The 20th century brought significant improvement in women’s rights and new opportunities were made available to females. The wage gap and gender segregation declined and the number of women holding professional jobs rose. Yet, the development of women’s professional success has been slow-paced, and matching the success of their male counterparts in top jobs has proven to be a difficult task. In a capitalist world in which men lead most entertainment companies it is easy to dictate how women are represented in media.
Television often commodifies female sexuality and creates unrealistic standards for women and the film industry across the world continues to impose outdated gender roles upon viewers.
The current economic structure imprints the idea that everyone has a market value and women often find themselves marketed as trophies, misrepresented by media companies, and scrutinized under the patriarchal nature of massive and influential corporations. In his 1844 manuscripts, Carl Marx argued that a society’s level of development could be measured by women’s position in it and if we look at the numbers representing female leadership in corporations and media we see a blatant leadership gap.
Women in the United States are greatly underrepresented in positions of power. They currently hold less than 20 percent of executive and senior positions and less than 5 percent of CEO position in S&P 500 companies (Catalyst 2017). Furthermore, men hold the most high-profile jobs in the entertainment industry. A large portion of women’s on-screen image is created by men – females account for less than 17 percent of directors, producers, cinematographers, and editors who worked on top grossing films in 2016 (Lauzen 2016).
Americans are being sold the concept that the value of girls and women is dependent on their sexuality and beauty. In film, female characters are depicted in an oversexualized manner more often than not. The roles that went to women in 2016 were more explicitly sexual than the roles males received and roughly a quarter of the female roles in films in 2016 featured “sexy attire” and a substantial number of roles required partial nudity (University of Southern California 2017). In contrast, less than 6 percent of male characters wore revealing clothing (University of Southern California 2017). Women are also mostly seen in romantic comedies and dramas, whereas there is a visible absence of strong female leads in action and comedy movies. The roles most frequently played are those of mothers, love interests, or caregivers. In every industry, from tech companies to Hollywood productions women are confined to specific positions and roles that correspond to the patriarchal model. Television commercials are another domain, which portrays women mainly in domestic and sexual roles.
Companies also attempt to target only male audiences for certain products – women are pitched products that help maintain their appearance or household products, whereas men are the target audience for car, credit card, and bank advertisements. This disparity has been identified as a problem by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Unilever, who launched the Unstereotype Alliance together. The Alliance was set to eradicate outdated categorization in advertising, raise awareness, and create effective strategies to combat the growing number of objectifying and stereotypical commercials we are bombarded with daily (Unilever 2017). The representation of women in marketing campaigns is an example not only of the stereotyping of women but also of the commodification of female sexuality.
Between 2006 and 2016 women were shown in sexually provocative ads six times more than men. The phrase ‘sex sells’ is one of the most well-known ones in marketing and images that were once considered to be taboo can be found on magazine pages, TV screens, websites, billboards, and other marketing channels today. However, even in this era, women are criticized when they are open about sexuality. And while some argue that this normalization of provocative ads is liberating and allows women to freely express their sexuality, others believe that it harms women’s self-esteem and worsens the leadership gap mentioned earlier. Nowadays, feminism and capitalism are in conflict with each other, if under the one women are people and under the other, they are marketing puppets who use their appearance to sell.
Mass distribution of images that only portray female sexuality does not accurately represent the female population and create unrealistic expectations for what roles women ought to conform to as active members of society. Not following the guidelines and standards dictated by men in media and television creates a risk of being judged, but so does following them. The term slut-shaming has gained popularity over the years, showing that sexual inequality is a reality and illustrating the social pressures women are under when it comes to sex. But slut-shaming is not grounded solely on sexuality – it is grounded “in the belief that men get to assert themselves, and women do not” (Tanenbaum 2017). Labeling women has been normalized, and with any wrong step it is easy to shift from “feminine” to “slutty”. The main concern lies within the fact that promiscuity to some people indicates simply assertiveness, sexual or not – labeling can be triggered by female achievements, opinions, and successes.
Reactions to women in superior roles have been investigated and the results show that men feel more threatened by them and feel the need to display assertive behavior to establish dominance (Netchaeva 2015). The combination of the perceived threat and the objectification of women explains the existence of business myths such “slept their way to the top” that is often used as an explanation for the success of female leaders. Sexual violence and objectification are a defense mechanism, which societies have developed to explain the success of women in good professional standing. Nowadays, career-oriented women can be perceived as modern-day Medusas.
The practice of suppressing women has been a part of world culture for thousands of years and for a long time Medusa has been used to portray the female leader as demonic and selfless. Western culture often uses women’s exterior qualities to demean them and mute their authority, acting as a shield that protects the precarious manhood. Women are much more than bodies that have value based on appearance and sex appeal. They are people with diverse qualities, characters, life experiences, ideas, talents, and passions. Embracing human sexuality is an important part of history and the feminist movement, but the mass distribution of images that portray women solely as trophies might have a myriad of consequences, ranging from personal to economic. Aside from hurting young girls’ confidence and inflicting self-esteem issues, the portrayal of women in media also dictates how people form personal and workplace relationships based on their gender. Reevaluating how corporations that rule the capitalist world market will be a step towards eradicating the leadership gap by showing that women are capable of much more than just looking pretty. Brands need to work on rectifying the representation of women in advertisement, magazines, television, and film.