06/04/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 08/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Don't Use Rosie the Riveter to Sell Me a Mop


Rosie the Riveter: it's hard to think of a feminist image that is more iconic than this one. Sure, it began as government advertising meant to encourage women to leave their traditional roles and enter the workforce to help the war effort during World War II. But feminists later adopted it as a symbol for the ability of women to step up during hard times, and to take on any role where they were needed -- or, as many of the Rosies found, that they wanted. To now see the image used to advertise cleaning products feels like a slap in the face.

A Boing Boing reader passed a photo she took, showing a newspaper advertisement from Swiffer, along to the site. The ad shows a model dressed in the gear we associate with Rosie, but not looking fierce and determined and inviting us to the gun show. Instead, she's got that patented advertising Satisfied Mom Smile on her face, secure in the knowledge that she's got the Swiffer in her arms to help with the housework. (The imagery also appears on the company's website and the product packaging.)

It's not that Rosie herself is unproblematic. The government aimed its wartime campaigns at housewives, which most women were in the 1940s, and featured slogans like "Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill" -- it was clear that these women were more familiar with the domestic sphere than the industrial one. And Rosie's whiteness doesn't acknowledge the important role African Americans and other minority women played in the war effort, just as our popular imagery of the soldiers of World War II often fails to document the black and Native American soldiers who were also on the frontlines -- and how their experiences working in factories during the war helped fuel the civil rights movement. (This famous photograph is a powerful reminder of the contributions of black women during the war.) And just as strongly as it encouraged women to step up when jobs needed to be filled while men were overseas, the government pushed those same women out of their jobs and back into the kitchen as swiftly as possible when the war was over.

Regardless, Rosie the Riveter has long been an important symbol of the realization that not only could a lady do a "man's" work, but she could do it well, and it has played a role in the women's movement for decades. Swiffer's co-opting of the imagery to sell cleaning supplies runs directly counter to its modern meaning.

We Can Do It! And by "it" we mean "play into established gender stereotypes and further the assumption that regardless of our achievements in the public sphere, housework is truly the way to fulfillment for a woman." It could be argued -- and I'm sure someone will do it, perhaps in the comments below! -- that a fuss about this advertisement is much ado about nothing. After all, in a world where ads like these seemed like a good idea to several executives, Swiffer Rosie seems harmless.

But we also live in a world where women are increasingly the breadwinners in their families, but also expected to do the majority of the work of maintaining the household. And though women tend to make more money when they venture outside their traditional spheres into those more typically professionally occupied by men, Swiffer and Procter and Gamble are sending the message that the path to "having it all" -- oh, how I hate that phrase -- lies in getting your floor really, really clean.

I'm not buying it.

Sexist Vintage Ads