[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 continuum: from woman to man (or an identity in between). Biological sex describes one’s physical sexual anatomy. Gender expression involves how one prefers to present one’s gender: from feminine to masculine, or an expression in between (androgynous). Sexual orientation refers to one’s sexual preferences in a partner: heterosexual (preferring someone of the opposite sex), homosexual (preferring someone of the same sex), bisexual (preferring opposite and same sex partners). A helpful summary of these terms is offered by comedian and activist Sam Killerman in his illustration of “The Genderbread Person.”
Gender identity, sexual orientation, biological sex, and gender expression are helpful to untangle the virtually infinite complexities of gender and sexual identities. More importantly, these terms help us analyze how advertisers’ messages involve certain meanings and definitions of gender and sexuality that may be overly simplistic, or perhaps progressive and cutting edge. Some advertisements may espouse strict gender binaries, while others may play with gender boundaries which have shifted in recent times.
For this new survey of representations of gender in advertisements, it should be kept in mind that gender is now conceived to go beyond two categories of identity. That is, gender is a multiplicity of identities relative to individuals. As such, age-old gender expectations are being challenged and questioned, which makes it challenging for some, especially those working in advertising, to represent that complexity of our cultural and social lives. How can advertisers successfully appeal to a variety of gender identities, when they may only have one moment to leave an impression on millions of viewers through a thirty-second television spot, a fifteen-second YouTube ad, a one-second Facebook banner ad, a billboard next to a busy highway, or a fashion spread in a magazine? Simplicity and speed are of the essence in our saturated media environment, so how can complex gender identities be treated with such little audience attention span?
To be sure, gender fluidity and the complexities that come with it are especially challenging for advertisers who regularly strive to create certainty in selling products and ideas for their clients. If there is so much diversity in gender identifications, how can advertisements’ mass-mediated messages effectively resonate with large groups of individuals? Do advertisements solidify certain historically accepted gender norms? Alternatively, do advertisements reflect or fuel changes in gender norms? How have advertisements challenged dominant, binary notions of masculinity and femininity?
For a rich archive to study the rigidity of gender roles in advertisements in the post-World War II era, visit The Envisioning the American Dream Site.
As was noted in the 2006 survey, advertising tells important stories about masculinity and femininity and the roles that men and women and boys and girls should play and aspire to at different points in their lives. Gender roles are culturally determined in any particular moment, but this does not mean that what appears at one time does not have relevance or resonance at another point in time. For example, advertisements showing the ideal housewife/mother from the 1940s may express similar ideals as representations of women found in advertisements today, such as the need to take care of the home, and to teach their daughters how to be masters of a clean home, too. In other words, advertisements’ representations of masculinity and femininity can reinforce and legitimate certain gender roles and hierarchies between men and women.
Advertisements’ representations, thus, idealize and model certain roles and behaviors for men and women while ignoring others. What is emphasized in one moment may change or be solidified in the cultural registry. As such, studying changes in advertisements’ representations of gender allow us to see how advertisements may serve as a site of resistance to, or acceptance of, changing views on social and cultural categories like gender.
Therefore, in this unit, by paying close attention to what has changed (and, most importantly, what has not changed) from 2006 to 2016, advertisements’ dual treatment of gender is revealed: advertisements’ representations can solidify and reinforce historic gender norms; they can also shift and adapt society’s understandings and expectations of gender. In the end, advertisements do not merely serve the function of selling products. Rather, their representations can be a site of struggle to hold on to, or let go of, old ways of conceiving of masculinity and femininity.
2. Representations of Masculinity and Femininity in Advertisements from 2006
In the 2006 ADText unit, out of over 1,000 advertisements found in newsstand magazines from May to June 2006, eighty-seven ads were analyzed to uncover how masculinity and femininity emphasized certain gender roles and expectations throughout the human life cycle.
Across many of the ads, boys and men were placed in elevated positions of masculine power and strength compared to girls and women, who were often depicted as passive, submissive participants dependent on, or seeking the approval of, men. It is men who drive the action of a particular scene—such as a dinner night out—or are the center of attention—such as a father holding his baby on his shoulders, while an adoring wife looks on, during a walk outside.
One distinct role for women seen in 2006’s ads, especially for women depicted in their early adult years, was to be objects of desire for men’s viewing or prospective sexual pleasure.
When women were not something to gaze upon, they often were depicted in the roles of nurturers of children, keepers of order within the home, or cooperative brokers, usually among other girls and women.
In other words, in the sampling from 2006, girls and women were treated with ritualizations of subordination.17 In these rituals, or common practices of representing men and women, advertisements project and reinforce gender hierarchies between men and women through various strategies: making men appear larger than women, putting men at the center of women’s attention, having men stand in more secure positions, using women with large, goofy smiles, and showcasing men actively accomplishing goals, while women were often shown as immobile or passive individuals in a scene. All of these rituals elevate men’s status above women.
Similarly, throughout the life cycle, advertisements’ representations in 2006 tended to prioritize and emphasize boys’ and men’s vigor and accomplishments, while girls and women were often reduced to their more submissive or passive roles—often in interior locations. Even when girls and women were featured in strong positions beyond a caregiver role, such as athletes or businesswomen, their assertiveness was often undermined by their heightened femininity, as seen in their wearing prominent make-up, well-painted fingernails, fashionable clothing, and perfectly coiffed hair.
In addition to elevating the status of masculinity over femininity, the 2006 advertisements’ representations of parenthood reinforced the importance for both men and women of reproducing clear male-female gender role distinctions in future generations. The term social tableaux—the way in which advertisements depict relationships among people to reinforce certain societal structures—reminds us that advertisements present expected gender roles in society.20 When looking across the 2006 advertisements, one can see representations showcasing fathers teaching their sons traditionally masculine life lessons, such fishing or doing more interesting things than homework.
Similarly, there are representations that emphasize women’s roles as nurturing mothers and caregivers, showcased by representations of a mother teaching her daughter how to be kind and caring through nurturing acts.
Representations that show fathers giving sons masculine life lessons and mothers giving daughters feminine life lessons function on two significant levels. First, such ads reinforce divided gender roles and expectations along male-female lines, which segregates fathers/sons and mothers/daughters into separate spheres. Second, and more significantly, such messages legitimate ad viewers’ reenactment of separate gender roles in their everyday lives. In other words, ads with gendered life lessons show how fathers and mothers can teach their sons and daughters, respectively, to take on their traditional male and female roles. Such messages, by implication, state that the blurring of gender lines is confusing and troublesome.
Across both men and women, older individuals in the later stages of life were excluded from main newsstand magazines in 2006. If such older men and women were featured, it was often for medications to heal such individuals’ ailments. Men more than women were still shown as active, accomplished, and in control of their lives; older women were relegated to taking care of grandchildren, resting in an interior setting, or being taken care of by her stronger male companion.
Keeping this summary of the 2006 advertisements in mind, along with the Adweek article mentioned previously, an important question emerges: Have ads continued to reinforce gender divisions and a distinct separation of masculinity from femininity? To answer this question, over four dozen ads are analyzed below, from out of over 1,000 ads appearing in major newsstand magazines in May and June 2016.
From this comparison, one will learn that not much has changed in girls’ and women’s subordination. However, there are some notable adjustments in the relaxing of some masculine ideals (perhaps pushing toward more feminine ideals for men), especially for men of the Millennial generation born between roughly 1982 and 2002. Gender’s treatment in advertisements has become slightly more fluid for younger so-called metrosexual men, but much has remained the same in ten years’ time.
3. Advertisements Ten Years Later: Some Changes, But Not So Many
In comparing advertisements from 2006 to 2016, there are some changes, but not as many as Adweek’s “Ungendered” piece would lead one to believe. Although some gender fluidity is seen in many advertisements depicting Millennial metrosexuals, girls and women still are seen enacting rituals of subordination. Hierarchies along gendered lines still persist, leading one to question how far changes have come for breaking from longstanding gender divisions.
In representing the early years of a child’s life, advertisements continue to showcase distinct roles for girls and boys, which is stressed through gender-stereotyped coloring, such as pink for girls and blue for boys. The division between boys and girls through this color scheme reveals more than a simple way to classify and identify girls and boys. Rather, the colors blue and pink provide stability in knowing the sex of a baby. Even before a baby is born, a common question is asked: “Boy or girl?” This question signifies the importance of clearly identifying a newborn’s gender, which leads to the reinforcement of specific expectations for the baby based on his/her being a boy or a girl. Ambiguity in gender can be seen as potentially worrisome.
The following ad for a baby gender prediction kit showcases the desire to know and maintain firm gender boundaries for babies. This ad confuses the difference between biological sex and gender. The name of the product, “IntelliGender,” implies that parents are smart if they know their baby’s exact gender. What is significant to note about this product is that a medical test is being used to determine gender. However, as it has been made clear earlier, gender is an act of culturally-bound self-expression.
