A mad world of stereotypes

published January 4, 2014, MST

A one-minute shampoo commercial has become popular online, not because of any new formula for hair growth, but for making us ponder how we perceive people we encounter at work and elsewhere.

The Pantene #WhipIt advertisement puts, side by side, adjectives used on men and women as they perform in the workplace. They may do the exact same things and display the same behavior, but by virtue of their gender, the adjectives that are used to describe them are markedly different.

For example, the man in the room is “boss” while the woman is seen as “bossy.” Talking before an audience, the man is “persuasive” but the woman doing the same is “pushy.” The guy working late nights is said to be “dedicated”; the woman, “selfish.” They both have milk bottles on their desks, implying they are parents.

Inside the bathroom, a man making sure he is well-groomed is deemed “neat” while the woman doing the same is called “vain.” Walking on the street, a man in a carefully put-together outfit is thought to be “smooth”. The woman who takes off her jacket, revealing a pretty yellow dress, is called a “show off.”

The musical score is a cover of Tears for Fears' “Mad World” – “Bright and early for their daily races/ Going nowhere, going nowhere.” In the end, the commercial exhorts viewers – supposedly females: “Don't led labels hold you back.”

The #WhipIt ad became so popular even though it only initially aired in the Philippines, its YouTube clip has had more than 21 million hits as of the late afternoon of January 3. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, said it was one of the most powerful videos she had ever seen. “Really worth watching,” she said, as she put the video clip on her FB wall.

But why does this remain an issue in a country like ours which is not necessarily doing bad – nominally, at least – in terms of gender equality issues? After all, we have already had two female presidents and we continue to do well in the Global Gender Gap survey among 110 countries. In the 2013 report, the Philippines ranked fifth in the world, bested only by Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden. We do prefer baby boys over baby girls or refuse to send little girls to school.

Still, despite all our advances however in women empowerment and in bridging the gender divide, we remain imprisoned by our pre-conceived notions about the way men and women are supposed to act. Thus, we are more than a little surprised – jolted, actually – if they go out of this mold. And we may not always be conscious of these biases and labels.

The first example that comes to mind is the Reproductive Health Law which is sadly still pending before the Supreme Court despite having been passed into law in December of 2012. A tragic development has occurred with regard to RH: it has been embroiled in the ugly controversy between the administration and its critics. The latter allege that the President may have “mobilized” discretionary funds to get lawmakers to pass the RH bill. The law thus has become a mere pawn in the political game as though it had no real intrinsic importance of its own.

But it is important because it shatters the label that women are supposed to be compliant babymakers as part of their “duty” to their husbands. The law envisions that women, even – especially – those who are poor and uneducated, would recognize that they have options in planning their families, options that they can take in accordance with their personal beliefs. Curiously, the most vociferous critics of the law are men who have never once felt what it is like to bear a child in one's body for nine months, and who feel very uncomfortable at seeing those labels shattered by common sense, free will and plain human rights.

Another example would be when a man dates many women or gets himself a paramour. The practice is tolerated, or even considered to be “cool” among other men. Even the law does not make it a crime to be unfaithful; it is only when a married man cohabits with another woman that he may be charged with concubinage. Some women tolerate their husbands' philandering just as long as the men eventually go home to them. On the other hand, when a girl goes out with many men, she is seen as a sl*t. When a married woman has an affair, she is liable for adultery for every single encounter with her lover. She is seen as an outcast. But there is really no difference between the two offenses. It is the same act of unfaithfulness.

When a woman tries to get out of an abusive or a repressive relationship, she is deemed “too proud” for not tolerating her partner's boorish behavior and “selfish” for breaking up the family. She is expected to take it as a given that her husband should lord it over her and she should adjust her life, her expectations, even her happiness to his own.

The #“WhipIt commercial still employed beautiful models to drive home its point. That is to be expected; it is, ultimately, still selling a beauty product. We also cannot hope to shatter all these labels in one minute, or a month, or a year. All these things have been programmed into our heads since the day we were born. What the advertisement does, and does so effectively, is to remind us that these biases and labels do exist, and we must constantly examine ourselves if we are falling prey to them, and if we are unwittingly letting these labels color the way we see and do things. Because they shouldn't.

Here's to an enlightened, crystal-clear, high-definition New Year for all of us.