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This Is How An Iconic 1980s Ad Doomed Women

Why are women still primarily responsible for the unpaid labor of parenting and domestic work? As women struggled under the pressures of the Covid pandemic, this enduring question percolated everywhere — newspapers, my group texts, my brain. No one can do it all, and yet women feel pressure to accomplish the impossible. Why?

There’s no one answer to that question. But the story of how the “do it all” pressure was applied at the exact moment when women were trying to break free from it can be found in a surprising place: an iconic 80s perfume ad.   

Imagine it’s 1976. Women’s participation in the workforce has leapt from 29.6 to 40.5 percent. Yet advertisers are still pushing midcentury images of women as housewives or sexual objects. From Love’s Baby Soft’s creepy sexualization of girls, to airline stewardesses beckoning consumers to “Fly Me”, to a shoe ad telling men to “keep her where she belongs” naked and on the floor, Madison Avenue clearly missed the Betty Friedan memo.

But some advertisers notice which way the wind is blowing, and also where the dollars are flowing as more women work and can even control their own finances. These savvy Mad Men sense an opening. Enter Charlie Girl.

Wow! Did you see her?

Charlie Girl is different from anyone we’ve seen before. She’s confident, stylish, and she isn’t pretending to be a subservient wife or sex kitten. The girl I’m talking about – it’s still cool to call grown women “girls” – is in a Rolls Royce, which she drives all by herself. She pulls up to a hotel, gets out of the car and, hold onto your hats folks, she’s wearing pants! I mean, she’s wearing a cream, shimmery satin pantsuit, but still. Pants are a power symbol, an item of clothing which once got women arrested, and even though pants are legal for all genders in 1976, for a perfume ad to feature a woman wearing pants is something.

Did you hold onto your hats? Charlie Girl doesn’t. She tosses hers to a smiling doorman and strides into the hotel bar. Just about everyone else is male, because we’re still taking baby steps towards the day when women regularly enter upscale establishments alone. But Charlie Girl isn’t phased. She’s breezy like that.

Charlie Girl meets a date, but we barely see his face. Sorry Charlie Boy. We don’t care about your male gaze, and Bobby Short is featured much more prominently, singing lyrics like, Kinda young, kinda now, Charlie! Kinda free, kinda wow! Charlie! But the important thing here is that the woman’s fabulousness isn’t attached to her companion. She’s completely independent. It’s 1976 and the potential for Charlie Girl is infinite.

“This became the best-selling fragrance in the world within, like, two weeks,” Shelley Hack said.

Sorry – I should have mentioned that model-actress Shelley Hack played Charlie Girl. I can’t confirm Shelley’s timeline but Charlie was a bestselling fragrance, the ad campaign was a huge success, and Revlon has been credited with creating the first “lifestyle” perfume product. It’s fair to say that Charlie Girl resonated. And by resonated, I mean that it inspired Oprah Winfrey.

“I wanted to stride like her with confidence,” Oprah said. “I wanted to be this fabulous.”

Though I was a child, I remember Charlie Girl’s dazzling otherness. As previously mentioned, 1970s advertising hadn’t evolved much since the housewife-worshipping 1950s, which is astonishing because Charlie Girl was obviously compelling. Why weren’t all advertisers jumping on the women’s lib train, creating “independent woman” images to market their brands? Why aren’t there thousands of women today with Oprah-level success talking about their own Charlie Girl influences?

I can’t prove this empirically, but I’m pretty sure the answer is another perfume ad.

Fast forward. Imagine now that it’s 1980. A nine-year-old switches on her television because it’s time for Little House on the PrairieA commercial comes on the screen and – boom! – it’s Shelley Hack! The girl loves Shelley Hack, because everyone wanted to be Charlie Girl.

Shelley isn’t wearing a pantsuit anymore, though, but a slinky gown. Her mouth open, her head thrown back, she’s spraying her long neck with perfume.“Cuz I’m a Woman,” purrs a female singer, “Enjoli.”

Before you know it, Shelley is dressed in a periwinkle blouse. Hot and exhausted, she blows a wisp of hair off her forehead while peeling back her collar so she can spray herself with more perfume, an act which releases all her anxiety. Then, in a third outfit, flirty and raising her sculpted eyebrows, Shelley sprays the viewer with a mist of perfume. And that’s just the first three seconds of the ad.

Now that you, viewer, have been Enjolied, Shelley shows you what’s on the other side. It’s money. Dressed in a taupe business suit, Shelley clutches a fistful of cash, because she’s making money. As the numbers attest, that’s what a growing number of women were doing in the 1980s. It was all the rage.

While Shelley Hack flaunts the big bucks she’s earned, the singer, whose voice sounds like Peggy Lee, continues, “I can bring home the bacon.” Back in her periwinkle blouse, Shelley waves a frying pan. The singer goes on, “Fry it up in a pan”.

This is the most iconic moment of the ad, and the frying pan lies at the heart of the message women were meant to absorb. More women were entering the workforce but this didn’t mean they should give up their domestic responsibilities. They could manage everything, just like Shelley Hack.

Shelley winks, raises the frying pan like a trophy and then she’s in her evening gown again. The frying pan is gone. She points her finger towards the screen, or, as the lyrics are about to imply, towards her man, and struts towards the camera. The singer finishes, “And never let you forget you’re a man.”

Phew. Is everyone ok? We’re 11 seconds into this commercial and it’s just gotten very hot. “Give her Enjoli, the 8-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman,” says a male narrator.

