Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women Dir. Sut Jhally. Perf. Jean Kilbourne, David
Rabinovitz. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010. Film
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 interest 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.”
“Made for a woman’s extra feelings,” which presumably are located in her armpits.
“It sure is a load of 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.”
“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 material.
And “Keep her where she belongs.”
So these were just some of the ads that I noticed and saw out there, and 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 to give a
presentation about it.
In 1979, I made my first film Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. In 1987, I
remade it as Still Killing Us Softly, and then again in 2000 as Killing Us Softly 3. And now, here
we are a decade or so into the new millennium.
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. 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.
Now I focus on advertising because I’ve always considered it to be a very powerful
educational force. It’s an over 250 billion-dollar-a year-industry, just in the United States. The
average American is exposed to over 3,000 ads every single day and will spend two years of his
or her life watching television commercials—just the commercials. The ads as you know are
everywhere; our schools, the sides of buildings, sports stadiums, build boards, bus stops, buses
themselves, cars, elevators, doctor’s offices, airplanes, even on food items like eggs. Almost
every aspect of popular culture is really all about marketing.
[Clip from Transformers, 2007] “Hey! Who drove the freakin’ yellow Camaro, huh!?
There’s a car on the lawn!”
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.
Another reason we believe we’re not influenced is that advertising’s influence is quick, is
cumulative, and for the most part, it’s sub-conscious. 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 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 that
constantly sacrifices our health and our sense of wellbeing 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 or 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.
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 for years through airbrushing and cosmetics, but these days it’s
done through the magic of computer retouching.
Now, computers have been used to alter images quite some time. Way back in 1989,
Oprah Winfrey’s head was put on Anne Margaret’s body for a TV Guide cover. Neither woman
gave permission, by the way. 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 four: 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.
[Domenic Demasi from Wet Dreams and False Images]: “This was a cover for Lucky
magazine that we did, where it was four images to make one image. They preferred her over this
model, and we went ahead and pieced together a new girl as a result.”
Even the loveliest celebrities are transformed by computer. Kira Knightley’s given a
bigger bust. Jessica Alba is made smaller. Kelly Clarkson... Well, this is an interesting: it says
“Slim down your way,” but she in fact slimmed down the Photoshop way. You almost never see
a photograph of a woman considered beautiful that hasn’t been photoshopped.
[Ken Harris from Wet Dreams and False Images]: “Every picture has been worked on
some twenty, thirty rounds, going back and forth between the retouchers, and client, and the
agency. They are perfected to… to death.”
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 Beyoncé
had her skin lightened for this. But how often do we see an image like this? Black women are
often featured in jungle settings wearing leopard skins as if they are exotic animals.
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 that 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
into objects. Here she’s become the bottle of Michelob. In this ad she becomes part of a video
game. And this is everywhere, in all kinds of advertising. Women’s bodies turned into things,
Now of course this effects female self-esteem. It also does something even more
insidious. It creates a climate in which there is wide-spread 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.
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
is already and constantly taken with women. So the violence—the abuse—is partly the chilling
but logical result of this kind of objectification.
Now women are objectified in many ways. A Heineken commercial turns a woman into a
keg of beer. A frat boy’s dream.
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.
Everywhere we look, women's bodies turned into things and often parts of things.
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.
"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.
The marketing strategy of some bra makers, like Wonderbra, has been based on this idea
for years. This is the famous Eva Herzigova ad from the 1990s. More recently, they claim that
the breasts of this woman got so big that they cracked the glass on this display, or this ingenious
one, where the revolving street ad won't go to the next ad because the woman's breasts are too
big to get past the edge.
And when a new bra isn't enough, there's always surgery. "Meet the artists that created
the designer faces." In fact, there's been a dramatic increase in recent years in the amount of
cosmetic procedures, 91% of which are performed on women. From 1997 to 2007, these
procedures overall rose 457% to almost 12 million per year. This includes a 754% increase in
non-surgical procedures like Botox and laser treatments, mostly for the face, and a 114%
increase in actual surgeries like breast implants, liposuction and eyelid surgery, now more than 2
million a year. I've even heard of some parents giving their daughters breast implants as high
school graduation presents.
