Mass media take part directly in constructing gender alongside such traditional agents of socialisation as family, the education system and the institution of marriage. It is particularly apparent in today’s information society where it is nearly impossible to hide from the constant bombardments with the “right” images. In that sense, it is advertising that is particularly insidious.
The insidious nature of advertising lies in the way it presents information about the “proper” interpersonal relationships, social hierarchy, and gender stereotypes. It does that covertly, through a simplified semantic code, which nevertheless can be easily read.
The space of advertising symbols works with images about every sphere of life, implied attitudes and recommendations as to how to look, how to understand sexuality, how to be in a relationship and who to be with, what job and what hobbies to have, how to arrange your household, what lifestyle to have and even how to perceive and judge yourself.
Erving Goffman On Guard For Gender Equality
In 1979, American sociologist Erving Goffman publishes his book called Gender Advertisements where he examines the tools and visual tricks used in commercial advertising to form gender stereotypes. Goffman emphasises that whatever the text message of an advertisement is and however it describes “what is really happening” in the picture, the picture itself has already been created in a way that sends the required message to the consumer.
Goffman describes in detail the cliche ways of portraying women in advertisements (their postures, appearance, how they are placed in space) that show consistent gender subordination to men in various situations.
Although the book is already over 30 years old, its content is still partly relevant to modern advertising in Belarus. Essentially, all stereotypical portrayals of women can be arranged on a coordinate plane where one of the axes is Submissiveness and the other is Explicit Sexuality.
Submissiveness in a female image is realised through licensed withdrawal and ritualisation of subordination, and explicit sexuality through body display and feminine touch.
Smiling, throwing one’s head back, having no eye-contact with the consumer, looking dreamy and detached.
Ritualization of subordination
The body is not upright but as tries to diminish itself, shrink, bend, lean against something; the head is bowed; taking lower positions in space (function ranking): the model sits on a chair, lies on a sofa or on the floor. If there is a male character in the frame, the model tries to occupy less space and be lower than him, the female model’s relative size is smaller; general unsteadiness, uncomfortable or unnatural postures, bent knees.
The models turn into kinesthetics and touch gracefully everything around them, including themselves (lips, hair, face), straighten their clothes, trace the shapes of various objects with their fingers.
A technique of flirting is used when the model does not appear as a subject but an object of male desire; aggressive sexualised images and ambiguous eroticisation are used; nakedness, revealing and provocative clothes. In fairness, male images may also be dehumanised and reduced to objects.
What Are Advertisements Really Selling To Us?
Studies of psychological mechanisms of advertisement impact on consumers have established that it can be used as an effective tool for normative and informational pressure. However, the mission of advertising is defined by whose money has paid for it, as Naomi Wolf emphasises in her Beauty Myth. The abundance of stereotypical images in Belarusian advertising indicates that, despite its high potential to influence public thinking and society in general, it still pursues no other goals than commercial profit.
Most often, advertising is not even aimed at selling the product but rather at selling a lifestyle, a status that may supposedly be acquired by buying the product.
According to Naomi Wolf, ads do not sell sex, that would be counterproductive: advertising does not need heterosexual women and men to reach out to each other and obtain sexual pleasure. What it sells is sexual frustration.
Advertising virtually encourages the consumer to chase the carrot: formalised, far-out images created by a whole team of make-up artists, stylists, and photographers. The consumer is supposed to chase it and be discontented with themselves and their environment, to try in vain to comply and, of course, to buy and to consume. This is sad because that same advertisement could be used as a platform for creating positive gender stereotypes and portraying a wide spectrum of gender variance, and help viewers fight inadequate perceptions of their own bodies and low self-esteem.
As to us, the consumers, we don’t have anything else left but to stay alert, not to fall for glossy provocations, not to feed the stereotypes by trying to comply with them, and notice stereotyped images in the information space around us.
Mila Novakovskaya для MAKEOUT