Tag Archives: The Sexual Contract

The Best Part of Waking Up…Is Your Complete Lack of Agency in Your Cup

26 Apr

Image of a 1963 Folgers coffee tote from flickr user Roadsidepictures

I watch a ridiculous amount of television, and I think it’s fun to make connections between all of stuff I consume and theory I’ve read (I sometimes do it out loud while I’m watching, which everyone else in the room loves). Sometimes, the connections make sense and other times, they’re tenuous at best. This post may be one of those “other times,” so I’m going to ask you to  be generous with me.

There is this Folgers coffee commercial which drives me absolutely crazy (WordPress wouldn’t let me embed it, but here’s the link). The first time I watched it, I was stunned by the old-school sexism of the ad, given that these days, companies at least try to dress up their patriarchy in girl power or ironic dude-broism.

But not Folgers coffee! They’re keeping it real old school, taking it back to those days when women had no agency whatsoever and were totally psyched about it!

The spot opens with a mid to late-twenties looking woman walking into the kitchen in the morning. Her dad is already in there making coffee and he greets her with, “got in pretty late last night, huh?” The woman retorts, “Dad, I’m not sixteen anymore,” but he’s not budging, and says “still, it was late.” Your basic  father-daughter banter, although it’s a little strange that a woman who is that old still has her evenings policed like that. But hey, you wanna live in Jesse Helms’ house rent-free because you lost your job during the recession, you will live by Jesse Helms’ rules!

The next part is so creepily  Helmsian (if that’s not already a thing, I just made it one) when it comes to women’s agency it’s not even funny.  The woman says, “well, you won’t have to worry about that anymore,” (“that” being her staying out late) and then flashes her brand new engagement ring. She almost seems to say, “See, my husband will be the one monitoring my behavior from now on!”

Naturally, the dad is sweet and happy, and says “Todd is a lucky man,” before adding, “that’s what I told him last week.” Oh, so he knew about it well in advance, and gave his permission! Tricky dad!

Which brings me to my strained connection of this nonsense to actual theory. In The Sexual Contract, Carole Pateman’s amazing book on personhood, patriarchy, and the social contract, she writes about the invisible sexual contract which serves as the foundation for the social contract on which Western societies are built. To simplify it (a lot), the sexual contract predates the social contract, and sets up the ownership of women by men. Pateman’s book was largely a critique of how this other contract has been left out of narratives of the social contract, which is particularly egregious since the ownership of women is what makes the social contract possible. She argues that once women were subjugated under the sexual contract, the ideas of equally free men which are present in the social contract became possible, since all men were indeed equal in their right to access to women’s bodies and labor.

To me, the Folger’s ad perfectly captures women’s lack of personhood and agency under the  social contract  (that was a fun line to type).  According to this ad, it is only right that male authority dominate every aspect of a woman’s life. Want to spend an evening away from home? Well okay, but just know that Daddy is going to be on your case about coming back at an unreasonable time, even if you are above 25 like the woman in the ad appears to be. And apparently, the only time it’s acceptable to stay out late is when you’re with your future husband/owner, who will soon be policing your every move with equal intensity (one wonders what the dad’s  reaction would have been if he hadn’t actually known in advance what his daughter spent the night doing).

Pateman wrote that, “individually, each man receives a major part of his patriarchal inheritance through the marriage contract.” The ad does a great job of illustrating how fraternal patriarchy and inheritance work. Recognizing that as men, only they hold true personhood, the dad and Todd the fiance essentially create a marriage contract in which the ownership of the daughter is transferred from the dad to Todd (via the practice of asking for the hand in marriage). The fact that this all happens without the  daughter’s knowledge is essential, as only actual people can enter into contracts.  As a woman, she lacks personhood, and can thus only be the object of the contract. So there was no need for her to be present when they discussed her impending marriage.

Thus, as Folgers demonstrates, under the marriage contract any sense of actual agency a woman may have will largely be fictional. When you make the one decision (i.e. deciding to marry someone) that in your mind, clearly makes you an adult–guess what– it was already decided for you!  Your dad and your fiance hammered out the details to this new acquisition ahead of time, so you needn’t worry about the complicated details like what you want out of life and who you want to spend it with.

In all, this  ad is simply icky in its resounding endorsement of rituals which effectively dehumanize women. But I suppose what makes this especially disconcerting is that even though they are rooted in the perception that women are essentially possessions, the rituals  represented in this ad are an integral part of our culture.   I felt a bit churlish at the end of writing this, because I realized that it might sound really judgmental given that most people do these things, and they don’t perceive themselves as participating in the enslavement of women. And reading this blog post by this woman definitely heightened the feelings of douchiness. But at the same time, it’s difficult (for me anyway) to deny that elements of ownership are, if not the defining characteristics of heterosexual marriage, at least a big part of it.  That makes me very uncomfortable. And if marriage is something that I want in some distant future,  I’ll be forced to grapple with all these issues at that time.  So I’m getting a head start.