Feminism, Gender Stereotypes and Advertising

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic

Feminism, Gender Stereotypes and Advertising

Feminism is a movement that has been continuously redefined; but the foundation of the movement has always stayed the same. A feminist believes that women are oppressed by both gender inequality (social position in a sexist culture) and by class inequality (economic position in a capitalist society). The core concept of the majority of feminist theories is patriarchy; this term is used to describe a male dominated social society. ‘Sexism’ and ‘misogyny’ are also key terms in the feminist discourse and describe how women are discriminated because of their sex. A key piece of writing on feminism is by Germaine Greer in ‘The Female Eunuch’. 

“If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood - if it makes you sick, you've got a long way to go, baby.” [10]

This is a powerful quote from ‘The Female Eunuch’ by Germaine Greer; she identifies that there is more work to be done to achieve complete emancipation for women as well as highlighting the taboo topic of women’s menstruation; which is still something that has gone unresolved to this day. More recent and postmodern writing on feminism can be found within literature such as ‘The Vagenda' and ‘The Bad Feminist’, they have more contemporary content, which may have a greater resonance in women’s lives today. 

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.” [9]

Contemporary feminist writing gives an up to date analysis of women’s position in society; considering aspects such as advertising, online social media platforms and critiques of recent books and films. The above quote from Roxanne Gay resonated with me as it may with most women in society today, it sets a new ideal for females who want to fly the feminist flag. She comments on race in relation to feminism through out the book and sets a friendlier and all together more relatable version of feminism. A topic that is often discussed in the postmodern feminist discourse is censorship and privacy. Privacy is something that has been relevant in the modern feminist discourse in recent months, following the celebrity hacking scandal. However, this scandal didn’t only involve women in the public eye, but thousands of women within the general population as well. It provoked a large influx of women to reclaim the feminist platform; this along with other recent events in the media has inspired a new wave of feminism, one that challenges the online anonymous misogyny that women are exposed to today. 

A third wave of feminism is subject to debate and the claim is far from uncontroversial. The questions that need to be asked are who does this new wave of feminism speak to and speak for? As well as addressing the contradictions that the new discourse has been birthed from. For me the new wave of feminism carries these contradictions into its self-definition; Roxanne Gay embraces this and makes feminism more accessible to women from diverse backgrounds, and her ideology is not aimed at the emancipation of predominantly white, middle class, heterosexual women. With the proliferation of ‘technoculture’ and the expansion of information technologies; people have been liberated with freedom of speech and the democratisation of knowledge and self expression. This has been fantastic for women; more work is getting published/ exhibited and it is harder for people to marginalise women’s work with the possibility of anonymity that you have online. But with this anonymity comes yet more hardship for women. Without censorship and with the development in online hacking, a new form of oppression has been born; this time misogyny is a faceless bully belonging to a fraternity that indulges in rape humour and the dehumanisation of women. It looks like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Donna J. Haraway combines the feminist discourse with technology and science in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ where she comments on their relationship in the late twentieth century. The role of feminism continues to be subjected to extensive and ongoing scrutiny in society. Some people think that feminism has achieved most of what it set out to do and shouldn’t still be relevant meanwhile others still feel there is a long way to go in terms of socio-economic change. 

Now we know more about feminist critiques of contemporary culture, an important aspect to consider is the role gender stereotypes play in motivating feminist discourse. Gender stereotypes constructed through society play an important role and are a common topic in the contemporary feminist discourse. It is important to acknowledge what these ideologies are and how we are interpolated into them. Undoubtedly there are sex differences that have a biological bases but what we have yet to fully understand in society is that the biological basis of ones sex is not finite. There is a polarisation of genders that we have been mislead into thinking is normal, when in fact gender can be understood more accurately when expressed on a ‘likert' scale, ranging from male to female, feminine to masculine. This is a difficult concept for many people as the socialisation of gender stereotypes have been passed on for so many centuries in western culture. Traditional female ideologies focus attention on important relationship milestones in a women’s life, for example getting your first boyfriend, getting married and having children. Relationships and marriage are key goals and idealising these romantic moments feed the conventional ideology of femininity. This traditional framework for the female ideology is built around heterosexual life goals which are reinforced across different cultural sites making the temptation to conform hard to deviate from. 

The way you physically present yourself is an important factor in this ideology and the stereotypes born out of this portray an unrealistic standard for women. To measure up to ideal standards women tend to buy products such as cosmetics and fashionable clothes to compensate for deficiencies in their appearance. The stereotype of the dumb blonde is one that still frequently features in our cinema and magazines; the woman we see in this stereotype has large breasts, usually peroxide blonde hair, and is thin and intellectually inferior. This ideal is an unrealistic portrayal of women and is pretty much unachievable in a natural way. It is suggested that this is what men want in a women’s physical appearance; this ideal is reinforced in other media such as pornography, female characters in video games and in cinema. It seems women are defined more by their bodies rather than their occupation or achievements. From a feminist perspective the intense analysis and critique of women in all aspects of life represents patriarchal control; if women do not conform to behaviours prescribed as appropriate by emphasised femininity, then they will be punished. Looking good ultimately brings me back to male affection in this ideology, Looking good for men intricately connects physical appearance with romance and the need to constantly seek male approval to achieve happiness. There have been considerable changes in the ideology in the past 40 years; there has certainly been a shift towards a new kind of femininity. This new femininity allows women to be more socially and sexually assertive and aspire to be fun and successful. 

