Female Representation in the Media: Television and Advertising

By Amanda Cartigiano

The impact of media is all around us, and is inescapable in ways that are both positive and negative. Female representation in media has been a point of contention since its inception, creating many female-centric images that are ingrained in our cultural fabric. In the film, Feminists: What Were they Thinking, Cynthia MacAdams discusses her 1977 book Emergence, which highlighted second-wave feminists such as Judy Chicago, Gloria Steinem, and Lily Tomlin, and captured their strength, courage, beauty, and power in a world dominated and controlled by men. As I listened to these women speak about their experiences on motherhood, sex, and reproductive rights, I realized it’s an unfortunate reality that we are still fighting for those same changes fifty years later. Based on what these women said and what we’ve learned as a culture, feminist history has traditionally started  in the home and is cemented by community resources. For many women, taking charge and owning who we are is not an easy task, because while we’re doing it to prove ourselves, we’re also seeking the approval of others. And while the feminist movement has always had good intentions, there have always been plenty of places for improvement, especially in terms of intersectionality and media representation.

Nigerian activist, playwright and artist Funmilola Fagbamila points out that it’s hard for her as a black woman to identify as a feminist, “because it’s so stigmatized in our communities.” It’s often hard to understand that intersectional feminism is relatively new, and that feminism was considered a white woman’s movement for the better part of fifty years. Thanks to the hard work of countless activists in recent years, third/ fourth wave feminism is working harder to include marginalized populations that were often left out of the earlier conversations. The hard work is happening in communities- either physical or digital spaces where people can come together to learn, share, and grow. Nowadays, in order for feminists to properly represent themselves and to create and maintain change, we need to support spaces and institutions where we can navigate in the direction of fully inclusive sisterhood. As long as we have supporters and solidarity, our opportunities to run for office, appear behind the camera, publish writing, get degrees, etc., we’ll continue to grow in the generations to come. The voices of all feminists need to be heard in order for this to happen.

Representation of women has always been widely controversial, especially within hip hop and rap songs. Hip hop culture has long been criticized for exploiting  women, sex, and difference, specifically in a degrading way. Christina Aguilera and Lil Kim famously called out the problem in 2003 with their hit song, “Can’t Hold us Down,” which challenged the lack of gender equality and the double standards between men and women. One such double standard: Men are praised for having sex with multiple women, but when women do the same, suddenly they’re shamed by society. In 2017, we were introduced to the #MeToo movement that recognize sexual harassment and assault, and calls for accountability. Taking it to even higher levels and challenging more than just double standards, Aguilera paired up with Demi Lovato in 2018 and recorded “Fall in Line,” a song that features female empowerment, courage, and a woman’s ability to resist “falling in line.” There are countless other voices in the music industry that are fighting to change the established narrative; from Cardi B to SZA to Hayley Kiyoko to Solange to Kacey Musgraves and many others.

Another example of negative media representation is Victoria’s Secret and their not-so-subtle advertising, representation, and annual fashion show. The brand has become ubiquitous across the world, but is also heavily associated with photo shopped images and overwhelming body negativity. Their catalogs and brand images often depict women without stretch marks, blemishes, birthmarks or any extra weight. What follows this refusal to depict reality? A plethora of young girls struggling with issues of identity and self-image. Many young  girls don’t know that the media is only portraying one (narrow-minded) image of women. There have been instances where my friends will say they can’t even watch the fashion show because it’s too depressing to see other women walk a runway if they do not look like them. There is a distinct psychological imbalance between reality and the ways that impressionable young girls and women interpret media messages.

Rationally, we know the media is not a credible source, so why are so many women trusting it? That’s the rhetoric of advertising. By using images and languages to capture and maintain someone’s attention so they buy into a product or idea is simply marketing and it’s nothing new.  It’s been happening since the beginning of consumer culture, but unfortunately it has only gotten worse over the years. Why it makes any sense for a woman to appear in a black bikini advertising for a Carl’s Jr. hamburger is beyond me. The slogan does not even represent the idea of the image, but rather a sexual innuendo, because we know that sex sells. Autonomous sexual representation and expression is fine, but so often it’s big business and corporations that are profiting off women and their bodies. Inclusive feminist advertising that depicts people in all shapes, sizes, colors,  and genders is what we need to help change the narrative and its impact on consumers and the wider culture.

The more the media continues to produce negative messages, the more isolating it can be. Changing the way women and girls represent themselves has become socially embedded in our culture- from stores to our Instagram feed, it can seem impossible to escape societal and media messages about who we should be and how we should look. It can be easy to think that because the media encourages it, we’re supposed to subscribe to what they say. But as we can see in documentaries like Feminists: What Were they Thinking, we’re learning how to take control of what we do and who we are, and can continue to through community outreach and supporting inclusivity.