This ad for breast enhancement says, "You know that feeling when you find the perfect
fit, and we’re not talking jeans,” and gives some of the options available.
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 copy:
“Your breasts may be too big, too saggy, too pert, too fat, too full, too far apart, too close
together, too A-cup, too lopsided, too jiggly, too pale, too padded, too pointy, too pendulous, or
just two mosquito bites. But with Dep styling products at least you can have your hair the way
you want it.”
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 to
really achieve it. Girls tend to feel fine about themselves when they're eight-, nine-, ten-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 magazines.
All of these images are from the national mainstream media. But at the time when this ad ran, it
was so shocking that the ad itself got national media coverage. It's a good thing it got some
coverage I suppose.
Reporters called me up from all around the country and said, “Look they're doing the
same thing to men they've always done to women.” Well, not quite. They'd be doing the same
thing to men they've always done to women if there were copy with this ad that went like this:
“Your penis might be too small, too droopy, too limp, too lopsided, too narrow, too fat,
too pale, too pointy, too blunt, or just two inches. But at least you can have a great pair of jeans.”
It would never happen, nor should it, and believe me this is not the kind of equality I'm
fighting for. I don't want them to do this to man anymore than to women. But I think we can
learn something from these two ads. One of which did happen, one of which never would, and
what they show us very vividly is that men and women inhabit very different worlds.
Men basically don’t live in a world in which their bodies are routinely scrutinized,
criticized, and judged, whereas women and girls do. So, girls learn early on that they are going to
be judged first and foremost by how they look. This ad from a teen magazine said, “He said the
first thing he noticed was your great personality, he lied.”
So girls get the message its never going to be their great personality; it’s going to be how
they look in jeans. “Raising your hand is only one way to get attention in a 300 seat lecture hall.”
Basically we are told that women are only acceptable only if we are young, thin, white—or at
least light-skinned—perfectly groomed and polished, plucked and shaved, and any deviation
from this ideal is met with a lot of contempt and hostility.
Woman who are considered ugly are ridiculed in advertising campaigns such as this one
for premium light beer: “beer goggles number two,” and the point of this add is that the beer is
only 2.9%, so there is less danger that the man will hook up with an ugly woman.
So these ads are meant to be funny, but the message to girls and women is clear: if you
are not conventionally beautiful, you are an object of ridicule and contempt. Your worth depends
on how you look. You’re going to be graded on a curve.
This contempt for women who do not measure up is waiting for all of us, of course,
eventually as we age. So no wonder there is such terror at showing any signs of aging. And this
fear of aging starts so early. “Who knew by the age of fifteen your skin had already retired.”
How said that it’s all downhill after fifteen.
These days the greatest contempt is for the women who are considered in the least bit
overweight, and pop culture delights in ridiculing and mocking celebrities who’ve gained weight.
The basic message to girls is the one in this ad. At the top it says, “The more you subtract the
more you add.” What a horrible message. Now this is a fashion ad; they’re talking about
simplicity in fashion, but she’s also incredibly thin, and look at her body language. She looks as
if she’s trying to disappear, and I think this is the message that girls get, when they reach
adolescence, that they should disappear.
On the deepest level, the obsession with thinness is about cutting girls down to size, and
what could say this more vividly than this relatively new size in women’s clothing, size 0 and
size 00. Imagine a man going into a clothing store and asking for anything in a size 0. But our
girls are taught to aspire to become nothing.
So no wonder we have an epidemic of eating disorders in our country and increasingly
throughout the world. I’ve been talking about this for a very long time, and I keep thinking that
the models can’t get any thinner, but they do. They get thinner and thinner and thinner. This is
Ana Carolina Reston who died a year ago of anorexia weighing 88 pounds, and at the time she
was still modeling.
So the models literally cannot get any thinner. So Photoshop is brought to the rescue.
