Exploitation of women in mass media

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A model promotes Jägermeister, 2006

The exploitation of women in mass media refers to the criticisms often levied by feminists and other advocates of women's rights against the use or portrayal of women in the mass media (such as television, film and advertising) to increase the appeal of media or a product to the detriment of, or without regard to, the interests of the women portrayed, or women in general. The most often criticized aspect of the use of women in mass media is objectification.

Criticisms of the media[edit]


Pro-feminist cultural critics such as Robert Jensen and Sut Jhally accuse mass media and advertising of promoting the objectification of women to help promote goods and services.[1][2][3]

Clothing designer Calvin Klein has himself been a critic of the use of women in advertising, having said -

"Jeans are about sex. The abundance of bare flesh is the last gasp of advertisers trying to give redundant products a new identity."

The overt use of sexuality to promote breast cancer awareness, through fundraising campaigns like "I Love Boobies" and "Save the Ta-tas", angers and offends breast cancer survivors and older women, who are at higher risk of developing breast cancer. Women who have breast cancer say that these advertising campaigns suggest that having sexy breasts is more important than saving their lives, which devalues them as human beings.[4]


In considering the way that films are put together, many feminist film critics have pointed to the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood film-making. Budd Boetticher summarises the view thus: "What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance."[5] Laura Mulvey's germinal essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (written in 1973 and published in 1975) expands on this conception of the passive role of women in cinema to argue that film provides visual pleasure through scopophilia and identification with the on-screen male actor.[5] She asserts: "In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness," and as a result contends that in film a woman is the "bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning."[5] Mulvey argues that Lacan's psychoanalytic theory is the key to understanding how film creates such a space for female sexual objectification and exploitation through the combination of the patriarchal order of society, and 'looking' in itself as a pleasurable act of voyeurism, as "the cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking."[5]

Music videos[edit]

Gan, Zillmann and Mitrook found that exposure to sexually explicit rap promotes distinctly unfavorable evaluations of black women. Following exposure to sexual rap, as compared with exposure to romantic music or to no music, the assessment of the female performers' personality resulted in a general downgrading of positive traits and a general upgrading of negative ones.[6] A 2008 study by Zhang et al. showed that exposure to sexually explicit music videos was associated with stronger endorsement of sexual double standards (e.g., belief that it is less acceptable for women to be sexually experienced than for men). Exposure to sexual content was also associated with more permissive attitudes toward premarital sex, regardless of gender, overall television viewing, and previous sexual experience.[7] However, Gad Saad argues that the premise that music videos yield harmful effects and that the harm would be sex-specific (e.g., women's self-concepts will be negatively affected) has not been supported by research.[8]

A survey found that 72.2% of black, 68.0% of white, and 69.2% of Hispanic youths agree with the suggestion that rap music videos contain 'too many' references to sex.[9][10]


The use of size 0 in advertisements and products of the clothing industry has been met with criticism. For example, Dawn Porter, a reporter from the UK, who had been challenged to go on an extreme celebrity 'size zero' diet for a new BBC programme, Super Slim Me, logged her experiences about her journey to a size zero.[11]

A study conducted in the UK found evidence that anorexia nervosa is a socially transmitted disease and exposure to skinny models may be a contributing factor in the cause of anorexia nervosa.[12]


While some feminists view mass media in general to be objectifying, they often focus on pornography as playing an egregious role in habituating men to objectify women.[13]

In Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography, a review of pornography research conducted for the Surgeon General in 1986 Dolf Zillmann noted that some inconsistencies in the literature on pornography exist, but overall concluded that extensive viewing of pornographic material may produce some negative sociological effects, including a decreased respect for long-term, monogamous relationships, and an attenuated desire for procreation.[14] He describes the theoretical basis for these conclusions stating:

The values expressed in pornography clash so obviously with the family concept, and they potentially undermine the traditional values that favor marriage, family, and children... Pornographic scripts dwell on sexual engagements of parties who have just met, who are in no way attached or committed to each other, and who will part shortly, never to meet again... Sexual gratification in pornography is not a function of emotional attachment, of kindness, of caring, and especially not of continuance of the relationship, as such continuance would translate into responsibilities, curtailments, and costs...[15]