The IntelliGender ad also provides a glimpse into societal concerns about knowing a clear gender status of babies. On a basic level, knowing a baby’s biological sex reassures parents of what to buy for the baby—perhaps it will dictate what types of clothes to buy, what color to paint a bedroom wall, and what kinds of toys to purchase. On a deeper level, knowing the baby’s sex helps parents imagine the expectations for the baby, based on culturally and socially subscribed gender roles. In other words, knowing if the baby is either a boy or a girl helps simplify expectations, based on the longstanding divide between males and females.
The product’s assertion that there are only two genders, and the need to label people as either male or female, is strengthened through the ad’s colors. The use of pink for the word “girl” is distinguished from the word “boy” in blue. The black word “or” in “Girl or Boy?” serves to emphasize that distinction. To solidify the importance of gender differences, the father wears a blue shirt while he holds pink baby booties close to the mother. Overall, this advertisement reveals a world where biological sex is expected to match up with gender identity. The colors blue and pink maintain society’s gender binary. The product provides security, relief, and a sense of stability to parents not accepting of gender fluidity.
Even for seemingly gender-neutral products such as a soothing gel for teething babies, or a calming baby formula, blue is coded for boys and pink is coded for girls to create clear gender divisions. Embedded in these representations is the expectation for mothers to care for and tend to their sick children as caregivers. Although there is a father depicted in the Gerber ad, the dominant images for adults soothing the baby girl are women, reinforcing women as central caretakers in a baby’s life.
In 1999, the purple Teletubby character Tinky Winky caused debates over the impact of increasing signs of gayness in media. BBC News provides a summary of the controversy at the time.
Although many ads of babies tend to follow the pink and blue convention to distinguish boys from girls, some break the mold by using other colors. In the following Desitin ad, although the baby is designated as a girl through the repeated use of the word “her,” the purple and gray shirt creates some gender ambiguity. In the American context, dark purple and gray may not immediately signify a boy or a girl—such colors could be worn by a boy or a girl. Further, this gendered dissonance is reinforced through the boombox image appearing on the shirt and the color blue dominating the bottom of the advertisement, both of which could be associated with boys. Beyond gender neutrality, the color purple often has lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) connotations, as seen in supposedly gay coded children’s characters like the purple Teletubby named Tinky Winky, various LGBTQ organization logos, and Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple, which features a lesbian romance.28 By using a color like purple that is neutral or aligned with LGBTQ identities, advertisers deftly depict babies living in a more gender and sexually flexible society.
Ads may also use other gender-neutral colors, such as yellow, orange, and green, to break down the pink-blue dichotomy. In such cases, viewers have flexibility in ascribing the gender they see fit depending on their cultural perspective. Advertisements’ increasing play with ambiguous color codes showcases possible appeals to audiences who regard traditional binary gender roles as restrictive and outdated.
In 2006, many ads paired mothers with their children to underscore women’s roles as caretakers for the family. This trend is visible in this new survey of ads, but fathers were increasingly featured in child-rearing and home care roles. A Barilla ad shows how a father can have fun guiding his child on the proper way to eat angel hair pasta. In a Zillow ad, the father is in control of a large children’s party. For TD Ameritrade, a father is in command of his child’s fun. Across all of the ads, though, fathers are the drivers of action and the center of attention. They are goofy providers of fun and laughter who might make a mess and never clean it up. Such a role contrasts sharply to a mother’s serious job of consoling others, cleaning up, or teaching children, usually daughters, lessons on how to keep a beautiful home, as seen earlier in the Mr. Clean ad. Further, even when fathers are depicted in a caretaking role, their strength in other, more traditionally masculine aspects of life are emphasized. In TD Ameritrade’s ad, the father can attend to the house and bring fun to his child. However, as the copy reads, a man’s mastery over his money (and thereby his family’s financial security) is more important than watching over children and a home’s cleanliness: “Get your financial house in order. Your actual house can wait.”
As seen in the ads from 2006, societal and cultural expectations for girls and boys are reinforced when children reach their adolescent years. The color coding of blue and pink is still often used to distinguish boys from girls, but what is most notable is how boys and girls are separated by what they can and should do. Boys are still often depicted as active and outdoors. They are masters of their destiny and go out into the world exploring and taking risks outside on the playground or playing field.
Girls, on the other hand, are not as active. Girls are regularly featured indoors, cleaning, playing dress-up, cooking, or doing less active hobbies such as reading. From the formative years of a child’s life, then, advertisements represent clear expectations for boys and girls. Boys are told to go out and achieve success outside the home. Conversely, girls are supposed to find their happiness through how they look and what they can achieve in the comforts of home.
