The Feminine Mystique


Betty Friedan

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Consumerism and The Power of Advertising Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Domesticity and Femininity Theme Icon
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Psychoanalysis and Sexism Theme Icon
Consumerism and The Power of Advertising Theme Icon
Sex and Marriage Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Feminine Mystique, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Consumerism and The Power of Advertising Theme Icon

The problem that has no name pervades The Feminine Mystique. It has no single cause, but manifests as a chronic sense of dissatisfaction with the things that housewives had been taught to want: a house in the suburbs, a husband with a career, children, and the purchasing power to buy as many appliances as they want. Advertising firms, eager to exploit the purchasing power of housewives, peddled the idea that women could feel the sense of achievement they otherwise lacked through purchasing products. The housewife’s surplus of energy and dearth of useful outlets could be channeled into consumerism and exploited by department stores. Friedan refrains from forwarding the notion that ad men conspired to confine women in their role as housewives. On the contrary, she shows how advertisers exploited the housewives’ desires to sell them the products on which they depended to maintain sparkling floors and spotless laundry. Advertisers helped convinced these women that achieving perfection in their chores would lead them to happiness. Knowing that women were the primary spenders in their families led advertisers to perpetuate the image of the housewife as the standard-bearer of femininity—an image that was supposed to make women feel secure in their “function” as housewives, but which only made them feel more uncertain about the causes of their suffering.

The “sexual sell,” as Friedan calls it, was a business strategy whose aim was to “[delude] women about their real needs” in the interest of selling them products that addressed the women’s perceived need to be perfect housewives. The tactic manipulated women’s insecurities and distorted notions of happiness. Friedan gives the example of a baking mix which allows housewives to feel the achievement of baking without taking time away from other household tasks. The advertisers of the baking mix could increase their sales if they exploited the housewife’s guilt about never doing enough, or her creative frustration, by encouraging her to take advantage of every imaginable use of the product. The creative energy that would have gone into a career is instead channeled into domestic work. Thus, the sellers of the baking mix use the housewife’s desire for achievement to further pin her in a domestic role, and to encourage her to buy more products that promise to help her find a sense of achievement and fulfillment within that role. Another key part of the “sexual sell” was to create desire for products in teenage girls so that, by the time they married, they would be loyal to brands they saw as the source of their fulfillment. Friedan offers the anecdote of a sterling silver manufacturer who described the importance of convincing girls to buy sets of sterling, so that other girls will be motivated to buy their own sterling. Advertisers courted the teenage market through “schools, churches, sororities, social clubs” and “home-economics teachers.” While the “sexual sell” plays on housewives’ sense of inadequacy and their desires to excel in their prescribed role, it plays on teenagers’ desires to secure the approval of their peers, which includes having the same products as their peers.

While housewives and teenage girls were eager to buy products that demonstrated what good homemakers they would be, they were less keen on buying products for their own enjoyment. The new femininity encouraged “togetherness” and “family-orientation,” not the message of “stand-out-from-the-crowd, self-centeredness” that sold products to previous generations. Any product marketed to a housewife had to be marketed as an item whose purchase somehow benefited the entire family, even if she was the sole user. This tactic played on the housewife’s guilt over being self-indulgent. The new “sexual sell” was beneficial to the sale of products that had declined in popularity due to their negative associations. One example is the fur coat which had come to be associated with a seemingly useless and “kept woman.” The “sexual sell” used the image of a mother in a fur coat as an example of femininity that a girl would want to emulate, transforming the coat’s association with self-indulgence into its opposite—maternal love. Advertisers not only appealed to the housewife’s need for a sense of togetherness with her family, but also her shared bond with other housewives who sought out the same products in department stores. A pattern manufacturer was advised to create designs with “fashion conformity” to appeal to the “fashion-insecure woman” who does not want “to be dressed too differently.” For the manufacturer, the way to sell more patterns was to build conformity—to appeal to the housewife’s sense of isolation by offering her a product that made her feel like she was a part of the world.

Advertising, according to Friedan, is the invisible hand working to coax women into “[buying] more things for the house.” The appeal of consumerism as a path to self-fulfillment partly explains “the puzzle of women’s retreat to home.” Despite new opportunities available to women in the Eisenhower era, Friedan argues that so few had any wish to be anything other than wives and mothers precisely because advertisers had been so successful in selling these women an image of themselves that they were keen to buy. This image conformed to the accepted orthodoxy of the age: that happiness for women was only to be found in and through domestic work and reproduction.

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Consumerism and The Power of Advertising Quotes in The Feminine Mystique

Below you will find the important quotes in The Feminine Mystique related to the theme of Consumerism and The Power of Advertising.
Chapter 1 Quotes

It is no longer possible to ignore that voice, to dismiss the desperation of so many American women. This is not what being a woman means, no matter what the experts say. For human suffering there is a reason; perhaps the reason has not been found because the right questions have not been asked or pressed far enough. I do not accept the answer that there is no problem because American women have luxuries that women in other times and lands never dreamed of; part of the strange newness of the problem is that it cannot be understood in terms of the age-old material problems of man: poverty, sickness, hunger, cold.

Related Characters: Betty Friedan (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Problem That Has No Name
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

The image of woman that emerges from this big, pretty magazine is young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine; passive; gaily content in a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies, and home. The magazine surely does not leave out sex; the only passion, the only pursuit, the only goal a woman is permitted is the pursuit of a man. It is crammed full of food, clothing, cosmetics, furniture, and the physical bodies of young women, but where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit? In the magazine image, women do no work except housework and work to keep their bodies beautiful and to get and keep a man.

Related Characters: Betty Friedan (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Feminine Mystique
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis: