Killing Us (Not) So Softly

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Jean Kilbourne’s pioneering film, Killing Us Softly, which examined how images of women in ads influenced how society views women. At a recent event at Smith College, she explored the impact of her work, and the fights that remain in ending media sexism.

Kilbourne’s presentation started on slides made from ads she cut out of newspapers, and has now been updated three times, with Killing Us Softly 4 released in 2010. Her work created a whole new field of feminist media criticism, and showed generations of college students how images of women in advertising can have real life consequences.

(Daniel Yanes Arroyo / Creative Commons)

Even though Kilbourne’s mission started 40 years ago, this problem has not disappeared—in fact, it’s only gotten worse with the rise of the Internet and social media. We are still bombarded with conventional ads on TV shows, buses, billboards and magazines, but now new forms of advertising are also seeping into our minds every time we open Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all the other apps we love to check, consult and receive validation from.

Ads in these new digital spaces can be even more insidious than conventional ones. Many influencers on platforms like Instagram peddle every product in existence that claims to help us reach the ideal standards of beauty, using heavily retouched and Photoshopped images to sell dangerous beauty products. The Kardashians, Cardi B and many other female celebrities have been criticized for promoting detox teas and meal-replacement shakes that are not approved by the FDA and reportedly include laxatives, caffeine and other stimulants. Kim Kardashian even recently released a new line of “body makeup.” (Why stop at giving yourself a new face? Now, you can cover every inch of your unsightly natural body in foundation!)

The good news is, people are starting to pay attention. The ads have stayed the same, Kilbourne noted, but she is no longer alone in her fight against them.

In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required that influencers make it explicitly clear when a post is sponsored by a company. This June, Senator Blumenthal (D-CT) requested that the FTC investigate the sale of detox teas and other appetite suppressants on social media. Instagram has changed its policies as of September 18, 2019, to crack down on ads for weight loss products that make “miraculous” claims about the results of using the product, and will also start to hide weight-loss ads for users who are under 18—which is a huge step forward in making the Internet a safer place for young girls. 

Now, more than ever, we need to be aware of how advertising shapes and distorts our view of women and girls. Heavily distorted ads create an “ideal” body that is simply unachievable. These ads promote unhealthy dieting patterns that can lead to eating disorders, and also lead to young women only feeling desirable and valuable while wearing makeup and retouching their photos. They tell young women that they are only valuable for their looks, and send young men the message that women are there to be objectified and looked at—not respected as equals. 

Just as Kilbourne pointed out 40 years ago, these images have a grave impact on women’s self-esteem and self-image, influence how men view women and can lead to gender-based violence. “This is atrocious,” Kilbourne explained at the 40th anniversary celebration, “and it is not trivial.”


Katie Fleischer (she/they) is a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series and Keeping Score.