Killing Us Softly; An Analysis of Jean Kilbourne’s Lecture on Advertising’s Image of Women.
“Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women” is an American documentary based on the lectures of Jean Kilbourne. Kilbourne’s lectures advance as an important take on how adverts translate to a very powerful educational force. The kind that is influential enough to reinforce or even redefine gender portrayals in popular culture. So much so that every aspect of popular culture is about marketing even though we, as consumers, may deem ourselves to be unexposed or invulnerable to the effects of it. But in practice, in the meantime, our subconscious is continuously at work, working and reworking the idealistic narratives of advertising inside the workshops of our brain. Soon, advertisements begin to act as a guide to social behavior, especially in the case for women. They build a cult of beauty, which becomes exclusive and synonymous to the unreal portrayal of “femininity” in these capitalistic, heteronormative plugolas.
This practice builds a toxic environment which harbors unhealthy ideals like; airbrushed skin, tiny waists, and overly sexualized visuals of women or even more insidious forms like the fetishization of a Eurocentric skin color. And while we are aware of the fact that these computer rendered images are not depictions of real life figures, in the sea of all these adverts and countless insecurities, we buy into this selling of artificial values and images. These countless insecurities are not self-created, in fact they have been shoved down our throats through years of conditioning which makes us question everything that is natural to our bodies. It has made women question our body hair, our cellulite, our stretch marks, our moles, our acne, our hyperpigmentation and even the color of our skin.
Garnier, Ponds, Loreal are just a few examples of the kind of brands which sell skin whitening products under the cleverly “less controversial” tags of “skin brightening” and “glowing,’ when in actuality all they target towards is skin “lightening.” South Asia itself faces this epidemic of a post-colonial complex which looks down upon dark skin, peak example being “Fair n Lovely” and though there has been a recent wave of reactionary art being made somewhat in the form of culture jamming, where an artist’s came up with almost a parody of the original phrase, correcting it to “Unfair and lovely,” the stigma associated with dark skin is culturally too deep to uproot. And brands will always remain insidious enough to materialize and then capitalize on such insecurities. A prime example of that is the wordplay “Glow n Lovely” which Fair n Lovely recently publicized to mute the rising outrage in South Asia.
All these desires which are essentially driven by insecurity are then marketed as needs. Who decided that it’s not okay for women to have hairy arms? Who said women have to associate their entire womanhood and femininity to the amount of hair on their bodies? Companies like Veet specifically, almost shame women into buying products aimed towards hair removal, associating femininity, beauty and confidence with a hairless body. And if one were to suppose for a minute that women were not these insecure beings who had been raised to fit unrealistic ideals, would these products really even be on sale? Would a pink razor still cost more than a regular razor which does the same job but is not a stereotypically “female” color? I have all my doubts.
If profiting off of our insecurities wasn’t enough, these corporations also decided it was okay to objectify women in a world where women were already marginalized because of their gender. Women’s bodies are constantly turned into objects, dehumanized in a way that makes promotion of violence against women inevitable. Aiding this image is the typically vulnerable body language of women which is portrayed in advertisements, showing women as timid, delicate, unable to defend themselves, almost submissive, especially in fashion magazines. If you juxtapose the same image with the portrayal of a male body, you release it is always dominant and confident and overtly strong, but of course always the depiction of a cis-het male is almost always most encouraged. As to these people enforcing these strict stereotypes is always easier and perhaps more profitable, because the narrower the stereotype the more insecurities of the audience these companies can cash on.
Not only are female bodies sexualized with a culture obsessed with breasts, they’re mostly dismembered too, again reinforcing the idea of women being held synonymous to just objects, and more insidiously, just objects of pleasure.
That being said, we realize that even in advertising, women and men inhabit different worlds. Women are suddenly ripped apart from natural occurrences and changes within their bodies. All of a sudden small breasts, too large breasts, saggy breasts, wrinkles, cellulite, thin lips, dark skin, the size of their behind are considered “unnatural” or “imperfect.” I always found the agenda of “perfectly imperfect” uncanny. Because to me perfection lies in diversity and the more diverse women’s bodies are from each other the more perfect they are, because each human is curated to be different and unique and that should and must be their perfect, and that understanding of perfect is not liable to match any other humans understanding of imperfect. Sagging breasts are not a sign of imperfection, they are scientifically a type of breasts. Stretch makes are not imperfections, they are a direct reaction of the evolution of our bodies in the form of child birth, sudden weight loss or weight gain.
For these corporations to villainies the natural occurrences in our body is not only, for the lack of a better word, plain evil, but also inherently dangerous. I’m all for self-expression in the form of plastic surgery if that makes you happy, but if that need arose due to an insecurity that was conditioned into you, it must be reevaluated. Women in Brazil end up with plastic surgery horror stories, some lose their lives, some end up with butchered bodies because of negligence. Yet this billion dollar black market continuous to exist and feed off of vulnerable women.
Not only does it give birth to the urge of plastic surgery it also introduces women to eating disorders. Unrealistic bodes, morphed through computer software, projecting the pretense of their attainability, when in actuality even the model being featured doesn’t look like her magazine version in real life.
At a deeply personal level, I wish women and especially young girls were educated on different types of body types. How some women are broad, some are petite, some are tall, some are short, and you don’t have to look like another body type in order to feel accepted. I myself battle with the idea of naturally inheriting a tall and broad structure. Fighting with my appetite every day, trying to look like the more celebrated body type. With time and education though, I have realized that I would have to physically chisel my bone structure to look like the others. And I wish I was conditioned to believe this, instead of struggling for 22 years and only recently stumbling upon the idea and unlearning enough to finally accept it. You cannot starve yourself into a body type, and should never be made to feel otherwise.
Unfortunately it’s not only older women who are targeted by these corporations, its little girls too. Even recently this trend of women imitating anime girls has surfaced. Within the fashion industry, this idea of presenting a childlike image of women, with lollipops and doll like eyes and vulnerable fetus like poses, makes little girls susceptible to being sexualized. And it’s not surprising, in a world where breast feeding publically is considered vulgar because of the over sexualisation of the breasts. An act so pure is so vehemently abused and demonized.
To this day I am unable to find adverts or fashion magazines in my own culture that represent me as a woman. In the South Asian market, all we see is perpetuation of gender roles and stereotypes. Big brands are only willing to represent only a certain body type as models, period adds still show blue liquid instead of red blood, it’s always the woman making the food, doing the cleaning, raising the children.
Sometimes we’re not fair enough, other times our hair are too curly, we’re too fat, or too skinny, too loud and obnoxious. This constant surveillance we are made to live under in real life, when the adverts represent us as these liberated, overtly sexual mannequins, who always have something to “fix” in their bodies. In real life we face sexual assault, domestic abuse, lack of a decent education, general marginalization by society and norms, even our mobility is clipped. Glad to know all the adverts want us to care about is our nipples, our wrinkles and the hair on our bodies. But hey, at least they care enough to provide sanitary napkins, a necessity in a woman’s life, and of course don’t forget to profit off of it. They even make scented sanitary napkins now. Good for us (them).