Once we won our equal liberty to choose our personal “place” in the world, the male ego swiftly began to make sure that women would never forget their universal “purpose” in the world.
They say “a picture paints a thousand words.” Imagery has the power to elicit emotion and provoke thought. It can also be used to subconsciously persuade or manipulate. Imagery has also historically been used to disseminate propaganda such as the iconic “Rosie the Riveter;” an animated image of a strong-armed woman in a factory uniform intended to convey that it was acceptable to see women; the majority of the domestic work force during the war effort of WWII, as strong and capable. Images can also portray social behavioral norms like iconic Norman Rockwell paintings depicting ‘normal’ life in middle and working class America from the early to mid 20th century. Culturally, our social norms are reflected through imagery in our media; movies (entertainment mostly) and advertising (expressly to persuade).
Imagery in advertising works to convince, confirm or inform viewers about what they should want, think, identify with or accept as good for them. When advertisers use sexually implicit images to sell a product, it is reaffirming stereotypes that objectify women’s bodies and marginalize their humanity.
Exploiting sexuality to sell a product is, unfortunately, effective. The ‘sex kitten’ eating Doritos on T.V. prompts the man to buy the chips because he wants to “get the girl” in the ad, and the woman buys the chips because she wants to “be the girl” in the ad; “We’re a visually explicit culture that’s become comfortable with selling domain names and winter coats on the backs of pretty, naked people” (Thompson, 2011).
Using sex in advertising subliminally links our most primal motive of procreation to the impulse desire for that product/service. In other words, buy the product, get (feel) the sex.
Sell Sex; Buy Sexism
The problem with ‘selling sex’ is that it takes the elemental human drive to procreate (which requires dominant and pliant roles), and attaches it to everything in our lives from food to cars to clothing to cleaning products to insurance. The dominant/ pliant roles of our sex organs become the roles we identify with as represented subliminally by the products and services we need and use every day. By ascribing the yielding female sex organ to her overall nature and character (as subordinate), advertisers can use sexually explicit imagery to not only potently objectify women’s bodies, but also marginalize female humanity by transforming “actual women into [sexual] objects, devoid of individual will or subjectivity” (Benshoff and Griffin 238-256).
The female body, pliant in sex, becomes the objectified woman, subordinate in life.
Even while women have made stellar strides in education and work force parity since the blatantly sexist advertising of the 1950’s; “an era when women’s roles were confined to the corridor between the bedroom and the kitchen” (Thompson, 2011);
the ‘new sexism’ is simply explicitly sexist imagery without the explicitly sexist messaging. In the 21st century, the message of sexual servitude is “implied.”
“Having lost the argument that women are incompetent, American advertising has had to settle on the argument that women are [still] attractive” (Thompson, 2011). In other words the iconic domestic dependent ‘June Cleaver’ telling viewers something like, “Your husband will never complain about undercooked eggs again with this new and improved egg timer!” has been replaced with the sexually implicit ‘cleavage and stilettoes’ seductively and silently stepping out of a Lincoln Continental. I call this “objectified female imagery.” This more modern version of sexism has only fed new life into age old social constructs of female subordination, because “American women still develop a sense of self-worth based primarily on how they look, rather than how talented or intelligent they are” (Benshoff and Griffin 238-256).
Domestic dependent submissiveness has simply been replaced by sexual objectification; both are demeaning and subordinate positions of “service.”
What’s even more poignant is that some of worst offenders of this type of sexist advertising are ‘women on women.’ Women who appeared on a Phil Donahue Show “fashion segment,” un-apologetically defended their unusual preoccupation with ‘perfecting’ their hair, skin, eyes, clothing and bodies. Susan Bordo took note of their naiveté and that “putting on makeup, styling hair, and so forth are conceived of only as free play, fun, a matter of creative expression,” but in reality is, “also experienced by many women as ‘necessary’ before they show themselves to the world, even a quick trip to the corner mailbox.” Bordo expresses her concern that the true messages being sent by ‘fashion statements’ are merely “whimsical and politically neutral vicissitudes [that] supply endless amusement for women’s [apparent] eternally superficial values.” Bordo goes on to say in the context of the fashion and beauty industry, “the specific ideals that women are drawn to embody…are seen as arbitrary, without meaning [by society].”
In other words, obsession with fashion culturally indicates frivolous and superficial priorities.
