by Veronica Florendo and Nica Rhiana Hanopol
Do you ever just muse on TV ads and get that Meghan Markle moment?
It’s the one where you accidentally become a female advocate upon seeing an odd tagline that says: “Mom-Zs, gawing malinis at smelling fresh ang bahay!” and everyone just seems to agree with it. But something about it doesn’t feel right.
Unfortunately, it is easy to catch ourselves passing by narratives that paint women as keepers of the home. After all, we are born in a society that conditions us to think that mothers own the domestic space — ilaw ng tahanan — while fathers are the stronghold of the home — haligi ng tahanan.
Recall how 1990s Philippine TV advertisements copiously made a prudent, conventionally attractive woman named Lumen the face of a famous detergent soap in a commercial series titled “Kapag Wais ang Filipina: Si Lumen sa Soap Opera.” Her story aired for almost five years on TV starting from when she lived with her mother-in-law helping out around the house up to the time she gave birth and took care of her twins while her husband Lando worked in the city.
Watching around thirty of this sort of ads every day that portray the woman with the laundry, in the kitchen, and at the grocery store has practically hardwired our brains to think that this is how and where all women are supposed to be.
Mothering, according to Oxford dictionary, is the act of caring for and protecting children. This role typically assigned to women is seldom questioned in the gendered discourse because after all, it is the woman’s body who bears the child for nine months and endures the pain of giving birth. Hence, it makes much more sense to sell them only dishwashing liquid, infant milk, and other home products that help them fulfill their role of caregiver.
Over the last decade, the narrative of mothers in advertisements has evolved to take on a more empowering tone — one where she can work a corporate day job and come home to her children just in time to cook dinner and clean up the house. Some also attempt to break away from stereotypes by featuring single moms and OFW parents.
Just as we are taking steps forward to reframe the mother’s image, women still bear the mental load that comes with taking care of the domestic space. In 2019, the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) reported that the female labor participation rate is at 46 percent. Even though the country leads in the number of women leaders and professionals, most of them are able to achieve this professional success partly due to their access to expensive child care.
Meanwhile, the remaining half stay at home to become full-time moms, otherwise they face a “double burden” of working and child-rearing due to lack of workplace flexibility. Mothers cannot just be anywhere, anytime because they have to balance work and domestic duties, according to McKinsey Global Institute Survey in 2018 on Advancing Women’s Equality in Asia Pacific.
Make no mistake: there is nothing wrong with being a mother, but it is worth noticing the deeply entrenched roles in the Filipino household that are reinforced by advertisements even to this day.
If mothering is the pathway by which some women find fulfillment, then even beyond the current steps forward, the way these women are being framed — selfless, resourceful, and resilient — carelessly preserve gender images. While there is nothing wrong with these qualities, equating them to motherhood can result in setting unrealistic standards for women to achieve. Furthermore, it can force them to accept the societal norms that cause them to behave this way in the first place and consequently fail at seeing the flaws in the system.
These norms bring about the problem of confining the mother and, by extension, every woman, to the home. The home, which in our vocabulary is always associated with comfort and safety, becomes a prison to the mother in which she is only allowed mobility within the domestic sphere. While the father’s only share in the domestic workload is to provide, the mother is in charge of practically everything else. This forces them to manifest these qualities as a matter of survival. For example, Lumen would not have to be resourceful and constantly look for cheaper alternatives if the money provided by her husband was ample enough to support all her needs. Instead of getting angry about it, she forces herself to make do.
By reinforcing these in targeted product advertisements, the mother is then regarded as inseparable from the house and the children. While some men take this as a free pass in child-rearing, other fathers who are changing the relationship dynamics by reversing gender roles at home also receive prejudice. This adherence to traditional structures, in which advertising is a driving force, puts women in a box that gives little to no space to broaden their horizons and more so alienates her from the world outside of the home.
Yet in popular culture she is still perceived to be inferior to the provider—the husband—who has the privilege to move freely in other social spaces. The continued portrayal of women in the house only reinforces the patriarchal hierarchy that prevents women from participating in the public sphere.
This is reflected in the lack of women’s participation in the workforce in the Asia Pacific which lags behind those of Australia and New Zealand, as seen in the survey conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute. Given that the survey considers college-educated positions, women who do not have the educational background are even more likely to be confined to the home, whether as housewives or domestic caretakers.
When they are not treated as caretakers they are instead oversexualized when outside of the home; popular depictions of women in advertising are ones that feature them scantily clad atop sports cars or catering to men at bars. Whether “respected” as mothers or objectified as women, the male gaze pervades media and how women are continually perceived only in relation to men.
Yet there have been attempts to tell the stories more geared towards women and their experiences to combat the male gaze. One commercial is “Love Kita, Ma”, which was released by McDonald’s during Mother’s Day.
The advertisement’s message is simple: the mother and her child, even without the presence of the father, are a family. This topples the belief that the role of the woman in the life of the man dictates how she is represented in the public sphere. The woman, more importantly the mother, is just as important even in the absence of the man.
While taking parts of our culture and turning them into narratives of redemption and liberation is empowering, advertisers need to be scrupulous of what values and stereotypes they continue to give emphasis to and consider the people that are affected by it. This does not, however, mean that the qualities we commonly associate with mothers are wrong. This only serves as a reminder of what the business of looking into human truths has taught us time and again: consumers have dreams and aspirations that are far bigger than what advertising has traditionally portrayed.
When the young Meghan Markle saw the dishwashing commercial that made the bold declaration that “Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans”, it showed us that there are real women watching. And if we’re not careful, they might just end up believing what they see.
Alegado, Siegfird. “Half of Women in the Philippines Don’t Work Because Most Are Moms.” 2 Oct 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-02/pregnancy-and-kids-make-philippine-women-drop-out-of-workforce
“Love Kita, Ma.” Youtube, uploaded by McDo Philippines, 3 May 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRGK6ikd2CU.
“Lumen and Mother-In-Law.” Youtube, uploaded by Surf PH, 27 Sep 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Usipe7B7-V4&list=PLGemZ5q3UdAdmIZcR5a3ihF53XOupl8XQ&index=1.
“Lumen Wais na Buntis.” Youtube, uploaded by Surf PH, 12 Oct 2012,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xOXAZPuiBU.
Mckinsey Global Institue. Advancing Women’s Equality in Asia Pacific, Mckinsey & Company, 2018.
“Mothering.” Oxford Dictionary, https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/mothering.
“Wala si Mama.” Youtube, uploaded by Lactum 3 & 6, 6 May 2019,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9V3SbfrT6o.
“Your Touch is Enough, Mom” Youtube, uploaded by Johnson’s Baby Philippines, 7 May 2016,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fk7I2ovqZXY.