Below is the literature review I wrote. We had to write one as a precursor to the dissertation, and my dissertation was going to be about feminism and advertising images. This choice was influenced by an enjoyable lecture about semiotics. I got 14 out of 16, again, for this, despite referencing Wikipedia. I absolutely wouldn't do that now.
Feminism and advertising images of women
This paper aims to review some of the literature surrounding feminism and advertising images of women. It will firstly look at what feminism is, along with what the movement grew out of and what its concerns are. It will then briefly consider the semiotics of gender stereotyping in advertising images. The advertising images will be limited to billboard campaigns and those found in magazines aimed at women.1 This paper is not concerned with television advertisements, or advertisements found in specialist magazines. This is because specialist magazines have a more specific target audience than women's magazines (which target up to fifty per cent of the population). The paper will also consider the implications of such stereotypical images, as well as addressing feminist critique. This critique will include the issue of how these images work against feminism, and also that the male gaze is the target of such images. Lastly, the paper will try to conclude whether the literature concurs that women are visually represented in ways that feminism aims to overcome.
As stated in Encyclopaedia of Feminism (Tuttle 1986), feminism is a term which has no definite definition, as it means varying things to different people. Nevertheless, broadly speaking, "the word refers to everyone who is aware of and seeking to end women's subordination in any way and for any reason" (Tuttle 1986). However, Bell Hooks "objects to this 'anything goes' approach, saying it has made the term practically meaningless because 'any woman ... can label herself a feminist'" (Tuttle 1986). While this is true, there is nothing to say that any woman can not label herself a feminist; Hooks's argument is that of a theorist, and feminism is not just a theory, but something that needs to be put into practice for it to achieve anything. To narrow down the broad definition given by Tuttle, feminism is said to be concerned with such things as "the nature and mechanisms of male oppression, as well as the nature of female experience under these mechanisms" (Sim and van Loon 2004). This is important, because this acknowledges the ways that males "oppress" females in society (which the definition offered by Tuttle does not do), and what it is like to be under this oppression. To go even further, Elaine Storkey (1985) writes:
Modern Western society ... is a society in which women are dependent, manipulated, vulnerable, passive and exploited and men are dominant. Society is designed by men for men, and women are seen as functioning to uphold and support the male domination. Thus, woman's work, ... echoes daily her total dependence upon, and subordination to, the man.
Whilst "oppression" may be thought of as something physical, or something overt, what Storkey means is that the oppression that women endure is something ingrained in society; it is not about one man oppressing one woman, but something that happens all the time within society as a whole. There are also many forms that this oppression takes.
Furthermore, feminism is concerned with females being lesser than males in society, and is about "challenging the division of labour in the world that puts men in charge of the public sphere while women slave away unpaid in the home" (Watkins 1992). Going back to Mary Wollstonecraft and the Age of Enlightenment makes this challenge more understandable, as she was somebody who worked very hard to get an education for herself in an age where only boys were sent to school. Over the course of her life, she accomplished a lot, including setting up a school to teach girls. This can be considered to be the start of what is now known as feminism, the start of the struggle for equal rights2 for women. As Saul (2003) writes, some people believe that feminism is no longer relevant:
Many people today think that feminism was a fine thing in its time but that it has done its job ... Women can vote, hold jobs, and get educations. Women are entering traditionally male workplaces and professions in ever-increasing numbers.
It is true that these are reasons to believe feminism is over because these are issues that have been fought in feminism's earlier years. However, feminism is still relevant because there exists different issues that affect women; things still happen which suggest that women are still subordinate to men. Rather than trying to win the vote for women and the right to an education for girls, modern day issues include the objectification of women, the "glass ceiling" in the workplace and equal pay for women who do the same jobs as men. These issues are just as important as the others that feminism worked towards—they go towards supporting the subordination of women. For example, the "glass ceiling" is a metaphor used to describe the fact that many women in the workplace cannot seem to advance past a certain level of authority within their respective jobs—it is as though there is an invisible ceiling that automatically stops them progressing. That this is a common occurrence suggests that there is a reason for this—a reason that is more than the incompetence or unsuitability of the women in question. According to Catherine MacKinnon (Saul 2003), though it is not discrimination if the selection process for a job results in more males than females being hired (so long as gender is not a part of this selection process), it is discriminatory to deny somebody a job on the basis of their gender, unless gender is a specific requirement of the job in question. Therefore, it would not be considered gender discrimination that more men reach the top of workplace hierarchies if it is the case that, for example, to reach the top one must have certain characteristics that tend to be found only in men. This is a reasonable analysis of what discrimination is. However, it is unlikely that so many women are without the characteristics needed to get to the top of their profession, and so it can be said that at least some discrimination is taking place.
