Discourses of Sexism in Advertising

Discourses of Sexism in Advertising

Many people cite sports as now open to women, and a strong emphasis on sports often begins in schools. But what is emphasized between boys and girls varies. There is often a lack of support for girls sports in school, and even when there is funding for girls, the broader culture reinforces the idea that girls’ sports are not as valuable since girls in sports don’t “go” anywhere in terms of professional leagues. The results of games between women’s teams are not announced daily on local and national television as they are for men’s teams (men’s teams of course are not identified as “men’s” teams at all, but just as “teams”).

Girls and women in sports are not taken seriously in the mainstream culture, except in contexts such as the diet/fitness industry or as male-


oriented entertainment such as the Legends Football League (formerly known as the Lingerie Football League). While society’s interest in women athletes increases during the Olympics, the final matches that end the Games (and most other competitions, such as the U.S. Open or Wimbledon) are between men.

Once girls who are highly interested in sports reach puberty, a new pressure to establish their heterosexuality (by demonstrating their interest in boys and by remaining feminine) emerges. One of the clearest recent examples of establishing the heterosexuality and gender normativity of female athletes through advertising was illustrated with Canadian ice hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic medalist and seven-time World championship medalist. As an athlete, Wickenheiser has logged an impressive resume of accomplishments. However, the stereotype of women hockey players not being feminine follows Wickenheiser, as it does all female players. Despite their strength and skill at their sport, their lack of traditional femininity is problematic.

After the 2010 Olympic Games Wickenheiser was featured in ads for Betty Crocker. In these ads the audience sees Hayley in a domestic setting; she sits with her husband and son around the kitchen table eating Hamburger Helper. Hayley tells us that just like us, she’s a busy mum and the last thing she wants is to come home and spend a lot of time in the kitchen making dinner for her family.

What’s powerful about these ads is how quickly they reinforce important ideas about the social construction of gender in relation to the institution of marriage and family. Hayley is separated from her athleticism as the viewer is explicitly asked to identify with her as “a mum just like you,” presented in a typical nuclear family. Her heterosexuality is confirmed, along with her commitment to her traditional family responsibilities (for example, that she will do the cooking for her husband and son is taken for granted). Regardless that she is an athlete at the pinnacle of athletic accomplishment, as a woman, she is still expected to come home and put dinner on the table for her family.

The rates at which women’s hockey is funded are relevant to her participation in a campaign for a product that any health-conscious athlete is unlikely to consume. The ten highest paid professional male hockey player salaries are 10–14 million U.S. dollars per season (not including bonuses that players are usually awarded when they enter the play-offs). The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (established in 2007) and the first U.S. Women’s Hockey League (established in 2015) draw some of the greatest Olympic-level athletes from the United States and Canada. Yet the players in the leagues (such as Hayley Wickenheiser) receive no league


salary, and while their travel costs and ice time are covered, they pay for their own equipment (Canadian Press, 2010). Were Hayley male, she would have received the top contracts that the most skilled male players receive. Thus many women athletes must depend on endorsements and contracts with European leagues and other sources to fund their sport.

Female athletes often endure media representations that position them in demeaning domestic or sexualized ways. For example, Olympic medalist trap-shooter Corey Cogdell, Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, and three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Katinka Hosszu are athletes whose accomplishments were presented in media in relation to their male partners. Also, gendered/sexual comments about female athletes’ bodies are common in media. Gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas was criticized for her hair, many athletes are referred to as “girls,” and references to the “great bikini bodies” of beach volleyball players are all too common. 2016 Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles represents another cogent example of media and advertising in particular stripping women athletes of power and repositioning them in traditional (sexist and domestic) gendered roles. A 2016 Tide campaign featuring Biles called “Small But Powerful” starts with a focus on her extraordinary strength, and ends with her doing laundry. The connection is that the laundry detergent is powerful just like she is. Yet the juxtaposition of her athleticism at the start of the commercial and putting laundry in the washing machine in the latter half is striking. It is relevant to note that the association between Black women and domestic work is also reinforced. How many male athletes have you seen in ads focused on domestic labor? What might the impact be of this pervasive curriculum that repeatedly reminds us that women athletes must also be domestic, maternal, sexy, and accountable to men?

While kids may spend 6 hours a day for 180 days per year in school receiving instruction, they interact with media every day, in some cases up to 11 hours a day (Strasburger et. al., 2013). A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Institute reports that youth between the ages of 8–18 spend approximately 7.5 hours per day, 7 days a week with media (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). Youth aged 8 to 12 spend 6 hours a day, while teens spend up to 9 hours on average streaming online media like videos and music (Marshall & Sensoy, 2016). A 2015 Pew Research Center study reports that 88% of American teens have a mobile phone, 56% of teens go online several times a day, and 24% report being online “almost constantly.” According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, “Children ages 2–11 see at least 25,000 advertisements a year on TV alone, a figure that does not include product placements within


shows. They are also targeted with advertising on the Internet, cell phones, mp3 players, video games, school buses, and even in school” (n.d., p. 2; see also Federal Trade Commission, 2007). Most of teens’ activity online is facilitated by smartphones, where they access multiple social media platforms—Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter (PEW, 2015). These platforms go hand in hand with carefully curated advertising activities.

There is no doubt that kids are plugged in. Yet when discussing the power of advertising with our students, we often hear, “I don’t pay any attention to the ads. They don’t affect me at all.” Advertising is a multibillion-dollar industry based on copious research. There are no accidents in ads—every aspect of an ad is designed to affect us, even if we only glance at it for a moment. This is important because one of the ways that media and popular culture work to perpetuate sexism and androcentrism is by normalizing particular kinds of people and relationships. Over and over, as we see these kinds of women and girls (and not others) playing out certain scripts of behavior (and not others), those roles and relations become normal (and ideal) to us.

Virtually everything in advertising is gendered, furthering the strict division between men and women and their roles in society and shaping our seemingly neutral and personal consumer “choices.” Food is a cogent example of gender divisions reinforced through marketing. According to advertisers, women drink iced tea and eat yogurt, salads, chocolate, and cake, while men drink beer and eat pizza, hamburgers, bacon, and other red meat. Even smell is gendered. While there is no biological difference in hair between women and men, we cannot use the same shampoo. What makes a shampoo masculine or feminine? Smell. The smell of fruit or flowers is for women, while smells associated with the rugged outdoors, such as pine and musk, are for men.

STOP: While White people as the dominant racial group do emulate peoples of Color, the terms under which they do so are not the same. White people don’t seek to emulate peoples of Color in the halls of power; White emulation is typically confined to the realm of entertainment in order to attain some temporary social capital of coolness. This is an isolated pattern that treats racialization as something that can be taken on and off at whim. For example, Miley Cyrus twerking with Black dancers and coopting reductive caricatures of Blackness, then claiming that she was over hip-hop.

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