[Ed. note: this post is cross-posted from our partners at Powered By Girl.]

By Katherine Connolly

The setting is a Willy Wonka-esqe imaginative factory, straight out of a child’s fantasy. An adorable little boy, dressed up in his own little suit, runs his own candy factory, issuing orders and marching around like a grown-up. Two little girls in pencil skirts and blazers carrying check boards and notepads follow him around: secretaries. The little CEO introduces the newest Haribo candy as the theme tune plays: “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy, happy world of Haribo!”

The ad left me feeling disconcerted, but I couldn’t decide whether or not I was actually offended. The ‘aww’ factor, and distinct innocence of it all left me feeling guilty for criticizing it–why introduce unneeded cynicism to this ingenuous, ‘happy, happy’ world?

Sometimes, the lines between deliberate sexism, subconscious sexism, and unlucky coincidence are so fine as to be almost indiscernible, and explaining why something seems potentially sexist can be challenging. On the one hand, stereotypical gender roles in an ad aimed at children bothers me. Gender roles continue over time by being reinforced in children’s minds through methods of socialization such as media advertisements, and the image of women as secretaries to men’s CEOs is all too ingrained in our society already. On the other hand, I don’t think most people would claim that Haribo was deliberately sexist, or that they even thought about it. If the roles were reversed, with men working for a woman, it wouldn’t be considered sexist. If we really want to put sexism in the past–and I believe that we can all agree that we do–can we do that while still attacking every ad where a boy happens to be in a leadership position? It’s great for anyone–man or woman–to be a leader, but the trouble comes when we only see leaders in the world and the media as men.

This debate is one I have with myself frequently, but sometimes a more concrete example can help explicate the matter. Two years ago–my sophomore year–a local boys’ school was hosting a dance. The schoolboys spread the word that although the official theme was ‘club-wear’, the real theme was ‘hoes and CEOs’. When parents at the local all-girls school found out, the event erupted into a huge scandal. The source of anxiety for the teachers and parents of the girls involved was not really the horny teenage boys, though, or even the inadequacy of the administrative response, although both were certainly factors. What none of the adults could understand or accept, what turned ordinary (if objectionable) teenage male behavior in our society into a full-out scandal was that almost all of the (highly intelligent, intensely academic) teenage girls were perfectly happy to go along with it. Some girls saw the whole thing as silly. Some saw it as a chance to show off their bodies with little clothing on while checking out guys in suits–win-win. Most were in between, rolling their eyes but going along with the fun. Few openly objected.

So what’s the problem? Why can’t the theme be ‘hoes and CEOs’? Nobody was required to attend; dances are inherently sexual anyway; and, as I was told more than once, nobody said that the hoes had to be the girls and the CEOs the boys. Yet, all the parents agreed that it was sexist. Nobody pays for a private college-preparatory education for their daughter to end up as the ‘hoe’ to some boy in a darkened gym.

It comes down to sociology–there are basic social understandings ingrained in our society that determine our collective assessment of any given situation. When we use the phrase ‘hoes and CEOs,’ the social understanding in America is that the hoes are always girls, and that the CEOs are always boys. When we cast secretaries and a CEO for a lighthearted ad, we cast two girls as secretaries and a boy as the CEO. It may not be intentionally sexist, it may not be anything but a reflex and an assumption, but I find that reflex, that assumption, offensive in itself.

So how about you? Do you think that I’m reading too much into it? Do you think I’m not going far enough? Join the discussion on Facebook, or leave comments below!