Readers, Writers, Texts

Beauty and Femininity: Women in the Media

“One is not born a woman. One becomes one.”

Simone de Beauvoir
In acclaimed documentary The Illusionists (2015) Elena Rossini examines how the mass media both portrays and forms ideals of physical beauty.

In the advertising world, images of men and women are used to promote products of all kinds. Each of us is enculturated. This is a lifelong process in which our identities are formed. Through enculturation we learn many things. Not least, perhaps, we learn gendered identities of what it is to be a man or a woman, and we learn those behaviours that, broadly speaking, society encourages, sanctions, or condemns. It is through language that a great deal of enculturation occurs. Language works to reflect social life, but it also exists as a social fact to construct it. This is not, of course, to suggest that enculturation wholly determines individual identity, or to deny the possibility of cultural change.

You arguably might expect images of the female body to be used in advertisements for, say, beauty products or cosmetics. But the bodies of women are used to sell a far wider range of items, from alcohol, to cars, to household appliances! In this section we are going to focus on the way adverts create representations of women, and see how the repetition of these images can shape cultural values and expectations about what it means to be a man or a woman, and shape our unrealistic perceptions of beauty and sex too. 

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity: “In some ways we’ve come a long way.”

Jean Kilbourne is internationally recognized for her groundbreaking work on images of women in advertising and for her critical studies of advertising. In this Tedtalk, she presents a selection of images and talking points form her famous documentary series Killing Me Softly.

‘Sex sells” is an oft-heard adage in the advertising world, where nudity, suggestion and unrealistic models are used to promote products of all kinds. In this section you will learn how women’s bodies are repeatedly objectified, trivialized, dismembered and sexualized for mass consumption. Given that the stereotypes surrounding gender in advertising are fairly well known, and often criticized, you might think that advertisers would work towards representing men and women in less stereotyped ways. In her talk (embedded above) media activist Jean Kilbourne acknowledged that, ‘in some ways we’ve come a long way.’ And it is true that, in many cases, advertisers make a conscious effort to represent people in ways that do not rely on stereotyping. However, in other cases, the same stereotypes appear again and again in advertising. Or older stereotypes simply give way to newer ones. 

Test Kilbourne’s statement for yourself. View this range of adverts taken from magazines in 2006 and 2016. Identify the stereotypes in the adverts, then compare and contrast the range of texts. Do you notice any change, development or improvement in the representation of men and women? Or do you think both sets of adverts seem to exploit stereotypes of one sort or another?

Area of Exploration Guiding Conceptual Question

All varieties of writing, whether they are fiction or non-fiction, ads, news reports, poems or whatever can be seen as a product of the environment in which they were produced. Writing can be affected by the political climate, major events, trends within society or what is considered acceptable or aesthetic during the writing process.

With a focus on the changing representation of women on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine as a response to a societal shift in the way women are depicted in the magazines they read, this resource will guide you through the conceptual question:

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. Which products or brands are sold using images of women and femininity? Which are sold using images of men and masculinity? Are these ever switched or combined? Can you think of any exceptions?
  2. Does it ever benefit women and girls to subscribe to the ideal beauty images in advertising and chase after the female beauty ideal? When might it be beneficial to do so – and when might it be self-destructive?
  3. Do you feel that cultures and societies are opening up to embrace women and girls who go against the ideals of feminine beauty? If so, in what ways? Are there still aspects of beauty that are excluded in even the most willing cultures?

Learner Portfolio

Explore a modern magazine aimed at women. (You could use this scanned edition of Vogue Magazine; or if you feel the examples you’ve investigated so far are too western-centric, browse the international website of a global magazine brand like Cosmopolitan India for adverts, images and articles instead). Write a hard-hitting blog about the text you have investigated in which you lay out your reaction to the advertisements, images and/or articles in the magazine. Elucidate which parts of the texts you feel are progressive (if any) and where you feel the editors and producers are still promoting stereotypes.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: magazine articles

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyse unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are resources and articles taken from magazines. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of magazines articles, then add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Key features of magazine articles
  • Headline: bold text that reveals the topic of the article and should provide a hook for the reader.
  • Images: photographs of people and places are common features of magazine articles. They are almost always posed, not natural, and are often as prominent as the copy.
  • Layout: look out for box-outs, bullet points, ears and other kinds of layout features.
  • Entertainment: although they might be topical and current, most magazine articles are designed to entertain. Information may be displayed in an appealing way, using pull quotes and subheadings.
  • Buzzwords: being up-to-date, relevant and current means some articles make use of buzzwords and words that are popular at the time of publication.
  • Interactive Features: increasingly, articles that would traditionally have been printed in magazines are being published online. In this case, look out for interactive features such as embedded videos, hyperlinks and tabs.
  • Embedded interviews: experts on or participants in the topic at hand are often interviewed and quotations are used throughout the article. In the case of celebrity articles, the whole piece could be the write-up of an interview.

