Written by Stephanie Proft Tuesday, September 25 2012
Snapshot: Jean Kilbourne, Filmmaker and Author
In a media climate in which thin, scantily clad women are used to sell hamburgers and a pair of headless breasts stars in an advertisement for a men's haircare product, Jean Kilbourne has, at times, been a lone voice of reason. Kilbourne was a proponent of media literacy before anyone even coined the term.
After a brief stint in the modeling industry, she became intrigued by how the advertising industry portrays women and, perhaps more so, by the fact that nobody else seemed to care.
She's been a full-time lecturer on the adverse effects of the media's constant iteration of the beauty ideal for more than half of her life and was one of the original critics of the tobacco and alcohol industries, making her a media studies pioneer in more ways than one.
Her critically-acclaimed documentary film series “Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women,” which focuses on the way that advertisers objectify women and portray femininity, debuted in 1979. Kilbourne has produced three follow-up editions of the film that continue to chronicle the exploitative nature of the advertising industry. She has also authored several articles and books, such as “Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel” and “So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.”
Kilbourne will be a featured speaker at our Womenetics Global Women's Initiative Conferences in Atlanta and Chicago.
Womenetics: You were a model yourself and dealt with tobacco and alcohol addictions before you became a crusader against those industries, so I'm curious about how you launched this career.
Jean Kilbourne: How did I go about launching this career? Haphazardly. What happened was that I started collecting ads in the late 1960s. In the beginning, I was interested in the image of women in media and advertising. Nobody else was looking at this, so a lot of people thought I was kind of crazy and that this wasn't a big issue. But I was interested in it for several reasons, one was that I was involved in the women's movement at that time, which was just sort of beginning – you know, the second wave – and I had some modeling experience.
It was a very difficult time for women in the late 1960s, and there were very few job opportunities. I went to Wellesley College – a really fine college – and then had to go to secretarial work after I graduated. My job options were very limited. I could be a secretary; I could be a teacher, but I had to go back and get more credentials for that. I could be a waitress, or I could be a model and make a lot of money. So, it was very seductive, but it was also very alienating. Although, in those days there was no word to describe it. We didn't have words like “objectification” or “alienation,” in this sense. I just knew that there was something really kind of wrong with it, even though it was quite seductive, and it certainly was lucrative. I didn't do much modeling, and I didn't do it for long.
It left me with a lifelong interest in the whole idea of the image of beauty and the power of it, and who has it and who doesn't, and who wins and who loses. So, I started collecting the ads and making slides of them. But it wasn't like I said, “You know, I think I'll do this for the next forty years.” I just was interested in it, and then I did become a teacher and started using the slides with my students. It turned out to be a very effective way to teach about a whole lot of things, so other groups started asking me to speak, and one thing led to another. I quit my day job and have been a full-time lecturer ever since.
In the 1970s, I was still looking at the image of women, of course, but I started looking at alcohol and tobacco advertisements. I was particularly interested in the way that the tobacco and alcohol industries targeted kids and how they targeted women. That was groundbreaking too, if I do say so myself, because hardly anybody else was looking at those issues then. For one thing, people didn't consider tobacco and alcohol to be serious problems at that time. They thought that other drugs were problems, in those days, and that advertising didn't make any difference. We know now that it does.
Womenetics: How have the reactions at your lectures evolved over time? Are people still shocked? Do you feel like people are more or less outraged?
Kilbourne: It's amazing that people are still shocked at all. I can understand why people were surprised when I was first talking about it because, again, nobody else was, and so at that point the reaction was often complete shock. What amazes me is how shocked people still are. There's kind of an awareness that there's a problem, but often people are unaware of the full extent. Even when people do recognize there's a problem they feel like, “Oh, this doesn't affect me.” So I think what happens when they see my films or presentations is that they start to see that it does affect all of us. It's not trivial, and it's not something that we cannot be exposed to if we don't pay attention to it. It just doesn't work that way.
Womenetics: How do you respond to the idea that “average people” want to see these ideal, thin, uber-attractive people in advertisements because if they didn't, they wouldn't support those companies or magazines?
Kilbourne: First of all, there's some truth to that because some magazines have tried to put heavier models on the cover, and it hasn't gone so well. But I think it's just an example of how deep cultural conditioning goes. If you're taught your entire life that what's most important is how you look and this is how you should look, and here is a woman who does look that way and if you buy these products, maybe you can look this way too... It's really hard to resist that because it becomes so deep in our psyches. So that would require a change on a whole lot of different levels, too.
I'm not blaming people for this. We just don't get any other messages ever. The only message is – if you're a woman – what's most important is how you look, and that means you need to be young, thin, white, preferably blonde and blue-eyed, and carefully groomed and polished, with all your body hair removed, etc., etc. If you deviate from that ideal in any way, then you're an object of contempt. And that's really extremely painful for women, but we're so used to it because we've been getting that message from birth.
