[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]
We live in a brave, new, gender-fluid world. Or at least this is what an Adweek article wants readers to think when it declared that advertising has entered “Ungendered” territory.1 In summarizing the advertising industry’s evolving understanding of gender, Adweek argues that retail advertisers have become sensitive to gender identifications beyond a male-female binary. The publication claims many advertisements, especially for beauty and fashion products, are using androgynous (gender-neutral) images to appeal to many audiences and gender identifications at the same time.
Why is gender ambiguity such important news when studying masculinity and femininity in advertisements? When answering this question, society’s and the advertising industry’s changing understanding of gender is revealed. As Adweek emphasizes, in the new millennium, “we are in the midst of a ‘tectonic shift’” in gender norms that is hard to untangle because more individuals no longer ascribe to clear identifications as male and female, and there are many varieties of masculinity and femininity.3 Summarized aptly by Ruth Bernstein, a New York-based advertiser: “As androgyny and gender fluidity become the norm rather than the exception in today’s cultural landscape, brands are faced with the challenge of tackling gender norms both in their advertising and the products they offer.”4
Compare this unit with a version written ten years prior at ADText, to see the change in how advertisers represent masculinity and femininity.
This unit of ADText compares representations of gender in American advertisements from 2016 to advertisements from 2006. The 2006 advertisements were analyzed in a previous version of this unit. Both surveys examine ads in various magazines available at newsstands in May and June of their respective years. Although a summary of the 2006 survey is provided below, the original report (http://muse.jhu.edu/article/202979) should be read to understand how masculinity and femininity have been treated differently and similarly since then.
So why is there now so much concern among advertisers about gender fluidity? What is so challenging about changing definitions of gender beyond the male-female binary? One immediate answer to these questions comes from deeply rooted misunderstandings about the relationship between biological sex and gender identity.
Historically, gender identification has been conceived of as the same as biological sex (i.e. one’s sex organs).6 However, over time, especially from the 1960s to the present, the equation of sex with gender has been challenged by advances in women’s rights, gay rights, and studies of gender and sexuality.7 Among many academic and activist circles, it has become accepted that gender is a socially constructed category that requires serious questioning. From this view, social and cultural institutions—such as family, friends, schools, religion, government, and mass media—have defined the expectations and norms that come with being male or female in a given cultural context.
For a discussion of the concepts of gender and sex, read the ADText unit on Sexuality, Race, and Ethnicity in Advertising.
Further, gender can be seen as a sort of performance that we all make and negotiate within larger cultural and societal norms.8 Many individuals feel like they conform easily to dominant cultural expectations of gender, which are often reinforced in advertising messages, and various forms of media. However, others feel that they do not align with society’s and advertising’s dominant gender expectations, so they may play along with what society expects of them, or they go their own road.
There is not one form of masculinity or femininity. Rather, there are masculinities and femininities.
There are four terms related to sex and gender that make it possible to develop richer understandings of advertisements’ messages about masculinity and femininity: gender identity, sexual orientation, biological sex, and gender expression. Gender identity refers to how one sees oneself on a...