There was a lot of publicity recently around this image of model Filippa Hamilton being digitally
altered making her head bigger than her pelvis, an anatomical impossibility. This is what she
actually looks like. Soon after her contract was terminated, she claimed, “They fired me because
they said I was overweight and couldn’t fit in their clothes anymore.” So fashion designers think
this woman is too fat.
Even some of the editors of fashion magazines have become concerned recently.
Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, recently accused some of the world's leading
designers of pushing ever thinner models into the fashion magazines despite rising concerns
about eating disorders. What she said that designers send clothing that’s so small—size 00—that
most models, even thin models, cannot fit into these clothes, and so they have to use
extraordinarily thin models, and in fact she said that Vogue sometimes has to retouch photos
these days to make the models look larger than they actually are.
Recently there was a huge response to this tiny photo in an issue of Glamour magazine,
this tiny photo of a woman who has a little bit of a belly, and the editor of Glamour said that she
was flooded with emails from women filled with joy at seeing a woman like this in a fashion
magazine. Because basically the body type—the only one that we see is acceptable or
desirable—is one that fewer than 5% of American women have. This is genetic you can’t diet
yourself into this body type, at least not for long, any more than you can make yourself taller.
The models are very tall; they’re genetically thin. They pretty much have v-shaped bodies, broad
shoulders, narrow hips, long legs, and usually small breasts. When the models have large breasts,
almost always they’ve had implants because this is body type that usually doesn’t come with
There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s a body type, but it excludes about 95% of all
women. Most women are more pear-shaped, heavier through the hips and thighs, but we literally
never see that body type as acceptable or desirable in advertising or anywhere in the popular
Some ads today seem to encourage unhealthy attitudes, even eating disorders: “Exercise
was her appetizer; Fast food her main course.” And compulsive exercising is often a sign of an
eating disorder, and certainly exercising in order to eat junk food is a sign of trouble.
“Beauty knows no pain.” This ad actually suggests that if you’re in pain because of
squeezing yourself into tight clothes, the solution is to take a drug.
And celebrities often make things worse. Lady Gaga said recently, “It’s all about
starvation. Pop stars don’t eat.” Now this was Lady Gaga; she was probably being ironic, but
Kate Moss recently created quite a controversy when she said, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny
There are exceptions, however. Kate Winslet has been outspoken about her refusal to
allow Hollywood to dictate her weight. When British GQ magazine published this photograph of
Winslet which was digitally enhanced to make her look dramatically thinner, she issued a
statement that the alterations were made without her consent, and she said, “I don’t look like
that, and more importantly, I don’t desire to look like that. I can tell you that they’ve reduced the
size of my legs by about a third.” Bless her heart.
One result of this focus on thinness is that women are bombarded with ads for products
that promise weight loss. Ranging from diets such as Jenny Craig to drugs that promise a quick
and dramatic impact. “Eat all you want and still lose weight. That’s right! Eat all you want and
still lose weight. And we couldn’t say it on TV if it wasn’t true!”
These products, these diet products, are often dangerous. In fact, they can kill you, and at
best, they do not work. Ninety-five percent of dieters not only regain whatever weight they lose
within five years; they go on to gain more. Dieting is always a bad idea. Now I’m well aware of
the fact that obesity is a huge problem in our culture, that a third of adult Americans are obese,
two-thirds are overweight. The rates for kids are skyrocketing, but the solution isn’t to make our
girls hate themselves and starve themselves. Obesity is a very complicated problem. There’s a
huge genetic factor, and there are many other factors as well: racism, poverty, the amount of time
we spend in front of television sets, all of that.
But the solution to obesity and to the obsession with thinness are related in that they
involve the need to transform our attitudes as a culture about food and about the way we eat. But
that’s very difficult to do in a culture that teaches all of us, women especially, but men
increasingly, to hate our bodies.
In recent years, eating has become a moral issue for women. Women have been made to
feel ashamed of eating, ashamed of having an appetite for food, and language that used to
describe sexual activity now describes eating.
