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A doctoral thesis from the School of Business, Economics and Law has explored what feminist consumers read into the advertising images where women are portrayed as sexual subjects rather than objects, and the so-called idea
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Female sexual agency as a tool in advertising – how advertisers are appropriating ”feminism” to sell

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That images of women in advertisements are alluding to sex is not news. However, in recent decades it has become more common that advertisers create images that are inspired by feminism, where women are seen as if they use their sexuality by their own accord because it aligns with their feminist values and thus provides them power. But do feminist viewers understand these images in this way? A doctoral thesis from the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg has explored what feminist consumers read into the advertising images where women are portrayed as sexual subjects rather than objects, and the so-called idea of “female sexual agency”.

– Those who work within the advertising industry can learn from this study and actively and consciously work towards eliminating the stereotypical sexualization of women in advertising. That companies are using ”empowertising” or ”femvertising”* strategies and create ads that are meant to be feminist is problematic; especially when the ads do not align with the company culture and values, then the credibility is lost, says the author Irina Balog.

Irina Balog has researched the idea of ”female sexual agency”** in contemporary advertising, an idea that has become more popular within advertising since the 1980’s. This idea relates to a shift from sexual objectification to sexual subjectification, where women on their own accord allude to sex because it aligns with their (feminist) and liberated values and is thus a way to gain (sexual) power. An example in advertising is Calvin Klein’s campaign #mycalvins, which included such imagery and accompanying copywriting such as “I take what I want in #mycalvins.”

Irina Balog identified four recurring themes that influenced how much “female sexual agency”, that is, how much sexual power the participants in the study perceived that the women in the ads had:

  • Normativity: The more normative the model looked (”typically attractive”, skinny, white, blonde), the less power was perceived in the image.
  • Freedom & Choice: If the model did not feel free to do as she pleased (for example in the way she posed) it was perceived as less powerful.
  • Gaze: Determined looks were perceived as more powerful than ”bedroom gaze”, the same goes for models who were looking down towards the camera, rather than up.
  • Claiming space: Images where women were perceived to claim space signaled more power. This is also connected to gender norms: women are perceived as more powerful when they dare to help themselves and act in ways that are seen as untypically feminine.

Based on these themes Irina Balog created a model called ”the Female Sexual Agency Spiral”. This model is about how there are no exact, concrete or constant truths about “female sexual agency”, but that the meanings are perpetually shifting and never static, that there always exists both ambiguity and tension. However, what seems to remain constant in the shift from the sexual object to the sexual subject is sex:

– The progress has not come far enough. Women are still associated with their sexuality, and no matter how much sexual power one may have, this is a form of power that is neither sustainable nor equal, says Irina Balog.

The doctoral thesis Skinny white bitches: Female sexual agency in contemporary advertising was presented at the department of Business Administration, School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg, September 4th.
Link to the thesis: http://hdl.handle.net/2077/64085

Contact
Irina Balog, Phone: +46 768080223, e-mail: irina.balog.phd@gmail.com

*Empowertising and/or Femvertising are terms that refer to advertising strategies where ads lightly invoke feminism. It is a way of selling to women, without necessarily involving actual feminism; that is, the political and progressive movement that feminism is. Empowertising and Femvertising are gateways of learning more about various problems that face women and may also lead to discovering alternatives to mainstream products, but it should not be confused with actual feminism.

**Building upon Rosalind Gill’s critical discussions from 2003, 2007 and 2008.