Sexism and the Media Essay Paper 7 pages

Sexism and the Media


There are numerous examples of sexism in advertising: from Britney Spears’ advertisements for her perfume Curious, in which she strips down to her underwear for the camera, to Victoria’s Secret’s models like Chrissy Teigen undergoing both plastic surgery and photoshopping (because stripping down to her underwear doesn’t do enough to convey the right body image) for the company’s lingerie ads, women are routinely objectified for the “male gaze,” as Laura Mulvey put it (Turow, 2009, p. 195). While sexism can take many forms—such as the stereotype of women as homemakers ever ready to please their husbands that was promoted in mid-20th century advertisements—in advertising today, sexism is most readily displayed by way of objectification, as seen in Go Daddy ads, Victoria’s Secrtet ads, beer commercials, and so on, where women’s bodies are like commodities.


Feminism challenged the notion of this objectification of women for a time, but in the post-feminist culture of today, sex has bombarded media and women appear more objectified than ever—and willingly so. Women in the media appear to celebrate their sexuality in a way that would have been frowned upon in the Feminist era as a kowtowing to sexism by men (i.e., women acting like nothing more than eye candy for the male gaze). However, as Rosalind Gill (2015) points out, the concept of sex has shifted in the post-feminist era. Likewise, in her essay on empowerment and sexism, Gill (2008) argues that rather than women feeling ashamed of subjecting themselves to the male gaze, they seek to use their sexuality to dominate in today’s culture. Gill asserts that what defines the post-feminist model is the shift from objectification to subjectification (in other words, the woman is not thought of as the object of the male gaze but rather the male has become the subject of the female’s desire to dominate sexually): “today women are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their (implicitly ‘liberated’) interests to do so” (Gill, 2008, p. 45). This paper will view how sex is used in advertising to show why this type of media is inherently sexist in spite of the post-feminist perspective that appears to justify or validate sexually explicit use of the female form to sell product in today’s culture.


Advertising today projects and perpetuates a false set of values with respect to women, femininity, and womanhood, as Kilbourne (2010) shows in Killing Us Softly 4. Advertisers use tricks, like camera framing, lighting, make up, costuming, post-production cleanup (editing), and photo-shopping to make women appear in an idealized form that will appeal to both men and women. The Victoria’s Secret ad that ran during the Super Bowl, in which Adrianna Lima twirls a football between her legs in order to get viewers to want to buy the company’s lingerie, uses all the tricks of marketing to give men and women the idea that owning this brand of underwear will make one into a kind of sexualized goddess. Likewise, in many ads there on television, women are depicted as controlling and jealous for comedic effect while men are shown having to put up with all the foibles of the female sex for laughs. Women are either portrayed as sexualized images or as burdens that are tolerated for some reason by the superior male sex. Budweiser, Geico, State Farm, Doritos, Go Daddy, and many other companies have used women in these ways to sell their products. While women have always seemed to be the brunt of male jokes in advertising (the old Schlitz beer ads show a woman burning dinner at the stove and the husband saying joking, “Don’t worry, darling! You didn’t burn the beer!”), today’s ads have turned more and more towards sexualizing women to an unrealistic degree.


Feona Attwood (2014) explains the new perspective on female sexuality in the media by saying, “Where once sexualized representations of women in the media presented them as the passive, mute objects of an assumed male gaze, today women are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their liberated interests to do so” (p. 100). In other words, women have become complicit in the crime of sexism and in their own exploitation. Post-feminist theory argues that women are not applying their sexuality to the trade of commerce in order to line the pockets of advertisers, but rather they are doing it to line their own pockets—and essentially they are saying that if you cannot beat them (and the Feminists have certainly tried for decades to do so) then join them. The post-feminist culture celebrates when females show their forms and call it empowering—though nothing has really changed in the equation other than that these women are supposedly being well-compensated for their complicity while being praised for their liberation. One must wonder, however, exactly what they have been liberated from: they are still subjecting themselves to the male gaze (even if they are acting like that it is a game they are playing in order to dominate sexually). They are still defining themselves as objects of lust (even if their aim is to use lust as a form of control). They are still putting themselves into the hands of advertisers who have known since the time of Bernays in the first half of the 20th century how to use female sexuality as a means to manipulate the consuming consciousness. Sex sells even still today just as it did a century ago. The fact that women now view the selling of their sex as empowering (whereas they used to view it as exploitative) just because now they want to do it and they want to do it precisely for control does not really justify it in the least if one is going to judge the matter from any traditional standpoint or even from a feminist standpoint. Only from the perspective of post-feminism does this type of behavior because laudatory and only then because the moral justification for it is based solely on the notion that whatever the woman wants is good, because her will is what matters most. If she wills herself to be a tool for advertising, that is her right and she should feel empowered to do so: such is the essence of post-feminism.


Post-feminism is embraced in today’s culture because the culture itself has changed. Sexual liberation has not led to the type of empowerment predicted by feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan but rather to a harem type of culture in which the women in the harem of the male-dominated advertising industry are put on pedestals and praised for their example in order to mitigate any sense of guilt of conscientiousness about how they are still really just subjecting themselves to the male gaze. Erving Goffman (1979) states that “posing for an ad almost invariably involves a carryover of sex” (p. 26), so it cannot be argued that women in advertising are simply expressing a form of gender equality (if men can flaunt their forms on beaches, then so too can women—so goes the idea); rather, women are deliberately attenuating their sense of the differences between male and female sexuality in an effort to politicize sexuality from the egalitarian perspective. As men and women attempt to shift the values of culture away from the patriarchal order, they argue that women are no longer the subjects of the male gaze because the patriarchs are not in control (Turow, 2009)—but this is simply not true. At the end of the day, the patriarchal order is still firmly in place, the patriarchs cut the checks, and the use of female sexuality to sell magazines, ad space, to generate clicks, and so on, is still widely used.


