There is an enormous variety of images, or representations, of females in magazine advertising, ranging from pictures of women in with wrenches ( see Marci here - though of course she's nicely made up, and has beautiful teeth), to thoroughly sexualized and eroticized depictions.  Much of the attention of sociologists ( notably Jean Kilbourne, Sut Jhally and Erving Goffman) has focussed on ways in which women are shown in subordinate, subservient and male pleasing roles, and on how media representation reflects and reinforces sexism in society.
     The purpose of this layout is to alert the student to some of the more common stereotypes and patterns in the way the female is displayed in popular culture, focussing on mainstream magazine ads, and to help the student become aware of some of the obvious, and more subtle, ways in which women are visually subjugated.  There is a large universe of print media, in a constant state of change, so it is difficult to say (certainly in quantitative terms) if subordinating images constitute the majority of images.  The goal here is rather to sensitize the student of society to recognize some of the typical oppressive patterns.
     If the stereotypes can be recognized, firstly they have less impact on us as consumers (willing or unwilling) of media images, and secondly we can educate both producers of these images, and other consumers.



Jean Kilbourne points out that consumers are surrounded by an ideal of female beauty which is impossible to achieve because it is artificial.  Firstly the images themselves are created artificially, by studio lighting, by air brushing, and by computer enhancement.  Secondly the models themselves not only have a body type ( tall, long legged, narrow hipped) that is characteristic of only about 5 per cent of females, but often their bodies are artificially constructed, most commonly with breast implants.  Yet, in spite of being so unrepresentative of real women, this tends to be the only female body type we see in the mass media.  Women tend to be judged, and judge themselves, against this artificial standard;  failure is inevitable, and the impact of that is indicated by the fact that 75 per cent of normal weight women feel they are overweight, 50 per cent of all women are dieting, while 80 per cent of 4th graders are on a diet.  This idealized image of female beauty means women must transform themselves;  to be who they are naturally is not OK.  In the media images she is often transformed into a doll, a puppet or a mask, a thing rather than a human being.



Women are often presented in a dehumanized way in mass media images, their humanity sacrificed to display the artificial ideal.  Women are not only turned into a thing, but the thing is broken down into component parts, each of which also represents an ideal form.  She is dismembered.  Hence we get numerous images of lips, legs, breasts, butts, torsos - female body parts.  Frequently in such images the head is missing, emphasizing that females are not valued for their intellect, but for their external form, their curves.  Sut Jhally points out that presenting women as fragmented and disconnected body parts detracts from thinking about women as real people with their own intellect, feelings, dreams and desires.  Women become objects for consumption.



Women are frequently presented as a product for male pleasure and consumption.  A visual association may be made between some product, often alcohol, and the female form.  The female and the product become equivalent and interchangeable, and both are promoted as a pleasure object.  Females are presented as a thing, a commodity, and in doing so their humanity and subjectivity is denied.  Their role is to cater to others' needs and desires, and males are persuaded to think of females as their pleasure providers.


Women are often presented as desirable commodities - objects for pleasure.  Women's hands therefore are less likely depicted engaged in practical, utilitarian activity ( conversely male hands may be depicted grasping, manipulating or holding objects ) and more likely to be shown tracing the outlines of objects, cradling them or caressing their surface.  Erving Goffman calls this pattern in the representation of female hands "the feminine touch".  The soft, delicate, caressing touch (Goffman calls it "ritualistic touching") conveys the idea that the product being caressed is precious and desirable.  A variation of this is self touching;  the women's body becomes the precious product - another way in which females are dehumanized and objectified in common mass media images.


