Two decades of progress (or lack thereof) in media representation

It was a daunting task. My first mission as an About-Face intern was to downsize a cabinet of media images collected over the course of the last twenty (!!) years into three binders containing the most essential or iconic images. This gave me more than just a little perspective on how the media’s portrayal of women has changed over the years.

Digging through the files, I sifted through a dizzying barrage of messages (“Thinner is better!” “Skin should have no wrinkles, blemishes or imperfections!” “Your looks define you!”). With all of the ads new to me, each flip of the page made me want to alert everyone in the office. “Hey! Look at this! Can you believe this?!”

I needed to be told several times that I had to be more cutthroat in tossing images into the trash. But they were all so shocking! They all seemed important to keep.

I kept expecting the images to become less objectifying, sexualizing, and degrading as the years went on. Progress has to have been made for women in the media, I kept telling myself… right?

The 2009-2011 binders lent no support to that notion. In fact, I found them the most shocking of all. While many positive ad campaigns have emerged over the years, most advertisements are still perpetuating the same ideas, often times more overtly than in the past. To me, today’s images are more appalling…because they are sending the same messages that were appalling twenty years ago, and often times they’re more blunt and obvious.

Take these two ads, for example:


They have a lot in common. They are both using women and sex to sell perfume. But the 2010 ad ups the ante, adding an element of infantilization with a young woman dressed in a decidedly little-girl dress, riding a pony. And while the ’97 ad is suggestive of sex with the faintly seductive pose of the model, the 2010 ad does away with all subtlety, sticking the perfume in the middle of her crotch.

Clearly, the content hasn’t changed much, and if anything has worsened, but the main offenders today are different. In the late 90s these were mainly high fashion ads and models. But now celebrities are playing a growing role in media and are often blatantly using sex or violence to sell their products (and/or themselves). Images like these became incredibly common in the last few years:

So I guess this is where we are, in the year 2011. The evolution of media over the course of two decades provides an unsettling perspective. It leaves me feeling a tad indignant and quite a bit disappointed, but all the more motivated to work for positive change.

Aubrey Toole is a senior at UC Berkeley majoring in psychology.

2 thoughts on “Two decades of progress (or lack thereof) in media representation

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  1. Thank you Magdalena! While it was a bit disheartening at times, it was incredibly enlightening (to say the least). And in the end, I’m glad I had the opportunity to gain this perspective.

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