impactmania spoke with media expert, author, and educator Jean Kilbourne. Kilbourne was inducted in the Women Hall of Fame 2017 for her 40 Years of Research of Image of Women in Advertising. She shared how much (or little!) has changed in advertising and what men (!) do on a daily basis to protect themselves from sexual assault…
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
While we are aware that every single image online and in print is altered with Photoshop, it still affects us. How do we maintain a positive self-image when we’re bombarded with these unrealistic portrayals of women?
That’s what we used to call the $64,000 question. I tell my audience that we shouldn’t feel guilty about being influenced, because we all are. I’ve been studying this forever and I’m still influenced. My daughter was the best-educated girl in the world in this regard. When she hit adolescence, her self-esteem took a hit, too. We’re up against what I call a toxic cultural environment. It’s incredibly difficult. It’s impossible not to be influenced. We need to help people be aware of the fact that these images are constructed and artificial.
Although we think that everybody knows that, the truth is, not everybody does. It would help enormously to have different kinds of images — images of many different body types, different ethnicity, and also different ages because the ageism is awful too. An older woman is considered beautiful only in so far as she stays looking very, very young. There are no images of attractive older women. It’s just a woman who, either through Photoshop or surgery or whatever, manages to look much younger than she is.
Media literacy can help, which I have been an advocate of from the beginning. We also need conversations discussing how these images make us feel. And humor helps. I was the first person to study these images in the late ‘60s, and made [the documentary] Killing Us Softly in 1979. It was so successful because I used a lot of humor. I encouraged people to laugh at these images and to ridicule them. In those days, they were saying that feminists had no sense of humor. [Laughs.]
You proved them wrong on that part as well.
Yeah, exactly! [Laughs.]
Although there is no quick and easy solution, it’s a very serious issue that affect the self-esteem of girls, but older women as well. Now there is research saying that these kinds of images really do contribute to depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and mental health problems that afflict women and girls.
Anxiety and depression rates have skyrocketed, especially among college-age students. A 2013 survey reported that 57 percent of women had episodes of overwhelming anxiety and 33 percent of the women were so depressed that they couldn’t function. How much of the rise in anxiety and depression has to do with what the media feed us?
I think it absolutely does. Also related to the media is this extraordinary amount of violence against us. The violence, the abuse, and the objectification — who wouldn’t be anxious?
Particularly for men these days, the good men so to speak, they now see a woman’s lived experience. That’s good, of course. But the truth is, a woman’s lived experience involves a whole lot of anxiety and fear with an emphasis on protecting oneself from what’s out there. I do an exercise with my audiences sometimes where I ask the men what they do on a daily basis to protect themselves from sexual assault. And of course, they look totally confused, responding, “What do you mean?” Then I ask the women, and there’s a list of 50 things. The men are dazed; they had no idea.
“It is better not to wear this; can I get home safely later…”
Yes, right, do I go alone on the elevator? I look in the back seat of the car and on and on and on. There is an endless list of what we all do subconsciously. It is a miracle that there are 43 percent of women who are not experiencing bouts of extreme anxiety.
You mentioned media literacy. Give me an example of what you teach.
First of all, the United States is the only developed nation in the world that does not teach media literacy. That doesn’t mean that media literacy isn’t taught in some schools, but it’s not part of a national curriculum. Media literacy involves so many different things, some of it has to do with deconstructing advertising. My films are crash courses in media literacy, because they essentially teach people how to look at ads differently.
But media literacy also has to do with things like who controls the media. What we read, the films we see, the books we read, the music we listen to, 95 percent of it comes from five multinational conglomerates. That is an enormous amount of power in the hands of relatively few people. So media literacy teaches people about who controls the media. When we watch the news, who has decided that this is news and who’s decided that something else isn’t? Why do we get so little background on things? A lot of it is critical thinking about the media in a way that is so important these days.
A media literate public, for example, would not tolerate all the kinds of political advertising that we have here.
The political advertising is pretty extreme in the U.S. I have not seen it elsewhere.
It’s very extreme here and it’s not fact based. There has been quite a lot of research that shows that media literacy can work in helping people to think more critically, to be less easily manipulated and influenced. In this era of fake news, we really need it badly.