“Respect yourself in the morning.” This is kind of an amazing ad really. If you look at
this woman, she’s unbelievably thin, you can see her ribs. I want to beg her to eat those
croissants—she needs them. But the ad is clearly saying that if she does, she’s going to hate
herself in the morning. It used to be that respecting yourself in the morning had to do with sexual
activity, not what you had to eat the day before. But that’s all turned around, so if a woman
comes back from a weekend these days and says she was bad, we assume she broke her diet, not
that she did something unusual sexually. The ménage a trois we’re made to feel ashamed of was
with Ben and Jerry. Now the more guilty women are made to feel about eating, the more erotic
ads for food become.
[Padma Lakshmi]: “I’ve always had a love affair with food. I think I’ve tasted every
flavor imaginable. But there’s something about the Western Bacon that reminds me of being in
high school, sneaking out before dinner to savor that sweet, spicy sauce and leaving no evidence
We’re made to feel disconnected from our bodies, and then the advertisers offer us food as a way
to connect, as a way to have a kind of relationship.
“Smooth, Rich, and Good for you. If it were a man you’d marry him.”
Especially a romantic relationship.
“Your lips look so lonely. May I keep them company?” And the copy says, “The most
seductive cookie ever.”
What is going on here, this is a cookie!
“Watch TV with your arm around the one you love. It’s not your partner; it’s your bag of
“This is so beefy, your husband might get jealous.” And if your husband is jealous of the
pasta, I think you have bigger problems than this.
But after all, “No man’ll make you this happy.”
Sometimes food is sold quite deliberately as a substitute for sex: “You don’t unwrap it,
you undress it.” Again, a candy bar. You could have a ménage á trios with the cookie, I suppose.
“How bad do you want it?”
And “If you were any more satisfied you’d blush.”
Pretty amazing, but I have hundreds of ads like this.
As the media and advertising become global, the American image of ideal beauty is
everywhere, transforming cultural differences. So the modeling commercials, and in ads
throughout the world is young, thin, white, and usually blonde and blue eyed, no matter what
colors and shapes are the people looking on. Anne Becker’s famous study found a shape rise in
eating disorders among young women in Fiji soon after the introduction of television to the
Our popular culture seems to have the ability to make women anywhere and everywhere
feel absolutely terrible about themselves. But there’s far more going on than just an obsession
with thinness. Cutting girls down to size also means silencing them, and girls are often pictured
in ads, particularly in teen magazines, with their hands over their mouths or their mouths covered
in one way or another or with a copy like this: “Score high on nonverbal skills.”
[Commercial voiceover]: “Softcolors, let your eyes be heard, without making a sound.”
The body language of girls is usually passive, vulnerable, and very different from the
body language of boys and men. Women are often shown in very silly poses, whereas men are
generally afforded dignity and strength, even as children.
Women are told that it’s sexy to be like a little girl. And grown women are infantilized in
many ways throughout advertising, fashion, and the popular culture in general. So we often get
grown women dressed like children or acting like children in one way or another. We also often
see models whose heads seem a little bigger than their bodies in a very childlike way.
Their eyes are very big, so very childlike features; although, they might be an adult
woman’s body. In this ad for Lee Jeans, I’m sure this model is over 18 but she’s certainly meant
to look as if she’s younger, and this is certainly meanly meant to invoke child pornography with
the man with the camera in the background, the popsicle, the whole thing.
Now the flip side is the increasing sexualization of little girls. And I started talking about
this way back in 1979, in the first version of Killing Us Softly, and this was one example that I
used then: “Love’s baby soft. Because innocence is sexier than you think.” But these images
have become much more extreme, and much more commonplace since. This is Miley Cyrus’
sister, Noah, who’s nine years old, and this is not a Halloween outfit; she was at a benefit, an
AIDS benefit. Padded bras and thong panties for seven year olds are now sold in major
department stores, and the latest product is high heels for babies! Before they can even walk!
Now not to leave boys out, there are t-shirts for toddlers that say things like “Pimp Squad.”
At the same time that we allow our children to be sexualized, we refuse to educate them
about sex. And our children pay a very high price. We have the highest rates of teen pregnancy
and the highest rates of sexually transmitted illnesses by far in the developed world. Children and
teens are awashed in sexual images and messages. Images that use to belong in the world of
pornography are now commonplace. This is an ad for jeans, although something seems to be
missing! Sex is also often presented as a dirty joke in advertising and throughout popular culture.