Even in instances when boys and girls are featured together outside, boys often take the lead or are the center of attention, revealing the expectation for boys to excel and be the drivers of action and success.
In play spaces, divisions between boys and girls also appear subtly. In a gymnasium scene advertising Lunchables, boys are shown in the most noticeably daring positions—climbing a rope, hanging from a basketball hoop, or pole vaulting across the room. There are girls featured in daring positions, too, but most are tenuous and apprehensive, such as the girl hanging over an exercise ball seeking a boy’s help, and a girl teetering on a tower of equipment. The strength of the girls’ pyramid formation is hidden compared to the boy in the foreground using all of his might to win a game of tug-of-war. From this scene, then, boys are positioned in more prominent positions of strength than their girl peers, solidifying the view of boys as actors in society with girls being apprehensively active. As summarized in a scene with a boy and girl eyeing up a fish tank, girls look on as boys take the adventurous risk of going on “a quest in the deep, blue sea.”
The gender divisions for children in magazine advertisements do not insinuate that there are no challenges to stereotyped images of girls as passive and inactive. In fact, there have been campaigns beyond magazine pages that seek to embolden girls and shift expectations of what it means to be a modern girl. One such effort is Always’ 2014 and 2015 Super Bowl campaign featuring several online videos showcasing stereotyped views of girls, along with messages seeking to quash such visions of girls as unathletic, passive, and docile.
The following videos use young girls and women to acknowledge and then counteract stereotypes of girls not being able to be heroes, athletes, and other enabled individuals like their male counterparts. As one watches, one might ask several questions: How do advertisements’ dominant representations of girls and boys create different expectations based on gender? What roles do advertisements tell girls and boys to play in life? What achievements are encouraged among girls and boys?
As found in 2006, when girls transition to teenagers and young adults, the ads in this new survey push beyond the seemingly innocuous dichotomy of girls wearing pink tutus and boys playing with toy trucks in blue dungarees. In many advertisements, as girls turn to young women, they are reduced to how they stack up to various standards of beauty and sexuality. Ad messages seek to convince audiences that adhering to such ideals is desirable and necessary for young women compared to other priorities and accomplishments.
Young adult men are featured for their physical attractiveness, too. However, they are often depicted in positions of strength, control, and accomplishment, as seen through their physicality or savviness in work. Further, when depicted with women, men form the center of attention or are the largest people in an image, thereby enhancing the relative size and therefore prestige of men.
Even ten years later, advertisements’ messages about and to women still contradict larger societal messages of feminism and gender equality.52 On the one hand, girls and women are told they can have it all today: a good education, a successful job, and a loving relationship and family. These positive messages for girls and women to achieve their goals are reinforced in many ads, such as one ad for allergy relief, where a successful girls’ soccer team makes the most of its opportunity to succeed. Similarly, in an ad for Travel to Colorado, a woman in a canoe makes the most of the world that is hers to explore. As the copy reads, “Our future has yet to be written.” On one level, the message speaks to the uncharted wilderness of Colorado. However, on a more symbolic level, the ad’s text speaks to today’s women who are at the precipice of writing their own story of success.
On the other hand, many advertisements equate women’s power with their beauty and sexuality, which may undermine messages of gender equality. Women and girls are told that they can be successful through the purchase of beauty products or reenactment of the feminine beauty standards embedded in advertisements’ messages. With such logic, women’s liberation comes through her consuming power and not her intellect or work achievements.
One common way that advertisements try to help women achieve success through beauty products is through recipe, ingredient, or instruction pieces, such as that featured in Covergirl’s advertisement for clear looking skin. The message to girls and women is that they, too, like teen celebrity Becky G., can achieve the “flawless” skin so desired—and expected—for respectable, successful, and noteworthy women. Even more explicit is Murad’s moisturizer ad, which tells women that they can achieve success—a “brighter outlook” and a “beautiful life”—by having bright skin.
Women are expected to smile to show pleasantness, as is noted by the NPR piece “Think Twice Before Telling a Woman to Smile.” The New York Times details the slang term “resting bitch face,” which describes a non-smiling expression. A New York-based artist’s project addresses women’s feelings of harassment when being told to smile.
