Images of Women in Ads Are Worse Than Ever: Jean Kilbourne Tells Us Why

DENVER/BOSTON VIA PHONE: Sexist advertisements in the 1970s were rampant. Advertisements like a Weyenberg Massagic shoe ad that was published in Playboy and later reprinted in Ms. magazine’s No Comment section in 1974 were controversial but not uncommon. In the ad, a naked woman’s torso is shown, her arm covering her breasts while she lies across the floor. She faces the camera but stares longingly at a shoe placed just in front of her. The tagline–“Keep her where she belongs”– has so many disturbing innuendos that it’s hard to know where to begin critiquing the image. Sadly, that ad isn’t all that different from what Ms. magazine reprints today in the No Comment section. One difference, however, for the worse is that in addition to sexist images and taglines, we now see disturbingly thin, obviously photoshopped women’s bodies. The bodies are so unrealistic that no matter how hard women try they could never look like the image in the ad. And women spend a lot of money and time trying—body image is big business. ($426 billion was spent in 2011 on health and beauty products globally according to Yahoo! News using data from the research firm The Beauty Company). Upset by what she was seeing more than 40 years ago, Boston-based filmmaker, author and lecturer Jean Kilbourne began clipping ads and putting them on her refrigerator. She eventually turned those clips into a slide show and talk about negative images of women in advertising and how those negative images impact society. That talk led to a film and to a career in educating the public about sexism in advertising and media. A pioneer in her field, Ms. Kilbourne has spent most of her life raising awareness and inciting change in the way women and girls are represented through images. A lecturer at colleges and universities in the States and in Canada, The New York Times Magazine dubbed her one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses. She recently spoke with Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp over the phone about her work and why images of women in ads today are worse than ever. EXCERPTS:

Jean Kilbourne

Kirsch Feldkamp: You have been working for many years on deconstructing gender images in media. What instigated this?

Kilbourne: I was the first person to start looking at the image of women in advertising, which I started in the late 1960s. There were many different things that led to my interest. I was involved in the second wave of feminism, so I was interested in stereotypes and I also had some modeling experience, which was fairly dehumanizing but illuminating. It left me with a lot of interest in the whole idea of the power of the image. So I started collecting ads and I put together a slide presentation and eventually turned it into my first film “Killing Us Softly” about advertising and women. It’s now in its fourth version.

In your books and talks, you’ve mentioned that many people believe that they are immune to advertising. Can you explain why that’s not true and the impact media has on culture?
First of all, just about everyone feels personally exempt from the influence of advertising. That’s what I hear more than anything else. But it’s virtually impossible to be immune to it because advertising is meant to affect us on a primarily subconscious level and emotionally. There’s no way to tune it all out. We don’t pay conscious attention to most of the ads that we see, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t influence us. We’re exposed to about 3,000 ads every single day [that’s the average for Americans]. In the U.S. it’s about a $200 billion industry. They’re spending a huge amount of money and obviously they wouldn’t be doing that if they thought we were all just tuning that out.

What changes have you seen, positive and negative, over the years in media images of women?
Mostly they’re pretty negative. A lot of the things I started talking about 40 years ago, the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty for example, are worse than ever because of photoshop. People photoshop their own images. The competition and plausibility of it all is even worse than it was before. The sexualization of children is worse than it was before. The images of violence against women. The obsession with thinness. In addition to which there’s just more advertising than there ever was before, especially with social media. And it’s more sophisticated than ever. The one way that things are better is that when I started talking about this 40 years ago, I was alone and people thought that my ideas were radical and all of that. But now those radical ideas are quite mainstream.

It’s curious to me that images haven’t changed for the better.
We don’t have a critical mass of people who care about it yet and it’s one of those things that even if you are educated about it, it’s impossible not to be influenced by it. I’ve been studying this for 40 years and I’m influenced by it. I’ve always been aware that this is coming but what happens to women as they grow older is horrifying in the culture. So that’s another factor. And you know I started talking about that when I was young and beautiful. It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long time but nothing fully prepares you for the shock of the invisibility. Older women are invisible in the world of advertising and in the popular culture in general [whereas] that isn’t true for men. We see lots of older men with wrinkles and they’re considered sexy and desirable.

Are social media and pornography online a root cause or do they amplify sexualization?
It amplifies it. Women have been sexualized and objectified long before the internet. What happens [is] that most American children learn about sex from porn online, which is pretty awful because most porn online is misogynistic and brutal. That just wasn’t the case 20 or 30 years ago. You had to go someplace like an adult bookstore, but now porn is inescapable and as a result it’s become mainstream, cool and edgy and very young children have access to it.

What can we do as individuals to combat objectification and sexualization in media?
With our own children the most important thing is to talk to them and help them be media literate. Raise these issues and talk to them about sex and their bodies very early on in age appropriate ways using the right terminology. It’s also important for us to lobby for media literacy and good accurate sex education to be taught in our schools.

by Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp

Image Credit: First photo courtesy of Jean Kilbourne, second Shutterstock.


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