In a 2012 episode of the short-lived NBC sitcom Up All Night, Chris and Reagan, the couple played by Will Arnett and Christina Applegate, struggle to navigate a Los Angeles airport security check gate. During the interminable wait, their baby Amy has a bowel movement and requires a diaper change. Then Reagan gets the couple hauled out of line after mouthing off to the TSA official. The humor in the scene is about the difficulties of traveling with an infant and the way Reagan exacerbates the situation—it's fairly standard sitcom fare. But there's also something truly remarkable about it: Chris changes his daughter's diaper with speed, care, and competence. The fact that it's dad, not mom, changing the diaper is not the source of the scene's intended humor. It's no exaggeration to say that this makes it a landmark moment in pop culture history because well into the 2000s, movies and TV shows continue to routinely represent parenting as primarily a female endeavor and men as so fundamentally clueless about baby care that even depicting fathers carrying their infants—as in the previews for What to Expect When You're Expecting (2012)—is played for laughs.1
Advertising for many different types of products has also long trod this familiar ground.2 Isn't it funny when men attempt to do "women's work" in the home and in the family? Long after ad makers acknowledged the changes wrought by Second Wave feminism in the 1970s and ceased to use the most stereotypical representations of housewives in household product advertising, prints ads and commercials have continued to depict moms as the primary caretakers of home and family.3 Like other kinds of advertising from the late twentieth century to today, the subject of this article—diaper advertising—does not employ overtly stereotypical images of women but rather a reworked, more socially acceptable version of women in the home (viz., a slim, casually dressed, attractive but not overtly sexy, mom figure). In this article, I show that representations of mothering in diaper advertising have continued to reiterate the gendering of domesticity, framing household labor as primarily a manifestation of a mom's love and care for her family, including mothers of somewhat varied ethnicities. I also argue that one key way that diaper advertising reinforces normative domestic gender roles is through the depiction of fathers. From the late 1970s to the present day, diaper advertising portrays fathers as ancillary caretakers of their own children, secondary to a mother's special love and care. Although sometimes containing somewhat more complex representations of Dad's parenting skills, diaper advertising often uses fathers as comic relief, poking fun at the very idea of a man caring for an infant.
Today's platforms for contemporary diaper and related baby product advertising continue to use these same kinds of gendered but somewhat racially diverse representations, including "funny fathers." The vast majority of consumers appeared to accept without question this gendered representation of caring for infants. However, that may be changing. I conclude this article by discussing how consumer criticism of a 2012 Huggies campaign featuring somewhat disparaging images of fathers suggests that Americans are beginning to reject the gendering of parenting in diaper advertising, and that marketers need to catch up with real parenting lives.
"All the dryness a mother can love": Pampers Advertising in the 1970s
As I've shown elsewhere, in 1966 Proctor and Gamble (P&G) introduced the first truly disposable diapers—Pampers—with advertising and marketing that portrayed the product as not merely a convenience but rather as a way for mothers to provide better care for their babies.4 For years, Pampers was the sole disposable diaper product and even after other brands came on the market, Pampers has remained the "superbrand" of diapers.5 Print ads and commercials for Pampers throughout the 1970s and 1980s continued to powerfully build this brand message, emphasizing ways that the product would ensure the best possible care for babies. In this way, Pampers reiterated and reinforced the...