It’s a very juvenile approach to sex that we often see. “Don’t feel bad, our servers won't go down
on you either.”
And at the same time that we have these blatant sexual messages throughout the media,
there is no emphasis on relationships or on intimacy, and we have to fight to get accurate sex
education into our schools. The problem isn’t sex, it's the cultures pornographic attitude towards
sex. It’s the trivialization of sex, and nowhere is sex more trivialized than in advertising where
by definition it is used to sell everything.
“Hot! Too hot to cook. Now she was ready for something different. Noodle Bowls, from
One could argue, “oh sex has always been used to sell everything,” and, to a great extent,
that’s true. But it’s far more extreme and far more graphic and pornographic today than ever
before. This new Burger King ad for the super seven-incher. You know, people often say to me,
“You know, you’re reading too much into these ads.” I don’t think I’m reading too much into
this. Or this either for that matter.
The truth is that sex is both more important and less important than our culture makes it
out be. It’s more important in that at its best it has meaning and mystery and emotional power.
And it’s less important in that it is by no means the most important aspect of life or of love. But a
visitor from another planet who just looked at our popular culture would have to come to two
conclusions. The first is that sex is really the only thing that matters. And the second is that sex
and sexuality belong only to the young and beautiful. If you’re not young and perfect looking,
you have no sexuality. And I think the ultimate impact of that is profoundly anti-erotic because it
makes people feel less desirable. It certainly makes women feel less desirable. How sexy can you
be if you hate your body? And I don’t think it does wonders for men, either.
Sex in advertising is also relentlessly heterosexist. Gay men barely exist outside of
publications targeting them. And the portrayal of lesbians almost always comes straight from the
world of porn. [Commercial voiceover]: “Haagen Daaz. Too much chocolate.”
The internet has given everyone easy access to pornography. Pornography these days is
not just accessible; it’s really inescapable and, therefore, more acceptable. And the language and
the images of porn have become mainstream. Porn has become cool, edgy. Lauren Phoenix star
of scores of porn films sells tube socks to teens in American Apparel ads. And porn queen Jenna
Jameson has launched her own fashion line. Young celebrities emulate the porn stars. Here we
have Miley Cyrus doing a pole dance at a music awards ceremony.
So girls are encouraged to present themselves as strippers and porn stars, to wear thongs,
which basically are G-strings, to remove their pubic hair, to send nude photographs of
themselves to their boyfriends via their cell phones, to be sexually available while expecting
little or nothing in return. As girls learn from a very early age that their sexualized behavior and
appearance are often rewarded by society, they learn to sexualize themselves, to see themselves
They’re encouraged to this as their own choice, as a declaration of empowerment, to
reframe presenting oneself in the most clichéd and stereotypical way possible as a kind of
“You have the right to remain sexy,” but what this is really saying is you have the right to
be an object, to be passive, to have your sexuality defined in a rigid, shallow, limiting and
clichéd way. When the culture offers girls and women only one way to be sexy, it can hardly be
considered an authentic choice to choose it.
Advertisers always find ways to turn any movement for radical change into just another
way to push a product. Some of the ads in my collection from years ago, co-opted and trivialized
the Women’s Movement.
“Relax and enjoy the revolution.” This is an ad for flavored douches.
“So you are out to change the world. We can do it together.” And this is an ad for shoe
Most notorious of all of course was the Virginia Slims campaign, with the slogan,
“You’ve come a long way baby.” And what we learned is that women who smoke like men, die
like men. Feminism’s individual self-expression is more likely to sell baubles and Botox than it
is to do what we set out to do so many years ago, which is to change the world.
Now I want to be very clear, that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be attractive and
sexy. Just about everybody wants this. What’s wrong is that this is emphasized for girls and
women at incredibly young ages at the exclusion of other important qualities and aspects. Being
hot becomes the most important measure of success.
[Commercial voiceover]: “Ecko denim. Hot girls make great clothes.”
[Commercial voiceover]: “It’s the hottest thing to ever come out of Taco Bell.”
And this extremely superficial and limited definition of sexiness makes most women feel
insecure and vulnerable and much less sexy.
In 2007, the American Psychological Association released a report concluding that girls
exposed to sexualized images from a young age, are more prone to three of the most common
mental health problems, for girls and women: depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.
In spite of all the graphic sexual messages in the media that urge girls and young women
to be hot, and sexy, there’s still a powerful double standard, with very different rules and
consequences for females and males. Girls are constantly told by the popular culture that they
should be sexy, but innocent. Experienced, but virginal. As many of us know, this is tricky.
This ad kind of exemplifies that. It’s an ad for BMW. There’s this very young, girl,
really, and the copy says: “You know you’re not the first.”
Females have long been categorized as either virgins or whores, of course. What’s new is
that girls are now supposed to embody both within themselves. This creates an impossible
double-bind. In the same way that the girdles and the corsets of the past have been replaced by
an internalized standard even more suffocating, so the sexual repression of the past has been
replaced by something, in some ways, even more demanding, and constricting.
But all of these sexual images aren’t intended to sell us on sex. They’re intended to sell us on
shopping. They’re designed to promote consumerism, not just in childhood, but throughout our
lives. One of the major ways advertising accomplishes this, is by linking sex and products, of
course, and by sexualizing products. Not only are people objectified in ads, but products are
sexualized. We’re encouraged to feel passion for our products rather than our partners.
[Woman in an ad]: “I just want to eat you up!”
[Woman in an ad]: “Look I really like you, but you’re giving me mixed signals.”
This is an amazing ad that ran not long ago in some of the upscale glossy women’s
magazines, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar. This young man is kneeling in front of this extremely thin
woman, again we don’t see her face, that’s irrelevant. Her pubic hair has been shaved into the
Gucci logo. He is worshipping Gucci; she has morphed into Gucci. So this is a prime example of
the way that products are sexualized—people and products become the same. As is this.
Now, another thing that has changed dramatically in recent years has been the increase in
ads that objectify men. So we certainly do see many more ads, not nearly to the extent that we do
with women, but we see many more ads that we did before, of men as sex objects. But there’s a
world of difference when men are objectified and when women are objectified. When men are
objectified, they generally are bigger, stronger, more powerful. When women are objectified,
we’re more fragile, more vulnerable, less powerful. But more important, there really aren’t
consequences for men as a result of this objectification. Because men don’t live in a world in
which they are likely to be raped, harassed or beaten, or at least straight white men don’t live in
such a world, whereas women and girls do.
A much more serious problem for men is that masculinity is so often linked with
violence. And boys grow up in a world in which men are constantly shown as perpetrators of
violence, as brutal. They grow up in a world in which they are encouraged to be tough and
insensitive. “You talkin’ to me?” Well this is a joke of course, but this is also a baby. And
certainly boys still get the message early on that talking, communicating is seen as a weakness in
“Do you want to be the one she tells her deep dark secret to or do you want to be her deep
dark secret?” Well the ad is of course saying to the man you want to be her deep dark secret, but
the truth is if you’re a man who wants an intimate relationship with a woman, and most men do,
you better be the one she tells her deep dark secrets to because it’s impossible to have an intimate
relationship, a successful one, without being vulnerable, without communicating. So this ad is
actually a kind of blueprint for a disastrous relationship.
So the image of man is certainly distorted too but in a very different way from the image
of women. But the negative and distorted image of women deeply affects not only how men feel
about women but how men feel about everything that gets labeled feminine in themselves.
“You’re looking at my feminine side.” And he’s of course referring to the girly tattoo on
his bicep. But what the ad is saying to young men—this is a cigarette ad its aimed at teenagers
and young men—it’s saying to them you better not have a feminine side. There better not be
anything about you that could be in the least bit considered feminine. So what it’s expressing is
not only contempt for women but contempt for all things considered feminine. And human
qualities, qualities that we all share, that we all need, that we all have the potential to develop,
get divided up and polarized and labeled masculine and feminine, and then the feminine is
consistently devalued, which causes women to devalue ourselves and each other. And it causes
men to devalue not only women but also all those qualities that get labeled feminine by the
By that I mean qualities like compassion, cooperation, empathy, intuition, sensitivity. We
may give lip service to these qualities, but they are very low priority in our society, and men are
still very rigidly socialized to repress these human qualities in themselves, at enormous costs to
all of us.