Sometimes, ads that seem uplifting for girls and women are subtly counter to such messages. In a Colgate ad encouraging women to “Smile with Strength,” a woman bites down on athletic tape. The word “strength” appears to insinuate that this woman featured in athletic wear is strong, but any notion of strength is challenged by the woman’s wearing a bra-like top, and the message of the ad that women should somehow always be smiling and pleasant. Further, as the concept of the ritualization of subordination reminds us, any power that could come from this athletic woman is absorbed by her use of a clownish smile.57
In another advertisement, for DSW, women are told to “derive satisfaction within,” which insinuates building up one’s innate sense of self. However, closer inspection of the secondary title, it becomes clearer that a woman’s worth and her ability to achieve come through the shoes she buys: “Where will your shoes take you?”
In another ad, for Nair, the explicit message to girls and women is that they can “Free your most beautiful self” through hair-removal cream. However, the ad links women’s freedom with beauty and her necessity to maintain “healthy-looking, radiant skin.” Further, the use of the ballet dancer’s canted head and extended slender legs insinuates that for full enjoyment of freedom, women must adhere to being docile and available. Thus, women’s value comes through their maintenance of their beauty regimen that makes them more attractive and available to others.
A helpful definition and history of the term metrosexual is found on comedian and activist Sam Killerman’s website.
Since 2006, there has been a noticeable rise in what has popularly been called the “metrosexual.” This “new man” is a young, urban, and heterosexual male who, ignoring previous, more “macho” ideals for men, is concerned about how his hair looks, what clothes he wears, and how nicely he is groomed.61 Not afraid of being criticized for caring about fashion, his appearance, and his level of taste—once deemed “effeminate” concerns—the metrosexual finds strength and pride in being attractive to others. Like instructional ads for women, magazine ads encourage metrosexuals’ fascinations with achieving the perfectly shaven face or the well-placed untucked shirt.
Compared to the hyper-sexualized and beautified woman, though, the metrosexual is enabled with the strident confidence that comes through his good looks. This new version of masculinity finds value not only in being well put together, but such men’s attention to self-image provides a source of strength and sensitive virility. Consequently, metrosexuals gain status through their attention to their bodies and looks. Women may obtain status and attention through looking good, but it is fleeting—when women’s value is in the continued service of others’ pleasure, women’s power is diluted.
On a continuum of gender identity—with male and female making up extreme poles—the metrosexual, therefore, represents an expansion of what defines traditional masculinity. Rather than masculinity being defined by longstanding images of a man of brute strength and stamina, performing feats through physicality, having rugged and taxing hobbies outdoors, or a successful businessman in professional attire, acceptable notions of masculinity have shifted closer to more traditionally feminine concerns of sharp clothes and a well-groomed body.
The acceptable masculine ideal for men now includes the need to be more concerned about one’s looks and desirability compared to earlier times. This reveals more flexibility afforded to men to express their gender identity. This does not mean that metrosexual masculinities are not challenged among men. Other, more traditional notions of rugged masculinity, such as those found in images of men in the country or woods doing hard work outside, may have an elevated status as being “genuinely” masculine. In other words, there are now more refined and varied notions of masculinity, and there are debates on what is deemed more masculine or manly. In the end, though, men in advertisements are more enabled than they are for women. Women still must adhere to ideal standards of beauty and sexuality that reinforce submissiveness. Men, as seen through the metrosexual, are not submissive objects of desire; they are emboldened and successful through their keeping up with the fashionable times.
For an in-depth look at advertising’s conflicting messages about women’s beauty and sexuality, Jean Kilbourne’s film series Killing Us Softly and books Can’t Buy My Love and Deadly Persuasion are highly recommended. More information is found on Kilbourne’s website.
This is not to say that unrealistic standards of beauty and sexuality for women are not criticized. One well-known critique is Dove’s 2009 “Evolution” campaign, highlighting the use of digital altering techniques to create unrealistic expectations of beauty and body shape for women. Additionally, critics such as Jean Kilbourne continue to show how objectification of women in advertisements undermines women’s abilities to imagine themselves as anything other than as objects of desire and beauty, or as submissive nurturers.68
As seen in the earlier survey of ads, men and women in the later stages of life (beyond the “ideal” target demographic of 18–35 year olds) are still often relegated to the periphery in advertising. Today, because of the aging population of Baby Boomers, America has the largest number of older individuals in its history.70 Despite their significant number, older men and women are still not as visible as their younger counterparts in many newsstand magazine advertisements.
