- Representations of Masculinity and Femininity in Advertisements
Representations of gender in advertisements provide powerful models of behavior to emulate or react against. Masculine images typically convey power, strength, virility, athleticism, and competitiveness whereas feminine images show beauty, submissiveness, nurturance, and cooperation. Such themes appear repeatedly in popular culture (including advertisements) and are often accepted by those who see them as natural aspects of the human condition.
The scientific understanding of gender, however, is at variance with such representations of human nature. Ever since the anthropologist Margaret Mead first reported her findings among South Pacific cultures in the 1930s that masculine and feminine attributes are not always the same as those assigned by Western cultures, social and natural scientists have been investigating which aspects of gender are biological and which are cultural. As this research continues, one thing is for sure—cross-cultural evidence continues to demonstrate the enormous variability in what are deemed masculine or feminine behaviors in particular cultures. Current evidence is sufficient to conclude that many aspects of gender are learned, not inborn, and are therefore cultural in nature.
Who teaches the behavioral expectations of gender roles? Certainly parents and other early caretakers instill these cultural norms, but there are many other influences as well—peers, other adults, schools, and the mass media. The end result is that individuals are shaped, patterned, and encouraged to take on their culture’s appropriate roles as males or females.
What they learn—the internalized attitudes and behavioral expectations about maleness and femaleness—is gender. Most social scientists use gender to refer to these learned attributes of masculinity and femininity in a culture. By contrast, they use sex to refer to the biological differences between males and females. Distinguishing between these two ideas—that is, between what is innate and what is learned—is helpful in studying masculinity and femininity.
Nowadays the term gender often replaces sex in common usage, making the distinction noted in the previous paragraph difficult to keep in mind. Such less precise usage is demonstrated by the application for admission to Harvard University, which asks the applicant to indicate “gender” among the requested particulars. By contrast, a U.S. Passport indicates a person’s “sex.” Both of these usages refer to the same thing.
The subject of this unit is the representation of gender in contemporary American advertising. The focus will be on the story that advertising tells about masculinity and femininity through the life cycle and thus how it models and idealizes certain roles and behaviors while ignoring others. Although advertising is but one of many teachers about gender, the omnipresence of advertisements in daily life speaks to its importance in instilling the cultural expectations of gender.
2. Gender Representations through the Life Cycle
Examining the life cycle exposes the dynamic nature of gender. Gender is neither fixed nor static—as with the unfolding of an individual’s life cycle, the development of a household through the years and the process of maturation through learning. Rather, it is constantly reshaped by social environment, cultural changes, individual decisions, and a host of other factors.
This unit brings together the bits and pieces of idealized life stories of men and women as they are represented in the world of advertisements. Seldom do ads depict more than one or two snapshot views of life (as in print ads) or vignettes of particular moments or “slices of life” (as in TV commercials). Here those various images and narratives are collected and assembled according to phases of the life cycle—from infancy through old age. What emerges from this exercise is an understanding of how gender is represented through advertisements.
Included here are eighty-seven ads collected in various magazines available on newsstands in the months of May and June 2006.1 The total number of advertisements featuring...