At 16 seconds, Shelley is back in her business suit. “I can work till 5 o’clock,” chirps the singer while Shelley tosses a leather briefcase aside. Her wage-earning work day is done, it seems, so she’s back in her blouse to do some domestic chores. 18 seconds into the ad, that chore is being a mother. A story book appears in Shelley’s hands, and the singer expounds, “Come home and read you Tickety Tock.” There. That comprises the mothering portion of the ad. Mothering is so easy, amirite?

In 2022, American parents dealing with the pandemic reported being under tremendous stress. This isn’t an anomaly, but an exaggeration of how they generally struggle in a society which places so little value on parenting that it has no paid parental leave and few pro-family policies. Yet Shelley Hack isn’t stressed. She’s smiling and grooving while reading Tickety Tock. And now we meet another character in this happy story. Off-camera, a man speaks with a knowing voice, a tone that implies it’s about get something good. A smarmy voice, you might say.

“Tonight Igonna cook for the kids,” he says.

It’s Dad! The mystery man is Dad. And it’s clear that this is an exceptional offer, that every other night, Shelley Hack cooks dinner whilst her Enjoli aroma interacts with the smell of pasta boiling, of croquettes frying, of meatloaf congealing. Tonight, however, Dad has deigned to take the burden of dinner preparation off the shoulders of his wife.

I see that you’re all giving Dad a standing ovation, because fathers are typically praised for doing mundane parental tasks. Rest assured, Dad lovers, that he’ll be rewarded, because Shelley Hack is smirking suggestively. In case there was any doubt, she’s back in her evening gown, strutting towards the camera, while the singer croons, “and if it’s lovin’ you want I can kiss you and give you the shiverin’ fits.”

That’s right. After a full day at the office followed by unpaid parenting work, Shelley Hack isn’t fatigued or depleted or even braless in pajamas with a bag of comfort potato chips. She feels sexy and the lyrics leave no doubt that she’s totally ready for sexy sex.

In fact, Shelley is so sultry, that she seduces the viewer into believing the impossible, that women can have it all – money, marriage, children and hot sex. The whole quadfecta was ours for the taking, but with a time-sucking caveat. We still had to carry the burden of unpaid labor.

Obviously, no one should blame Shelley Hack for the delusions of the patriarchy. The unfeasibility of this proposition triggered a protest of sorts. The above CDC chart traces divorce rates from 1940 to 1980. Notice the second spike, just before the mid-1960s, when women started entering the workforce in greater numbers. Yet they were still expected to do all the unpaid jobs they once did before this wave of feminism began. It did not work out well for many marriages.

Back to the Enjoli ad which is… well, it’s finally over. When we last left Shelley Hack, she was ready for sexy sex, and that’s the happy ending of this commercial. No divorces here! All we’re left with is a memory of a frying pan, the knowledge that women can earn money and do unpaid labor and still have energy for sex, and the catchy jingle. Come to think of it, the song sounded familiar.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote Im a Woman in 1962. The original song extolled the unpaid work of woman, acknowledging how enormous was her task. The woman in the song washes socks, irons shirts, repurposes lard drippings and does her shopping before the lard melts. She scrubs the house, feeds the baby, greases the car and powders her face at the same time, and then goes out dancing until 4am.

But wait. There’s more. The woman in the song cares for sick family members, feeds them grits, makes dresses out of feed bags and yes, she gives her man the “shiverin’ fits”. You were probably wondering how a 1980 perfume ad came to use that particular euphemism for orgasm.

So you see, Leiber and Stoller do celebrate the enormous workload of woman, but never do they imagine that on top of everything else she does, she also holds down a 9 to 5. Because that would have been crazy.

Funnily enough, even the Mad Men seemed to understand it was nuts to add a paid job into the mix without rebalancing the labor allocation in the home. Three years before the frying pan dance that embedded itself into the collective consciousness of my generation, they produced an earlier version of the ad. But Shelley Hack’s “chore blouse” doesn’t make an appearance. Instead, she wears a much less glamorous bathrobe to do the unpaid labor. Her chores are more realistic – putting the wash on the line and feeding the kids. A second Shelley Hack appears in a business suit beside the robed one, and then a third dressed in a lavender evening gown joins them. In this version, Enjoli Woman is breaking apart in front of our eyes.

The image of three Shelley Hacks next to each other, redolent of a breakdown, was gone by 1980, as was her bathrobe. But the ad’s slogan couldn’t hide the truth. Enjoli is “the 8-hour-perfume for the 24-hour-woman”. With everything else she has to do, sleep is a luxury Enjoli Woman can’t afford. Unlike a bottle of perfume.

Gen X women my age, and younger, were conditioned to believe that we’re chiefly responsible for domestic housework and child rearing. The workforce may have opened to a larger number of women, but we remained in charge of home and family. The Enjoli ad was addressing a real problem. Women’s unpaid labor is essential to society’s ability to function, and economies would fall apart if women stopped doing it. So Enjoli made doing it look good.

And, in doing so, Enjoli sidelined Charlie Girl — fabulous as she was — into irrelevance. Charlie Girl wasn’t “wife material,” which, according to the Enjoli ethos, was the best thing to be. The Enjoli campaign and similar media messaging created a superwoman who could have everything – career, relationship, children, and hot sex. And the gender revolution stalled – and is regressing – in part because women are still doing that dance, manically, exhausted, impossibly, day after day after day, with a frying pan. We’re still trying to lean out of the belief our world presses upon us: that doing it all is the way to “have it all.”

Devorah Blachor is writing a book about the endurance of “wife culture”. She’s the author of  The Feminist’s Guide To Raising A Little Princess. Her writing and humor have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among others.  

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