Sexism in Advertising Media Essay

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Sexism and the Media

There are numerous examples of sexism in advertising: from Britney Spears’ advertisements for her perfume Curious, in which she strips down to her underwear for the camera, to Victoria’s Secret’s models like Chrissy Teigen undergoing both plastic surgery and photoshopping (because stripping down to her underwear doesn’t do enough to convey the right body image) for the company’s lingerie ads, women are routinely objectified for the “male gaze,” as Laura Mulvey put it (Turow, 2009, p. 195). While sexism can take many forms—such as the stereotype of women as homemakers ever ready to please their husbands that was promoted in mid-20th century advertisements—in advertising today, sexism is most readily displayed by way of objectification, as seen in Go Daddy ads, Victoria’s Secrtet ads, beer commercials, and so on, where women’s bodies are like commodities.

Feminism challenged the notion of this objectification of women for a time, but in the post-feminist culture of today, sex has bombarded media and women appear more objectified than ever—and willingly so. Women in the media appear to celebrate their sexuality in a way that would have been frowned upon in the Feminist era as a kowtowing to sexism by men (i.e., women acting like nothing more than eye candy for the male gaze). However, as Rosalind Gill (2015) points out, the concept of sex has shifted in the post-feminist era. Likewise, in her essay on empowerment and sexism, Gill (2008) argues that rather than women feeling ashamed of subjecting themselves to the male gaze, they seek to use their sexuality to dominate in today’s culture. Gill asserts that what defines the post-feminist model is the shift from objectification to subjectification (in other words, the woman is not thought of as the object of the male gaze but rather the male has become the subject of the female’s desire to dominate sexually): “today women are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their (implicitly ‘liberated’) interests to do so” (Gill, 2008, p. 45). This paper will view how sex is used in advertising to show why this type of media is inherently sexist in spite of the post-feminist perspective that appears to justify or validate sexually explicit use of the female form to sell product in today’s culture.

Advertising today projects and perpetuates a false set of values with respect to women, femininity, and womanhood, as Kilbourne (2010) shows in Killing Us Softly 4. Advertisers use tricks, like camera framing, lighting, make up, costuming, post-production cleanup (editing), and photo-shopping to make women appear in an idealized form that will appeal to both men and women. The Victoria’s Secret ad that ran during the Super Bowl, in which Adrianna Lima twirls a football between her legs in order to get viewers to want to buy the company’s lingerie, uses all the tricks of marketing to give men and women the idea that owning this brand of underwear will make one into a kind of sexualized goddess. Likewise, in many ads there on television, women are depicted as controlling and jealous for comedic effect while men are shown having to put up with all the foibles of the female sex for laughs. Women are either portrayed as sexualized images or as burdens that are tolerated for some reason by the superior male sex. Budweiser, Geico, State Farm, Doritos, Go Daddy, and many other companies have used women in these ways to sell their products.
While women have always seemed to be the brunt of male jokes in advertising (the old Schlitz beer ads show a woman burning dinner at the stove and the husband saying joking, “Don’t worry, darling! You didn’t burn the beer!”), today’s ads have turned more and more towards sexualizing women to an unrealistic degree.

Feona Attwood (2014) explains the new perspective on female sexuality in the media by saying, “Where once sexualized representations of women in the media presented them as the passive, mute objects of an assumed male gaze, today women are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their liberated interests to do so” (p. 100). In other words, women have become complicit in the crime of sexism and in their own exploitation. Post-feminist theory argues that women are not applying their sexuality to the trade of commerce in order to line the pockets of advertisers, but rather they are doing it to line their own pockets—and essentially they are saying that if you cannot beat them (and the Feminists have certainly tried for decades to do so) then join them. The post-feminist culture celebrates when females show their forms and call it empowering—though nothing has really changed in the equation other than that these women are supposedly being well-compensated for their complicity while being praised for their liberation. One must wonder, however, exactly what they have been liberated from: they are still subjecting themselves to the male gaze (even if they are acting like that it is a game they are playing in order to dominate sexually). They are still defining themselves as objects of lust (even if their aim is to use lust as a form of control). They are still putting themselves into the hands of advertisers who have known since the time of Bernays in the first half of the 20th century how to use female sexuality as a means to manipulate the consuming consciousness. Sex sells even still today just as it did a century ago. The fact that women now view the selling of their sex as empowering (whereas they used to view it as exploitative) just because now they want to do it and they want to do it precisely for control does not really justify it in the least if one is going to judge the matter from any traditional standpoint or even from a feminist standpoint. Only from the perspective of post-feminism does this type of behavior because laudatory and only then because the moral justification for it is based solely on the notion that whatever the woman wants is good, because her will is what matters most. If she wills herself to be a tool for advertising, that is her right and she should feel empowered to do so: such is the essence of post-feminism.

Post-feminism is embraced in today’s culture because the culture itself has changed. Sexual liberation has not led to the type of empowerment….....

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Attwood, F. (2014). Mainstreaming sex: The sexualization of western culture. IB Tauris.

Evans, A., & Riley, S. (2015). Technologies of sexiness: Sex, identity, and consumer
culture. Sexuality, Identity, and Society. UK: Oxford University Press.

Gill, R. (2008). Empowerment/sexism: Figuring female sexual agency in contemporary advertising. Feminism & Psychology, 18(1), 35-60.

Gill, R. (2015). Gender and the media. John Wiley & Sons.

Goffman, E. (1979). Gender advertisements. NY: Harper & Row.

Kearney, M. C. (Ed.). (2012). The gender and media reader. NY: Routledge.

Kilbourne, J. (2010). Killing Us Softly 4. Cambridge Documentary.

Turow, J. (2009). The advertising and consumer culture reader. NY: Routledge.

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