Blonde women are over-represented among newscasters and television stars, conveying the impression that blonde hair is more beautiful or desirable.[16]

Recently, television has come under fire for the sexual exploitation of women on screen, particularly when teenagers are involved. In 2013, the Parents Television Council released a report that found the is was increasingly more likely for a scene to exploitive when a teenage girl was involved. The report also found that 43 percent of teen girls on television are the targets of sexually exploitive jokes compared to 33 percent of adult women.[17]

The researchers from the study claim that "[i]f media images communicate that sexual exploitation is neither serious nor harmful, the environment is being set for sexual exploitation to be viewed as trivial and acceptable. As long as there are media producers who continue to find the degradation of women to be humorous, and media outlets that will air the content, the impact and seriousness of sexual exploitation will continue to be understated and not meaningfully addressed in our society.”[18]

A 2012 study lead by sociologist Stacy L. Smith found that in both prime-time television and family films, women were highly likely to be depicted as thin and scantily clad. They were also vastly underrepresented in STEM fields when compared to their male counterparts, and had less speaking roles. According to this study, only 28.3 percent of characters in family films, 30.8 percent of characters in children's shows, and 38.9 percent of characters on prime time television were women.[19]

Effects on society[edit]

Critics of the prevalent portrayals of women in the mass media observe possible negative consequences for various segments of the population, such as:[20]

Counter arguments[edit]

Defenders of the portrayals of women in mass media argue that the nature of the imagery used is a direct response to what the consumers respond positively to. In other words, if for example blonde women are over-represented in film, advertising or as news casters it is because they appeal the most to the audience.[citation needed] Similarly if women who are thinner than average appear more often it is because people prefer to see them, even if they do not directly identify with that physical description.[citation needed]

Gallup & Robinson, an advertising and marketing research firm, has reported that in more than 50 years of testing advertising effectiveness, it has found the use of the erotic to be a significantly above-average technique in communicating with the marketplace, "...although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser. Weighted down with taboos and volatile attitudes, sex is a Code Red advertising technique ... handle with care ... seller beware; all of which makes it even more intriguing." This research has led to the popular idea that "sex sells".

To a small minority of feminists, claims about the objectification of women are flawed. Camille Paglia holds that "Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties of our species." In her view, objectification is closely tied to (and may even be identical with) the highest human faculties toward conceptualization and aesthetics.[22]

Danish criminologist Berl Kutchinsky's Studies on Pornography and sex crimes in Denmark (1970), a scientific report ordered by the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, found that the legalizing of pornography in Denmark had not (as expected) resulted in an increase of sex crimes.[23] Since then, many other experiments have been conducted, either supporting or opposing the findings of Berl Kutchinsky, who would continue his study into the social effects of pornography until his death in 1995. His life's work was summed up in the publication Law, Pornography, and Crime: The Danish Experience (1999). Milton Diamond from the University of Hawaii found that the number of reported cases of child sex abuse dropped markedly immediately after the ban on sexually explicit materials was lifted in 1989.[24]

