Sexism in Advertisements

Academic, Social Studies

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

September 2010

Sexism in Advertisements

Traditionally the men are seen as having authority over women, and women are expected to express qualities that show their submission to men. There are arguments expressing that this is a biological trait, that the male species are designed, by nature, with authority over the female. However, even when we don’t consider this argument, it is still reasonable to conclude that the shift from the traditional views and expectations of women will take time and effort, and during this “transition phase”, and there will be frequent overlapping of the “old” and the “new” views on women. Today’s society is in such a “transition phase”, the transition from how women are viewed traditionally to the views of women being independent and having authority. In today’s society, where women are seen to be more and more independent, advertisement still portray them traditionally by relating women to the “old” views on them.

An ad on Fletcher’s Castoria, a laxative for children, uses the traditional outlooks on women to highlight its product. In the ad, the mother is unable to feed her daughter laxative, as the daughter deliberately refuses to take it. However, the mother is suggested that she try feeding her daughter Fletcher’s Castoria, and indeed, the daughter, as a result, behaves like a “good girl”. In the part of the ad in which the daughter is refusing to take any laxative, the mother and daughter are presented in an interesting way. There is an enraged expression in the daughter’s face while the mother expresses a look of disbelief. The daughter says: “I’m not a bad girl, you’re a bad mommy!” while the mother thinks to herself, “‘you’re a bad mommy!’ I could hardly believe my ears! Was this my little girl talking to me! Why, I tried so hard to be a good and wise mother. But here was my little Mary looking at me as if she hated me!” Clearly, the mother is shocked because her daughter is refusing her orders. But more importantly, the mother is shocked especially because it is her daughter and not her son. This is because she, like the rest of the society, expects a girl to readily obey the orders of her higher authority; in this case the higher authority is the mother. The mother says to herself that she has tried to be a good and wise mother, but her daughter, Mary, will not listen to her. It can be implied that the mother is shocked because Mary will not behave even though she has “taught” Mary to be a good girl and obey the higher authority. The mother is trying to teach Mary to abide by the traditional expectation of women, but Mary refuses. Mary signifies a move away from the traditional view on women.

The struggle to change from the traditional mentality to a new mentality can be seen in the Fletcher’s Castoria ad, as the daughter refuses to listen to her mother. Traditionally speaking, girls are not expected to challenge their higher authority. The child’s behavior with her mother is more notable because the child is a girl. Had it been a boy, this act of disobedience would feel natural and, in some cases, would be expected. The term “naughty boy” comes more naturally than does “naughty girl” for example. As a result, the action of the daughter really stands out. She is challenging her role as a traditional girl. It now makes sense why the ad would use a girl rather than a boy. The effects on viewers are much greater with the girl behaving this way than it would be with a boy. The ad, while it expresses traditional views on women, highlights the new idea of women’s independence from having to submit to a higher authority.

Traditional view of women is also represented in the cover of the Guideposts magazine. The cover shows an illustration of the three Jonas Brothers, with their mother being in the center. It includes a text that reads, “The Mom (and the values) Behind the Brothers.” This can be easily related to traditional roles that women play in a typical family. Mothers are traditionally seen as the primary means of taking care of the children in a family. The image and text in the magazine cover hands this very role to the Jonas Brothers’ mother. It can be implied from the cover that the mother is “taking care” of her children, the Jonas Brothers. It is interesting to note that all the children in the image are boys. Typically, boys are assumed to be looked after by their mother than are girls. In other words, boys are not expected to, for example, “help around the house” or “do chores” as much as are girls. So, the fact that the magazine cover shows three male superstars with one mother “behind them”, as the cover states, really depicts the traditional view of one woman looking after multiple men in the family. Nevertheless, the magazine cover does portray the mother as an important figure for the Jonas Brothers.

The magazine cover shows the importance of the mother not only by words, but also by clever placement of her in the image. One of the most notable aspects of the cover can be found in the text, which relates “the mom” with “values”. The mother is not seen as merely serving the superstars, but rather, she is shown to play valuable roles “behind the scenes” for the superstars. This is a shift in direction from the traditional point of view in that the mother’s role of bringing values to the Brothers and their career is highlighted. A mother always has authority over her children. In fact, the magazine cover is showing just that. The mother is put in the center, before the three Jonas bother; she is being stressed as a form of a leader and a guide for her three children. This is an implication rarely found in the traditional view of women. While the cover represents and relates to many traditional view of women’s role in the family, it effectively highlight’s the mother’s significance and her authority over the Jonas Brothers.

Ads in today’s society well represent the overlap of views in this “transition phase” of shifting from the traditional view of women. The ad on Fletcher’s Castoria shows both the traditional view of women submitting to a higher authority and the idea of women being independent. Similarly, the magazine cover relates to the traditional view of a mother’s role in a family and, at the same time, gives clear authority to the mother. Transitioning from the status quo will take time, and there will be overlapping of the “new” and the “old” views and expectations during this time. This holds true to more than just gender based views; shifting from any idea will have to go through this “transition phase” Medias, such as literatures, journals, ads, and movies, of this “transition period” will always be an important source in providing practical examples of these overlapping ideas.


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