Now there are some who are calling factual information fake news, “I don’t believe this, it must be fake news.”
Right, which makes it impossible to have a conversation. Because if we can’t even agree on the basic facts…
What is challenging for students to grasp? Is there something you teach that people have difficulty understanding?
In the beginning, people had a hard time understanding that advertising was important. It’s so silly and trivial that everybody thought the issue is trivial. Virtually everyone feels personally exempt from the influence of advertising. What I hear most of all is, “I don’t pay attention to ads, I just tune them out.” And of course advertising really influences the subconscious, so of course, you don’t pay conscious attention. That’s the problem!
I can’t even tell you how radical my ideas seemed 40 years ago. They’re mainstream now. In those days also, there was quite a lot of resistance to women speaking in public, let alone about feminism and sexism. I was up against all that.
How did you handle that?
It’s interesting because I had a terror of public speaking, which most people do. Americans fear public speaking more than death. [Laughs.]
I was always a pretty good public speaker, but that didn’t matter. Looking back, I was scared of the hostility that I was going to encounter, which, of course, I did. But I was passionate about it. I really felt that I was on to something, and I wanted to talk about it. I’ve always loved Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
So I just did it, and each time it got easier. As I encountered the hostility, I discovered I could deal with it. Today, I can get up in front of 5,000 people and my heart doesn’t even skip. In the early days, I was so nervous, I had to put Vaseline on my teeth. You know how your mouth gets dry? That was a way to keep your lips from sticking to your teeth! [Laughs.]
It’s been a long, interesting path, but I found ways to disarm audiences. I’m not hostile, so that was helpful. I used a lot of humor. I learned early on to address the main arguments against what I was saying in the first five minutes of my talk. So that people wouldn’t sit the whole time thinking, “Yeah well, but I’m not influenced by advertising.”
I also learned that if you’ve got an audience that’s basically with you and somebody is hostile, the audience would take care of that. Sometimes a hostile person would make my point better than I could! I remember a man saying, “Do you mean that these stereotypes are bad?” I didn’t have to say another thing! [Laughs.]
An argument would be that some women have no trouble being objectified. Look at the daily doses of pop stars, actors, and those actually in advertising that are willing to cooperate with this imagery. What are your thoughts on that?
One of the things we’re learning is the extraordinary amount of sexual harassment that comes with the territory. There are plenty of women who do it because it’s lucrative or it brings them fame or for whatever reason.
Or because women do get rewarded for this while they’re young and they get discarded once they age. There’s a very sinister side to it. After I graduated from Wellesley College, I had to go to secretarial school because that’s what the world was like then. I was a secretary and I was a waitress.
And you were a model.
Then there was modeling, right. But the modeling world, although it was lucrative and it was seductive and it was fast-paced, there was a huge amount of sexual harassment. A very famous designer said to me, “I can make you a star, here’s what you need to do.”
I see a lot of these young women in these positions and they may feel like they have some power, but they may not have as much as they think. They also will probably feel differently as they grow older, because the culture is enormously hostile to beautiful women who grow older.
You mentioned in previous interviews that modeling was soul destroying. Give me an example of that, how long did you manage in the industry before you decided it was enough?
Not very long at all, I was a waitress and had an opportunity to become a model. Then something would happen where I would feel objectified. There was no language like objectification or anything like that in those days. I was just supposed to be grateful. I would stop modeling, and go back to being a secretary. Then another gig would come along, it was gradual. I didn’t choose it as a career path.
When the designer said to me I could make you a star, I thought, that’s probably what it’s going to take. That price is simply too high.
I can’t say I didn’t consider it, because my options were so limited. I was so bored in all these jobs. I don’t judge young women who did do it, but there are greater options today.
I do think about the young women in front of [American film producer] Harvey Weinstein knowing not only that he could advance their career, but also that he could put a halt to their career as well.
What would be a first step to start changing the advertising industry?
I have always been more about changing the public than changing the advertising industry. I feel that if people demanded better then the advertising industry would have to change. So I focus more on being an educator teaching media literacy and trying to raise consciousness.
But having said that, there are some things that are going on in the industry now that are interesting. A woman started something called The 3% Movement. At that time, 3 percent of the U.S. creative directors were female. Now it is 11 percent. It’s bringing together women and men in agencies saying, “We’re going to pay more attention to this.”