Now when you have this kind of definition of femininity, the passive submissive
definition, and this kind of brutal image of masculinity, inevitably of course this leads to
violence. It leads to violence in real life, and we see certainly see a great deal of violent images
throughout the popular culture. There’s been a trend in recent years that I call “the romantic
stranger.” In these ads the woman is outdoors alone; there’s a shadowy figure lurking in the
background; and always the idea is that a romance is about to take place. This one says, “Let the
adventure begin.” Now I think I speak for most women here today when I say that when I’m
outdoors alone, and there’s a shadowy figure lurking in the background, romance is the last thing
on my mind. So what this does and ads like this do is they eroticize violence.
The research is absolutely clear that violent images affect us. There is no doubt about
that. These violent images make some people more aggressive. They desensitize just about
everybody. They make some people more likely to blame the victim. And the most dangerous
thing to do is to eroticize violence. When you link sex with violence that’s the most dangerous,
and that of course happens over and over again. So often it’s hard to tell if this is an embrace or
is it an attack.
Many ads these days’ feature women in bondage, symbolic or otherwise. Some ads
normalize and trivialize battering, and battering is the single greatest cause of injury to women in
America. Some ads even seem to depict murder, and one-third of all the women who are
murdered in our country are killed by their male partners, their husbands. Now this is a terrible
fact for all of us, but until we face it, we’re not going to be able to do anything about it.
The truth is most men are not violent. Overwhelming most men are not violent, but many
men are afraid to speak out against it, are afraid to support women, are afraid to challenge other
So what can we do about all of this? Well the first step is to become aware, to pay
attention, and to recognize that this affects all of us. These are public health problems that I’m
The obsession with thinness is a public health problem, the tyranny of the ideal image of
beauty, violence against women. These are all public health problems that affect us all, and
public health problems can only be solved by changing the environment. We need a lot of citizen
activism, education, discussion, media literacy. We need to work together to change the norms
and change the attitudes.
People often ask me what gives me hope, given how long I’ve been doing this and how
little has changed. As I said before, I feel hopeful because I’m no longer alone, and I'm hopeful
because there have been some signs of progress around the world. Some things have happened
that I wouldn’t have believed possible 30 or 40 years ago when I was first talking about this and
trying to get people to take it seriously.
In Madrid in 2006, the fashion industry said they would stop using models below a
certain body mass index. Recently, Brigitte, Germany’s most popular women’s magazine
announced that it’s going to stop using professional models entirely in its pages and will only use
real-life women instead.
And very recently politicians in the European Union have proposed a series of measures
including labeling digitally altered models, encouraging diverse and healthy body sizes in all
models, and teaching media literacy in the schools. And it’s important to encourage and support
But we also need to find other ways to disrupt the stories that advertising tells us about
ourselves and our relationships. Advertisements will never voluntarily change because it is
profitable for them when we feel terrible about ourselves. So we must speak out, protest, speak
up. This is not censorship; this is more free speech.
Some groups have defaced ads in order to shock people into awareness. This was a
billboard that said “Expect Everything,” and it was changed to read “Expect Misogyny.” Of
course I would never advocate such a thing, you understand.
But most important is to get involved in whatever way moves us to change not just these
ads, but these attitudes that run so deep in our culture and that affect each one of us so deeply
whether we’re conscious of it or not. The changes have to be profound and global, and they’ll
depend on an aware, active and educated public, a public that thinks of itself primarily as citizens
rather than primarily as consumers.
It can be frightening to speak out, to stand up in this way, but as more and more people,
men and women, find the courage to do this, the environment will change. And what’s at stake
for all of us, women and men, is our ability to have authentic and freely chosen lives. Thank you