Within the visual media, there are several stereotypes of women. One of these is that women are sexual objects. In Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, Cortese (1999) writes that, in advertising, women's bodies are "often dismembered or hacked apart". An example of this would be an advertisement containing a woman, but showing only her legs. This has the implication that legs are the only important constituent of women, and an intellect is not important. The effect of this dismemberment is that women—literally—cease to be seen as whole human beings, and simply as objects. Cortese also writes that features such as plump red lips and cleavage are frequently the main focus of advertisements. The repetition of these devices throughout the advertising industry suggests to audiences that women are only objects. Cortese notes that this act of "body-chopping" happens more to females than it does to males, and thus advertising images support the subordination of women.
Whilst Cortese has valid points in his argument, it may not be the case that all advertisements deliberately employ these methods of objectification with the intention of suggesting that women are nothing more than objects. For instance, an advertisement may show a close up of a woman's mouth on which she has used red lipstick. Rather than to objectify women, the advertisers may simply want for the lips to be prominent as they have a product to sell. However, as Carter and Steiner (2004) write, "critics of pornography and of advertising that features women's body parts, say that in treating women as commodities to be sold, these cultural forms contribute to the perpetuation of women's dehumanisation and subordination", and so any objectification—the sole intention of the advertiser, or otherwise—undermines the feminist goal of equal rights for women by "[removing] discrimination against women" (Lovenduski and Randall 1993).
Another prevalent stereotype of women to be found in visual representation is that they are all very feminine. Women's magazines exist to sell femininity (Ferguson, 1983). Therefore, it is the case that the images within them perpetuate ideals of femininity; to not do so would be to sabotage themselves. Ferguson (1983) writes of women's magazines:
Women's magazines collectively comprise a social institution which fosters and maintains a cult of femininity. This cult is manifested both as a social group to which all those born female can belong, and as a set of practices and beliefs: rites and rituals, sacrifices and ceremonies, whose periodic performance reaffirms a common femininity and shared group membership.
Highlighting this fact makes it impossible to criticise the advertising images in women's magazines, because without advertisements for make-up, perfume and clothes they would be paradoxical. Nonetheless, they still play a part in undermining feminism's goals.
Some advertisements communicate choice (Saul 2003). They suggest to female audiences that there is an alternative to the widely propagated stereotypes of women as delicate, feminine beings, by showing women as active, independent, capable human beings. However, far from being an alternative, these images simply represent a shift in the peddled feminine norms that women internalise. The main problem with these magazines is not that they promote a specific feminine ideal; rather, it is the effect of believing that they must strive to be a certain person that they have on women. In Feminism Is For Everybody: Passionate Politics, Bell Hooks writes:
Before women's liberation all females young and old were socialised by sexist thinking to believe that our value rested solely on appearance and whether or not we were perceived to be good looking, especially by men.
She writes that "challenging sexist thinking about the female body" is one of the "most powerful interventions made by contemporary feminist movement". Thus, women's magazines so heavily promoting an ideal femininity undoes some of feminism's work to liberate women from the idea that appearance is paramount. This is not to say that to be a feminist is to not take care of one's appearance, but it depends who this is for—for oneself or for men. This depends on individuals having enough independence to make their own choices to reject or accept what images promote.
Some feminists see femininity as the cause of women's oppression, because feminine behaviours are associated with passivity and dependence (Hollows 2000). This is problematic, as feminists do not want women to be passive and dependent.
In Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, Judith Williamson (1978) writes that a sign "can only mean if it has someone to mean to". This is to say that, whilst advertisements may be criticised for the messages they disseminate, the messages can only be criticised because they mean something to those that view them. For instance, an advertisement that uses an image of a woman lying on top of a car would be criticised because it shows the woman in a passive state. However, only people who have some understanding of the semiology employed by advertisements will understand any subtexts that are presented. They are the only people who will argue that the advertisement sets out to represent women as passive, whilst everybody else takes it at face value—as Williamson puts it, the viewer is a "creator of meaning" (1978). Feminists argue that feminine ideals oppress women, but this may not always be the case because if one is too aware of the media, too many meanings can be read into everything it presents us with. Thus, if it is true that a sign can only mean something if it has somebody to mean to, then it is possible that those who have little understanding of the media are the ones who are the freest from these norms, as they do not perceive them as "norms" as such. According to Williamson, "signs are given their value as currency by us in our 'recognition' of what they stand for" (1978). So while advertising images promote femininity, and some feminists believe that this femininity is the cause of women's oppression, it is fair to say that theorising women's liberation is also a cause because of the way it seeks negative aspects of everything. If one is to look hard enough, everything will seem to be a act of oppression and, instead, feminism as a movement ought to look at ways to overcome the issues it faces without putting too much blame on everything else. It is difficult to accept that every advertisement we are faced with actively uses devices to promote the idea that women are lesser than men, and if we did not have the knowledge of what is being promoted we would not be affected by the advertisements. Conversely, Saul (2003) does suggest that any "conviction" a woman may have that she is unaffected by advertisement images may be the result of an internalisation of the norms that are promoted. In Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Cartwright and Sturken (2001) write that:
The capacity of images to affect us as viewers and consumers is dependent on the larger cultural meanings they invoke ... Their meanings lie not within their image elements alone, but are acquired when they are "consumed", viewed and interpreted.
This concurs that images can only mean something when we know what they are meant to mean, and the more we know about what images are meant to mean, the more meaning they have.
Gaze is an important concept to understand in relation to representations. Collins and Lutz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaze, n.d.) suggest that gaze "tells us who has the right and/or need to look at whom", and Schroeder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaze, n.d.) adds that gaze "signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze". The implication of both of these suggestions is that, when a gaze is visually represented, it communicates who is more powerful than whom. The male gaze, therefore, communicates that men are more powerful than women, and is visually represented in advertisements when the viewer must view them as though they are a heterosexual male. An example of such an advertisement is one in which a woman is lying down, looking back at the viewer. She is wearing a sheer dress, her nails are manicured and painted red, and one hand rests on her face. Her mouth is also slightly open. The idea of this advertisement is to communicate desire, but it is communicating to a male audience. It is obvious to a female viewer that she is not being communicated to, but instead should identify with the woman as a feminine object of desire. As gaze is also associated with identification, it may well be problematic when—as viewers—we do not identify with the images we are presented with. Berger (1972) writes:
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object ...
If, as a female viewer of an advertisement that incorporates the male gaze, one does not identify with the feminine ideals promoted within the image, one may in turn internalise these ideals and thus become a mirror image of the ideal female that advertisements promote. In Feminist Media Studies, van Zoonen (1994) writes that women subjected to the gaze of male audiences is "a core element of western patriarchal culture". If the heterosexual male gaze were not employed so much, that would be a step away from the patriarchal society that we live in. If there were no feminine ideals for women to internalise, perhaps they would not feel the need to become that which is regarded as what men find desirable. This would further bring society away from patriarchy. Unfortunately, men are dominant in the "production of nearly all popular genres" (Gammon and Marshment 1998), making any potential move from patriarchy even more difficult.
The issues that feminism is concerned with in the 21st century—the issues that face females today, such as the "glass ceiling" and being seen as merely an object—are in conflict with patriarchy, and advertisements are certainly a proponent of patriarchy.3 This is because patriarchy is already a well established system, and so it extends into the advertising business (amongst others, as already noted). It has already been considered how advertising images suggest women's subordination to men through the reduction of them to objects. As feminism is about equal rights, and this is a message that advertising images do not disseminate, it can be concluded that there is a discord between feminism and advertising images. There are billboards on every street and there are so many magazines to be found everywhere—we are never far from an advertising image. Therefore, feminism will never achieve its aims of females being equal to males in all possible ways if advertising images continue to perpetuate these stereotypes and negative views of women, because it is an aim that is ready to be countered and undermined with every image we see. Every image of a woman in a passive state, every image of a highly feminised woman that we see, all go towards compounding the problems that women face. The problems that women face are a result of messages propagated by images. Women will always feel the need to validate themselves against male-constructed ideals and they will always be lesser than men, unless more positive images are promoted. The literature reviewed in this paper concurs that advertising images do not promote women in a favourable way. However, if it did start to do so, stereotypes would be broken down eventually, eliminating suggestions of women's subordination to men, and feminism could achieve its aims without advertising images forever undermining them.
1 Both will be referred to together as "images" or "advertising images", rather than making a distinction between general advertising campaigns and those found in women's magazines (except where that distinction is necessary).
2 The phrase "equal rights" is used in a non-specific manner to mean everything that equal rights encompasses.
3 As defined by the Oxford English of Dictionary, patriarchy is "a system of society in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it".