Erving Goffman argues that the positioning of bodies displays appropriate social roles for the genders, that a person's behavior and appearance can be expressive and symbolic, communicating to observers about their social identity, about their inner states and feelings, about their intentions and expectations, and about the nature of their relationships with others.  This approach to understanding human behavior is known as the symbolic interactionist perspective.  Goffman observes that in every culture symbolic codes are developed  ( which he calls codes of "indicative behavior" ) which are used for expressing idealized social identities and relationships.  Images of women and men together in the media often draw on these indicative codes.
For example when females and males are shown together, males are mostly shown as taller than females, even though if females and males were randomly paired together, in one in six pairs the woman would be taller.  However the tall female with the short male displays a relationship in which the female has power, according to conventional indicative codes, and so the reverse is preferred, since the cultural ideal is the the male "should wear the pants".  Therefore the most common image is the taller male, and the shorter female.  Exceptions occur where the male is weakened by sickness or old age, or is of lower social status (such as a servant) than the female.  Height routinely symbolizes social rank.


Activities can also be expressive and symbolic - who is shown doing what in the image?  For example which gender is most likely to shown caring for children?  Very commonly when persons in the image have functions, these functions are ranked, with the male carrying out the senior functions, the female the junior functions.  Men act, and women help men act.  Males are more likely to be shown in the executive or leadership role, with females in the supportive, assistant, or decorative accessory role.


Goffman described a number of symbolic ways in which indicative behavior displays the subordination of females to males.


Deference may be symbolized by lowering oneself; in many cultures subordinates express their subservient relationship by prostrating or bowing.  To get down on a floor or recumbent on a bed puts a person physically lower than others in a social situation, and this can indicate social identity and social relationship.  Thus beds and floors become appropriate places to position females on.  Combined with physical lowering, other body language ( expressions of the lips and eyes, positioning of hands and limbs) can also be used to convey a social identity as a plaything for males, or as available for the male gaze and male pleasure.


When an embrace or a kiss is shown, women are most commonly shown leaning back, submitting to the male advance.  He is shown initiating the encounter, she is shown passively welcoming the attention.

Sut Jhally's analysis of MTV videos found numerous examples of women not only being aggressively pursued, even hunted down, by males, but also showing them wanting to be chased and wanting to be caught.  Their initial refusal is shown a front concealing the desire to be pursued.  When they are finally cornered and kissed they are overwhelmed with burning passion for their pursuer.  If these images have any persuasive power, they would obviously contribute to a situation in which males expect females to submit to their sexual needs, and to misinterpret refusal as desire.  Magazine images also often convey this idea that sex is about male aggression and female submission.


Women are commonly pictured in a childlike role, sitting on a male's knee, or being shielded and protected by the male.  Females may also be shown being lifted up in the air just as adults toss little children around.  Women may also be shown infantilized, putting their finger coyly in their mouth, standing pigeon-toed, wearing little girl clothes, sucking on lollipops.  Older women are very under-represented in ads;  as Jean Kilbourne points out, the message to females is, "don't grow up - stay passive, powerless and dependent".


Another way in which women are disempowered is by displaying them as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others.  This involvement with some inner emotional processing, whether anxiety, ecstasy or introspection, can be symbolized by turning the face away, looking dreamy and introverted, or by covering the face, particularly the mouth, with the hands.

Rather than being portrayed as active, powerful and in charge, females are commonly shown in this licensed withdrawal mode, removed into internal involvements, overcome with emotions, or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth.


In another variation, females are frequently shown withdrawn inwards into some dreamy introverted state;  they pose, become things for others to gaze at and desire.  Males will stereotypically be shown active, engaged, and in charge of the situation.  They are not so much objects for others' to gaze at, as actors with occupations and professions.



Goffman, Erving (1979).  Gender Advertisements.  Cambridge:  Harvard U.P.

Jhally, Sut (1995). Video: Dreamworlds 2: desire/sex/power in music video.  Northhampton: Media Education Foundation.

Kilbourne, Jean (2000). Video: Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising's Image of Women.  Northhampton: Media Education Foundation.

Kilbourne, Jean (2000).  Can't buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.  New York: Simon and Shuster.


Jean Kilbourne, nationally renowned expert on media images of women, has a very informative and resource filled web site .  Find it at:

San Francisco based organization About-Face has a web site relating to eating disorders and body image.  The site includes many examples of advertisements that harm women, information about how to contact offending companies, and ideas about how to deal with body image issues and eating disorders.  Find it at: