Home > Advertising > Advertising! Part 11: Killing Us Softly 4 and Silencing, Humiliating And Dominating Women

Advertising! Part 11: Killing Us Softly 4 and Silencing, Humiliating And Dominating Women

Part 2 of Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 4 (2010), the subject of this discussion, can be found here, at YouTube. Click an image to view the larger size, and click the link in the text near to that image to check my source for it.

Following on from her discussion of women’s size in advertising and consequently women’s physical diminishment, Kilbourne asserts that this has an effect even more insidious: the silencing of women. Indeed, upon searching I discovered that there is some kind of franchise based on the concept of conflating silence and women:

One of the pubs that goes by the name of “The Silent Woman”; one of the books entitled “The Silent Woman”; an opera by a great musician is called “The Silent Woman”; one of the films inventively named “The Silent Woman”. Silent women even have their own recording studio.

So it’s no wonder that advertising depicts women being silenced in various ways. Sometimes they cover their mouths with their hands or with clothing, sometimes they don’t have mouths at all, and sometimes they have a moth where their mouth should be.

A magazine ad for Swatch watches from August 2011; an ad for Rexona Teens; a poster for the 2006 horror film Silent Hill; a poster for the 1991 thriller film The Silence Of The Lambs which features most of Jodie Foster’s face and a moth.

The ad for The Silence Of The Lambs is already fun, but awesomenator.com – my source for all of the Silence Of The Lambs images – alerted me to a hidden message in the poster which is even more exciting. Look to the right – a close-up of the moth reveals that there is an image of a skull on its back. If you look closely, you’ll see that that skull, in fact, is made up of seven naked women.

WARNING: The links in the next paragraph link directly to photographic images of wartime humiliation tactics of prisoners in each of the two situations described.

The arrangement of the seven women thus is an artwork entitled ‘Female Bodies as a Skull’ by Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali. The version presented to the right is a photo taken by American photographer Philippe Halsman in 1951. Of course, forcing or compelling nudity in others is a common method of establishing dominance – such as in the treatment of Jewish people during World War II – and arranging and piling a group of nude people to your liking is a way of humiliating and degrading them – such as we saw of Iraqi Prisoners Of War in the photos from Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.

When advertising isn’t showing images of women that blatantly evoke wartime humiliation tactics, it’s constantly picturing them in very vulnerable poses. They often cuddle themselves or hold their hands in front of themselves protectively; they may be in a position inferior to the photographer; they are almost always indolent rather than active or sporty; and their facial expressions usually display a softness, perhaps a sweetness or seduction – we rarely see a woman in an ad showing a powerful emotion such as anger.

Natalie Portman cuddling herself for comfort and for Miss Dior Cherie perfume; an ad for Nordstrom; a woman looking sexually submissive for Cesare Paciotti; a 2011 Prada campaign.

Not content to construct only grown women as submissive, ads show girls in vulnerable poses from a very young age. Boys generally strike more powerful and dignified poses, with open body language, and are even allowed to sit or stand with their knees apart. The differences in the types of poses of girls and boys in advertising campaigns is striking:

Target Kids clothing; Guess Kids clothing; a girl modelling Armani Junior clothing; a boy modelling Armani Junior clothing.

As well as presenting women and girls as vulnerable, advertisements often picture women looking very silly, undignified and uncomfortable.

A photo from a fashion pictorial by Terry Richardson of a woman having trouble skating; these women appear to be having trouble with the furniture in this photoshoot for Lanvin; actor and model Jenny McCarthy is always sheepish when Candie’s photographers ambush her while she’s on the toilet.

The photo to the left is from a campaign for Marc Jacobs featuring singer Victoria Beckham’s legs. The author of the linked article actually congratulates Beckham for being “a good sport” for fulfilling the Undignified, Hacked Apart And Possibly Dead modelling role frequently afforded to women (see Part 4: Women As Objects And Body Parts). If Beckham had “misgivings” prior to agreeing to do the shoot, then the campaign photographer Juergen Teller quelled them with his “charm and candour” in telling her, “You’re the most photographed woman in the world. And fashion nowadays is all about product — bags and shoes — and you’re kind of a product yourself, aren’t you?” (She replied, “Uh, yeah.”) Evidently, Teller sees no need to be coy about the fact that women are objects at the beck and call of rich white men who want to nudify and humiliate them in domineering displays.

As well as being removed of their voices, their power and their dignity, women in advertising are also removed of their adulthood.

Jessica Stam for Aldo fashions; an ad for Bayan sweets; actor Emma Watson on the cover of Elle in 2011; in this Unshoes ad, the model’s inturned feet allude to the knock-knee condition typical in very young children and infants.

Sometimes, women are both infantilised and sexualised, evoking Lolita and child pornography. The implication of these ads is that women are simultaneously of a class of people who are physically and mentally underdeveloped and therefore in need of guidance, and that they are readily sexually available; they are manipulable and in a state of proactive sexual consent.

Actor Lea Michele in a photoshoot for GQ Magazine which promotes high school musical television show Glee; actor Dakota Fanning, aged 17, in a campaign for Marc Jacobs’ perfume Oh Lola! which was banned in the UK for inappropriately infantilising and sexualising Fanning; a young woman dressed up as a little girl and posing provocatively in a fashion shoot by photographer Terry Richardson; American Apparel are well-known for evoking pornography to sell their products, and the pictorial in this ad deliberately portrays a 23-year-old model who appears as a child being photographed while she is coaxed into progressive states of undress – just in case you’d forgotten about the whole nudity, manipulation and humiliation as dominance thing.

The overall effect of all of these types of images in the omnipresent medium of advertising is that women are dominated and repressed in all of the manners traditional of supreme classes of people over their subordinates. Their voice, activity, dignity, maturity and bodily integrity are all deliberately pressed upon so as to ensure compliance and repression; this, in turn, perpetuates the rule of the dominant group over them. In effect, all of this kind of advertising works to secure and reinforce men’s dominance, freedom and governance over women.

  1. Becci
    27 March, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    This was a really impressive collection of blog posts on this incredibly depressing topic (I’ve just managed to get through all of them)…will there be more?

  2. 31 March, 2012 at 12:42 am

    Yes! Part 12 up now.

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