Some social conservatives have agreed with aspects of the feminist critique of sexual objectification. In their view however, the increase in the sexual objectification of both sexes in Western culture is one of the negative legacies of the sexual revolution.[25][26][27][28][29] These critics, notably Wendy Shalit, advocate a return to pre-sexual revolution standards of sexual morality, which Shalit refers to as a "return to modesty", as an antidote to sexual objectification.[26][30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jensen, Robert, 'Using Pornography' in Dines, Gail, Robert Jensen and Ann Russo (eds) Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (Routledge, 1998), ISBN 978-0-415-91813-8
  2. ^ Jhally, Sut (dir) Dreamworlds II: Desire, Sex, Power in Music (Media Education Foundation, USA, 1997)
  3. ^ Frith, Katherine, Ping Shaw and Hong Cheng 'The Construction of Beauty: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Women's Magazine Advertising' in Journal of Communication 55 (1), 2005, pp.56–70
  4. ^ Szabo, Lisa (30 October 2012). "Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients". USA Today. Retrieved 9 November 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d Erens, Patricia (1990). Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-20610-7. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  6. ^ Gan, Su-lin; Dolf Zillmann; Michael Mitrook (1997). "Stereotyping Effect of Black Women's Sexual Rap on White Audiences". Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19 (3): pp. 381-399. DOI: 10.1207/s15324834basp1903 7
  7. ^ Zhang, Yuanyuan; Miller, Laura E.; Harrison, Kristen (2008). "The relationship between exposure to sexual music videos and young adults' sexual attitudes". Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 52 (3): pp. 368-386. doi: 10.1080/08838150802205462
  8. ^ Gad Saad. The evolutionary bases of consumption, Routledge, 2007, p. 196
  9. ^ Cohen, Cathy J. Democracy Remixed. Oxford; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 71, ISBN 978-0-19-537800-9.
  10. ^ Reuters. "Young U.S. blacks believe in politics: study", February 01, 2007.
  11. ^ Dawn Porter (2007-02-01). "'My quest for size zero'". Daily Mail. 
  12. ^ Sarah Boseley (2012-03-01). "'Anorexia research finds government intervention justified'". Gurdian. 
  13. ^ MacKinnon, Catharine (1992). Only Words. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-63934-8. 
  14. ^ "Zillmann, Dolf: "Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography"". Profiles.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  15. ^ Zillmann, pages 16-17
  16. ^ a b Alan Wells (1993), Mass Media & Society, Greenwich, CT, USA: Ablex Publishing Corp, p. 553, ISBN 1-56750-288-1 
  17. ^ Elber, Lynn. "Are Women On TV Being Sexually Exploited? Female TV Characters Are Sexual Targets, Says New Study". www.huffingtonpost.com. Huffington Post. Retrieved 21 November 2014. 
  18. ^ Ramirez, Ximena. "Study Finds Girls Sexually Exploited on Television with Humor". www.care2.com. care2.com. Retrieved 21 November 2014. 
  19. ^ Bahadur, Nina. "Women In The Media: Female TV And Film Characters Still Sidelined And Sexualized, Study Finds". www.huffingtonpost.com. Huffington Post. Retrieved 21 November 2014. 
  20. ^ Fredrickson, Barbara L.; Tomi-Ann Roberts. (1997). "Objectification Theory: Toward understanding women's lived experiences and mental health risks". Psychology of Women Quarterly 21(2):173–206. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x. Retrieved on 2009-4-11.
  21. ^ [“Campus Sexual Violence.” Health.arizona. Campus Health, n.d. Web. 30 March 2012. <http://www.health.arizona.edu/pdf/oasis/Oasis_stats.pdf>], [Newsom, Jennifer Siebel, writer. Miss Representation. Dir. Jennifer Siebel Newsom. Perfs. Margaret Cho, Katie Couric. 2011. DVD. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Regina Kulik Scully, Geralyn Dreyfous, Sarah Johnson Redlich, 2011.]
  22. ^ Paglia, Camille (August 20, 1991). Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Vintage. ISBN 0-679-73579-8. ISBN 978-0-6797-3579-3. 
  23. ^ Berl Kutchinsky: Studies on Pornography and sex crimes in Denmark
  24. ^ The Effects of Pornography: An International Perspective University of Hawaii Porn 101: Eroticism, Pornography, and the First Amendment: Milton Diamond Ph.D.
  25. ^ "Dr. James Dobson"
  26. ^ a b Shalit, Wendy. 1999. A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-684-84316-1 (hc), ISBN 0-684-86317-0 (pb).
  27. ^ Riesman, Judith A. 1991. Soft Porn Plays Hardball: Its Tragic Effects on Women, Children and the Family. Lafayette, LA. Huntington House Publishers. ( pp.32-46, p.173) ISBN 0-910311-92-7
  28. ^ Holz, Adam R. 2007. Is Average the New Ugly? Plugged In Online
  29. ^ Coalition, National. "Subtle Dangers of Pornogaphy". Pureintimacy.org. Retrieved 2013-03-14. 
  30. ^ Shalit, Wendy. 2000. Modesty revisited. Boundless webzine.