A new way of thinking about female sexuality has been encouraged by feminism and the insistence of equal gender rights. Although progress is being made in feminine ideologies; conventional femininity has persisted in our magazines and film, reinforcing the importance of relationships, physical beauty and heterosexuality. Like femininity, masculinity has undergone some drastic changes since the 1960’s and this ideology has too diversified. The discourse of traditional masculinity presents men as strong, authoritative, powerful, aggressive and competitive people, that are inherently different to women. Men are seen to have both physical power as well as social power that is institutionalised through mens financial income. Unlike traditional female values, appearance (apart from possible physical strength) isn't an important aspect of the male ideology. Women can be seen not so much as partners or friends but as sexual objects whom satisfy the need to provide for a strong sex drive and heterosexuality. Traditional masculinity is associated with knowledge and logical thinking but also with the inability to express emotion; being emotional could be interpreted as a feminine characteristic. Many of these aspects of traditional masculinity still exist in our contemporary culture but a new type thinking has developed and uses the term ‘new man’. In contrast to the traditional values, the ‘new man’ is in touch with his feminine side and is able to openly express emotions. He is more nurturing and liberal in his political outlook as well as being sympathetic to the feminist cause. The acceptance of feminisation of the masculine ideology I feel is a positive step forward in amending gender stereotypes if not eradicating them all together. [7]

Now we have identified prominent stereotypes in todays culture we can start to notice them in all aspects of our lives. The main media source using stereotyping techniques is advertising. Adverts are something we are exposed to at almost every part of our day; from television adverts interrupting our dramas, to a barrage of billboards encroaching every corner of the city. There seems to be a plethora of images continuously streaming through our subconscious, all with the sole objective of financial gain. As vulnerable consumers, we are interpolated into the idea that our appearance is lacking and the media is all knowing. It is important to consider ‘the gaze’ when discussing advertisement, especially within the realms of the feminist discourse. Roland Barthes uses a semiotic analysis to deconstruct imagery in advertising which is something we can use today to uncover the myths behind the message of advertising. When looking at this recent advert created by American Apparel we can identify some aspects of gender stereotypes and the male/female gaze. Its clear to me that the young female subject is presented to us as a sexual object even though she is complicit in that. It raises the question of whether she is in a position that she cannot be complicit in her own objectification because she herself is unaware of her contribution towards female suppression. She lies on an un made bed, insinuating sex and the idea of pre pubescence is reinforced with her blowing bubble gum. John Berger writes:

“She comes to consider the surveyor and surveyed within her as two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman” [5]

This describes how women internalise the male gaze. Women want to be perceived as sexy and attractive to men and the advert is targeting that. The intentions of the advert are to make women recognise that she is sexy and is having, is about to, or has had sex, therefore in order to achieve this they should wear this brand. Advertising is failing to keep up with social changes. Personally, adverts featuring semi-naked adolescent girls visually inviting men to take advantage of them don't appeal to me; I have been overexposed, they wash over me like a sea of clichés and gimmicks. Partly because of my awareness of advertising techniques and interest in feminism, but mostly because they don't represent me or who I want to be. Of course I cannot speak for everyone in the population but our culture is rapidly diversifying, and not everyone wants constant exposure to unachievable ideals that sexy, white, heterosexual women present. . Once this realisation has occurred the advertising industry will need to make drastic changes in order to appeal to both men and women. 















1. Barthes, R. and Lavers, A. (1972). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.


2. Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations. New York City, N.Y., U.S.A.: Semiotext(e), Inc.


3. Baudrillard, J. (1990). Seduction. New York: St. Martin's Press.


4. Baxter, H. and Cosslett, R. (n.d.). The vagenda.


5. Berger, J. (1973). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corp.


6. Budgeon, S. (2011). Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Gender in Late Modernity. 1st ed. [ebook] online. Available at: http://www.palgraveconnect.com.ezproxy.westminster.ac.uk/pc/doifinder/10.1057/9780230319875 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2014].


7. Chetwynd, J. and Hartnett, O. (1978). The Sex role system. London: Routledge & K. Paul.


8. Coward, R. (1984). Female desire. London: Paladin Books.


9. Gay, R. (n.d.). Bad feminist.


10. Greer, G. (1971). The female eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill.


11. Milestone, K. and Meyer, A. (2012). Gender and popular culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Submitted: December 16, 2014

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