Jean Kilbourne on the Dangerous Image of Gender in the Media

Jean Kilbourne spoke at Notre Dame on February 18, 2014 as an event for “Love Your Body Week.” For decades, Kilbourne has made it her career to help elucidate the problems of advertisements’ negative influence on human culture. She shared with the crowd her presentation, “The Naked Truth: Advertising’s Image of Gender,” which has been adapted into a series of documentaries entitled Killing us Softly. A running theme in her presentation was that, unfortunately a lot of advertisements and the media are creating a “toxic cultural environment that compromises our sense of well-being.”

But why dedicate a career to critiquing and trying to change the nature of advertisements? Kilbourne reports, “Only 8% of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind.” The conscious mind is what’s realizing marketers who are presenting an airbrushed vision construct the surface level message. However, the other 92% overwhelms this active rationale. Kilbourne reminds her audience, “Ads sell a lot more than products…what the ad is selling is image.” Ads sell products boasting a guarantee that if you use said product you will look better, feel better, and others will like you better. Unfortunately, these ads present an impossible ideal – one that is actually humanly impossible. Therefore, rather than creating a confident consumer culture, ads boasting unattainable beauty foster a sense of dejection and even depression in those who inevitably fail in achieving the glory of the cover girl in the ad.

So what’s actually happening in these ads that distorts the human perception of beauty? The main culprit is Photoshop. Kilbourne argues this editing practice, “Creates the illusion that all women can be perfect if we just try hard enough.” Please note the usage of the verb “to try” – it puts a dangerous kind of agency in the hands of women. It makes them responsible for how the ads affect them. These photoshopped ads present a realistic photo of an airbrushed woman – free of blemishes, stretch marks, scars, love handles, and even normal body proportions! And women are told they should be able to look like this if they just try hard enough and buy the right products to help them along the way. Recall Kilbourne’s statistic about how our minds receive ads, because when a young woman is looking at a glowing model or celebrity on a magazine cover she’s going to understand right away how the image was edited.  However, at the same time, that 92% of the unconscious mind is comparing herself to the airbrushed cover girl, pointing out all the ways in which the reader is not as beautiful as the girl in the photo.

The use of Photoshop, although useful for removing a flyaway piece of hair, undoubtedly distorts our perception of beauty. Beauty becomes artificial, as the presence of a photoshopped model on a magazine cover implicitly argues that she is more beautiful than the woman in an untouched photo. Not only does it prevent women from recognizing their full natural beauty when they look in the mirror, Kilbourne notes it also “affects how men feel about the real women in their lives.” She carefully notes these mutations of reality distort both men and women’s standard of beauty – it’s a pervasive problem and no one is left uninfluenced.

The ad on the left was featured in Essence magazine and on the right in Elle.

However, there’s a lot more damage being done to gender and culture in these ads than just Photoshop. Women of color are constantly being whitened (i.e. Beyonce) and even worse, their ethnicity is repurposed to enforce an exoticism, which often leaves them akin to animals. This Animale perfume ad ran in the 1990s, not only featuring a photoshopped female body, but also transforming the black woman into an animal for the sake of selling perfume. So while women on the whole are implicitly critiqued for the shape of their bodies, women of color are being told there are less than human – through these exoticized, animalistic ads – and can only attain actual beauty if their skin is whitened. It’s another unattainable ideal that leaves women feeling failures because they are themselves and don’t match the magazine covers.

What’s happening to the physical female body in these ads is even more troubling. Many ads focus on a woman’s chest and behind, dismembering the body. This is where the process of dehumanization shifts into overdrive. Rather than beauty being found in the whole of the female body, it is located in these broken-off parts. It creates a detrimental mindset that a pretty face isn’t beautiful anymore unless it has the right size breasts and buttocks.

This dismantling of beauty begins as early as adolescence, and Kilbourne reports, “The self-esteem of American girls often plummets when they reach adolescence.” This stage in life features puberty for most girls and therefore presents a lot of overwhelming changes to the body. The developments to the female body during adolescence vary across the board, and yet girls are being presented with the notion that the ideal is to look as perfect as everyone else does – or in this case seems to look. Kilbourne argues, “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel attractive and sexy,” but what’s truly wrong is how early girls are told to be so instead of concentrating on different attributes.

Not only does this trend shift the focus of beauty, Kilbourne also argues it, “Creates a climate in which there’s widespread violence against women.” She reports this because this dismantling of the female body dehumanizes them and makes them objects rather than people, and Kilbourne argues, “It’s very easy to abuse a thing,” since a thing/object doesn’t usually have feelings or emotions. Moreover, Kilbourne cautions, “When women are objectified there’s always the threat of sexual violence.”

The objectification of the female body not only makes it a subject of gaze, but also a dangerous marketing tool. The following ad by Michelob literally equates a woman to a bottle of beer. Michelob might be selling their product but they’re also “selling” the woman with it. It presents a dangerous relationship between alcohol and women. To women it says if they drink Michelob they’ll be as sexually attractive as the ad’s model, and to men it says that drinking Michelob can help them be with girls like the ad’s model. Does this remind you of the alcohol-infused college hook-up culture at all? While women’s bodies and even men’s (as recent as 15 years ago, Kilbourne, reports the media’s objectification of men is on the rise too) are purposed to sell alcohol, these ads create the mentality that alcohol is necessary for intimate relations with others.

Kilbourne reports on an interesting problem: the objectification and “trivialization of sex.” She says the media treats sex as a “dirty joke,” placing “no emphasis on relationship and intimacy.” Kilbourne recalls a Budweiser ad with the caption “names optional” to illustrate how alcohol advertisements run the risk of encouraging anonymous hook-ups under the fuel of an alcohol-induced buzz. Instead of looking at sex as an intimate relation between two people it has become a mechanism of selling products. She reports that these racy ads are “way more graphic and pornographic than ever.” Moreover, she notices it creates a cultural double bind for women, they’re either a prude for not being like the women in these ads or a whore for being so – they can’t win! Kilbourne argues for the necessity of sex education within schools. She reveals the United States is the only developed country without an established sex-ed system, so meanwhile the mass media is perversely educating kids on sex. It’s a gross distortion all around.

So what are the effects of this distortion of gender and sex in the media? Besides alcohol-dependent relationships, body image suffers a huge blow. Kilbourne reports, “At least 65% of American women have some form of an eating disorder.” Why is this happening? Recall how the 92% of the mind is unconsciously absorbing the image an ad is selling. The majority of the time this image is an unrealistically thing woman, lacking flaws. Moreover, the ads sell this image with a teeth-whitened smile on the photoshopped model – selling the idea that with this “perfection” comes true happiness. Well it’s a lie.

Please note, Kilbourne’s enlightenments aren’t meant to depress humanity nor show how we’re doomed because of these dangerous media trends. On the contrary, her work hopes to shed light on how unnecessary this type of advertisement is, and to empower people to ender into discussion and activism to change the status quo. “This [is a problem that] affects all of us,” Kilbourne concludes, “Our public health problem can only be solved by changing the environment.” We need to take a strong stance against the overwhelming toxic culture that unfortunately fuels violence and depression. Thankfully, Kilbourne is no longer alone in this conversation about how media negatively distorts our perception and reality of gender. She challenges her audience to be mindful of what messages and ideals ads are actually selling. Lastly she reminds us we are citizens – that is our primary identity – not just consumers, to remind us of our agency in the matter.  Our self-perception should be a healthy one rooted in ourselves, not in an image sold on billboards and television commercials.

Want to hear more from Jean? Check out her website jeankilbourne.com

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Photos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5