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Progressive Portrayal of Women in Advertising

Excerpts from Gender Next Report

There have been notable shifts in the depiction of women in advertising over the last few years. These seem to be an effort to break overt stereotypes that had been integral to such depiction for many years. We see ads depicting women in spaces and contexts they were historically not very visible in-outside the home at work, in banks, driving vehicles, and making seemingly confident moves in social and romantic situations. In categories like beauty, we see a body language that is more active, not only coy, their husbands take on some load of domestic labour.

There are some more notable strokes of changes in the depiction of women in advertising:

1. Some lowering of levels of anxiety built around her in a different contextespecially food and beauty.

2. A more diverse mix of faces and physicality is beginning to appear in a handful of brands.

3. Women are being portrayed as wielding power and strength, having ambitions and drive views and opinions.

4. Digital and app led brands in food delivery and dating are trying to seed new norms that are trickling into portrayals – women showing values of convenience and leisure or making the first move in a dating context.

5. Dating app advertising is a attempting new depiction of women as both desiring and being desired.

6. Some telecom service providers seem to show more real notes of friendliness and camaraderie between young women and men normalising realities of educational and work spaces.

7. Many of the tropes that typified motorcycle, men’s deo or hair styling product advertising where the woman was overtly sexualised, have either faded or been corrected to be less objectifying in their depiction of women.

8. Leading brands with the national presence in beauty, skincare and colour cosmetics seem to be aiming for more inclusive, less discriminatory portrayals of beauty.

9. An important note of change is in the depiction of men in advertising, especially how they are portrayed in the context of domestic life. There are some new depictions of men’s role’s in and their responses to the emerging attitudes and demands of women.

Analysis of cross-category advertising content reveals that a significant proportions and the most wide cache of advertising seem to continue to borrow from an inventory of stereotypes

Women trapped in the loop of portrayals: Content analysis of advertising reveals oddly persistent images that appear repeatedly. Every category seems to have its own ‘key images’ frames that appear across different brands. Whether it is a woman holding a tray of food, young girls wearing monochrome costumes in beauty and fashion ads, women being instructed by male voice- overs in detergents ads, young women gazing anxiously into the mirror in skin care ads, women being cheerful and care free while washing dishes or cooking multi-course meal for the familythese images keep making a constant appearance.

Much of the stereotyping images lie in the subliminal background of a film or image: Stereotypes reveals themselves when one sees between the frames. It is in the general body language, appearance, attire, task –pairing, spaces in which women are set in, that a gender bias makes it appearance. For example women wearing traditional clothing are often cast as being less aware than western attired ones, food advertising typically distances the women from moments of life by placing her in the kitchen, skin care ads show groups of young women moving and mouthing jingles in sync.

Women’s empowerment –oriented advertising pins new stories on existing cultural stereotypes of women: Even as advertising scripts show women being more successful, more independent –they stay loyal to existing cultural stereotypes. Women are increasingly shown independent but rarely to be free of the social behaviour typically attributes to them. For example; new attributes like entrepreneurial zeal are still shown alongside the women being caring and continuing to fulfil domestic duties or the emotional care taking of the family.

New stereotypes load women with burdens they may not seek to bear: Old stereotypes are being replaced by some new ones. The ‘working woman’ the woman who ‘balances work and home’, the ‘cool’ or ‘bindaas’ teenage girls are part of a new set of representations. Though each one of these is meant to reflect the new lives and choices of women they are also stereotypical new ways of being. We must ask ourselves if women want to be celebrated for bearing more burden at home and work or for their fashion and style to be interpreted as an invitation to flirting.

The male celebrity has coercive power over women in ad narratives: Several categories like food, home cleaning, detergents – seem to use the male celebrity in a particularly authoritarian mould-evaluating, rejecting and then correcting a woman’s actions or choices. A surprising factor of this coercion is that it usually plays out in the domain of the woman’s home, where the male celebrity/movie star usurps power and space that should be his to claim.

A tendency to infantilise men, not normalise their partaking in domestic and emotional labours: Though brands seem to want to show more equitable division of labour more non-gendered attitudes to domestic duties or child rearing, there is a common misstep. More often than not, such male characters are written to appear inherently incapable or inexperienced in basic tasks. This tends to reinforce stereotypes of both genders, keeping the burden squarely on women even though brands might intend to connote the opposite. The fact that men in this situation are typically written and depicted as ‘cute’ and childlike in their bungling of simple tasks, the ad builds in a reason to absolve them of the new duties they are being asked to shoulder.

Typically, male oriented categories are slowly including women in the frame, but very often without agency: Finance and automobile advertising is seeing more women present in imagery than ever before. However, women are still framed as silent on-lookers or receiving the benefits of good male judgment without seeming to have their own, or having weaker contact with or control over with the product than men have been shown to possess.

Beauty is represented along very narrow definitions: There seems to be an implicit code of beauty that women are measured against. This becomes visible in the casting of female actors in advertising. Not only is this code visible in beauty and fashion categories, where skin colour and tone, weight and height seem to be strictly defined. Out is one seen across advertising. Implicit codes of what women’s appearance should be also play out through a moulding of women through styling and apparel - seemingly mandating what a mother should wear, how a young girl’s hair should be styled and so on. These beauty moulds are ones that too few women can fit in.

