Thursday, June 6, 2013

We Can Do It!: Rosie the Swiffer

Is it just me, or could this B-17 bomber use a good Swiffing?

This isn't beauty-related exactly (and I'm still figuring out how to balance blogging with book-writing, and am not doing a fantastic job of it thus far!), but I couldn't resist giving my quick two cents about the Swiffer/Rosie the Riveter thing. For those who haven't followed the story: Swiffer, a Procter & Gamble-produced line of disposable mopping and sweeping products, recently used a Rosie the Riveter-style image in one of their ads. People got riled up—using a feminist icon to promote traditional "women's work"? no, thanks—and P&G has apologized and is attempting to remove the ad from all placements.

But here's the thing: Rosie the Riveter...isn't feminist. The image has been appropriated by feminists, sure, myself included. (One of my prized possessions is my Rosie the Riveter dish towel. Irony much? She's also on my business-card case, so there.) But Rosie started as propaganda by the United States government, with the aim of telling women that they could "do it"—take over "men's work" while they were otherwise occupied in WWII—within the parameters of staying appealingly feminine. Sure, Rosie is wearing a work shirt and flexing her muscles. She's also wearing plenty of makeup, has her hair neatly coiffed underneath that kerchief, and appears to be wearing some sort of torturous device that gives her that terrifically feminine bust-to-waist line. Rosie wasn't created out of goodwill. She was created out of necessity, and I think at this point plenty of high school history classes are even teaching what happened once Johnny came marching home: Rosie was sent—forced—out of the workplace and back to the kitchen, with plenty of nifty new appliances to keep her busy, and oh hi Betty Freidan, is that a Problem With No Name you're carrying?

In other words: Rosie the Riveter was a bit of propaganda created to refashion the idea of conventional femininity. Which is exactly how Procter & Gamble was using it.

I'm not saying it was just dandy for P&G to appropriate Rosie (far be it from me to praise Satanists); it's irksome. But what's more bothersome than their using Rosie is that the ad just reinforces the idea that housework is women's work, which is what, oh, every single other ad for household products does. Using Rosie to do something entirely unrelated to actual progress for women? That's what Rosie was invented for. Chances are, she felt right at home holding that Swiffer, you know?

Now, I get that today feminists have reclaimed Rosie, and today she is a feminist icon. (And there's plenty to be said for even the propaganda of Rosie being crucial to feminism: A good part of what spurred the woman's movement was women's satisfaction at joining the workforce in non-traditional roles, and their recognition of the unfair mores at work when they were let go after the war ended.) But let's look at what I pointed out earlier about my own embrace of Rosie: I own products that feature her. That is, I've spent my capital on her. (Well, okay, the dishtowel was a gift. Thanks, Dad!) She's useful as a way of displaying one's politics, not necessarily living them. I love my Rosie products, but they're just that—products—and they exemplify my consumerist ways as much as they exemplify my feminist allegiance.

I'm glad Procter & Gamble is listening to its critics. That's huge, actually, and it makes me hopeful that a behemoth like P&G is actually checking itself once it's been challenged. And I'm not saying it was silly for people to speak up; the only way we can change our environment is to challenge it, and I'm always glad to see people doing so. But did it rile me up? No. And I don't know how much Rosie herself would be riled up either.


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  2. As always, I love your take. I agree that using Rosie reinforces the idea that housework is for women. It will take a brave ad agency to produce ads for cleaning products that do not use women—why not a busy giraffe, a tidy elephant?—and if they did, they would instantly get a LOT of smart women's attention.

  3. This is such a great take on the matter! Thanks for dissecting Rosie and how she was originally portrayed as government propaganda before she became an icon to the feminist movement. And like you, I am glad that a corp giant like P&G are listening, I think in today's society of 24/7 media reel other corps should get on board with that notion as well!

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