A man in a crisp white apron stands over the sink in a pink kitchen, staring out of the window at a woman in a suit, who is playfully lifting a little girl in the air. “Men don’t leave the kitchen!” reads bold black text beside him. “We all know a man’s place is in the home, cooking a woman a delicious meal. But if you are still enjoying the single life and don’t have a little mister waiting on you, then come on down to Hardee’s for something sloppy and hastily prepared.”
If the sexism in this ad is jarring, consider this: the image and the text are based on a real advertisement from the 1940s, featuring a woman in the place of the man. The idea that women belong in the kitchen may be more than 70 years old, but sexist ads such as these still affect how we see gender roles today – or so photographer Eli Rezkallah believes.
Last month, the 31-year-old Lebanese artist completed a new series, called In a Parallel Universe, featuring eight photographs based on original ads from American companies made during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the notoriously sexist “Mad Men” era.
The idea for the project came to him during a visit to the US last year, when he overheard a conversation between his uncles at Thanksgiving dinner.
“One of the men said that it would be great if the woman would take care of her own house, like women used to do back in the day,” he explains, adding that the men went on to suggest that women are “better off” cooking, taking care of the home and performing their “womanly duties”.
“They’re not bad people at all. They’re very progressive in a lot of ways, but this sentence stuck in my head,” Rezkallah says. “I started wondering why and how they could say this. “I thought maybe the only way to explain to them how wrong it is, is if they see themselves in it.”
So he took eight vintage adverts, several of them illustrations, and recreated each of them in a meticulously staged photograph that reverses the original genders. “I know for a fact that they’re going to find it shocking,” he says, “and this is when I can say, ‘Why is it shocking for a man and not shocking for a woman to be in that position?’”
His simple premise is very effective. In one photograph, based on a 1940s ad for Schlitz beer, a woman in a suit comforts a man in an apron, who is holding a tea towel up to his face to dry his tears. “Don’t worry darling, you didn’t burn the beer!” she says.
By placing men in the role of housewives, seen as helpless or incompetent even in their own domestic spheres, Rezkallah highlights the overt sexism on show in these ads. By playing on the shock the viewer feels when seeing a man in this context, he also reveals the extent to which ideas of the home as the women’s sphere are still ingrained in our collective consciousness.
“The reason I chose ads from that era is it was more out there. It was very, very obvious,” he says. “Also, my uncle is in his 60s now, so … when he was growing up, this was what he saw.”
Not much has changed in the decades that have elapsed since these ads were dreamt up, at least not in the Middle East. In 2014, Lebanon-based Khoury Home came under fire for an ad released encouraging men to buy their partners a dishwasher for Valentine’s Day because “Chocolates make her fat”. It’s eerily reminiscent of a 1950s ad for a vacuum cleaner, included in Rezkallah’s series, with the tagline, “Christmas morning she’ll be happier with a Hoover”.
“In the Middle East, it’s a totally different story to the States, because in the US they are politically correct now. They’re more aware of it,” he says. “Here, there’s no sense of it.”
Other disturbing ads set in the domestic sphere make light of violence against women. They also find a contemporary echo in the Middle East. A 2012 ad from Lebanese department store Aishti featured a woman with her head and limbs protruding from a cardboard gift box bearing the company’s logo, in a position that suggests she has been dismembered.
This sort of dehumanisation is shown in two ads in Rezkallah’s series that have been flipped to feature men being subjugated by women.
One ad for Mr Leggs trousers, from 1962, shows a man clad in suit trousers holding a plastic spade. Beside him on the sand is the head of a woman he has just finished burying because she “couldn’t keep her hands off him”.
Another ad released by the same company, the same year, shows a man stamping on the head of a woman who has been turned into a rug. In Rezkallah’s version, a woman grinds her stiletto into the head of a sad-looking man above the words, “It’s nice to have a boy around the house”.
Rezkallah is planning to exhibit the series at the Lebanese American University next month before taking it to New York this spring.
The photographs, however, have gone viral online. Rezkallah says that most of the feedback has been positive, aside from a few male viewers who have accused him of reverse sexism, seemingly having missed the fact that his work is not advocating for advertising that is sexist against men, but instead trying to highlight the double standard.
“The work that I do doesn’t exist on its own. It only exists next to the original work,” he says. “It’s not reverse sexism. It’s two parallel universes that you can see clearly next to each other … for me, feminism is about equality and I strongly believe in that.”
Even the photographer responsible for the 1962 photo of the man standing over his woman-skin rug agrees.
“I woke up one day and I had received a message from a photographer in New York saying that he is the person who took the original photo and that things were very different back then,” Rezkallah says. “He said he wouldn’t tell anyone that he’s the person behind it. He said, ‘Great work. I’m happy someone did this.’ “It was surreal.”
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