Images of women in mass media have been under scrutiny in recent decades. At one end of the continuum is print advertisement, brief, often single-paged combinations of text and imagery to sell a product. At the other end is pornography, sexually explicit imagery created to arouse in print, television, film, and the Internet. Where does power fit in between these? Women in both these forms of mass media are repeatedly depicted in submissive, silenced, and even victimized roles. Advertising is a much more benign means of conveying power over women than pornography. However, the average American is exposed too much more gendered advertising than pornography in any given day. In both, women are not often autonomous beings but passive and objectified. The power of imagery is well known. As visual imagery is nonverbal, its messages are often multilayered and contradictory (Kang 1997). As a socializing agent, the visual imagery provided by the media can have a powerful impact on our attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors, since it can contribute meanings and associations entirely apart and of much greater significance (ibid). Advertisements are everywhere, from television, in print, on billboards, and so on. Yet decoding each one we see is near impossible due to the number of ads we encounter every day.

Lead to justifying violence,

Feminists have been concerned with the media’s representation of women for some time, particularly the use of their bodies. Many images that depict women in sexual positions or just displaying a portion of the female body may aid in objectifying it. The woman is often the object of a male’s gaze, and thus assuming heterosexuality (Duggan and Hunter 51). Moreover, she is an object for the viewer’s imagination. This is one of the ways that power differences are created. There is a clear distinction in this equation between who has control and who is receiving it. Turning someone into an object not only dehumanizes, but it can lead to justifying violence (communicating gender). It is much easier on most people’s conscience to hit a punching bag than a person.

Desensitization of violence,

Images of women as objects and as the recipients of aggressive behavior do cause a desensitization of violence (Barker 38). Despite this, very little violent crime is a deliberate replica of one in the media, not a particular image. Much of crimes against women mirror many of the messages that are sent in the media. Oftentimes, these images in advertisements are glamorizing the gender power relations discussed earlier.

Targets for violence and aggression,

Advertisement from Sisley retrieved from Sisley’s advertisements are marketed toward young white, middle to upper class females reading fashion magazines. The first thing the viewer notices is the model’s face, bearing a fearful and frustrated expression. It is well lit in the foreground turning around, with barely a glimpse of the man behind her. Her hair is in her face as if she had quickly turned around to see him. The position of her body is clearly submissive, her hands held behind her back as she lies on the couch. Her elbow is obstructing the view of the man’s face, thus giving the view the impression that the man’s intentions are unknown- we cannot see the expression on his face. While it is not clear what exactly is happening in this scene, a sense of uneasiness arises. A power struggle is used here to sell a name, a name that sells clothing, which is barely visible here. This hierarchy may help facilitate the perception of women as targets for violence and aggression. This advertisement reinforces the stereotype that women can be used as objects not just for their bodies, but also for their willingness to use those bodies in demeaning and sometimes humiliating imagery. The look on her face, the position of her body, and the faceless perpetrator in this advertisement almost encapsulates the entire notion of the powerlessness of women as objects.

Sexual violence,

Katz writes, “The reduction of women to body parts for men’s consumption can significantly damage a woman’s self-respect” (qtr. in Marianne et al 250). He goes on further than men are not born to objectify women, but it is a learned behavior, primarily from images of passive women. Perhaps this lack of self-respect exacerbates the acceptance of such material. There is no more rampant use of aggressive imagery than in the pornography industry. Barron et al examined sexual violence in print media, videos, and the Internet, and found that the Internet contained a significant portion of graphic and antagonistic imagery.

Violence became more intense,

However, as the violence became more intense, fewer scenes contained its (259).Much of the heterosexual pornography in circulation draws on the conventions of the woman as the object of the male gaze (Duggan 54). Duggan and Hunter’s book, Sex Wars, critically examines pornography from both sides of the argument that addresses the nature of the medium. It must be noted that my interest here lies in violent pornography and its effects exclusively. The images of women in this form of mass media are a more intense mutation of the print advertisements discussed above. “Sexually explicit” often becomes identified and equated with “violent”. Critically examining pornography must be done with as much analysis as that of socially acceptable forms of imagery. Those that contain nudity, nonviolent and non-degrading material are another discussion.


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