Gill attempts to answer whether sexual agency can ever be used as a tool of empowerment for women—and indeed this was one of the premises of feminism in the early days: women could demonstrate their independence through their own sexual agency. However, in the advertising world, there is no real independence occurring: women are still selling or contracting out their sexual agency for monetary gain. What fuels the transaction is the underlying sexism of society. Post-feminist theory posits that this is not sexism per se but rather women using technology and consumerism as a launch pad for their own benefit: they apply their sexuality in a system that allows them to use what they have in order to better their position economically; such is the argument of Evans and Riley (2015) in Technologies of Sexiness: Sex, Identity, and Consumer Culture: postfeminism, they say, “refutes feminism itself as a spent force, relegated to history and a time of structural inequality when women were not able to make claim to the kinds of consumer citizenship to which they are currently entitled” (p. 16). Thus, by abolishing the theoretical principles that supported feminism, post-feminist culture validates its complicit attitude in embracing the sexist structure of advertising by calling it liberating and good for women economically. Evans and Riley (2015) assert that this sentiment can be understand “as a fusion between neoliberal subjectivity and a feminist politics reimagined through the logic of consumerism” (p. 16), but that does not change the objective fact that women are still subjecting themselves to the male gaze and that they are simply taking advantage of a system all too willing to shower them with dollars and praise if they will just take off their clothes, enjoy it, and allow business to flourish without objecting using any old-fashioned, prudish, or out-dated concepts to condemn the advertising industry as sexist or as offensive. By convincing women that it is in their best interests to participate in the consumer culture by selling their sexuality to the advertising industry, the advertising industry provides women with a false sense of liberation. It is false because women are still dependent upon the industry and its cash for their liberation. They are not liberating themselves or becoming independent on their own. Rather, they are engaging in precisely the type of behavior that Bernays recognized long ago would bring in the revenues for businesses. It is just as exploitative today as it was then—the only difference is that a veneer or gloss of respectability has been given it by post-feminists who view this type of behavior as good for women. The concept of what is “good for women” is what has changed for them.


Kilbourne (2010) shows why this concept of “good” needs to be reassessed: her documentary Killing Us Softly 4 reveals the ways in which advertising presents a false, distorted and destructive image of femininity, sexuality, and womanhood. Women allow themselves to be presented in ways that are not actually true to reality: they are participating in a male-driven fantasy that thrives on lust, and they are doing it because they are pridefully self-deluded into thinking that this type of complicity somehow makes them strong, independently-minded, and honorable. The reality is that the projections of female beauty within the advertising industry lead women to develop insecurities, phobias, eating disorders, body image complexes—and the compulsion of course to buy the products that are being advertised as the tools that will make them beautiful like the women depicted in the advertising (though these models are invariably touched up in post-production—meaning their representations are further falsified through airbrushing in addition to the cosmetic surgery they undergo in real life to enhance what nature has given them). As Mary Celeste Kearney (2010) points out, “media are sites of considerable ideological negotiation and contestation, that is, sites of struggle over meaning and values” (p. 3). The values that are perpetuated within advertising—images of women as near-emaciated models projecting sexual dominance over men by way of expertly applied makeovers, expensive dresses and jewelry, perfect costuming and perfectly situated lighting, and amplified ambiance all of which casts them in an idealized glow—are values that do not reflect that real values that women have to offer in society. That is why advertising media are still inherently sexist: they promote a false depiction of why women should be valued—and what is worse, as Kilbourne shows, they have a detrimental effect on the female psychology—inducing millions of young women to want to rush off to the stores to buy the consumer products that advertisers have convinced them will make them beautiful and have value.


In conclusion, advertising is sexist—and that can be seen simply by looking at the representation of women in the medium. They are depicted unrealistically and used to generate profits for companies that want to sell their products to insecure and impressionable men and women, boys and girls. In today’s post-feminist culture, this sexism is celebrated as liberating for women, but the reality is that it is enslaving and perpetuates a false concept of what real femininity and even real masculinity should be. Today’s post-feminists promote a new concept of these characteristics—and that is why today’s advertisers get away with hawking their products through sexist and exploitative ads.



Attwood, F. (2014). Mainstreaming sex: The sexualization of western culture. IB Tauris.

Evans, A., & Riley, S. (2015). Technologies of sexiness: Sex, identity, and consumer

culture. Sexuality, Identity, and Society. UK: Oxford University Press.

Gill, R. (2008). Empowerment/sexism: Figuring female sexual agency in contemporary

advertising. Feminism & Psychology, 18(1), 35-60.

Gill, R. (2015). Gender and the media. John Wiley & Sons.

Goffman, E. (1979). Gender advertisements. NY: Harper & Row.

Kearney, M. C. (Ed.). (2012). The gender and media reader. NY: Routledge.

Kilbourne, J. (2010). Killing Us Softly 4. Cambridge Documentary.

Turow, J. (2009). The advertising and consumer culture reader. NY: Routledge.



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