However, the new survey presents some changes in how older men and women are represented in advertisements. Given longer lifespans and the aging Boomer population’s active lifestyle, older men and women are depicted in more lively situations. Older women and men are still regularly featured in some ads within interior spaces or facing ailments, but many are now shown in more active situations: running races, partaking in a serious bike ride, and doing yoga. Additionally, older women remain associated with watching their grandchildren, but they are more energetic and fun with the enabling enhancements of medication, as Tylenol demonstrates.
Older people are still not sexualized like their younger counterparts, but this does not mean that older people’s sexuality is not a target of discussion, as seen in advertisements for sex-enhancing drugs such as Viagra, or even sex-enhancing devices for older women, such as Estring. Because of older individuals’ relative absence in advertisements, and older men and women having their sexuality and physical beauty striped away, one can see that society prioritizes young adult life as the peak moment of ideal femininity and masculinity.
As noted earlier with the stereotyped images of girls and women, the idealization of youth has also been questioned. One prime example is the “Disrupt Aging” 2016 campaign from AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons. The goal of this campaign was to “celebrate all those who own their age,” and to “feature new ways of living and aging.”78 In one of the campaign’s most prominent spots, AARP seems to follow Always’ lead by showcasing and disrupting stereotypes. In this case, young Millennials are paired up with older individuals to do various physical activities like yoga, dancing, and push-ups; the older folks end up outdoing their younger counterparts, which encourages viewers and the Millennials in the commercial to question their preconceived notions of what it means to be an “old” man or woman. Advertisements like the AARP spot show increasing efforts by brands and other organizations to question dominant definitions of masculinity and femininity and the other identifications that intersect with gender identity: ability, age, ethnicity, race, religion, socioeconomic status, among other identities.
For an in-depth look at LGBTQ issues, look at the ADText unit on Niche Markets: Gay Consumers.
Representations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals in advertising are more prevalent in the new survey, but most representations from the sampled magazines do not deviate much from major 2006 trends. There are no representations of LGBTQ children. Although there is a diversity of ethnicities and races present, couples are often kept within their ethnic and racial group. Further, when couples are present, gay men and women tend to take on heterosexual roles—with one partner taking on a more dominant “male” role and another taking on a more passive “feminine” role. Gays and lesbians from higher socioeconomic situations are still dominantly represented, too. In other words, advertisements tend to present an idealized vision of gays and lesbians as able-bodied, fit, well-groomed, wealthy, and in heteronormative relationships.
4. An Overview on Gender Representation in 2016 Advertisements
To bring together all of the main points of this unit’s analysis of gender in current magazine advertising, it is helpful to examine two examples from other media that have caused public controversy about gender norms and definitions of masculinity and femininity.
In the first example, the Italian fashion line Moschino and toymaker Mattel created a YouTube “fauxmercial” for a Barbie doll that wore Moschino clothing. This advertisement caused controversy because it featured a campy boy playing with the Barbie and declaring, “Moschino Barbie is so fierce!” Fans of the advertisement lauded Moschino and Mattel for undermining stereotyped visions of who should play with a Barbie doll, the quintessential icon of femininity and youth. The ad was viewed as a way to challenge gender norms. However, some derided the ad, arguing that such advertisements encouraged a blurring of lines between boys and girls that could lead to the encouragement of a gay lifestyle.
The Moschino Barbie ad is significant because it showcases and challenges the entrenchment of gender norms in advertising. For some, Barbie dolls should be kept firmly within a girl’s domain; the dolls provide training for feminine heterosexuality. For others, Barbie dolls represent rigid gender roles forced upon boys and girls from an early age. By keeping boys from playing with Barbies and girls from playing with G.I. Joes, society imposes a harmful separation between what boys and girls can do. By breaking out of the boy-girl, blue-pink dichotomy, children can come to experience and enable their preferred gender self-expression.
In the second example, the Swedish car company Volvo released a carefully timed series of videos for its new luxury sport utility vehicle. The video released first shows four people in a car after a wedding. A middle-aged blond white woman drives the car, as “Toby,” a young man of color in the front passenger seat, clicks through wedding images on his digital camera. The woman looks back in the rearview mirror at a middle-aged bearded man sitting behind her. There is no dialogue as the woman smiles at the man behind her. The man then squeezes the woman’s shoulder as contemplative music plays.
In the second ad, Toby is again in the front passenger seat as another man in a similar blue suit drives the car. The back rows of the vehicle are filled with large floral arrangements for a wedding. The men ride in the car with smiles as upbeat music plays.
In the third ad, which was posted online several days after the first two ads, the bearded man practices giving a speech for his daughter’s wedding. He sits in the SUV near a lighthouse along the water. The car is described as “a place to collect your thoughts.”