Bordo’s trepidation with the multi-million dollar fashion and beauty industry is shared by Benshoff and Griffen who assert that this advertising strives to persuade women to “buy their [own] femininity;” be re-made into “some ideal form” as an “object of the male gaze (objectification).” This, alleges Benshoff and Griffen, actually convinces women “to be complicit in their own objectification.” A massive and still growing fashion and beauty industry in America may be evidence that many women have indeed “internalized the ideology that their self-worth is based upon their public image… that achieving total objectified desirability is the only thing that will give them happiness and fulfillment” and that, “this mythical ideal keeps patriarchal (male) domination in place” (Benshoff and Griffin 238-256). If women are buying sexism, then apparently sexist advertising is working.
Full disclosure: as a woman myself, I am frustrated that an industry has “hijacked” my God given sexuality for their profits! Can a woman in the 21st century fully express her innate sexuality without the implication that she is consenting to, even encouraging the sexist messages sent by the objectified female imagery in media advertising? And what of those who feed into the ‘cultural messages’ that are fabricated from objectified female imagery in the media; that a woman’s sexuality is by its very nature literally “there for the taking?”
Can a woman in the 21st century fully express her innate sexuality personally without the implication that she is “asking for it” publically? I fear that the answer to these questions today is “no.”
Sharon Marcus writes of the misleading dialogue used when legislating rape laws or hearing rape cases; “The rape script describes female bodies as vulnerable, violable, penetrable, and wounded.” A website called “Controltonight.com” ran an ad showing a young woman’s legs with her panties around her ankles lying on what looks like a bathroom floor. The ad reads, “2:19 a.m. She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t say NO.” The ad intends to warn against drinking and date rape, but the ‘message’ is that women’s bodies are simply up for grabs by anyone who may gain the advantage to take it – and that’s somehow a woman’s fault. Marcus purports, “the adherents of rape culture see female sexuality as a property which only men can truly own, which women often hoard, which can thus justifiably be wrested from us, which women themselves merely hold in trust for a lawful owner. Rape thus becomes the theft or violation of one man’s property rights by another.”
If women’s sexuality is not even seen in our law as our own rightful possession, it is no wonder it could be unabashedly exploited personally or commercially by whomever and however it serves to benefit.
Audrey Lorde writes of the uses and power of the ‘erotic’ – in this context, ones ‘passions;’ sexual or otherwise; “We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused and devalued within western society… the erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority.” So a woman’s capacity to “feel deeply” has been equated with weakness, and that “only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women truly be strong. But this strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power” (Lorde 188-192).
If we follow Lordes’ premise, then a woman’s capacity to feel her own sexuality is considered “suspect” and therefore only passably expressed within and through our patriarchal society’s consent and capacity to control it.
What came first, female objectification or female objectified imagery? The truth is not what you might think. While media imagery only began in the early 1900’s, female objectification is just one arm of female subordination that has stigmatized the male/female dynamic for thousands of years. However, in the 21st century human kind is capable of growing beyond our prejudices; capable of a much broader perspective of the male/female dynamic.
In the 21st century human kind is capable of recognizing our two species as ‘different in measure but equal in value.’
This is where the media continues to culturally perpetuate female objectification even as we are collectively capable of moving beyond it. Advertising media imagery is especially harmful because it is scrupulously knitted within the fabric of our consumer based culture. Every decade that passes, human kind becomes more familiar with women in leadership positions of authority in politics, more acceding to our dependability as an equal partner within the home, and more reliant on our equally competent skills in the work place and industry. While this reality of the male/female dynamic may smack of truth, the false postulation of our disparity and subordination continues to be culturally projected before us as sexually objectified minions of the patriarchal social construct.
Women’s sexuality; our very autonomy is reduced to a collective cultural commodity, and only valid through its collective cultural usefulness to the patriarchal bedroom, boardroom or billboard.
If sex is selling, it’s only selling women out.
Benshoff, Harry, and Sean Griffin. America On Film. 2nd. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Bordo, Susan. “Material Girl: The Effacements of Post Modern Culture.” Trans. Array
Theorizing Feminisms. N.Y., New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 385-404. Print.
Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Trans. Array Theorizing Feminisms.
N.Y., New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 188-192. Print.
Marcus, Sharon. “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention.”
Trans. Array Theorizing Feminism. N.Y., New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 369-
- Print. (Marcus, 369-381)
Thompson, Derek. “Are T.V. Ads Getting More Sexist?.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly
Group, 31 Oct 2011. Web. 16 Oct 2013. <theatlantic.com>.