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Vintage Housewife
Vintage Housewife
The 1950s housewife, getting ready to prepare a meal with her modern electric appliances. | Photo: | Housewife, Vintage, Stereotype, Kitchen, Advertisement,

How the Hair Care Industry Re-Genders America

It's common knowledge that the advertising industry uses gendered themes to entice buyers to purchase the newest nail polish, cleaning product, or food item. Think of all the women with prominently displayed wedding rings standing in a kitchen making sandwiches or doing the laundry in most television commercials. Is there ever a man, a child, or even a single female doing that job? Only very rarely. It suggests that the demographic that companies are targeting for sliced bread and detergent are often married women with children. But it also inherently suggests that married women are the only, or the ideal people, to make sandwiches and do laundry. It also recreates the idealized image of what a married woman with children should look and act like. So it should come as no surprise that hair care companies have been some of the worst violaters in the category of gender-stereotyping in advertising in recent decades.

Perhaps one of the most surprising new commercials to come out of the hair care sector is Clairol's "Kate's Color Story". Remember back before the suffrage movement when women didn't "need" to vote because their husbands represented the views of the household and therefore covered everyone's viewpoints when they ticked their ballot boxes? At least that is what many women were told at the time. This commercial is slightly remeniscent of that trend.

The 30-second blurb begins with a short clip of a beautiful, blond woman looking into a mirror and the caption "Kate's Color Story". So, she's going to talk about her hair care regimen, right? Well, Kate's story is quickly taken over by the words of her husband. He sits on a stool, captured artistically in a black and white interview-style shot. He tells the viewers, with a debonaire grin and a relaxed pose on a stool that, "Kate and I have been married for 15 years. That's three moves, five jobs, two newborns. It's no wonder I'm getting gray. But Kate still looks like... Kate."

While he speaks to the camera, we are met with a barrage of images of the silent, beautiful woman putting on her shoes and makeup, twirling around the house, smiling to the camera, without saying a single word. Her husband tells her story for her, from beginning to end, and the narrative leaves no space for her own version of events. He still has the same wife thanks to the fact that Clairol has covered her gray hairs. He doesn't have to know her beauty secrets as long as she still looks like the same woman. He's allowed to grow gray hairs but, thankfully, Kate doesn't change and she accepts what her husband says for her. That's what Clairol's commercial imparts to the viewer, whether the company meant to impart that message or not.

Hair care commercials in general and the entire hair care industry put a lot of pressure on women. The willowy models prancing through meadows while their hair is twisted and pulled in Garnier Fructis's commercials comes to mind first. Then, there is the barrage of commercials directed at selling products for damaged, overworked hair that has been trashed by attempts to come as close to the ideal as possible. In order to get the smooth, silky locks like Kate's in Clairol's commercials most women have to use blow dryers and heating implements, sometimes even harsh chemicals. Those same treatments often cause severe damage to hair and the industry finds a new way to encourage women to use more products to fix what was originally created by the hair care industry's products.

Also, nearly every single makeover on TLC's "What Not to Wear" involves coloring a woman's hair because her natural hair color is supposedly too dull and lifeless to be truly stunning or visionary.

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley

Rosie Alice Huntington-Whiteley is an English model and actress. She is best known for her work for lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret and Burberry, and also for her role as Carly Spencer in the 2011. Born: April 18, 1987 | Photo: Archives |
Granted, women have a say in the way they decide to style and treat their hair and there is nothing wrong with that. Styled, cared-for hair is a comforting luxury that often serves as a way to relax and unwind. It can also serve as an asset for self-confidence in our personal and business lives.

And women are not the only ones at the mercy of the hair care industry's gendered ideals and stereotypes. Men also have pressure to grow longer, fuller, thicker hair. Hair plug commercials and the era of Rogaine make that reality all too clear. George Costanza on "Seinfeld" is a classic example of how the balding man is often belittled, pushed aside, and derided because of his physical appearance.

So, all told, and not surprisingly, advertising has massive power and also harps on the same old ideals of masculinity and femininity that have been around for at least a few centuries. The most surprising aspect of this newest Clairol commercial is how blatantly the actual woman's voice is drowned out by the larger visual picture of her life story as wife, mother and hair model. Is this short commercial is a sign of the overall trend towards shrinking women's rights?

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 1:49 PM EDT | More details

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