The media is the message

Feminist author, filmmaker Jean Kilbourne challenges us to think differently about advertising


Have you ever used the term ‘objectification’ to describe how women are portrayed in perfume ads or beer commercials? Has a magazine cover made you stop and wonder why our society remains infatuated with unattainable beauty and thinness? Do you consider yourself versed in media literacy?

If so, you might want to thank Jean Kilbourne, the feminist author and filmmaker whose foundational work on the role of women in advertising changed the way many perceive and ingest mass media.

Beginning in the late 1960s, Kilbourne – now 70 years of age – was stirred by society’s apathy towards problematic and misogynistic female representations laced within mainstream advertising. Far from an innocuous way of making a buck, she claimed, marketers were actually exploiting public health issues such as eating disorders, addictions and violence against women to sell products from household goods to luxury items.

After compiling a folio of ads and posters, she set out to make a difference.

“I was alone when I started out,” she recalls, speaking over the phone with The Uniter from her home in Massachusetts. “What I was saying [in the 1960s and 70s] was considered radical and I had to convince people this was a serious issue and now, thankfully, it’s more accepted... For example, when I started saying that alcohol and tobacco advertising played a role in the problems, that was news, that was big news 40 years ago.”

“What I was saying [in the 1960s and 70s] was considered radical and I had to convince people this was a serious issue and now, thankfully, it’s more accepted.”

Jean Kilbourne, feminist author and filmmaker

Throughout her work, Kilbourne, who hold a doctorate in education from Boston University, links images in media to broader societal problems and identifies how damaging representations of femininity actually work to intensify health issues related to addictions, dieting and constructed beauty.

“Things like the obsession with thinness and the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty, and using violence against women to sell products, the sexualization of children, these things have been going on for a long time,” she says.

In the last two decades, Kilbourne has penned two books – Can’t Buy My Love in 2000 and So Sexy So Soon in 2008 – and completed a popular series of films, Killing Us Softly, which saw its fourth iteration released in 2010. In it, Kilbourne brings together more 
than 160 different television and magazine advertisements, revealing how women are infantilized, depowered and held to nearly impossible standards of glamour, beauty and physical attractiveness.

On the pressures still facing women today, Kilbourne rests they are primarily economic, but doesn’t stray from evaluating other challenges.

“The pressure on women, particularly on girls, to be hot and sexy as well as incredibly thin and absolutely beautiful has never been worse, and this causes a lot of harm to women and girls and just puts an enormous amount of pressure on them.

“When I hear young women say ‘I’m not a feminist, but’, I always want to say Oh, yes you are! Believing in equality of the sexes automatically makes you a feminist.”

Related Reads