Future of Feminism: No More Media Sexualization of Women

It’s hard to ignore the sexualization of women and girls in the media these days; it’s everywhere, from Carl’s Jr. ads to films supposedly meant to empower women. Dr. Jean Kilbourne, creator of the film series Killing Us Softly (1979-2010), has been tracking advertising images of women since the late 1960s. In a recent interview with Bitch magazine, she stresses that things are getting worse, not better:

Mostly advertising has gotten much more powerful than ever before, much more intrusive than ever before. [In terms of] the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty–you know, the fact that we’re surrounded by this impossible image of beauty that makes us all feel bad–that’s much worse, because of computer retouching and Photoshop, and the ability that advertisers have these days to create absolutely impossible images.

The 2011 documentary Miss Representation takes on this ever-worsening trend. While the situation the film presents is disheartening, its ultimate message is uplifting–that we can fight back, that there is a way to change how girls and women are represented through education and advocacy.

Fortunately, the robust feminist online community is on the case. The Women’s Media Center‘s Name It. Change It. campaign calls out sexism in political journalism. Women and Hollywood critiques Hollywood sexism as it manifests both on the screen and behind the scenes. The blog Racialicious incisively examines the intersection of racism and sexism in popular culture. Sociological Images‘ contributors routinely analyze sexism, racism and classism in visual images, particularly in marketing. And Women In Media and News takes a multipronged approach to increasing women’s voices in media.

As we do the necessary work of calling out racism and sexism in the media that increasingly permeates our lives, we always need to be careful of one thing. Arguing that women shouldn’t be objectified by the media doesn’t mean that women should be ashamed of their bodies or their sexuality. Let’s remember the difference between sexualization and a healthy self-expression of our sexuality.

The new organization SPARK (Sexualization Protest, Action, Resistance, Knowledge) does just that, their mission starkly differentiating between healthy sexuality that “allows for intimacy and is linked to positive feelings” and sexualization that “uses girls’ and women’s bodies as a marketing tool and a ratings grabber” and often leads to low self-esteem and depression. The unique thing about SPARK is that the organization is run by girls (age 13-22), who write for its blog and help organize events, including the SPARK Summit, a one-day conference that led to the organization’s launch last year.

By employing girls in their own advocacy, SPARK and other initiatives like it remind us that you’re never too young to start speaking out about the way you’re treated by the world. You’re never too young to be a feminist.

There are many other organizations and blogs out there that do a fantastic job of addressing and analyzing media culture and its messages–far too many to name here. Please add your favorites in the comments!

Photo is of Jean Kilbourne from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons 3.0.

Part Nine in a Women’s History Month series celebrating organizations and ideas that represent the future of feminism.


  1. Charl10 says:

    Holy shit…that’s by blog about Suckerpunch linked there. *huge smile*

  2. Just wanted to share my blog: http://www.BeautyIsInside.com. I write about body image, sexism, and pop culture. I examine how the media treat women’s bodies as if they’re our most valuable attribute – and how we buy into it. I argue that this constant stream of sexist and degrading imagery undermines both our social and political power, and I try to inspire women to reclaim that power. You can also check me out on Facebook @ Beauty Is Inside and Twitter @_BeautyIsInside

  3. LOVE this article and all of the organizations it mentions–SPARK is one of our sister orgs who does a wonderful job protesting sexualization and calling us all to action! We are Powered By Girl, the media activism arm of Hardy Girls Healthy Women, and our blogs are also run by 14-22 year olds. We have an interactive site spoofing misogynistic ads, voting on polls, and calling others to join us in action. Please visit us at http://www.poweredbygirl.org. Thanks again for this article.

  4. I’m delighted to learn young women are focusing on the issue of media’s treatment of women’s bodies. Not only is women’s portrayal hypersexualized it is, as you note, objectified.

    The hallmarks of objectification include: (1) interchangeability; (2) reduction to appearance; (3) being an instrument for someone else’s purpose; (4) inertness or passivity; and (5) capacity of being violated or lacking bodily integrity. This last criterion is especially troubling.

    As Jean Kilbourne observes, objectifying someone is the first step toward committing violence on that person. The person has become “something” instead of “someone.”

    The segue from objectification to violence can be seen in many advertisements that include models posed as if they have been murdered. See the images in my essay “Killer Advertising.” http://www.fem2pt0.com/2012/01/25/killer-advertising/

    If you see an offensive ad, Tweet about it. Use the hashtag #notbuying it and the the manufacturer’s user name. Take a picture of the ad to attach to your tweet.

    Working together, we can stop this!

  5. Can’t wait to watch Miss Representation the trailer was extremely well done. I also discussed my distaste for the way women are portrayed by the media in my blog post (actionsreadlouder.wordpress.com) for International Women’s Day.

  6. Thank you for printing this…I grew up with Ms. Magazine, and am thankful that it still encourages girls to think independently. It’s true–I think media has become evermore present in our lives, and unfortunately, more negative toward women.

    As a personal trainer, I’ve witnessed how women can be incredibly hard on themselves. Therefore, I’ve switched up my business and am now Angie Gooding – Body Image Specialist; I am a Health Coach, Fitness Trainer, Public Speaker and Activist, helping women accept their authentic shapes while still challenging their bodies athletically. The response from women has been overwhelmingly positive!

