Address the following for this discussion:How do the expectations of women differ from those of men?Where do these expectations of women in our culture come from?Include ways in which gender stereotypes and sexism influence the way women are perceived and treated in society. Support your response with information from the Killing Us Softly 4 video (linked in Resources) as well as course readings.
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KILLING US SOFTLY 4:
Advertising’s Image of Women
Thank you so much, Sandy. And thank you, Sut. And thanks to all of you for being here. It’s really just
wonderful that you came and that you’re willing to put up with all these restrictions. As Sut said, this is a
film. I am going to do a presentation and that you are a captive audience. It will be over – you will be out of
here by 6:30 don’t let him frighten you – it’s not going to go on longer than that. But if you are in the
Witness Protection Program, it’s probably not a good idea for you to be here, just so you know about that.
And a film is slightly different than a lecture. I’m going to do my best to do this in one take, but I might stop
at some point and have to retake something (I hope not). And I might linger on one ad, whereas in the
film there’ll be many examples. And in a couple of instances, I’m going to mention a TV commercial, but I
won’t actually be showing it.
So those are some of the ways it’ll be a little bit different. There will be time at the end, there’s going to be
a brief Q & A at the end, but if you feel later on that you’d like to get some further information, I do have a
website, and there’s an extensive resource list on this website with all kinds of organizations and places
to get further information. So I urge you to visit the website if you’d like to do that.
I started collecting ads in the late 1960s. Many aspects of my life led to this: my involvement with the
Women’s Movement – which was just taking off then – my interests in media, some experiences I had as
a model. I didn’t intend to create a career, let alone launch a field of study, but that is what happened. I
was just paying attention to ads. Ads like these:
“Feminine odor is everyone’s problem”
“It’s difficult to say what first attracted me to her, but I do remember her earrings”
“Made for a woman’s extra feelings,” which presumably are located in her armpits
“It sure is a load off Roy since I lost 59 pounds”
Or this version: “I’d probably never be married now if I hadn’t lost 49 pounds,” which one woman said to
me was the best advertisement for fat she’d ever seen.
“If your hair isn’t beautiful, the rest hardly matters”
“Why aren’t your feet as sexy as the rest of you?”
These are all real ads. “Honey, your anti-perspirant spray just doesn’t do it”
“Your guy: another reason for Midol”
“My boyfriend said he loved me for my mind. I was never so insulted in my life”
“She’s built like all our products: heavy where she has to take the strain.” This was an ad for construction
And “Keep her where she belongs.”
So these are just some of the ads that I noticed and saw out there, so I cut them out and put them on my
refrigerator and eventually I had a kind of collage of ads, and I started to see a pattern. A kind of
statement about what it meant to be a woman in the culture. And eventually I bought a camera and a
copy stand and I started to make slides of these ads and give a presentation about it.
In 1979, I made my first film, Killing Us Softly, advertising this image of women. In 1987 I remade it as Still
Killing Us Softly, and then again in 2000 as Killing Us Softly 3. Now how many of you have seen Killing
Us Softly 3? Just so I know. Okay I should also let you know that this is – there’s going to be a lot that is
going to be very familiar to you, but what we’re trying to do is to add newer images to some of the things
because what’s most amazing to me is how much it stayed the same; how much of what I said way back
in 1979 still applies. It’s much less radical and shocking now than it was then, but it’s still true. Sometimes
people say to me: ‘You’ve been talking about this for 40 years. Have things gotten any better?’ And
actually I have to say, really they’ve gotten worse. So much for my career! But of course there have been
some positive changes, but many things have stayed the same of gotten worse.
The biggest change is that I’m no longer alone. That there are now countless books and organizations,
websites, films, other people who are working on these issues. Also when I started, ads were mostly in
magazines, television commercials, billboards. Now of course there has been an explosion of advertising.
Ads are everywhere – the Internet, Facebook, videogames, in our schools, our public spaces, on
airplanes, snowboards [shows slides]
Now, I focus on advertising because I’ve always considered it to be a very powerful educational force. It’s
an over $250 billion a year industry, just in the United States. The average American is exposed to over
3,000 ads every single day, and will spend 2 years of his or her life watching television commercials – just
the commercials. The ads as you know are everywhere. Also, just about every aspect of popular culture
is about marketing. Most people don’t know that the primary purpose of the mass media is to sell
audiences to advertisers. Everything else is secondary. WE are the product. To illustrate this, I’m going to
show you a couple of ads now from advertising age, the major publication of the advertising industry. And
what these ads will show you is how the advertisers advertise to each other, and to corporate executives.
We’re not meant to see these ads; this is what goes on behind the scenes.
“Hey Coke, want 17.5 million very interested women to think diet?” What’s happening here? Here the
Ladies Home Journal is advertising itself directly to the executives of Coca-Cola as a terrific place to put
their Diet Coke ads, and what they’re promising them is a magazine that will make women obsessed
about their weight. A magazine that will make women think diet. Now this ad comes as a real surprise to
most people because most of us have never been educated about advertising, so we don’t know what
goes on behind the scenes. How could we? And we don’t know the central fact about advertising and the
media, which is that we are the product. What’s being sold here isn’t Diet Coke, or even really the Ladies
Home Journal. What’s being sold are the readers of the Ladies Home Journal made to feel anxious about
their weight, and then sold to the diet industry.
The primary purpose of magazines, newspapers, television programs, websites, everything is to capture
an audience to be sold to advertisers. [shows slide] This says “Capture your audience,” and here the
eyeballs are in a net being delivered to the advertisers.
Advertisers sometimes refer to television programs as “renting our eyeballs” because the purpose of the
program, the magazine, the website, is to round up a target audience, sort of like fly paper as they say in
this ad, to lure us in so we will be the captive audience for the ads.
Here, Seventeen magazine says to advertisers, “She’s the one you want, she’s the one we’ve got.
Seventeen: it’s more than a magazine. It’s her life.” So this is what goes on behind the scenes. There’s
more advertising than ever before. *takes water* Advertising is more sophisticated and more influential
than ever before. But still, just about everyone feels personally exempt from the influence of advertising.
So wherever I go, what I hear more than anything else is “Oh, I don’t pay attention to ads. I just tune them
out. They have no effect on me.” Now I hear this most often from people wearing Budweiser caps, but
that’s another story.
Advertisers want us to believe that we’re not influenced, because that makes it all the easier for them to
manipulate us. Our guard is down, they can get beneath the radar. Another reason we believe we’re not
influenced is that advertising’s influence is quick, it’s cumulative, and for the most part, it’s subconscious.
As the editor in chief of advertising age – again the major publication of the advertising industry once said
– “Only 8% of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and reworked deep
within the recesses of the brain.”
So it’s not just that we see these images once, or twice, or even a hundred times. They stay with us and
we process them mostly subconsciously. They create an environment – an environment that we all swim
in, as fish swim in water. And, as Marshall McCluen famously said, “We don’t know who discovered
water, but we know it wasn’t a fish.” It’s very difficult to be conscious of one’s own environment, so one of
my goals with my work is to make this environment visible. To make us conscious of these images. The
particular ads that I use won’t be familiar with everyone of course, and ads become outdated almost
instantly. But the images, the themes will be familiar to all of you. You’ll easily be able to find your own
examples. People often say to me after they see the films that they never look at ads again in the same
way, and I hope that will be true for you.
The ads may be trivial, but their influence isn’t. Just as it’s difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical
environment, if we’re breathing poisoned air for example, or drinking polluted water. So it’s difficult to be
healthy in what I call a “toxic cultural environment” – an environment that surrounds us with unhealthy
images and constantly sacrifices our health and our sense of well-being for the sake of profit.
Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality,
of success, and perhaps most important, of normalcy. To a great extent they tell us who we are and who
we should be.
But what does advertising tell us about women? It tells us as it always has that what’s most important is
how we look. So the first thing the advertisers do is surround us with the image of ideal female beauty.
We all learn how important it is for a woman to be beautiful. Women learn from a very early age that we
must spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and above all money striving to achieve this look and
feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail. And failure is inevitable because the ideal is based on absolute
flawlessness. She never has any lines or wrinkles. She certainly has no scars or blemishes. Indeed, she
has no pores. And the most important aspect of this flawlessness is that it cannot be achieved: no one
looks like this, including her. And this is the truth no one looks like this. The supermodel Cindy Crawford
once said, “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” She doesn’t, she couldn’t. Because this is a look that’s
been created through years of airbrushing and cosmetics, but these days it’s done through the magic of
Now computers have been used to alter images for quite some time. Way back in 1989, Oprah Winfrey’s
head was put on Anne Margaret’s body for a TV Guide cover. Neither women gave permission, by the
way. And in 1990, this was the ad for the hit film Pretty Women, and you may think this is Julia Roberts –
well it’s her head but it’s not her body. Her body wasn’t good enough, perhaps not thin enough to be in
this ad, so they simply used another woman’s body. A body double, as they did in the film. Whenever she
was undressed or partially dressed, that wasn’t Julia Roberts – it was somebody else.
And this happens all the time. So we might be looking at a TV commercial and think we’re seeing one
woman, but we’re really seeing 4: one woman’s face, another woman’s hair, another woman’s hands,
another woman’s legs. Four or five women put together to look like one perfect woman. No wonder it’s so
These days, Photoshopping is infinitely more sophisticated. Body doubles aren’t necessary because the
body itself can be altered. Even in the loveliest celebrities are transformed by computer. Kiera Knightly is
given a bigger bust. Jessica Alba is made smaller. Kelly Clarkson – well this is interesting: it says “slim
down your way” but she in fact slimmed down the Photoshopped way. And note that the copy also says,
“total body confidence.” It’s kind of sad.
Men are Photoshopped, too, but they’re usually made bigger. Andy Rodderick laughed when he saw the
bulked-up arms on this cover photo, and suggested they should be returned to the man they belonged to.
In fact, however, they are his arms, just enhanced by computer. There are countless examples. Cameron
Diaz, Nicolette Sheriden, Penelope Cruz. You almost never see a photograph of a woman considered
beautiful that hasn’t been Photoshopped.
A recent video on Nytimes.com featured interviews with some people that do the Photoshopping and who
agree it can create a problem. The Dove commercial called “Evolution” dramatically illustrates that the
image is constructed…it is not real. So the image isn’t real; it’s artificial, it’s constructed. But real women
and girls measure ourselves against this image every single day. It’s an impossible ideal for just about
everyone, but it’s absolutely impossible for women who aren’t white.
Women of color are generally considered beautiful only if they approximate the white ideal. If they are
light skinned, have straight hair, Caucasian features – even Beyonce had her skin lightened for this
[shows ad]. But how often do we see an image like this: [shows ad]. Black women are often featured in
jungle settings wearing leopard skins as if they were exotic animals.
An even bigger problem, however, for people of color in advertising is invisibility. Not that we see a lot of
negative images, but that we see no images at all. What George Gerbner, a renowned media researcher
called “symbolic annihilation.” This means that one sees no reflection. That there’s really no reflection at
all. I have some ads in my collection – quite a few, actually these days – featuring blacks, Hispanics,
some Asians, but none or almost none featuring Native Hawaiians, other Pacific Islanders, Native
Alaskans or American Indians.
Other groups also suffer from symbolic annihilation. The disabled, lesbians and gay men, the elderly, the
poor. So when people say that advertising just reflects the society, it’s a very distorted reflection that
leaves out huge groups of people.
Now the research is clear that this ideal image of beauty effects women’s self-esteem. How could it not?
And it also influences how men feel about the very real women they are with. When men are shown
photographs of supermodels in studies, they then judge real women much more harshly. We all grow up
in a culture in which women’s bodies are constantly turned into “things” and “objects.” [shows ad]. Here
she’s become the bottle of Michelob. And this is everywhere, in all kinds of advertising: pornography,
music videos, billboards, websites, everywhere you look, women’s bodies turn into “things” – into objects.
Now of course this affects female self-esteem. It also does something even more insidious: it creates a
climate in which there is widespread and increasing violence against women. I’m not at all saying that an
ad like this directly causes violence – it’s not that simple. But turning a human being into a thing is almost
always the first step toward justifying violence against that person. It’s very difficult…I think it might be
impossible…to be violent to someone we consider an equal human being, but it’s very easy to abuse a
thing. We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia, we see it with terrorism. It’s always the same
process. The person is dehumanized and violence then becomes inevitable. And that step it already and
constantly taken with women. So the violence, the abuse, is partly the chilling but logical result of this kind
Now women are objectified in many ways: a Heineken commercial turns a women into a keg of beer. A
frat boy’s dream! In this ad, she becomes a part of a videogame. Women’s bodies are dismembered in
ads; hacked apart. Just one part of the body is focused upon, which of course is the most dehumanizing
thing you could do to someone. These legs apparently belong to Victoria Beckham. And the
dismemberment is for all kinds of products. Here for credit cards. Everywhere we look, women’s bodies
turn into things and often just parts of things. Reebok has an entire campaign based on this kind of
dismemberment. Now often a whole man is shown in an ad with just a part of a woman’s body. Never her
face, just a part of her body, but I’ve actually never seen this the other way around.
Most often when the body is dismembered, the focus is on breasts, since we are a culture obsessed with
breasts, and breasts are used to sell absolutely everything. [shows ad] “The most dependable fishing line
in the world.” Fishing lines, cameras, women are constantly told we must change our lives by increasing
our breast size, and the stakes are high: “Does your husband wish you had larger breasts?” And if he
does, the implication of this ad is very clear: you better change your body. As opposed to changing your
husband. This is an old ad, of course, but the message hasn’t changed very much.
30 years ago or so, we were told to use creams and breast developers that were of course completely
worthless in ads like this: “I really wanted a fuller bust line for summer.” One wonders what she’s
supposed to do in the fall. And then we were told to change our underwear – to wear uplifting bras such
as Wonderbra and others in ads like this: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it. If you don’t, create it.” So we were
encouraged to create the illusion of having larger breasts.
Now imagine if men were supposed to play this game: “Wonder jock! The strap for the bulge you’ve
always wanted!” It becomes obviously absurd. Nowadays, we’re supposed to have surgery. “Meet the
artist that create the designer faces” and one thing that’s increased dramatically in recent years has been
the amount of cosmetic surgery. 91% of cosmetic procedures are performed on women. Men I guess are
less likely to want a designer face. There’s even a hit TV show about cosmetic surgery – Nip/Tuck. Breast
implants, of course, are extremely popular and they’ve been increasing dramatically. The number of
cosmetic surgical procedures performed on people 18 or younger more than tripled in the past decade.
Breast augmentation increased nearly six-fold. I’ve heard of places in the country where parents give their
high school daughters breast implants for high school graduation presents.
Now most women who have breast implants lose sensation in their breasts, so their breasts become an
object of someone else’s pleasure, rather than pleasurable in themselves. The woman quite literally
moves from being a subject to being an object. But women learn very early on that our breasts are never
going to be okay. This ad ran in lots of women and teen magazines quite some time ago, but its message
is sadly current. This is the whole ad, and I’ll read you the whole copy:
“Your breasts may be too big, too saggy, too pert, too flat, too full, too far apart, too close together, too Acup, too lopsided, too jiggly, too pale, too padded, too pointy, too pendulous, or just two mosquito bites.
But with Depth Styling Products at least you can have your hair the way you want it!”
It ran in Teen Magazine, so 12-year-old girls were getting this message. And of course, according to this
ad, there is no way to have acceptable breasts. And girls are getting the message these days so young
that they need to be impossibly beautiful, hot, sexy, extremely thin, and they also get the message that
they’re going to fail. That there’s no way they are going to achieve it.
So the research is clear that the self-esteem of girls in America plummets when they reach adolescence.
Girls tends to feel find about themselves when they’re 8,9, 10 years old, but they hit adolescence and
they hit a wall, and certainly part of this wall is this terrible emphasis on physical perfection.
Men’s bodies are rarely dismembered in ads. More than they used to be, but still it tends to come as a
shock. This ad ran quite some time ago in Vanity Fair and many other, other magazines – …
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