What a linguist does on Father’s Day: Humor, gender roles, and greeting cards

When I was younger, I bought my mother an electric can opener for Christmas one year. I thought, “hey, our old one broke, so this is a practical gift”. I had no ill intentions with it. I had saved some money from my job, so I bought her a gift I thought she could use; there’s nothing wrong with a practical gift, right? I remember she didn’t seem terribly thrilled with the gift when she opened it. I certainly had not expected her to leap out of her chair and dance around the room at the sight of a can opener, but I didn’t expect her to seem so let down by the gift.

The problem with my reasoning wasn’t that we didn’t need a new electric can opener (although I’ve come to realize that a good old-fashioned hand-held can opener is far superior). The problem was that in choosing my mother to be the recipient of the gift, I was reinforcing the idea that the kitchen and all of its duties were her domain. Both of my parents worked, and all of us (my mother, my father, my siblings, and I) contributed to work in the kitchen: both cooking and cleaning (though not necessarily equally). Nonetheless, the choice to give my mother the kitchen appliance suggests that I thought of my mother as the appropriate recipient as opposed to say my father or the entire family. I (like most people) had been socialized into the idea that she was the adult woman, and this was her domain.

Lisa Wade recently discussed how housework is gendered, which means that as a society we seem to have gender norms that relate to who should do it. Wade shows that even though this has changed to some extent, women still, not surprisingly, tend to do significantly more housework than men. It’s easy to fail to notice this in our day to day lives, especially as men do start to take on some responsibilities. We may have the illusion that the distribution is suddenly equal. However, I think our cultural practices of holiday gift-giving are an especially useful way of uncovering how we as a society really talk about these things, and no holidays better bring this to light than Father’s Day and Mother’s Day.

In order to examine gender roles around these holidays, I decided to look at Mother’s Day and Father’s Day greeting cards from one company: American Greetings. The company has printable cards that you can preview, and so I analyzed the different cards available for men and women and the way they portrayed the two genders.

The first thing I noticed was that the company has four categories of cards, but the order of the cards was different for the two genders. I assume the order is somehow intentional to try to bring the most popular cards to the top of the page where customers will be able to more readily find them.

Mother’s Day Order:

  1. New and Most Popular
  2. Heartfelt
  3. Cute
  4. Funny

Father’s Day Order:

  1. New and Most Popular
  2. Funny
  3. Heartfelt
  4. Cute

The biggest difference I see here is that the ordering seems to suggest that the way we express feelings in our relationships with our fathers (in contrast to our relationships with our mothers) is characterized more by humor and fun than the heartfelt or cute aspects that are apparently more popular in Mother’s Day cards (perhaps this is a recognition on our part of the way humorous Mother’s Day cards portray women, as I’ll show below). Given this disparity in apparent popularity, I decided to take a closer look at all of the cards in the funny category for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards.

The division in housework, I mentioned before is a major aspect of the humor in these cards and contributes to how they become recognizably either for men (fathers) or for women (mothers).

For mothers, this is brought forth by the portrayal of a woman who does not actually have a terribly relaxing day in front of her (despite it being Mother’s Day). One card illustrates this with the following:

FRONT:

It’s Mother’s Day!
Relax, take a long nap,
put your feet up,
and don’t worry about a thing!

INSIDE:

Ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha

Now THAT’S a funny card,
isn’t it?

Another card implies that the husband giving the card is actually unaware of how to do the housework that will have to be done in order for the wife to have a relaxing day (presumably because he doesn’t normally do it). The front of the card assures the wife that she can “just relax” and he’ll “take care of everything”. The inside of the card, however, reveals that this is not likely with the question: “Where is everything?”

This trope is taken to an extreme by one card that on the front appears to express concern and gratitude but, in the end, reveals the gendered nature of housework.

FRONT:

I hope you
know that
all of your
hard work
has not gone
unnoticed.

INSIDE:

I’ve been watching you
from the couch
during commercials.

Father’s day cards, on the other hand, present a household role for men that is quite different from women’s. Instead of the expectation that the day will not be relaxing, images of fathers lounging and of recliners are prevalent. One card presents pictures of recliners and tells the recipient “Ready. Set. Recline.” Continuing the trope of mothers doing everything in the house, one card intended to be given from a child to his/her father reassures the father that he will be able to “sit back and relax”, if he should need anything he should “just holler”. The inside of the card, however, reveals that the child will “go get Mom” to fulfill the requests.

In these cards, the father isn’t without responsibilities. These seem to pertain to two areas. The first concerns aspects of outdoor work like lawncare as revealed by this card picturing many lawn mowers. The second resides in being the possessor of the family’s wealth. This card makes this clear:

FRONT:

Happy Father’s Day
to my Dad
who’s got what it takes!

INSIDE:

from the kid who usually
takes what you’ve got!

Interestingly then men’s and women’s roles as represented in these cards seem to be quite different. The image of mothers in the cards is one of women who do everything around the house and never relax. The image of fathers in the cards is one of men who generally find plenty of time to relax despite the occasional need to mow the lawn and handle the family’s financial resources. Although the cards haven’t created these roles (that is American Greetings is not the singular source of our ideas about gender), the humor in them draws on our “common sense” ideologies about gender in a way that simply makes light of the unequal distribution of household tasks.

The question I am interested to hear from people about is: What would a card (for either Father’s Day or Mother’s Day) that challenged gender norms in a humorous way look like?

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Posted in Ideology and social change, Language and gender
2 comments on “What a linguist does on Father’s Day: Humor, gender roles, and greeting cards
  1. Daniel says:

    I’ve thought about this also for young children’s clothing. Being a parent has made me aware of how aggressively gendered every toy and article of clothing is. (“Daddy’s Princess,” “Mommy’s Little Slugger,” pink legos, etc., to say nothing of “Math is hard, let’s go shopping.”) I’d like to see shirts for boys that say “Mommy’s Prince” and shirts for girls that say “Field Hockey Star” — that is, they can still be gendered but in a slightly offbeat way.

  2. nsubtirelu says:

    Hey Daniel. Thanks for the response!

    I’m not sure if you saw this recent Huffington Post article on children’s clothing (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/aaron-gouveia/its-time-to-stop-treating-dads-like-idiots_b_3179351.html), but it pointed out how the clothing also gendered parents and child-rearing (as woman’s domain, something men can’t handle).

    I really find the “Math is hard, let’s go shopping” particularly disgusting — maybe we could flip it: Shopping is tedious, let’s do math.

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