Advertising is “Softly Killing” Women

This documentary, “Killing Us Softly 4,” is a must-see for anybody who cares about public health, human relationships, self-esteem, life, liberty, and the achievement of happiness in America.  As the title indicates, it is the fourth incarnation of a talk about advertising in America and around the world, and the speaker Jeanne Kilbourne reminds us chillingly that the problems of female objectification and devaluation have only gotten worse, not better as modern-day female sexual “liberation” would have us believe.

As girls learn from a very early age that their sexualized behavior and appearance are often rewarded by society, they learn to sexualize themselves, to see themselves as objects.  They’re encouraged to see this as their own choice, as a declaration of empowerment; to re-frame, presenting oneself in the most cliche and stereotypical way possible as a kind of liberation.

Jeanne Kilbourne’s talk covers important topics like the construction of an impossible standard of beauty for women, the extreme focus on appearance at the expense of all else, the dangerous epidemic of dieting and eating disorders, the global impact of American ads and standards, the connection between sex and consumerism, the ever challenging virgin/whore dichotomy expected of and sought after by women, and the violent consequences of female objectification.

She makes her most important point near the end of the talk, in which she talks about the impact that female objectification and devaluation has on the development of a full range of healthy human qualities and behaviors in men (as well as women).

The negative and distorted image of women deeply affects not only how men feel about women, but how men feel about everything that gets labeled “feminine” in themselves. . .

What [ads are] expressing is not only contempt for women, but contempt for all things considered feminine; and human qualities, qualities that we all share, that we all need, that we all have the potential to develop, get divided up and polarized and labeled masculine and feminine, and then the feminine is consistently de-valuated, which causes women to de-value ourselves and each other and it causes men to de-value not only women, but all those qualities that get labeled feminine by the culture.

And by that I mean qualities like compassion, cooperation, empathy, intuition, sensitivity.  We may give lip service to these qualities, but they have very low priority in our society, and men are still very rigidly socialized to repress these human qualities in themselves, at enormous cost to all of us.

The documentary is a little under an hour but is worth every minute.  Ever single sentence uttered resonates with me deeply, striking a powerful chord in my memories of childhood, my observations of male/female interactions and relationships, my experience of advertising and our consumer-driven culture, and my personal feelings regarding body image, self-esteem, and emotional health.

As always, the way we receive information like the kind provided by this documentary is crucial to how we move forward in our efforts to further civil rights, human dignity, and equal worth for all genders.  It is all well and good for information and persuasive speaking to impact your opinion, whether for or against feminist efforts, as long as it also informs your opinion.

Too often we let information wash over us, filtering out the facts and leaving only the opinion the facts gave us during their temporary stay.  If we want to be able to use resources like these to further important discussions (as I do!) we must remember the reasons we believe and feel what we do so that we may communicate them to those with questions.

A lot of feminists and anti-feminists believe it is enough to speak broadly whenever anger strikes, stating opinions and asserting solutions based on internal arguments and conclusions reached hours, days, or even years before.  If you are on the internet regularly, you probably know how ineffective this can be.  Outbursts like this only resonate with people who already agree with you.

Explanations of belief, sources of information, experiences in context, and thought-processes are all more helpful and illuminating than opinions marinated in strong feeling without any real meat or substance.  I say this in full awareness of the importance of free speech and in full appreciation of opinions.

So please, please watch this documentary and take note of the specific things that jump out at you and help your thoughts develop, so that when you share it with your friends and have later conversations on the topic, your discussion can be illuminating instead of redundant or inflammatory.

Just as advertising harms the image of women, outbursts such as I’ve described harm the image of feminism irreparably and harm the image of men who actually care about women.

Sorry for the lecture!  I realized this frustrating pattern as this film was washing over me and leaving only my strongly felt opinions… so I decided to pass on the thought!  Please share this with your friends.

4 responses to “Advertising is “Softly Killing” Women

  1. That was incredible. A few points jump out for me.
    1. It is a public health issue, i.e. it is like air pollution or water pollution.
    2. It affects men negatively as well.
    Last summer I attended a festival where some women were going topless, and after a few minutes of surprise and curiosity, I felt this unusual relaxation come over me and the thought, oh yeah, I remember now, that’s what people look like!
    So I’m feeling pissed out and am thinking of carrying a can of spray paint… or maybe some nice stickers for quick application in the subway…
    Thanks, excellent resource.

  2. I’ll watch the documentary soon. Thanks for the reference.

    You may not remember that your aunt Susan Kano wrote a book on eating disorders that pointed out these problems years ago. “Making Peace with Food” But that is not what I started to write…

    Advertising is not just killing women. It is killing our communities too. It is deadening our culture, reducing us to consumers. The root cause of our culture being so defined by advertising and media images is debt based money and the continuous economic growth that this broken system requires to be “healthy.” The requirement that our economy grow means that everyone is desperate to sell us things we don’t need and did not even know we wanted (because we didn’t).

    Sorry if this is off topic! But the most radical thing we can do is point to the root causes of our problems, not just the symptoms that are themselves also problems. Hate corporate greed? Externalizing costs onto the environment and society? It’s the economic system, at the root of it all.

    Love your blog and you!


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