave them the chance to recognize their mothers in a video about their lifelong support. “We’re so grateful to have them with us wherever we go in the world,” Davis says.”
P & G’s 2014 “Thank you Mom” commercial pictured cute, winter-sport-clad children falling over as they practiced with boards, skis, skates, and sticks; their moms there ready to lend a helping hand. “Thank you mom, for teaching us that falling only makes us stronger.”

The children morph into contemporary Olympic athletes, falling, and then, skating, gliding, sticking their way to victory. The final tagline: “P & G : Proud Sponsor of Moms.”

It’s refreshing to see from the comments that many viewers have the same question I do—“ where are the dads?” even if some of them expressed some sexist viewpoints in the process.

This theme was not new; P & G had a similar campaign in 2012 . Loving mothers rousted sleepy and tousled children from their beds in countries across the world; the reflective, lilting sound track accompanied these children braving early morning dark and cold to practice at swimming, running, and more, culminating in their transformation into Olympic athletes.

TD Ameritrade ran a similar series; see this article in Business Insider for details. Athletes contributed their own family videos for the bank’s “Behind every great moment there are lots of small ones” series.

To be sure, nothing wrong in recognizing the role families play in helping young athletes advance and achieve their dreams. But why such a gendered approach? Were these all struggling single mothers?

Unlikely. While on the one hand, this ad gave nice props to the important roles mothers play in encouraging children’s passions, it also reiterated traditional gender norms. But perhaps even more interesting is the way these ads fused concepts of sport, motherhood, and Olympic glory. The intense world of international athletic competition was softened through its connection to misty-eyed mothers.

Motherhood, not national identity, now inspires our loyalty. The competition becomes an opportunity for sentimentalizing childhood, motherhood, athleticism, and even competition itself. What we see here is another example of the way, as historian Gary Cross puts it in his great overview, An All-Consuming Century, consumerism “Won” as the dominant belief system in America during the 20th (and now into the 21st) century.

Applied to P & G, what we see is how consumerism has become totally infused into Americans’ emotional lives. In a completely unironic and unreflective way, family relationships and family love became marketing tools. These Olympic ads are the apotheosis (or nadir?!) of this process.

Being a Reluctant Consumer

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I am a reluctant consumer. I am at once compelled and distressed by buying and selling, getting and spending. I am compelled by aesthetic desire, by need (perceived and real), by the promise of things. I am distressed (note, not actually repelled) by consumerism because it operates in extremes. I am distressed by the way consumerism shapes all our landscapes, many of our activities, much of the language we use to communicate with each other (when did we start branding ourselves? when did education become a product like any other?)

I am a consumer of many things. I consume the goods and services I need (or think I need) to survive, like most of us do. I consume goods I like (clothes, music, books in all their current forms). I consume experiences (travel, films, nice hotel rooms, good meals).

I think about consumerism a lot. I teach about it. I read about it. I observe it in practice and I observe its absence.

So I want to write about it here.

A lot of people have written a lot of good stuff about American consumerism already. I will write about them and their ideas here sometimes, too.

But there’s always more to say.