The 1950s – a time well before the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, when sexism was not only tolerated, it was expected and actively encouraged. The media has dominated our western society since before the 1950’s and has continued their role of domination up until today. Commercials have had the ability to reinforce and limit a woman’s role to the domestic household; however, women in our contemporary times are now being reinforced as sexual objects, much different to our original domestic role.
From the end of the 1940’s to the beginning of the 1950’s the introduction of colour television made an extreme impact on the lives of white, middle class western families. At this stage advertising was based in the home and the housewife played the major role; in this context the domestic sphere and women as its guardian was the ideal. The housewife is represented as a beautiful wife who is made up at all times of the day, the cook and maid, consumer, mother and loyal wife. Women in today’s context are represented as more than a housewife; they are now professional working women as well as wives and mothers. However it is in the way that women are presented in commercials which has given a new perception; women are now stylized as sex objects.
A contrasting difference between commercials from the 1950’s compared to now is, as mentioned before, how women are now presented in a much more sexualised form. The use of sexily presented women in commercials for cars, alcohol, etc. is very common and accepted. Kim Kardashian became very recognised for her overly sexualised role for Carl’s Jr. Commercial, in which she is used to sell a new salad. The domestic sphere is presented with this advertisement; however the bedroom and bathroom in which the commercial is set gives a sensual mood. In comparison to a commercial such as the Pepsi-cola discussed earlier, this contemporary advertisement differs very much; the female figure, which is well recognised as a celebrity, enhances the interest within the commercial. Despite the advertisement being intended for a salad meal, Kim Kardashian is presented wearing a shiny and skimpy bathrobe which also gives the insinuation of dark undergarments. The camera focuses more on her, showing her rolling around on the bed and when eating the salad the camera focuses on her lips as well as her bust. The presentation of the female figure is completely unnecessary and most definitely demoralises women as the female body is exploited; the fact that Kim Kardashian is completely okay to have herself misused this way is a very concerning issue.
The way in which women are now portrayed and exploited for the use of selling objects is much altered from the early 1950’s, after the Second World War. The media then played a major role in manipulating women back to their original gender roles as well as selling products. The media controlled how a woman should portray herself in society; the idea of a working woman was seen as distasteful when she should be home cleaning, cooking and caring for her children. A commercial, dated from the 1950s, by Pepsi-cola looks at a woman wanting to stay beautiful, slim and attractive for her husband and for her to achieve this she must drink pepsi-cola. This commercial completely demoralizes women as a woman’s role is completely ruled out for her, by an advertisement for a drink. The aim of this commercial is to make women believe that if they drink ‘pepsi-cola’ they will remain beautiful, slim and attractive; something everyone woman wants and requires, apparently.
The commercial begins with a male voice who says “once upon a time, quite recently in fact, there was a little girl, an ordinary little girl, who was quite beautiful. Like all ordinary little girls she couldn’t wait to grow up. As time flew by she met a boy, they fell in love, were married and lived happily ever after. In real life however a girl has to work hard at living happily ever after…” the dialogue in this commercial is targeted at women very plainly, taking on the form of a fairy tale story. The female character is referred to as ‘our heroine,’ in order to keep with the ‘ fairy tale story’ theme – ironic considering her life is being structured and dominated by her husband, in the manner of how she must present herself as a woman in order to attain the ‘perfect life.’
The Pepsi-cola commercial is a great example of how a woman’s role was defined and ruled by a patriarchal media; and this domination still continues through till today. The beauty standards have been taken far more seriously by women. What the media presents has dramatically changed, whereas in the 1950’s a Marylyn Monroe body was desired but is now considered overweight and distasteful. Unhealthy body images, the same body shape and fashion trends which are continually documented in a woman’s everyday life makes it difficult to ignore these new ‘standards.’ Difference and uniqueness have never been celebrated by the media, rather they are attributes to be shunned and judged. The media’s dominant role in a woman’s contemporary life makes it difficult to escape the pressure to look a certain way.
