An artist flips the script on sexist ads of yesteryear

Photo: YouTube/Plastik Magazine
Photo: YouTube/Plastik Magazine

Eli Rezkallah's genderbent photo series puts men in their place: women's.

Society has come a long way since the 1950s, when advertisers relied heavily on sexist tropes to sell everything from beer to cleaning products. Images of women eternally trapped in kitchens and kneeling slavishly alongside men may seem shocking now, but imagine if those gender stereotypes were flipped on their heads—husbands delighting over their new vacuum cleaners; a ketchup bottle so easy to open that even a man can do it. Absurd, right? 

That’s the concept behind artist Eli Rezkallah’s cheeky new series, "In a parallel universe," which juxtaposes real ads from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s with modern-day re-creations in which the gender roles are reversed. 

Rezkallah told Campaign US that the project was inspired last Thanksgiving while visiting family in New Jersey, when he overheard his uncles saying that women are best off in the kitchen, fulfilling their "womanly duties." 

"Although I know that not all men like my uncles think that way, I was surprised to learn that some still do, so I went on to imagine a parallel universe where roles are inverted and men are given a taste of their own sexist poison," Rezkallah said. 

It was from that snippet of overheard conversation that the series was born. And while anyone familiar with "Mad Men" is well aware of the toxic masculinity that pervaded the era, those days are not as bygone as some of us would like to believe. Don’t let the bobbed haircuts and white heels (with aprons!) fool you: The pictures may be vintage, but the attitude that inspired them is still alive and well in plenty of minds. 

"The moment I heard my uncles' conversation, it felt that their essence is still present in the folds of today's modern social fabric," said Rezkallah. "I thought that the only way to make people like them understand what is wrong is by communicating it visually by simply reversing the gender roles." 

The visuals are likely to provoke a range of reactions, generally falling somewhere on the spectrum between laughter and cringing. "We’re pushing leotards," reads one, the original version depicting a man’s hand pressed against a woman’s butt, to deeply uncomfortable effect.

Ditto the Chase & Sanborn ad, in which a man bends his wife over his knee and reels back his hand, preparing to punish her for failing to "store-test" the coffee. The ads are unthinkable to the modern eye, but inverted, they become perversely amusing: A perfectly manicured hand caressing a man’s bottom isn’t abuse; it’s humor...or is it? These are the questions that "In a parallel universe" leaves lingering on the mind.

Growing up in Lebanon, Rezkallah wrote on his website that he was "always surrounded by women who were constantly putting on a good face and deliberately turning a blind eye towards their country’s tense social-political situation." While much of his work as a fine-art photographer, video director and visual artist hews closely to that theme, "In a parallel universe" is meant as a witty nod to those who share Rezkallah’s feminist values.

As for his uncles and their ilk, Rezkallah wants them to see that the absurdity lies not within his series, but in their own retrograde views.

"I hope that people who are stuck in stereotypical gender roles imposed by patriarchal societies would be able to visually see the cracks in the limitation that those roles carry through this project."

GET YOUR CAMPAIGN DAILY FIX

The latest work, news, advice, comment and analysis, sent to you every day

register free