There’s a problem with advertising in that there’s so much of it. And by definition it sells a lot of products that we don’t need and don’t work and put the emphasis on all of the wrong things. That’s another reason why I don’t really put my focus on trying to reform the industry; it’s more trying to have people demand better.
Do you have a sense that people are demanding more products and services that are more meaningful produced by for-profit and for-purpose enterprises?
I think so. We have a long way to go. Maybe five years ago, I was asked to speak at a new organization called Conscious Capitalism. They have an emphasis on the triple Ps: people, profit, and planet.
I never heard of them when they asked me. I did meet a lot of CEOs who seemed quite sincere in wanting to make a profit, but also treat people fairly and be good to the environment.
What advertising changes have you seen in the last 40 years?
The image of women in many ways has gotten worse. The tyranny of the ideal beauty image is worse than ever before, the obsession with thinness, the sensual orientation of children. But I am by no means alone anymore, and there’s so much going on and that to me is very exciting.
We always ask our interviewees who has left an imprint on their professional DNA. Who has made you the media expert, educator, and rebel rouser that you are today?
When I started my career — there was no career! I couldn’t have said, “I want to have a slide show and travel around.” [Laughs.]
I’ve been influenced more obliquely. One person who influenced me tremendously was a woman named Jean Baker Miller who wrote the book Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976 ). Jean presents a whole idea of looking at what had been seen as women’s weaknesses and seeing them as strengths.
Jean was a fabulous, brilliant person — an MD, a psychiatrist — and very modest. She had a tremendous impact and was very supportive of my work. That was important because I had a lot of self-doubt in the beginning.
Another person who helped a lot was George Gerbner. He was the Dean of the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. He had done research for years on media and was a lion in the field. He said to me, “What you’re doing is really important and original — keep doing it.” I needed that kind of encouragement.
Tell me something that Jean Baker Miller said or did that still stays with you.
She came to one of my early lectures and I’ll never forget her face. She was in the audience and laughing — having such a good time and fully engaged. I thought, If I can have this kind of an impact on Jean Baker Miller…She was just very, very supportive all along.
George gave me a wonderful quote for my first flyer. I was setting out to try and see if I could turn this into a career. He said that my slide presentation was like “a mass vaccination of a powerful antidote.” It was wonderful to have his endorsement. He was such a hero to many people in the field.
I’ve been struggling with the following. I’ve been asking many people while we have been interviewing for Women of Impact…How come some women are such poor supporters of other women?
Yeah…I think that it’s complicated. There’s a tremendous amount of misogyny in the culture. It’s not just men who are misogynists. There are female misogynists too, and women internalize the negative messages. In some ways, how could we not?
We see the same thing with racism. It’s what [lawyer and activist] Florynce Kennedy called “Horizontal Hostility” the hostility of the oppressed toward each other. You don’t want to identify with the person who is seen as inferior. So women internalize a lot of these negative stereotypes about other women. We saw this with the demonization of Hillary [Clinton]. The women who said, “Well, I just don’t trust her.” Women are told their whole lives that we can’t trust each other.
The other thing goes back to the violence against us, and the fear that we all live with every day, even if we’re not conscious of it. It has to do with wanting to think that if we behave a certain way we can protect ourselves from violence. Which is absolutely not true, but that’s a reason why so many women judge rape victims: “Well, she was drunk” or “She was dressed this way,” or “She went into that bar and I would never do that and therefore I’m safe.”
Of course, none of us are safe. We’re not safe at all. Rapists attack babies and old ladies and people dressed in overalls. It’s so hard to live with that reality — that I am not safe in this world. The most dangerous place for most women is in their own home. There are many women victimized by their most intimate partners. I think living with that reality is so painful and so difficult that we project onto the victim that somehow she brought it on herself.
Did Pfizer [world’s third-largest independent biotech] ever contact you, because it was their birth control ad in 1968 that inspired you to pay attention to the image of women in advertising?
[Laughs.] No, I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback from advertisers. Most importantly, I haven’t been sued. [Laughs.] That’s what I most worried about in the beginning, but what I do falls under fair use. People often ask me, “How did you get permission to use the ads?” And I laugh, as if!