Women are conditioned from a young age by commercials to believe that they can only be wives and mothers; in earlier times the media and society never allowed women to believe that they could become hard-working, intelligent women in the public sphere of work or public life. Women are now traditionally taught that their role is different; being classed as a sexual object is now expected and highly appraised; yet our domestic role is still heavily acknowledged and encouraged at the same time. An aspect within advertising which has not yet been disregarded is beauty – beauty within a woman is everything. However, the contemporary perception of beauty has become dangerously distorted. In the western world today we have a misleading understanding of what beauty is. Beauty is a subject which the media currently explores through commercials on television and in magazines; differing little from the 1950s, beauty is still heavily manipulated by the media in order to sell products, with little thought of the effect on buyers. Society has always believed that a woman is defined by her beauty, evident through-out the way women are portrayed within advertisements.
A contemporary commercial which defines this new beauty is the promotional advertisement for Australia’s Next Top Model; the girls who are presented within the commercial as identical, offering no sense of individuality in the girls. The television show Australia’s Next Top Model is popular among teenage and young adult females; the way in which the commercial presents a model-worthy beauty is very different from the Marylyn Monroe beauty presented within the 1950’s. This commercial reinforces a the female stereotype whilst also presenting to the audience what is considered to be beautiful in the fashion world; the girls are presented applying lipstick and brushing their perfect hair, they wear identical dresses which are similar to pencil skirts and restrict their movement, this restrictment is also reinforced by the heels that they wear. In association to the beauty of the girls, a major issue that can be identified is that the girls who are chosen to represent all other women are of a body size which is in some cases highly unachievable and unhealthy.
Exposure to these images of thin, young, air-brushed female bodies is linked to depression, loss of self-esteem and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls. These body figures are presented day in and day out by the media; the female body is being exposed and exploited in order to sell material objects such as clothing, cars and alcohol. The way in which women are now used to sell items in much different to the way women were presented in commercials in the 1950’s; the female role has changed dramatically but still stays the same in some cases. Beauty as it stands currently seems to be influenced by how thin a female body is.
Yet still the female domestic role continues to be promoted through commercials, proving that indeed the domestic role played by women in the 1950’s commercials still continues up until today. A contemporary advertisement by the popular cleaning brand, Mr. Muscle, in which a woman plays the ‘damsel in distress’ role and Mr. Muscle (presented as everyone woman’s dream man by his muscly and superhero appearance and being the one who ‘saves’ the day) who aids the woman in her time of cleaning needs. The commercial presents the woman in the kitchen cleaning yet dealing with the issue of a blocked drain; no husband is present helping her because it is very likely he is working. The arrival of a cartoon Mr. Muscle appears and helps her with the introduction of a cleaning liquid which fixes her blocked drain issue. This commercial is further evidence of how a female’s domestic job is still encouraged and recognised by society through advertising. The end of the commercial also presents another woman, also located in a kitchen, requiring the help of Mr. Muscle. The irony of this commercial is that it presents a woman’s biggest problems as those surrounding cleaning issues inside the house. But this is not a woman’s role.
This is not how women should be recognized by society, despite the gender roles slightly changing in many Western societies there is still a great amount of sexism surviving through the media. In conclusion however I also believe it only fair to point out another discriminating factor- the representation of the male gender role. Whilst women may still be shown in their original, stereotypical gender role, Media also reinforces a more subtle expectation for the male gender role. Commercial’s have a habit of presenting men as helpless in the kitchen, almost dependent on the female figure to care for them. In many cases the use of humor covers up the obvious fact that the commercial is presenting two very strong gender roles- the women is in charge of the domestic role whilst the man can not be ‘trusted’ to complete this role successfully. Advertising has made their opinion clear. To be a woman is to be feminine and to be a man is to be masculine. There is little room for variation or a reversal roles. It is up to society to recognize and understand this, only then can society act appropriately and begin to fix the distorted gender roles.