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“The emotional, sexual and psychological stereotyping of women begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl” – Shirley Chrisholm

As I’ve mentioned in my previous blogs I aim to critically examine the sexualisation of product and people in fast food advertisements in my dissertation. In order to gain perspective on the objectification of women it is important for me to first take into account the media portrayal of gender stereotypes.

Filmmakers, writers, advertisers and marketers have since long used the notion that men and women are different from one another – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – inevitably developing stories, generating controversies and providing persuasive imagery (Sheehan 2014). Gender roles in society have changed dramatically since the mid-20th century, but has the media been consistent with their portrayal of both the genders? Consequently media portrayals have a strong impact on forming stereotypes among the audience i.e. us. Stereotypes are often formed by the continuous, extended exposure of consumers to patterns of imagery (Sheehan 2014). They represent opinions among members of a certain group about the other group and are usually conceptualised during socialisation. For example men discussing how women love to shop in order to feel good; or showing that all Asians are good at math; or that every woman’s primary goal in life is to find her prince charming – that’s right Disney I’m looking at you.

Unfortunately they are also often based on apparent tradition and hence resistant to change. “Because of many simplifications and generalisations that they produce, stereotypes present incomplete, subjective and sometimes false image of the reality” (Wolska 2011) and more often than not leave a negative undertone. As I mentioned earlier division of gender roles is profound in social archetypes and advertisers continue to use gender stereotypes in order to reach a larger audience. McLuhan (1964) stated that mass media affects people’s lives by shaping their opinions, attitudes and beliefs. I personally do not believe in the term ‘mass media’ though I do agree with McLuhan’s statement. Media does have the ability to control social life by invisibly transferring the dominant hegemonic ideology (Wolska 2011). Media can construct reality which may be consistent with the beliefs of the dominant group, thereby distorting the reflection of the real world. I would like to believe that people are aware of the unequal representation of certain social groups, and for an unknown reason, are unable to remain objective.

Traditionally a woman’s role in the advertising world was stereotyped as the housewife – overly excited about a new vacuum cleaner and utterly confused about dinner ideas (E.g. Tide advertisement) Today that role has moved on to smaller subsets as I’ve discussed previously – the midriff, the vengeful woman and the hot lesbian i.e. they are either sexualised for their bodies (E.g. Budweiser advertisement), shown as highly-assertive strict beings or seductive homosexuals. This new portrayal of women in media is now coined as empowerment i.e. advertisers try and deny stereotyping based on these new roles. But in a way these are just stereotypes of a new era. If this really were empowerment than women across the world would not be subjective to being treated as the secondary gender still.

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To be fair male stereotyping has also diversified. The first kind is the athletic, successful man with the beautiful woman by his side, usually promoting his watch, deodorant or other such materials. The second kind is the hard-working husband unable to find the right insurance scheme (or something of the nature) for the well-being of his family (E.g. Cold Power advertisement). Another common stereotype is the satirical image of the man who’s devoted his life to helping woman around the world find the right detergent. These ideas, though diversified, still continue to follow suit into their stereotypes and have a very common pattern. Men are portrayed as the heroes, or saviors of the day. For how else will housewives ever get their clothes sparkling white if it weren’t for Mr. Muscle! (no disrespect to the brand, of course).

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Another unfortunate stereotype in advertisements is the depiction of beauty. The idea of beauty evolves around slim body types and that is the reason why most advertisements tend to depict women as slender and spotless, and men as athletic. Very closely associated with the depiction of beauty is the decorative portrayal. In advertisements people are either actively involved with the product or passively decorating the advertisement. Decorative portrayals usually show the person in the advertisement as passive and disengaged, as opposed to active (E.g. Tiffany advertisement). Sheehan (2014) argues that many advertisements usually feature beautiful men and women as decorations i.e. presented visually without a speaking role. Also, many decorative depictions of women tend to portray them in sexual or alluring positions.

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The portrayal of women as merely sexual or decorative beings can be seen as a indication that women are not as authoritative or powerful as men. Goffman (1979) also states that women are usually portrayed shorter in height as opposed to men who are taller, thereby putting them in a position of authority, power and rank. In fact even body language is mended in such a way that men usually appear to be dominant over the product as opposed to women who are generally shown submissive towards the said product.

Despite the overbearing stereotypes there have been advertisements that refuse to use the non-schematic ideas of the promotion of products and services. In such advertisements women are illustrated as strong, independent and liberated whereas men are shown taking care of children or doing household chores. Although it is a step towards breaking the stereotype, it would be good to see advertisements where men and women are shown are equals. Instead of merely interchanging the gender roles of men and women why not portray them side by side? (E.g. Hilton Garden Inn advertisement)

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References:

  • Goffman, E. (1979) Gender Advertisements. New York: Harper Torchbooks
  • McLuhan, M. (1964) The Medium is the Message. New York: Signet
  • Sheehan, K.B. (2014) Controversies in Contemporary Advertising. Oregon: Sage Publishing

 

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