David Eagle thinks a recent Jack in the Box commercial featuring a woman withholding sex from her husband reinforces damaging stereotypes about gender and desire.
There’s a Jack in the Box commercial playing on Hulu right now, which features Jack and his spouse (We’ll call her “Jill”) playing Scrabble. Every time I see it, I get really irritated. Jack plays a made up word, Jill suggests that it is made up, then Jack talks about his product for twenty seconds.
As a gamer, both Video- and Board-, I love rules. Rules define the boundaries of fair play and can significantly enhance the challenge of a game, beyond what the base game-play mechanic brings to the table. There’s a great rule in Scrabble for when you suspect your opponent is making things up as they go. After your opponent plays any word, you can initiate a “Challenge”.
There are variations on the Challenge mechanic in Scrabble, but the most common works like this: Jill says she wants to officially challenge “SWAVORY”, Jack and Jill then pull out their dictionary and look for the word. If they cannot find it, Jack removes his tiles from the board, returns them to his hand and forfeits his turn. If it is in the dictionary, perhaps because they’re using Satan’s Lexicon, the tiles stay in play, and the challenger (Jill) loses her next turn.
Instead of relying on the rules of the game to prevent her husband from cheating, Jill plays the word “NONOOKIE”. Which also isn’t a word, and which drives me crazy. If you’re going to make a joke in a commercial, you can probably find a funny joke. There are a lot of them, and smart writers and comedians are working in dangerous laboratories to create new ones every day.
In the commercial, Jack is a suave manipulator, and Jill is a shrewd hard-ass who isn’t taking his crap. Except she doesn’t stand up for herself in the context of the game that they’re both playing, like an adult would. This hypothetical everywoman turns things personal, responding to his attempted cheating with an out and out threat.
Resorting to this kind of gibe, even jokingly, displays a lack of respect for her plastic-headed spouse. I think it’s meant to paint Jill as a tough, no-nonsense woman who stands up for herself. Instead it paints her, and by virtue of her role as an iconic representation of Womanhood, every woman, as a pathetic child unable to compete in the context of the chosen venue and forced to resort to personal barbs.
The type of disrespect she displays is widely condoned by society, and it’s easy to dismiss, because it’s such a common sentiment, such an easy joke. It’s also easy to dismiss because she’s talking to a bobble-head in a bathrobe. This isn’t a real man, he’s a corporate icon.
The marketers made a choice to display Jack as a husband (or unmarried partner?) to this woman, in so doing they gave both players a horrifying shadow of humanity. He cannot be dismissed as a bobble-head when he plays across from a wife, neither can she be dismissed as a caricature. The normalcy of their setting, their very blandness, forces the perspective that they are representative of the marriage ideal. The marketing team chose to do this because it gave them access to a cheap joke, but that joke only works because of societal norms, and in its execution it reveals those norms.
Besides not being funny at all, this joke reinforces the societal view that sex is transactional. Sex, if this joke is to be believed, is something that woman have and that men want. Women can use the promise of sex as an incentive or the threat of withholding as a bludgeon. Men and women should be unamused at the very least, and probably angry, about what this ideology implies about each sex.
I hope, and believe, that the image of women being portrayed here isn’t accurate. If I’m to believe the subtext of this joke, women hardly enjoy sex and there isn’t any emotional connection involved in sexual acts for women. For the fairer sex, lovemaking has nothing to do with love, coitus is a tool used to correct men, or to induce them to behave the way the woman wants them to.
On the other hand, the men from this world are driven primarily by hormones and will do anything to “earn” sex. In any argument or disagreement, rules of conflict resolution, interpersonal communication and ethical relationships don’t apply because any woman at any time can invoke a kind of vaginal Scorched Earth policy whereby a man can be made to surrender out of fear of ultimate reprisal.
The danger that the transactional view of sex presents to young men is discussed at great length here, in Harris O’Malley’s “It’s Okay to Want Sex”, and I won’t go into too much depth on it. I do want to pull a quote out of that article, which describes the authors personal experience:
I wasn’t seeing sex – or romance, for that matter – in terms of “here’s a fun thing we can both enjoy”, I was seeing it as “what do I have to do to get you to sleep with me.” It was an adversarial process – one encouraged by society at large – and one that simultaneously demonized and praised male sexuality while insisting that female sexuality was less important, if it existed at all.
The bottom line: Sex is a sacred and highly personal experience. It is a mutual endeavor, no one owns it*. Painting any gender as the gender that “owns” sex is bound to create tension and engender (!) in their opposite number an adversarial perspective.
It’s disheartening that a group of writers, marketers and executives thought 1) That this was funny. 2) That it’s something we should bandy about light-heartedly.
I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes at me a little bit. It’s beginning to seem like if you dig deeply enough into any joke you can find something to be upset about. It almost feels like we’re approaching a point where everything will be off-limits and comedians will be stoned in the streets. I don’t blame you if you’re thinking “He’s blowing this completely out of proportion, it’s just a stupid joke.”
I agree with you. It is just a stupid joke. The fact is, the joke only works because society at large thinks about sexuality and relationships in some specific ways. Some of these ways are dangerously flawed. While the joke itself isn’t offensive in the context of a woman teasing her husband, the underlying premise that makes the joke work, the premise that everyone must accept to think the joke is funny, has the potential for causing deep and lasting harm.
Maybe it already has.
*Note: It is within the rights of any person to refuse sex at any time for any reason or for no reason at all, and that must always be respected.