The topic I aim to cover in my Dissertation is on The Sexualisation of Product and People in Fast Food Advertisements. To understand how women are portrayed in advertisements today from a postfeminist perspective I will mainly be drawing from Rosalind Gill’s article ‘Empowerment/ Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising’.
Advertisements have been an imperative and influential part of our lives for decades now. They sell much more than just products; they sell perceptions, images, concepts of success, love and sexuality, vogue and normalcy. They tell us who we are and what our ideal self should be. When we buy a cologne we’re trying to be the man who has hundreds of women running after him; when we buy a detergent we try and be the happy mother with the perfectly behaved family; when we buy a chocolate we’re trying to achieve the kind of chemistry the couple has in the advertisement; and so on. I believe it’s safe to say that advertisements do influence us. But as individuals what do we learn from advertising messages? To state so evidently – what we see are stereotypes. “Advertising creates a mythical, mostly white world in which people are rarely ugly, overweight, poor, struggling or disabled, either physically or mentally” (Kilbourne, n.d.).
In the 60’s and 70’s women were portrayed as passive, secondary beings who were in constant dire need of their male counterparts to give them a reason to live. At a time when political correctness wasn’t heard of, companies used everyday sexism to brighten up their brands (Bloom 2014). In fact such advertisements were the norm. But with the beginning of First Wave Feminism, ideologies began to change. The postfeminist woman wasn’t meek or submissive – rather she was strong and empowered. And thus began a change in the depiction of women in contemporary advertisements.
In her article Gill (2008) discusses the growing trend where companies promote products targeting women using a discourse of empowerment i.e. women are invited to purchase products as a sign of their power and independence. However contrary to the actual definition of the word, the empowerment portrayed is indifferent, to say the least. Gill (2008) further categorises this empowerment into three different sections: the midriff, the vengeful woman and the hot lesbian.
The Midriff: In definition the young, attractive, heterosexual woman who uses her sexuality as a form of power. This form of empowerment is a sentiment which is the key behind the midriff. Women are portrayed as independent, active individuals not seeking their worth through the male gaze but rather to please themselves. This pseudo empowerment has subsequently led to the commodification of physicality i.e. the objectification of women is “pleasurable and self chosen” (Gill 2008: 45) to the extent where they are treated as commodities by advertisers to feed the male gaze. Moreover, this form of empowerment has no considerations for women who are not young, attractive, heterosexual or white. It is only for those ‘fortunate’ enough to fit into the criteria – one that coincides with the classic male views of women.
The Vengeful Woman: This is where women are portrayed as powerful, headstrong and feisty. This form of empowerment is not drawn from traditional manmade values, although it is not progressive in terms of feminism either.The role of the dominant and submissive sex is simply interchanged and hence it is not a step towards feminism. Instead of creating equality between the sexes, it builds enmity and disorder. This violent portrayal of women also fabricates malignant behaviour between women amongst each other.
The Hot Lesbians: As opposed to the Midriff, this empowerment entirely focuses on homosexuality. It proves to be a rather attention grabbing method and does not depict any kind of actual empowerment for women. It basically portrays a homosexual relationship between women and tries to make it appealing to heterosexual men. Of course the key factor used here is the idea behind heterosexual male ideals of attractiveness. The only real empowerment in this portrayal of woman is the observation that female homosexual relationships exist.
All three such empowerments exist within a framework that is heteronormative in nature. “The midriff’s feisty, up-for-it sexuality is framed exclusively in relation to men; the target of female revenge adverts is always a male (ex) partner, and even the figure of the hot lesbian may” – as described above – “be read as a construction designed primarily for the heterosexual male gaze” (Gill 2008: 54). In fact advertisements have managed to amend a kind of female consciousness, commodify it, and offer it back to women “short of its political critique of gender relations and heteronormativity” (Gill 2008: 54). Though it apparently breaks the earlier norm of sexual objectification, it doesn’t necessarily follow the right path to feminism, or equality of the sexes. By sexualising a woman body, portraying her as a ball-buster or inducing homosexuality – she is still not treated as an equal or seen as the default.
Consequently many women around the world tend to embody these stereotypes and adapt their inhibitions. As Kilbourne (n.d.) explains, “by remaining unaware of the profound seriousness of the ubiquitous influence, the redundant message and the subliminal impact of advertisements, we ignore one of the most powerful educational forces in the culture”. Accepting such stereotypes and allowing them to form our subjectivity in terms of the cultural politics that surround us – that is the real tragedy.
- Arora, G. (2015) How Indian Advertisements Showed Empowered Women in 2015 is Pretty Ironic [online] available from <http://www.scoopwhoop.com/how-Indian-ads-showed-women-in-2015/ > [14 April 2015]
- Bloom, D. (2014) The Good Old Days: Horrendously Sexist Vintage Ads You Won’t Believe Were Ever Made [online] available from <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2617868/The-good-old-days-Horrendously-sexist-vintage-ads-wont-believe-made.html > [14 April 2016]
- Gill, R. (2008) ‘Empowerment/ Sexism:Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising’. Feminism and Psychology 18 (1), 35-60
- Kilbourne, J. (n.d.) Beauty and the Beast of Advertising [online] available from <http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/beautyand-beast-advertising#bio > [14 April 2016]