Finally, the fourth ad, which was released after the first three videos, brings all of the ads together into an extended narrative starting with the bearded father practicing his speech at the lighthouse followed by the two men driving with flowers, the blond woman driver sitting outside a Tudor mansion playing with her wedding ring, and the final scene in the car with the bearded man grabbing the blond woman’s shoulder.
This Volvo campaign confused many viewers, leading to a variety of questions related to gender, masculinity, femininity, and sexuality: Why was the blond woman driving the car? Are the blond woman and bearded man married? Are they happy in their marriage? Why did the husband need to squeeze the woman’s shoulder in the car? Is this a sign of a metrosexual’s need to reassert his masculinity? Are the two young men driving with the flowers gay?
The multiple readings that come from the Volvo campaign are rich, and like the Moschino Barbie advertisement, reactions to these representations of gender tell us more about changing definitions and notions of masculinity and femininity in society. In fact, the campaign’s tagline provides an apt way to think about advertisements’ treatments of masculinity and femininity: they are “a place to collect your thoughts.” However, advertisements are no longer a place where one school of thought dominates how gender is represented, even when these messages seek to reinforce and reproduce longstanding distinctions between men and women.
5. A Gender-Fluid Future?
At this unit’s start, it was noted that there may be more gender fluidity today than ever before. The longstanding gender binary of male-female has been challenged on many fronts. In the ten years since the original analysis of magazine ads, there have been changing policies recognizing LGBTQ individuals’ rights in society (i.e. gay marriage), media have increased their representations of transgendered individuals, and famous individuals such as Caitlyn Jenner have come out to share their stories of being transgendered. National Geographic even dedicated an issue to exploring the different expressions of gender around the world.
Today, one’s gender identity does not have to coincide with one’s biological sex. Rather, gender identity may fall along a virtually infinite continuum of gender identifications and expressions. However, there are many people who resist such gender fluid thinking. As such, there is still an unsettled question about whether the diversity of gendered identities can and will be represented in advertisements as society comes to understand and slowly accept more fluid conceptions of gender.
Advertisers, as noted earlier in Adweek’s “Ungendered” piece, are sensitive to changes in how masculinity and femininity are culturally conceived. Yet, as found through this unit’s comparison of advertisements between 2006 and 2016, advertisements’ representations of masculinity and femininity excel in maintaining specific gender roles that have been standard for some time.
In the future, will advertisements’ treatments of gender become more malleable as individuals in society come to slowly understand and accept gender fluidity? Or, will advertisements continue to reinforce more rigid notions of gender expression and identity? The answers to these questions will unfold with time, but we can be certain that advertisements’ representations of gender are not a static or benign force. Advertisements’ representations of masculinity and femininity may hold on to certain historically accepted ideals while breaking and reshaping others. The process is slow with some radical shifts along the way. As citizens and consumers, it is our job to decipher and question advertisements’ ideals of masculinity and femininity and the expectations they place on us and future generations.
Edward Timke is a Lecturer in the Media Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also Associate Editor of Advertising & Society Quarterly (formerly Advertising & Society Review), which is a journal focused on the role of advertising in society, culture, history, and the economy.
Ed completed his PhD in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. His work centers on understanding the role of popular mass media in international relations and how different cultures understand and imagine each other through the media. A current book manuscript focuses on representations of American and French women in popular French and American media. Research and teaching specialties include American and international media history, trans-Atlantic magazine history, women in the media, photojournalism and visual culture, the cultural history of advertising, and research methods.
He holds a Master’s degree in International and Intercultural Communication from the University of Denver as well as a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and French from Michigan State University.
William M. O’Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His seminars include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.
He is author and co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language, and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in Brazil, China, East Africa, India, Japan, and the US. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O’Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.
In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of ADTextOnline.org, which will consist of more than 25 units published as supplements to A&SR.
* Updated 2016. Original version published in A&SR 7.2.
1. Kristina Monllos, “Ungendered,” Adweek, October 17, 2016, 26–29. The article is also available at http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/brands-are-throwing-out-gender-norms-reflect-more-fluid-world-174070.
