The purpose of this study is to explore how women are, and for years have been, depicted in various forms of art, how has it influenced the modern portrayal of a woman in the field
of advertising and finally, how does it affect today’s both men’s and women’s consciousness.
Gender inequality is still a real issue of today’s world; however societal norms have changed and evolved within the passage of time. Women in most Western countries have actual rights and more possibilities than they would have a hundred years ego. Yet still, on the most prosaic, everyday basis, the „traditional” roles of each gender stay more or less unchanged, which is very clear in the advertising industry, where a woman has two separate position choices. In the first scenario, she is responsible for the household: cleaning, cooking, giving birth and raising children, whereas men are the breadwinners. Therefore, in the advertisements of cleaning supplies, for instance, we see joyful housewives. The other way of depicting a woman is objectifying her, which means degrading her to the status of a mere object; simply making her the object of a man’s pleasure. In fashion advertisements women are, paradoxically, often barely dressed, showing more of a nude body than actual advertised clothes. They’re often juxtaposed with male partners in way that suggest man’s dominance. Even while advertising ”masculine” products, like beer or car tires, females, often half – naked, are an inherent element of the ad.
Besides the issue of sexual objectification the media, I have also noticed the ubiquitous idealization of depicted images. It certainly does influence consumers and my goal is to explore how exactly.
I’m going to mainly focus on advertisements of the fashion industry, as it is a business that is mostly associated with carnality, sensuality and vanity – terms connected both with objectification and idealization.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND – ART
Femininity is often associated with carnality and sensual qualities, and so have women always played an important role in all fields of art. Most of the time, however, they were not the artist themselves, just the objects depicted; objects of the male art. Muses, beautiful creatures, objects of desire – that’s what they were, but only on canvas. In real life, since the ancient times, women were being degraded, thought to be worse and weaker than men. It was also believed that being an artist is a highly absorbing occupation, definitely too absorbing for someone, who’s main role is to take care of the household and children. Even if women somehow made art, we have no knowledge of it, until the 17th century. The first female artist who became known under her real name was Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque era painter. But she was a lucky individual, who’s father was also an artist and accepted her choice. Other European women artists had to wait another hundreds of years to be allowed to go to art schools and to become recognized. Bearing all this in mind, it can be said that objectifying women is not something that appeared along the evolution of art and media – it was always present. Women’s bodies and beauty were celebrated and admired, but their skills and mental possibilities depreciated. Today’s female artists aren’t as discriminated, yet still their art is somehow degraded and it’s the male art that sells best. The 1989 Guerrilla Girls poster is probably one of the most famous manifesto’s against that conjuncture.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND – ADVERTISING
According to a dictionary definition, advertising is „the activity or profession of producing advertisements for commercial products or services.” But today’s advertising is not just about presenting and selling the product; it is about gaining the potential buyer’s attention, often relaying on their desires and needs, and creating a strong bond between the company and a client. It is
a huge business and an inherent part of our lives. Ads are everywhere – from small announcements in newspapers to big, bright popping banners on the Internet, and whether we like it or not, we are all, to some extent, influenced by them.
One may think that using provocative images, like nudity or passionate kisses, is a rather recent trend in advertising, whereas it appeared long before the 60s sexual revolution and even before women gained the right to vote. The advertising industry quickly discovered that what sells best (the issue of whether sex actually sells will be discussed later on) or at least attracts the viewers’ attention, is what stimulates our human basic instincts and that is sex. As believed by many, the first company to use sex in their advertisement to sell a product was Woodbury Soap Company. Obviously, the mentioned ad is nothing shocking for today’s viewers, but back in 1911 the image of an elegant young lady with exposed neck and arms, receiving sensual kisses from a man, along with a slogan „A skin you love to touch”, caused a little bit of a scandal and definitely lots of attention. It appeared to be a great success; the convention and a slogan were used by the company for another thirty years. But this bold idea of advertising actually appeared forty years earlier and it was introduced by the Pearl Tobacco company. Their 1871 poster presented a drawing of a naked women, with only her legs covered, along with the logo and that was it. Perhaps it did not cause as much of a scandal as the Woodbury’s commercial, because it resembled more of an art piece rather than an advertisement.
The tobacco industry was in general responsible for introducing sex to the advertising area. Many 19th century tobacco companies used to put trade cards in their packages of cigarettes, showing drawings of sparingly dressed women, which were then perceived as bold, as the everyday woman’s dress code was a whole lot different; legs and arms were never exposed.
II. OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN
THE MALE GAZE
The theory of the „male gaze” was first formulated by a feminist filmmaker and film theoretician, Laura Mulvey, in her 1975 essay „Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. The term is closely related to scopophilia, which basically means pleasure in looking. Based on psychoanalysis and Lacan’s mirror theory, the author presents the Hollywood’s patriarchal division and the widespread voyeurism, in which a woman herself is a „spectacle” and a man is „the bearer of the look”. The theory indicated that women in film have no significant roles; they’re rather a fulfillment for male protagonists and objects to be looked at, not only by other film characters, but also by the viewers. Film characters are often schematic, built in such way, so that it would be easy for the spectators to identify with them. By that means, the male public sees the main male characters in a narcissistic manner – as their own mirror reflection, and therefore the female characters become also their objects of desire and lovers. The filmmakers practically imposed that way of looking at the females. The scenes including women were (and still are) very often full of close – ups on various sensual body parts and shot one – dimensionally, to shorten the distance between the actress and the spectator and make it easier for him to fulfill his voyeuristic fantasies.
PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN AS SEX OBJECTS
The male gaze is one of the most significant roots of sexual objectification. By portraying women as sexual objects and disregarding their personalities, the classical Hollywood cinema gave silent assent for the next generations to do the same. Unfortunately, this tendency hasn’t disappeared. Quite the opposite, it seems to have intensified. Despite the passage of time, women’s role in the society haven’t changed much, which is very often visible not only in the film industry, but especially in advertising; a woman shouldn’t have a voice – she should have the perfect body and she should serve the men. Male dominance is common. Nudity is ubiquitous. As much as the half – naked models in a lingerie brand’s advertisement are justifiable, the same concept presented in a beer advertisement might seem ridiculous, though it has it’s financial advantages. First of all, such images draw most of the viewer’s attention immediately and that is the first step to sell the product. Secondly, presenting sex to the viewer, who’s currently unable to obtain it, triggers his desire. That desire and sex itself might later on be associated by him with a specific brand. However, many of today’s conscious and intelligent consumers are critical towards such methods. Hyper sexualization not only dehumanizes (predominantly) women, it is also overused, thus boring and undemanding.
The industry that significantly exposes women to being sexualized is unquestionably the fashion market. Paradoxically; semi – naked or completely nude models often „sell” us expensive, luxurious clothes and accessories. Furthermore, those women are often juxtaposed with fully dressed male partners. Such images automatically suggest the male dominance, while the pictured female is nothing more than the object of his sexual pleasure.
One of the most known fashion designers, who constantly uses the strategy of „sex sells” and often presented male – dominant hierarchy in his campaigns is Tom Ford. Although some of his infamous advertisements were banned, dozens of them reached wide public, causing scandals all around the world.
In one of them, we see an undressed woman, ironing a man’s pants, while he stands next to her, reading a newspaper. As only one of the two is naked, the viewer’s attention focuses on the one that’s fully exposed. This ad sends a strictly sexist message – not only does the woman serve the man, by preparing his clothes, she’s also naked and unworthy of his attention. This pattern continues through many other advertisements. The second example shows another couple and again, the woman seems to be the only undressed. Moreover, the model’s poses suggest that either won’t the woman let her partner go, though he seems to be trying to push her off, or it’s a BDSM reference and again, the female is simply an object for the male’s sexual fulfillment. The third poster is rather self explanatory – a naked woman with a bottle of perfume between her oiled breasts with a very straightforward caption: „For men”.
SEXUAL OBJECTIFICATION, VIOLENCE AND MENTAL ISSUES
There is no doubt that sexual objectification is a form of gender oppression. Moreover, it is also the basis of other harmful actions against women – from trivialization of their accomplishments to sexual violence and employment discrimination. How female characters are portrayed in the media negatively affects them in the real world and makes violence and discrimination against women seem less important and complex than it actually is.
Researchers at the Wesleyan University found that averagely almost 52% of magazine advertisements featuring women, portray them as sex objects. Images of objectified women are so widespread, that they’re easily accessible even for children, who are much more susceptible to the media influence than adults. It’s harmful not only for girls, but also for boys, who – seeing how are they portrayed in relation to girls – learn that it is a norm.
People tend to forget, or subconsciously consider a standard what they are being exposed to in the media. According to Joel Miller’s research, only five percent of women in the United States actually fit the current body type portrayed in today’s advertising. This results in discrimination followed by appearance, which more often occurs to women. Studies have shown that overweight girls and women, unlike men, are more likely to be exposed to difficulties in different stages of their life because of their appearance. For example, in comparison to average – weight or thin girls, overweight girls have smaller chances to get into college. Also in the workplace, discrimination and adverse work atmosphere, are more frequently reported by allegedly unattractive women. In general, women regarded as „unappealing” by their coworkers are defined in a more negative way than comparably unattractive men.
As a result of mass sexual objectification, women themselves adopt the spectator’s perspective and start perceiving their bodies as objects to be looked at, underestimating their skills and intellectual values. Not being able to obtain the desirable and expected by the society external image, women, besides being discriminated, are very likely to suffer from anxiety issues, shame or even depression.
Shame is an unpleasant feeling of humiliation caused by the awareness of wrong behavior and, sadly very often, also looks. This negative emotion occurs when people judge themselves in relation to a common, global, and often idealized standard and don’t fit in the range. Again, women are the ones more susceptible to a feeling of shame, due to the society’s and media’s expectation of their looks. What is almost constantly presented to us as an ideal, is a white, young and slim woman, whilst, according to some studies, only 1 in 40 000 fulfills the perfect model criteria. Yet still, even knowing this, women feel ashamed of their bodies. That might be justifiable, given the advantages of being considered attractive, both in personal life and professional career.
Anxiety is an another mental issue women struggle with in an objectifying society. Here two kinds of anxiety could be distinguished: one regarding appearance and the second in terms
of safety. Appearance anxiety could emerge even from very early received look – related comments. A woman knows she will be looked at. What she does not know is how will she be evaluated – and that creates the sense of insecurity. That anxiety, however, is not just about one’s vanity. It is strictly linked to the feeling of safety. It is wrong when a woman does not feel good about herself, only because she does not fit into the over – idealized so – called standard. It’s not good either, when she does not have to worry about her image, because then she still has something to be concerned about and that is her own safety. There is an, unfortunately very popular, but far from reality, opinion that some rape victims „asked for it”, meaning their appearance provoked the predator. This is not true, but, according to Timothy Beneke’s book „Men on rape”, some males see physically attractive women as personally threatening and therefore „deserving of retaliation”. Moreover, it was also proven that good – looking rape victims feel greater shame and blame theirselves for the assault more than the less appealing victims. All this proves that sexual objectification indeed is one of the key components of sexual violence.