Advertising! Part 3: Killing Us Softly 4 and Women Of Colour
Again, links to sources of pictures will be nearby to those pictures (new tab), and click on the images for larger versions (same tab). Here’s the YouTube URL again for Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 4 Part 1.
First little interesting thing that I’d like to point out is that the image that she shows that points out some alterations made to a woman’s face is actually Michelle Pfeiffer on a 1990 Esquire Magazine cover (careful with that link – it opens a video ad in the sidebar), with the copy, “What Michelle Pfeiffer Needs… Is Absolutely Nothing.”
Kilbourne goes on to discuss women of colour, for the most part, only being featured in advertising if their looks mimic typical features of white women, including light (or lighter) skin and straight hair.
I’d like to mention at this point that, being white and having always lived in white areas, I have no authority whatsoever to discuss the way that women of colour are portrayed in advertising. I’ll mention what observations I can though, and one thing that stuck out to me was the Rihanna ad – “Light up your eyes” – you can see that most of her face is darker, but just around her eye is white. As I mentioned in my last post, this is a Covergirl campaign that seems to be cashing in on Rihanna’s abuse at the hands of Chris Brown in 2009. So, while this particular ad makes a pernicious comment on domestic violence (in normalising a need for women to deliberately hide any injuries on their faces), I can’t help but wonder if it’s also saying something about having darker skin: “Cover up that embarrassing bruise on your skin; cover up that embarrassing darkness on your skin.” Yikes! So those are two things that you never asked for and that you had no control over that this ad is telling you to feel ashamed about!
I want to share some advertising and modelling images of women of other races:
Aboriginal model Samantha Harris, Maori model Grace Hobson, an Asian woman modelling for L’Oreal, and Sri Lankan model and actress Gihani Gunaratne in GO (“Guys Only”) magazine. Although these women are of diverse races, in these spreads they appear either fully, or to a large extent, Anglicised.
Kilbourne then very briefly touches on black women often being presented in advertising as animals, wearing animal skins, running with animals, or in some way or another being related to wild animals. It’s certainly true that this is common:
Moschino, Macy’s, a fashion spread and Naomi Campbell in a spread entitled “Wild Things” for Harper’s Bazaar. Check out the link for those first three images, because I pinched them from another WordPress blogger, feministactivist, who also wrote about Jean Kilbourne and how important she feels the Killing Us Softly series is.
I just want to point out my feelings that the fact that a man is observing Naomi Campbell and the monkeys in the fourth picture is really creepy to me. Like he’s a ranger at a wildlife sanctuary, and she’s one of the wild animals, and so it’s his job to watch her in her daily life. Ick.
There are a few issues with presenting black women as wild animals. The first is the implication that this makes about their behaviour and demeanour: with these women being presented as African animals including big cats and zebras, we make a connection between them and wild or untamed behaviour, including being aggressive predators and vulnerable prey.
The second is the representation of them as being of a species other than human. While ethics about the treatment of humans and animals have progressed greatly over the past century, it is still considered acceptable to: maintain a hierarchy where humans are above animals; keep animals in homes, zoos, farms, enclosures, sanctuaries, et cetera, for no reason other than that they are animals; assume that one knows best on an animal’s behalf; perform scientific tests or medical procedures on animals without first informing them or asking their permission (because there is no way to effectively communicate with animals to inform them of such things or to obtain permission); own animals as property and trade them for money; and kill animals. I’m definitely not saying that it is currently considered acceptable to do things to black women like perform scientific tests on them without their permission or kill them, nor am I at all saying that the companies that created these particular ads push for that to be acceptable. But I am saying that these connotations – in making humans like animals, and in particular, in presenting only a certain group of people as being animals – are present in these ads, and I think that consumers subconsciously absorb that message.
The third issue is the idea of presenting certain people as “the other”; exoticising them. The implication here is that communication between people of the dominant group and people of this “other” group is difficult or impossible, that the practices of this “other” group are strange to the dominant group, and that it is generally impossible for the dominant group and this “other” group to spend time together, understand one another, and get along as equals.
I’m certainly not saying that these messages in advertising reflect any “natural” or “inherent” behaviours or dynamics between different people in everyday life. More, I’m saying that they instigate and perpetuate artificial behaviours and dynamics that we, unfortunately, think, feel, see and speak every day. I’d like it if more people were cognizant of the existence of these messages, if we were able to spot these messages in otherwise seemingly banal advertisements, and if we were to remain actively conscious of them and of the possible consequences that they can have.
I’d like to again mention that I’m not at all any authority on race and discussions about race, and I welcome anybody with more experience or education in the matter to point out and inform me about anything incorrect or unnecessarily offensive that I’ve written here.