Camilla Munaco: Dismantling hidden sexism in contemporary media

Tuesday, February 11, 2020 - 9:51am

In Sarah Boxer’s “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?”, she highlights the injustice done to mothers in children’s animated films. Boxer’s analysis of cartoons, ranging from Ice Age to the Mickey Mouse universe, exposes the systematic social suppression of women and hidden misogyny found within seemingly innocent cartoons. Boxer is a cultural critic and writer, and her article has shaped the way I view all forms of media today. Her detailed unpacking of characters and plotlines in animated films inspired me to begin questioning women’s ultimate purpose in different types of media and helped me notice the oppressive and often sexualized way women are depicted in popular culture. 

Growing up in a traditional household, the depiction of women by those around me was heavily influenced by the old-fashioned mannerisms of a typical Sicilian family. My father’s parents came to the United States as immigrants from Sicily, and therefore had a strict view on the role of a woman. None of my aunts on my father’s side attended college or had much freedom when deciding what to do with their life. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as they all were content with getting married in their early twenties and taking up the tasking job of being a stay-at-home mother. From a young age, I remember constantly questioning why I was always the one asked to clean the kitchen or vacuum the house, while my brother was never bothered with such requests. I quickly realized the inequality I faced within my own home, even with something as simple as chores. This disparity both upset and interested me. What was the origin of these inherent stereotypes, and was women’s oppression in media an effect or cause of the continuation of this sexist nature?

According to feminist theorists, Western thought has been built upon the systematic and social repression of women. The attention on the portrayal of women in advertisements stems from the rise of feminist movements and the changing roles and perceptions of women in society. Specifically, the women’s movements in the 1960s propelled this conversation, with calls for equal opportunity and representation for women in society touching on politics, sexuality, work and domestic life. Despite the social advancement evident in women from this time frame, the mainstream media lagged behind, continuing a hypersexualized and misogynistic presentation of women. However, there currently seems to be a shift from the old female representation paradigm in advertisements toward a new one. This shift is even being enforced in countries like the United Kingdom, which recently passed a legal ban on “harmful” gender stereotypes in advertisements.

I often question whether advertisers have a responsibility to consider gender norms and the potential harm they inflict on women. Typically, the “standard” or “old” paradigm of advertising promoted the representation of women as submissive, weak or in a constant state of requiring modification. This perception of women has influenced advertisements since the 1950s, even in those that seemed to be “liberating.” The shift toward a new paradigm, as discussed by attorney John Alan Cohan, is one that redefines female beauty to be natural, diverse and all-encompassing instead of unattainable. While advertising itself is not ethically wrong or right, the context in which it is used can often be harmful through the promotion of negative gender and racial stereotypes. 

The shift toward a new standard of advertising reveals itself through historically sexist brands, like Axe, changing their marketing techniques in order to reflect societal change. The brand Axe notoriously released sexist advertisements for around 15 years, perpetuating gender stereotypes for both men and women. The main plot in each of these advertisements emphasized the Axe Effect, which is the idea that girls will flock to guys who use Axe. The structure of these advertisement featured the characterization of women as prominent sex objects and promoted unrealistic expectations for men. However, Axe’s Find Your Magiccampaign, Is It Ok For Guys?campaign and the recent Bathsculinitycampaign exhibit a new approach to advertising that discards its stereotypical storyline and characterization of genders. Now, sex is not the focus of the ad and individuality is praised. These reject “must-have, must-be fashion norms or body standards and embrace unique and distinct traits that make up individuals. 

With the rise of social media, the questioning of and rebellion against societal and gender norms has become a major point in feminist movements. Body positivity and acceptance of all different types of people is an important trend and marketing strategy for not only Axe, but companies ranging from Dove to Gillette to Audi. Advertisements have a unique position in which they can be viewed as a cultural lens, revealing what producers perceive to be important to the culture at that time, because they believe it will result in increased sales for their company. While companies like Axe show the progression of society and a shift toward a new standard of advertising, there are still polarizing reactions to these advertisements. This was seen in responses to the 2019 Gillette “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” commercial which discussed holding men accountable for issues such as bullying and sexual assault. While this advertisement is a cultural lens into the ongoing conversation regarding sexual misconduct and movements such as #MeToo, it is also a means for cultural progression. On Twitter, Piers Morgan responded “I’ve used @Gillette razors my entire adult life but this absurd virtue-signaling PC guff may drive me away to a company less eager to fuel the current pathetic global assault on masculinity. Let boys be damn boys. Let men be damn men.” While many supported the positive message Gillette was sending, negative reactions like Morgan’s reveal the remaining hold on male privilege and stereotypical gender norms for many. 

When viewing Axe’s shift in marketing strategy, advertisers may find it more appropriate with our social climate to shift toward more inclusive marketing techniques. While this change is often slow, the number of recent advertisements that portray positive and non-binding gender norms are growing, pushing advertisers that previously disregarded the effects of gender norms toward a socially acceptable, marketable and healthy way of advertising that we should all strive to support.

Camilla Munaco can be reached at cmunaco@umich.edu.