Women in the media: Harmful images and power imbalances

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D&GIt is undeniable the influence media has on people’s lives. Constantly surrounded by information, (dis) information and advertisements people receive inputs from many different sources as the television, billboards, the Internet, radio, newspapers, magazines, social networks, and so on. The goals of media are many and certainly have different influences on different people. Some of its most well-known purposes are products’ selling, influencing opinions and beliefs, creating an uncritical mass, gaining political support, etc. Moreover media exerts a great impact on people’s mental imaginings of certain groups and phenomena, which also determines and maintains processes of discrimination and exclusion. In sum, through the use of images and words media is without a doubt determining power relations and above all leading to imbalances.

Whereas media is such a vast field covering many different modes and aspects of human representation, this article focuses particularly on the representation of women in advertisements and television (and more specifically on Italian television). On this regard I invite you to see the videos ‘Killing us softly 3 – Advertising’s image of women’ and ‘Killing us softly 4 – Advertising’s image of women (trailer)’ were the feminist author, speaker and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne gives an interesting perspective on the influence advertisements may have on women and men’s perceptions of what femininity and masculinity entails.

It is shocking the way women are portrayed in advertisements and the underlying messages those convey in a more or less explicit way. Of utmost importance is the dehumanising effect these images have. This dehumanising process happens through the objectification of women (comparison with objects, converting women into objects) and the use of isolated body parts that are meant to be read as female. And, as Kilbourne so well says in one of her videos, dehumanisation is one of the factors leading to violence against women. Simultaneously other ads portray men as violent and aggressive, while often showing women in submissive poses and positions. This kind of message contributes to normalise the use of violence and to highlight that men are allowed to be active in using violence, whereas women may be passive objects of such behaviours.

Another relevant and related aspect is the impact that this obsession with (a specific type of) beauty may have on women. No matter their age, cultural provenience or economic level most women attach importance to “being beautiful”. In their search for beauty they are influenced to a great extent by the images of beauty conveyed in advertisements and in the end feeling these ideals of beauty are unreachable for them. This over-valorisation of physical attributes may lead to body transformation (plastic surgery), mental diseases (anorexia, bulimia), low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

In her video ‘Il corpo delle donne’ (Women’s body), Lorella Zanardo, gives an extreme perspective of this obsession with the body by showing how women change their bodies and try to hide their age just to correspond to an imposed image of beauty created by men. The video goes further as it analysis the image and role of women in the Italian television, offering sad and humiliating scenes that give food for thought. Why do women subject themselves to this (unimportant and humiliating) role instead of refusing it? Why don’t they understand their worth as much more and overstep, or even totally refuse these stereotypical images and ideals?

One may think that these women feel their beauty is a way to reach a certain economic position or to be seen. Perhaps the constant emphasis on women’s beauty as one of her most important features is leading to the belief that beauty is a source of power. Since in many situations women are discriminated against some may see beauty and sexuality as a way to attain certain objectives (even in contexts and situations where their merits and achievements give them the right to that position or reward). However much this might provide explanation it does not mount up to an excuse to be part of the discriminatory game created and maintained by patriarchal society. Women and men along should take the lead in fighting the exploitation of women’s body and image, refusing to accept positions and roles that denigrate women’s dignity and worth. Also, the question of sexist representation affects men as well, because if women are portrayed as objects and victims and nothing more, what does that make the men in the images into?  It is essential to create images and roles that permit women (and men) to be seen in their full complexity and where they can take a variety of positions and, not the least, leading positions.

To conclude, and going back to the title of the article – Women in the media: Harmful images and power imbalances – it is worthwhile to underline that the way women are portrayed in advertisements and in the television (in the specific Italian context) contributes to a great extent to slowing down women’s access to human rights. The images shown in the videos previously mentioned are constantly reinforcing an idea of women that is pulling her away from certain positions and roles. For example, positions where beauty is not a relevant element and where other competences are required. On the other hand, through these images, women might associate femininity with passivity and being the object (instead of the subject) of situations in life. And, frankly, none of these aspects have ever been associated with leadership and power in today’s (patriarchal) society.

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