Two ways a woman can get hurt

Today we had our last lecture in one of the first phd courses, and I held my last presentation, this time about my field of research: sexist advertising. I presented a chapter: Two ways a woman can get hurt: Advertising and Violence,  from Kilbourne’s book Deadly persuasion: Why women and girls must fight the addictive power of advertising (1999). Here, Kilbourne speaks about sex in advertising and how this is similar to pornography since it is more about dehumanizing, objectifying and disconnecting than it is about reality. Violence is encouraged in many ads, men are shown to be in power, dominant, to take control, heck, take whatever they want, while women are portrayed as never saying no, or at least, not meaning no when they say it. Women are encouraged by ads to be attracted to the hostile and indifferent men, often the ones that in real life would be absolutely dangerous. Violence is also trivialized, and rape is glorified. Kilbourne argues about the objectification being different for women and men: when women are objectified they are so in a cultural context where this objectification is constant, and where there are serious consequences, from economic discrimination to violence. For men, the consequences are not the same since their bodies are generally not routinely judged and invaded, they are not as likely to get harassed, raped or beaten by women, as women are by men. This is eloquently described and summed up:

“When power is unequal, when one group is oppressed and discriminated against as a group, when there is a context of systemic and historical oppression, stereotypes and prejudice have different weight and meaning.”

Now, that is not to say that the objectification of men is any better, all objectification is bad of course. It is always bad to objectify a person. However, it is important to understand that the objectification looks very different when it comes to women and men. After all, we are not equal in the eyes of the ads.

After my presentation we had a very long discussion that was both interesting, fruitful and extremely frustrating and upsetting. At one point, I was boiling, it came after one of my male colleagues said that it is in the nature of women to want to be looked at by men, and it is in the men’s nature to want to look at women. Nature. Nature? Needless to say, this really heated up the debate with him on one side and practically the rest of us on the other with arguments about the social construction of reality. About the fact that women are not born with an innate desire to be ogled by men, that it is not something in our blood, but rather in the way we are brought up, taught by society to want to look pretty, to want to be wanted. It is something that we daily must think about, decide about. It is about the constant male gaze that is surrounding us all. Quietly, subtly.

It is not in our nature. It is in our heads.

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The “Sex Sells” conundrum

Just read this interesting article with Jean Kilbourne, and as always, she continues to inspire me with hope. I know things are looking grim in this field, but it’s a matter of spreading awareness, of voicing your concerns, of saying No when you’ve had enough.

I think there is a paradox surrounding the world of sexist ads: they all seem to stick to the cliché that “sex sells”. However, there is no real way of knowing how true this is. Since advertisers sell “sex”, people buy “sex”. It’s as simple as that. And when they stop selling it, people will stop buying it. This is the conundrum, kind of like the egg and the hen; which came first? Which is the result of what? Just because A: people buy products with sexist ads, does not necessarily mean B: sexist ads increase product sales. I mean, I don’t really believe that people way-back-when started to riot on the streets and demand that the ads be sexier, rather, the ads became sexier, and the people adjusted, more or less, to this kind of imagery. Nevertheless, even the ads that do not use the “sex sells” argument manage to sell their products. How on earth they do that is beyond me, I mean really, no sexual imagery, no objectification, and people still buy things?! Wow.. (I am re-he-heeeally trying to underline my sarcasm here, hope it shows..). So, basically, there is no proof that ads using sex should sell more than those that don’t, however, they might well sell a whole lot nowadays, since this is the imagery we have gotten used to. BUT, just because you are used to something, does not mean it is good. It does not mean that it shouldn’t change. So instead of clinging to the “sex sells” argument, how about trying to prove it wrong instead?

I remember a couple of years ago I was watching television, the Swedish channel 6, when this ridiculously sexist commercial came on. It was about the fact that the channel was now going to show two films each Friday, and for that, they decided to cut in images of half naked women in between the clips of the movies that were airing. Their tagline was something like this: “Do you like double-sandwiches? How about this double-sandwich?” (Cut: half naked lady, clip from movie, half naked lady). Very clever indeed… Needless to say, I was shocked in disbelief for about a minute after seeing the commercial, then the shock dissolved into complete rage and frustration. I immediately sat down by the computer, googled the channel to get hold of their contact info and then I set out to write an e-mail voicing my disgust and anger towards their utterly stupid and degrading commercial.

The next day I got to read an article stating that the channel had stopped airing their commercial due to many people contacting them and accusing them of sexism. I was happy to read that there were more people than me who got upset and took action, cause that is exactly what is needed in situations like these. Just as Kilbourne argues:

“The best bet is to put your money where your values are, and if you don’t support Calvin Klein, tell them you can’t stand the way they advertise.”

Really, it’s as simple as this: When you see sexist and objectifying ads and commercials that upset you, instead of ignoring them and moving on, why not speaking up about it? Explaining why they bother you directly to the source, demanding that they stop using the same tired imagery that degrades and dehumanizes both women and men. If more people did this, I am sure we would eventually see some changes around us. If more people expressed their concerns and frustrations, the advertisers would not be able to get away with the “sex sells” argument anymore. And how nice would that be, for a change?

 

 

Let’s do this

OK then, so this is my new blog devoted to my PhD studies, most importantly my research of sexism in ads. For all of you who don’t already know, I am pretty passionate about this subject, and relentless when it comes to sexist ads. It all started some four years ago when I stumbled upon a video on Youtube with Jean Kilbourne talking about sexism in advertising, how it has developed over the years, how it has only gotten worse, how it is a real issue that concerns all of us. I knew then and there that this was something I had to get involved in, so I decided to start studying business and marketing, just so I could write a bachelor thesis about this. And well, long story short, two years later I did.

For all of you who are interested, or have nothing better to do, have a go at it why don’t you:

Fuckable:
The objectification of women in advertising through a female perspective

Also, here’s a little video of Jean Kilbourne speaking at TEDx. It’s not the same as the one I saw all those years ago, but it will give you a glimpse of this incredible woman and her journey through this vast field of sexist, offensive and demoralizing imagery we call advertisements: