Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s War on Women

In class we watched Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 4 which explores the “toxic cultural environment” created by the harmful advertisements which objectify and commodify the female form.

The way that women are portrayed in popular media, specifically in advertising, is absolutely disgusting. Women’s’ bodies are constantly being used to sell anything from food to tools and luxury items like perfume and cars. The female form is often reduced to its pieces (lips, hips, breasts, legs, vagina, etc) and commodified. Women are objectified, devalued and dehumanized in ads for the sole purpose of driving consumerism and further hegemonic ideals of female identity and sexuality.

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I am usually one of the people that Kilbourne discusses who claims to be unaffected by ads. I like to think that through my studies into the ways society tries to influence and dictate the attitudes and behaviors of women, especially women of color, that I am more aware of the problematic narratives created by ads. But as she discussed, the large majority of ad content is subliminal so addressing those influence often require deeper, subconscious aware. I do sometimes find myself distressed over how I measure up not only to women in ads and in the media, but other women I know who more closely conform to society’s normative view of women and female sexual expression.

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One of the things that struck me about the documentary was the prevalence and persistence of the “double bind.” Women are expected to be sexy, but innocent, experienced, but virginal. It’s impossible. Women are constantly told that we are supposed to be perfect, but also we are consistently reminded that true perfect is completely unattainable. This is an even more sinister because the main purpose of ads is generate “needs” to drive consumerism. Ads only work if women feed into the notion that something about their hair or body or clothes or personality can be improved by some advertised product or service. For example, by making women feel insecure about body or facial hair, advertising companies can drive up demand for shaving cream, razors, waxing kits, tweezers, eyebrow kits and Brazilians, wax and threading services. All of those products and services would struggle if society stopped condemning women for the presence of body hair.

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I think that even as ads try to prescribe normative ideals and behaviors, not just for women, but for men as well, it is increasingly important to bring attention to the harmful attitudes they can reinforce. The outcry of protest for many ads is a step in the right direction but there needs to be more ad campaigns that combat this rigid and harmful narrative surrounding female identity and sexuality, as well as the role of sex in relationships and how masculinity is practiced and observed. There need to be more ad campaigns that promote nuanced interpretations and variations of female identity, expression and sexuality, especially as most advertisements disproportionately affect vulnerable populations such as young women, women of color and people of non-normative gender expressions.

We need more campaigns like these:

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