Womenetics: We can probably all think of a million offenders, but are there companies that you think advertise particularly well when it comes to portraying women?
Kilbourne: Yes, although some of them are relatively small companies, and they're not so much targeting young people. Eileen Fisher, for example, does terrific advertising, but her target audience is a more adult audience. I think the Dove campaign has done some good things. It's not perfect, but it has done some good.
There are some companies that just don't do exploitative images. But of course the big mainstream national advertisers – especially the fashion industry and beauty industry – they tend to be pretty outrageous.
Womenetics: The standards of beauty that are imposed by the media affect both men and women. Do you feel like men are generally less conscious of this than women?
Kilbourne: The standard of beauty for women is something that deeply affects the sexes. The research is clear - this deeply affects female self-esteem, and it also affects how men feel about the real women in their lives. When young men are shown lots of photos supermodels, they judge real women much more harshly. So, men are deeply affected by the image, mostly in terms of what they can expect or how they judge women. Men are also encouraged to objectify women and to see and treat women as objects from a very early age. In this sense, I think it's very harmful to men.
Womenetics: Men have also faced increasing objectification in advertising, but it doesn't seem like it's been affecting their self-esteems in the same way. Why do you think that is?
Kilbourne: For one thing, men don't get the message that the most important thing about them is how they look. Women get that message from birth – that no matter what we, do we're going to be judged by how we look and by our bodies. I mean, look at what happens to Hillary Clinton every time she changes her hairstyle. There's just a relentless focus for women on how we look being most important. That's just not true for men. It matters for men when they are very young, how they look. As men grow older, that really doesn't matter at all. Then what matters is how powerful a man is, and in our society that's measured by how much money he has so rich, ugly old men have lots of beautiful young women. I mean, look at Donald Trump. Do you think any of those women are with him because he's so cute? I don't think so. Would any of them be with him if he didn't have the bank account he has? I don't think so.
Womenetics: What do you think it will take for gender and looks to be disregarded when evaluating women in high-power positions? Because so often you do read comments about Angela Merkel's weight or Hillary Clinton's wrinkles, but these criticisms are rarely given to men. Do you think we'll move past it?
Kilbourne: It's a long struggle. I've been involved in it for half my life. We're not there yet. I hope that one day we will be. We have a long way to go, and it certainly hasn't gotten better. The film Miss Representation is all about how these images limit women's political efficacy and our sense of ourselves and how capable we are. So, it's serious. These issues aren't trivial.
Womenetics: Do you think that as more women reach those kinds of powerful positions the emphasis on looks will go away?
Kilbourne: Well, it's hard to say because it's just so ruthless. If a woman doesn't play the game, then God help her – she's savaged. “Oh, she's let herself go.” “She's looking fat.” “She had a baby six weeks ago, and she still has a bulge.” “She's not dying her hair – what's wrong with her?” It's just endless and savage. I don't know what it will take to change it, really, because if a woman doesn't dye her hair or use botox or do these various things then she's criticized for it. Whereas if she does, she's a phony. It really is kind of a no-win situation. Something drastic will have to change, and I don't know what that would be.
I think some of it might be if we could have more women in positions of power, just so that girls growing up could see a broader range of what's possible for women. Even if those women were judged harshly for how they look, if there were more of them doing more things, I think at least girls would feel a broader sense of options.
Womenetics: Much of your work focuses on sexualized images and how they affect children. Is there any way that parents can counteract that type of imagery, especially in this day and age when we're constantly being bombarded by it?
Kilbourne: Sure. In fact, I wrote a whole book about it. “So Sexy So Soon” is a parent's guide to what they can do, and there are many, many things. Parents should talk to their children, limit their exposure and become familiar with their media. There's many other things that parents can do, and my book is all about that.
Talking to your children is the most important thing. Open, honest conversations about sex and everything else. Limit exposure to the media, especially when children are little. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under the age of 2. That means no TV, no computer, no iPhone, etc. Parents should familiarize themselves with the media their children like so that they can have intelligent conversations with them about it. Parents should form alliances with other parents. They should be involved in the schools. There's just a whole range of things that parents can do.
More women focused on media reform:
After producing the eye-opening documentary "Cover Girl Culture," Nicole Clark now travels the nation orchestrating media literacy workshops for middle and high school girls.
Tired of the unbridled misogynism against both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election, Amy Siskind founded The New Agenda, a non-partisan organization focused on women's advancement.
"Lose the flab!" and "Get a Bikini Body!" were the types of headlines commonly found on the cover of women's magazines that implored Pilar Gerasimo to start her own publication, which provides a holistic guide to healthy living.
Stephanie Proft is the assistant editor at Womenetics and a recent graduate of Georgia State University, majoring in print journalism and minoring in anthropology. She was born in Lichtenfels, Germany to a native mother and an American soldier. She has since lived happily in a variety of settings, including the Northwest and the Southeast. She is generally fascinated by culture, and the way it shapes our experiences.