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Sexist Advertising: What it Says About Women’s Equality

Edited by Anna Maria Sordjan

Women have come such a long way in the fight for equality, and have made some amazing strides. Yet, there are still so many domains in which women are vastly underrepresented, and are continually not given the same respect as men. If you’ve been paying attention to US politics at all, you’ll have heard that Brett Kavanaugh was just confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court, despite multiple allegations of sexual assault. As an American, a woman, and really just a human being, I’m disgusted, disappointed, and frankly horrified. To me, that action makes a statement to women that their experiences with sexual assault don’t deserve justice, respect, or even recognition. And that scares me.

            As I continually learn more and expose myself to women’s rights issues and the struggle for equality, I find so many areas that have so much room for improvement. In my Sex Roles and Behavior class, taught by Dr. Molly Metz of the Psychology Department, we recently discussed female portrayals in advertising. We watched the fourth installment of the film, Killing Us Softly, a film series created by Jean Kilbourne, which documents the changes in women and minority representations portrayed in advertising. The film highlights the overtly sexualized portrayal of women, and that unfortunately, was nothing new or surprising to me. We’re constantly bombarded with ads that are so overtly sexual, like Carl’s Jr. commercials that capitalize on the attractiveness of their models to sell their food.

            I was really disgusted at how blatantly sexist the ads from previous generations were. Kilbourne showed images like these, to show how much worse they used to be.

A point we discussed as a class was how conflicting the messages in these ad campaigns can be. They portray women in a hyper sexualized way, often in very revealing clothing, yet also childlike, resembling a little girl. They display two messages: women must be sexually experienced, yet simultaneously virginal and innocent in order to be valued. But these two things are in direct opposition to each other-childlike innocence and sexual promiscuity cannot be reconciled with one another. The standards are literally impossible to attain, leaving women and girls even more confused as to what’s right, and what’s expected of them. Further, the sexualization of young girls is highly prevalent, with child models trying to resemble the likes of their adult counterparts.

            Additionally, many advertisements objectify women to the point of physical deconstruction. The women are not whole, but are reduced to their body parts, often depicted only as a pair of legs or breasts. In many cases, women literally become the object of desire-beer bottles, kegs, or even ice cream cones.

            In 2012, vodka company Belvedere released this ad.


            After coming under scrutiny and criticism on their Facebook page, they withdrew the ad and publicly apologized. The ad depicts a man grabbing a woman from behind, who clearly looks terrified. He appears to be making some sort of unwanted sexual advance towards her. Belvedere then made a donation to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) to further extend their apology. Although RAINN issued a statement regarding the donation, mentioning Belvedere’s attempts to contribute to their work for victims of sexual violence, I don’t know how meaningful these kinds of apologies are. There are so many ads that are similar to this, depicting women in very derogatory, demeaning ways. Many ads also sexualize domestic violence towards women, which is just messed up on so many levels. The very fact that someone visualized these images and ideals as ways to make money is disheartening, and seems to show that the company’s success with their products takes precedence to anything else, include women’s equality.   


            Clearly, we still have a long way to go before women are given the respect they deserve in many domains, including the advertising industry. Actions like the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh take us in the opposite direction. And sexist, demeaning ads that portray women as nothing more than sex objects to obtain pleasure from also do little to promote the kind of equality we are after. They are damaging to self confidence, for both young girls and adult women. They also promote very backwards ideals, such as sexualizing domestic abuse, and continually reinforcing the now archaic notion that a woman’s only place should be in the kitchen. Like I said, we have a long, long way to go.


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Tali Main

U Toronto

Tali is a second year psychology student at University of Toronto. She enjoys singing, reading cheesy teen romance novels, and cooking/eating delicious food!
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