2. Monllos, “Ungendered,” Adweek, October 17, 2016.
3. Monllos, “Ungendered, 28.
4. Monllos, “Ungendered.”
5. Photo by Emma Hymas.
6. Throughout much of Western history there has often been no distinction between sex—one’s biological sex organs—and gender—how one imagines oneself as male or female. In other words, what it means to be “male” or “female” has often been predetermined by the physical organs we are born with. According to this logic, our biological sex determines our gender identity and the entailing societal and cultural expectations of what it means to be “properly” male and female. In such a world, even if one were born with female sex organs but identified as male, because of one’s female biological sex, one is expected to conform to standards and expectations of being female. Thus, historically, gender identification has often been conceived of as the same as biological sex. The term cisgender refers to this mapping of gender identity onto biological sex; it represents Western cultures’ historic preference for nature (i.e. one’s biological sex) to determine how to nurture and define gender identity. However, this way of thinking is problematic when one’s biological sex does not match how one identifies and wishes to express one’s gender.
7. Some notable examples include the following: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1952). Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon, 1978). Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963). Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970).
8. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).
9. “The Genderbread Person v3,” It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, posted by Sam Killermann, March 16, 2015, http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/. Killermann first introduced this version 3 of the Genderbread Person in his book, The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender (Austin: Impetus Books, 2013).
10. “Like Mother, Like Daughter,” Envisioning the American Dream: A Visual Remix of the American Dream as Pictured in Mid-Century Media, posted by Sally Edelstein, May 6. 2014, https://envisioningtheamericandream.com/2014/05/06/like-mother-like-daughter/
11. “Modern Stereotypical Ad,” Stereotypes in Advertising, http://genderinsocietytoday.weebly.com/modern-stereotypical-ad.html.
12. Ebony, April 2006.
13. Glamour, May 2006.
14. Glamour, May 2006.
15. Cosmopolitan, April 2006.
16. Sports Illustrated, Swimsuit Issue, 2006.
17. Erving Goffman, Gender Advertisements (New York: Harper, 1976).
18. Today’s Black Woman, February/March 2006.
19. Time, April 17, 2006.
20. Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).
21. Child, May 2006.
22. Esquire, April 2006.
23. Better Homes & Gardens, June 2006.
24. Essence, April 2006.
25. Parents, June 2016.
26. Parents, June 2016.
27. Parents, June 2016.
28. LGBTQ stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer” or “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning.”
29. Parents, June 2016
30. Parents, June 2016
31. Dwell, June 2016
32. Forbes, May 10, 2016
33. Parents, June 2016.
34. Family Circle, June 2016.
35. Dwell, June 2016.
36. Dwell, June 2016.
37. Good Housekeeping, June 2016.
38. O, The Oprah Magazine, June 2016.
39. Parents, June 2016.
40. Southern Living, May 2016.
41. Cosmopolitan, June 2016.
42. Family Circle, June 2016.
45. People en Español, June 2016.
46. Vanity Fair, May 2016.
47. Cosmopolitan, June 2016.
48. GQ, May 2016.
49. Rolling Stone, May 19, 2016.
50. Esquire, May 2016.
51. GQ, May 2016.
52. Susan J. Douglas, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done (New York: Times Books, 2010).
53. Shape, May 2016.
54. Condé Nast Traveler, May 2016.
55. Seventeen, May 2016.
56. Shape, May 2016.
57. Goffman, Gender Advertisements.
58. Shape, May 2016.
59. People, May 23, 2016.
60. Seventeen, May 2016.
61. Matthew Hall, Metrosexual Masculinities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
62. Esquire, May 2016.
63. Esquire, May 2016.
64. Men’s Health UK, May 2016.
65. Outdoor Life, May 2016.
66. Fast Company, May 2016.
67. Forbes, May 10, 2016.
68. Jean Kilbourne, Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising (New York: Free Press, 1999). Also see Kilbourne’s recorded lecture series Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women (Media Education Foundation).
70. “Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation,” Pew Research Center Fact Tank, posted by Richard Fry, January 16, 2015, updated April 25, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/25/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/
71. Parents June 2016.
72. Family Circle, June 2016.
73. Men’s Health UK, May 2016.
74. Where to Retire,
75. Shape, May 2016.
76. Better Homes and Gardens, June 2016.
77. Family Circle, June 2016.
78. “What We’re About,” #Disrupt Aging, AARP, November 27, 2016, http://www.aarp.org/disrupt-aging/about-us/?intcmp=FTR-LINKS-DISAGING-ABOUT.
80. Attitude UK, May 2016.
81. Curve, March/April 2016.
82. Out, May 2016.
83. Attitude UK, May 2016.
84. Attitude UK, May 2016.
90. Amazon Video, https://www.amazon.com/Transparent-Season-1/dp/B00I3MOT0Y.
91. Vanity Fair, June 2015.
92. National Geographic, January 2017. This issue had two different covers.