    You can find more info here:

    Thanks for all you do!
    Angie Gooding

  7. Kristen Schuetz says:

    Not only are young girls protesting and speaking out against sexism in media, some organizations are creating their own! Beyondmedia out of Chicago is one of my fave organizations because they encourage girls to use “low tech” media (minimal lighting and sound, non-costly cameras, and no crew etc.) in their production process. With little attention to equipment, the focus is truly shifted to empowering girls to speak and listen to their own voices as media makers.
    Check them out here: http://beyondmedia.org/about_us.html

  8. Thrilled to see you highlighting colleagues at Spark, and pioneering filmmakers like Jean Kilbourne’s work leading this charge from the get go (related: Jean K’s interview abt So Sexy So Soon on Shaping Youth.org: http://www.shapingyouth.org/?p=8049)

    Feels like the sexualization backlash is FINALLY getting traction w/inundation (I’m so impressed w/how FAST Miss Representation and the “Not Buying It” social media campaign has scaled in outreach to the schools and communities) and am also eager to see NEW films like TheIllusionists.org documentary coming on the scene soon to further the conversation (Jean Kilbourne is on cam in that film too)

    We cover media and marketing’s impact on kids at Shaping Youth, so you’ll see a massive links list of related reading on sexualization slamming kids’ psyches in our “body image” category, but more specifically, this post applies to what girls can start to DO about it to dial down disrespect and empower some culture jamming to change the tide and make waves…

    Link list also include features on allied orgs doing great work in this realm like BeautyRedefined.net, PigtailPals, New Moon Girls, etc.>>> http://www.shapingyouth.org/?p=16746 Enjoy!

    Thanks again for covering this important topic, reaching a tipping point of toxicity…it’s sad it’s taken so long for the backlash to have begun. Onward!

  9. A very key element to changing media’s representation of women is supporting entertainment made by women. Narrative stories have tremendous power to communicate concepts that we might otherwise block out because of our political, religious, or cultural beliefs. As Madison Avenue is beginning to recognize the spending power of older women, who want realistic role models that they can relate to, there might be a shift away from our hypersexualized, youth obsessed advertising.
    But the crafting of the more mature woman’s image will remain in the hands of men until women support other women who create entertainment for their benefit. This means making an effort to seek out and watch the films they create.

  10. My current femi-rage is directed at Fiat, for their wretchedly offensive ad campaign. Every single ad either uses a sex-pot woman to sell it (i.e. — Jennifer Lopez) or actually construes the car to be a sex-pot Italian woman. As a feminist of Italian-American heritage, I am incensed. On a side note, I am also chagrined, as the owner of a 1999 VW Beetle, by the ad campaign for the new streamlined, roadster style of Beetle that declares, “It’s a boy!” Translation: new, improved design = male. Are we seriously not past the ancient “medical” belief that female fetuses were flawed male ones, that just hadn’t “cooked” sufficiently???!!!

  11. So much emphasis is placed on a women’s body its oppressing i wish there was a way around it tho. Bcoz sum of us jus wana luk prety, femine wear jewlry widout bein objectified! Is sex a womans inevitable role? No! It feels like a losing batle!

  12. Regina, the problem is the tendency to consider gender as something more than just an individual identity. One of the main reasons feminism gets such a bad rep is that so-called “feminist theorists” (who are not necessarily even women) assign gender to everything, even the foundations of reality itself. (e.g. the book “The Gendered Atom”, which seems to be a woman rebelling against male scientists, but was actually written by a man)

    • What I’m trying to understand is why the average woman seems so afraid at seeing me, a male, who is in say a parking lot or lobby at the same time as they are and there is no provocation by me whatsoever.
      There seems to be this assumption on the part of the average woman to expect the worst and or a sexually violent attack. This as I am going about my business, again – not doing anything at all to intimidate them. It’s like the average female is usually walking around scared, acting like they have to fear for their lives.
      What is wrong with this society?!

      • Dave,
        Women have to fear men everywhere they go. That’s just reality. Rapists are everywhere and many of us have been raped. Maybe if the society we lived in stopped objectifying women and treating them as actual human beings we wouldn’t have to fear *as* much.

      • Lillian says:

        You learn to be careful when youve been harrased by men several times. Some men are sickos. When I walked on Amsterdam Central at the evening, I got harrassed repeatedly. Men who go stay or temporary live in Amsterdam and come from a foreign not western culture here are the worst, they make up like 98% of the harrasive men. They usually come without their wifes, then see all the media advertisements, see the amsterdam-prostitutes and seem unable to understand that regular western women are not free prostitutes. And moroccon first generation children of immigrants are horror too, they are harrasive pretty much everywhere to women and they have a horrible reputation here. I dont know why they behave so horrible, other countries muslim first generation chidren of immigrants seldomly give trouble. I have really have come to hate them, and it sucks for the rare morrocan guy who doesnt behaves like an ass, but I walk around them with a bow, ignore them, as start to cuss when they come near. Even them some wont back off.

  13. Kamaika S says:
  14. “No More Media Sexualization of Women”?

    Does this also mean that shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Girls, Broad City, Orange is the New Black and Masters of Sex will be taken off the air?

    You know, shows written by women (I suppose “sex-positive feminists”), starring women, and targeting women, who enjoy gross amounts of sexual display, in the name of sexual liberation and female empowerment?

    Because I highly doubt you will. Since, you know, feminism is largely a one-way street, one of gross entitlement. The solution to a problem isn’t to socially-censor it. It’s to offer the kind of content you’d like to see, knowing that a free market allows for both what you like and what you don’t like.

    But that’s too hard to conclude, since society must be parented by the likes of feminism, to conform to the values of feminists instead of realizing that the world is free and open to making whatever the hell anyone wants, and, as long as nobody’s breaking the law, that no one can rightly dictate what should and shouldn’t be on the air.

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