|Ad in Elle for Louis Vuitton;|
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Summer 2010)
|Ad in the New York Times Style Magazine for Cesare Paciotti;|
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Spring 2007)
|Ad in Elle for Jimmy Choo;|
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Winter 2007)
|Ad in City Magazine for Duncan Quinn menswear;|
from the Ms. Magazine No Comment archive (Winter 2009)
In addition, the imagery of dead women invokes the themes of passivity and powerlessness that are common in media images of women (Collins, 2011; Conley & Ramsey, 2011; Mager & Helgeson, 2011). Women are more likely to be posed in passive positions of lower power in the media than are men. Death is the ultimate example of passivity and lack of power. I'm reminded of Andrea Dworkin's analysis of Grimm's fairy-tale mothers:
When she is good, she is soon dead. In fact, when she is good, she is so passive in life that death must be only more of the same. Here we discover the cardinal principle of sexist ontology -- the only good woman is a dead woman. (Dworkin, 1974, p. 41)The advertisers themselves typically deny that sexism drives these ad campaigns. Instead, they argue that they are striving to be "edgy"; by including extreme images of dead women or women as victims of violence, they are pushing the envelope so as to be "cutting edge."
I'm not buying it.
Images of dead or dying women are so widespread that they have long ceased to be cutting edge. Not only is this a frequent trope in fashion photography, but images of violence against women are commonplace in the mainstream media (e.g., crime dramas). While these images are horrifying, they are hardly new. It would be far edgier to include images of dead men (I don't condone this approach, mind you, but it would be much more unusual and therefore more cutting edge). Or here's a radical idea -- how about active, powerful, happy women? That is a much less common image in the media, particularly in fashion photography. I would argue that the use of images of dead-looking women is far from edgy. In fact, these images are in many ways utterly conventional -- they reinforce our view of women as passive and powerless victims of violence. (Not to mention that these images typically represent the dead woman as attractive and sexy, which is even more disturbing.)
In short, we can only understand these images as a reflection of broader stereotypes of women as passive, submissive, and powerless (or less powerful), sexualized objects.
And this is why any analysis of the media must include a gender lens. An awareness of the cultural meanings of gender is essential to understanding what these images mean and why they persist. A critical examination of the ways in which males and females are represented in the media serves to illuminate the pervasive presence of gender stereotyping in our culture. It also raises some unsettling questions about our cultural attitudes towards women. As one of my students in Psychology of Women wrote, "Most of the time I don't understand why [the advertisers] pose [women] in such ways but reading this chapter helped me understand that it is a power problem."
It's all too easy to see advertising as trivial. Most of us don't think much about ads -- we might find them funny or stupid or puzzling, but we let them pass without much comment. After all, it's just an ad. Even if we do take advertising seriously, we might be tempted to see these particular ads (and others like them) as extreme and unrepresentative examples. Certainly, many ads do not include images of dead-looking women. But such images are a consistent theme within fashion advertising, and we can't afford to ignore the messages being conveyed. These images matter -- as I've discussed before, the media does affect us, even if we are not aware of it. As Mager & Helgeson (2011, p. 239) note, "Advertising reflects and recreates the social world in a manipulated way." In the world created by advertising, dead-looking women serve as sexy and attractive advertising props.
We do not need to accept the world of advertising, however; we can change it. Changing the media representation of women and men will only happen if we speak up. Be a critical consumer of the media and encourage those around you to question the messages being conveyed. Contact the advertisers to let them know how you feel: Complain about the problematic ads and praise the positive ads. We can do better than this. We *need* to do better than this.
Thanks to Q who provided the title of this post (and patiently read multiple drafts, making cogent suggestions for revisions).
Resources & References:
Dr. Jean Kilbourne explores the images of women and men in advertising; her documentary, Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising's Image of Women is a classic and well worth watching (you can see an excerpt here, or the whole documentary here). Her website has quite a few resources related to the media representations of women (check out the Resources for Change section).
Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 14, 155-195.
Collins, R. L. (2011). Content analysis of gender roles in media: Where are we now and where should we go? Sex Roles, 64, 290-298.
Conley, T. D. & Ramsey, L. R. (2011). Killing us softly? Investigating portrayals of women and men in contemporary magazine advertisements. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 469-478.
Dworkin, A. (1974). Woman Hating. New York, NY: E. P. Dutton.
Kassin, S., Fein. S., & Markus, H. R. (2011). Social Psychology, 8th Edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing.
Mager, J., & Helgeson, J. G. (2011). Fifty years of advertising images: Some changing perspectives on role portrayals along with enduring consistencies. Sex Roles, 64, 238-252.