Jean Kilbourne on Advertising’s Image of Women

[Transcript]

This is a fascinating (and depressing) clip from Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 4, a presentation on the messages the ad industry sends about women and the literally impossible standard of female beauty it upholds. The examples she shares all depict women who appear to be white, with a couple exceptions, and they’re a good illustration of how misogyny and racism intersect when it comes to pop culture and body image.

Entertainment, fashion, and advertising are dominated by images of women who are not only impossibly proportioned, through the magic of Photoshop, but also almost invariably white. The few exceptions are almost all lighter-skinned women of color. This is a double burden for women of color. Whiteness is as impossible for us to achieve as is the distorted and unrealistic model body women of all races are held up to.

Mainstream feminism has done much to unpack the ways in which our cultural standards of female beauty are unattainable, and more fundamentally, why women shouldn’t have to aspire to such standards in the first place. Unfortunately, race is often a missing piece in mainstream feminist discourse about these issues. There’s often not as much recognition of the fact that the advertising industry, through the underrepresentation of women of color and the racialization of the few women of color it does depict, sends the message that ideal female beauty is first and foremost white. Feminism has a long way to go before the idea that women of color shouldn’t have to aspire to whiteness is as well-established and well-defended as the idea that women shouldn’t have to aspire to having Barbie-like bodies.

As Kilbourne points out in her previous video in this series, reducing women to bodies and even body parts is fundamentally a dehumanization of women, presenting women as things or objects. Such objectification is, in her words, “almost always the first step towards justifying violence” against the people objectified, and is a powerful contributing factor to the epidemic levels of misogynist violence and abuse in our society. Here again women of color bear a more severe burden than white women; the underrepresentation of women of color marginalizes and erases our existence, which is inherently dehumanizing. In addition, as Kilbourne notes, depictions of women of color as animalistic – literally as animals, in animal prints, in “wild” settings – are widespread and send the message that women of color are “not fully human.” And once again, this is an issue that “mainstream” feminism, dominated by white voices, has yet to recognize or take as seriously as womanist and WOC feminist movements have done.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for pointing this out about women of color. I was well aware of the tweaking of white women’s images to make them unattainable by real women– but the marginalization and animalization of women of color was something I needed my eyes opened to. Now that I’m aware, I will be sure to mention this in my discussions on this topic.

  2. Oh my gosh, I hear you. I recently read Jean Kilbourne’s works Can’t Buy My Love and So Sexy So Soon and it is completely insane to learn about all that advertising is doing to us. I’m 15 and I have a blog that was previously devoted to health purposes, but I couldn’t not include all that I’ve learned from Jean Kilbourne’s stuff. If anything, this is the important mental health information we should be preaching. I’m reading Reviving Ophilia now and want to do more blog posts on it because it is such an amazing book related to advertising. If you want to take a look at what I’ve written from a teen’s point of view, you can take a look at my blog at greenleanteen.com.

    Again, thanks for your insightful post about this issues. They’re definitely mind blowing.

    Mikayla