Body of Work: Dove Real Beauty

Sketches; a video advert for the Dove Real Beauty Campaign that you can study as part of this Body of Work.

Dove is a classic brand that started in 1957 as a simple bar of soap; its brand is now synonymous with all kinds of beauty products and is an iconic family name. The Real Beauty campaign began in 2004; Dove was looking for a way to revive its sales so they tasked a PR Company, Edelman, to conduct a study of women in different countries.  The study reported that only 2 percent of women considered themselves beautiful – and the executives at Dove saw a great marketing opportunity.  Because they were recently beginning to introduce beauty products other than soap into their product line, Dove thought maybe they could start a conversation about beauty with their consumer base.

The Real Beauty Campaign has been enormously successful, winning many awards and generating over $4billion in revenue. But not everybody has been convinced by its claims of progressive representation. To help study this Body of Work, you can find a collection of print and billboard ads from this campaign here, as well as several video ads available at the links below, and come to your own conclusions about the success of Dove’s advertising campaign:

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign would make a good text to consider using in your Individual Oral. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: Stereotypes of Women
  • Rationale:

In its Real Beauty campaigns, Dove purports to use images of ‘real’ women rather than models in an attempt to widen the narrow definition of beauty in adverts for health and beauty products. In this way, they try to counter certain stereotypes, such as the idea that a beautiful woman is young, thin and blemish free. To what extent do they succeed? Do you think they successfully challenge the idea that beauty is only skin deep?

Field of Inquiry: Beliefs, Values and Education
Global Issue: Society’s Obsession with Transformation

From youth, we are taught to learn, develop, grow and change. We think that change is good for us, that learning is lifelong and that personal re-invention can be a powerful way to control our own futures. But is the quest for transformation always healthy? What about the way advertising plays on our insecurities, convincing us that we’re still not good enough?

Sample Individual Oral

Here is a recording of the first ten minutes of an individual oral for you to listen to. You can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this talk as a way of improving your own oral presentations. Be mindful of academic honesty when constructing your own oral talk. To avoid plagiarism you can: talk about a different global issue; pair the Dove Real Beauty Campaign with a different literary work; select different passages to bring into your talk; develop an original thesis.
Possible literary pairings
  • John Keats’ Selected Poetry – Keats was fascinated with ideas of beauty. Ode on Melancholy presents some specific thoughts about the transient nature of beauty and On a Grecian Urn depends upon the idea that beauty and joy can only ever be opposing forces. La Belle Dame sans Merci presents a beautiful ‘femme fatale’, a literary archetype by which women seduce men and lure them to their doom… almost any poem might contain an extract you could use alongside the Real Beauty campaign.
  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – the whole text is about transformation, but Shaw suggests there’s more to a person than just what you can see on the outside. An extract from acts four or five, where Liza and Mrs Higgins make this point to a stubborn Henry Higgins, might make for a good pairing.
  • Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber – if you’re interested in stereotyping and gender, in particular the effects of the male gaze, an extract from the title short story in this collection would help you explore these ideas.
  • Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife – where adverts tend to look for beauty on the outside, Duffy ventures into the minds of women, both fictional and historical, to discover what they are really made of. An attempt to counter long-held stereotypes about women, and reveal something about men as well, many poems in her collection could be successfully paired with this campaign.
  • Shen Congwen’s Border Town – Congwen’s own wife was dark skinned, so he gave the main character of his novel dark skin too. You could investigate the physical descriptions of Cuicui, and discuss in what ways she might be considered ‘beautiful’ by a Chinese – or wider – readership.
  • Han Kang’s The Vegetarian – read part one of this novel to discover stereotyped ways Mr Cheong expects his wife to look and behave.
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – a text rich in evidence for how women were viewed by men, and the roles they were expected to play during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
  • Charlotte Mew’s Selected Poetry – Mew’s poetry reveals much about how society expected women to behave when she was writing at the beginning of the twentieth century. Poems like Saturday Market and The Farmer’s Bride would make ideal companions for the Dove Real Beauty campaign in this talk.

Wider Reading and Research

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