New cliches of representation create hollow depictions of female empowerment, freedoms: There is a tokenism in showing women in spaces beyond the home. Especially the new stereotype of the working woman who is rarely seen at work but is own as ‘returning home. For example, the ‘doctormother or a professional woman’s rarely shown in their work settings and most often at home with their family. We end up seeing what are significant aspects of women’s self-definitions, represented merely through wardrobe and styling. There is little change in the tasks she is aligned to, or the expectations others have of her. These don’t seem to have undergone the make-over the woman has been given stylistically.

Uncomplaining service: Food categories often show women catering to multiple demands placed on them by different members of their family Though it creates a very happy picture of a family and its joys this stereotypical depiction tends to obscure the burden of labour and demands placed on the woman behind a smiling and happy demeanour. Since women are shown to be happy and even energised in this context. this creates a sense that all her service must be joyfully given. This normalises the unthinking placing of multiple expectations, tasks and domestic chores on women and legitimizes the expectations of the husband/children/ elders with regards to being served without protest. It also frames these demands as uniformly welcomed by and also fulfilling for women. There is no room for the possibly more realistic scenario where constant labour for the joy and comfort of others, could also be a burden for women.

Costumed in modernity: Women seem to be shown in western attire as a means to depict a surface modernity while keeping her anchored in roles that stay bound to tradition. There also seems to be a hinting to a hierarchy of fashion where those in the ubiquitous and most prevalent traditional attire (sarees, salwar kameez) seem to be losing to or ‘instructed’ by those in western attire.

Contestant syndrome/ever evaluated: Women are repeatedly placed in situations where they seem to be vying for approval - from either the mother-inlaw, the husband or other family members. The woman seems to crave approval from those she is seen serving. Often female characters are pitched against each other in a faux-competitive scenario-where one is trying to outperform the other. The depiction of women being put in a scenario where she is ‘trying’ to win seems to place women’s actions under a constant frame of evaluation.

Food burden bearing: Remarkably, this is not restricted to portrayals of wives or mothers. Even in a fun and friends’ setting, young teenage girls seem to be disproportionately saddled with the emotional labour around food - having it ready. ordering it, holding it or sharing it. In the same depictions, boys are allowed to comfortably or even cluelessly, just be hungry.

Submission to the gaze of the camera: There is a sensual engagement between the woman and the camera in colour cosmetic advertising. There seems to be an interplay between the woman and the camera in what makes her seem readily submitting to its gaze. Here the camera’s gaze is a symbol of a larger collective gaze that is trained on women. This dynamic with the camera is rarely seen when it comes to depictions of men.

Seeding beauty self-doubts: A very common trope seen in skin care advertising is women comparing themselves with a ‘beauty protagonist who adheres closely to a conventional yardstick of beauty. The usage of beauty as a yardstick to create insecurity and qualify the non-protagonist women as less beautiful or not beautiful not only deeply reinforces beauty stereotypes but also seems to actively rate women on a scale of an implicitly coded idea of beauty. This also makes a heavily codified view of beauty seem like the essential difference between success and failure in a range of situations.

Gaze acceptance: The woman is often portrayed as a willing and even welcoming receiver of a gaze - often that of a stranger. This depiction seems to give permission to the gaze and also build an expectation that it will be received positively. What might be uncomfortable and even unsafe situations in real life, get normalized as a legitimate social interaction.

Doll housing New freedoms and power seem staged: Though there is a trend for colour cosmetics and fashion brands to depict more un-stereotyped images e.g. young women striding through the city, very often the city seems ‘vacated and empty. Women seem to lead empowered lives - at work out of home - but seem to do it in perfectly manicured spaces. They are often shown to exist within spaces that are colour coordinated, cleared of the messiness of real life that real women navigate. The need for beauty advertising to look beautiful often seems to recreate an alternate reality that doesn’t exist.

Spender syndrome: The shopping bag is an often-seen accessory of women in finance category ads like credit cards and debit cards. This trope of the woman as a shopper stands out only because it abounds while the image of men shopping/ consuming is rare in the category - leaving the woman marked with the label of being consumption greedy, not men as much.

Excluded from the conversation: The typical banking and finance TV commercial has men talking to men while women look on. There are examples where a woman plays a more active role but it still remains marginal.

Under the male provider’s care: There is a tendency to showcase women’s dependencies in order to highlight men’s abilities. Since the man is the central character in most finance category advertising, women often appear almost as children under their care.

Femvertising flips: Women’s Day seems to be a moment for many auto brands to include women more actively into their advertising in ways they are otherwise not. This seems to imply and reinforce the notion that women are not seen as an everyday aspect in the world of automobiles.

Deprived damsels: In fashion or deo advertising, there is a tendency for the central male character to be cold to or dismissive of the attention he receives from a woman. The portrayal of the woman’s desire for the man is seen in contrast to his apparent lack of interest in her. This is a note visible in some automobile advertising as well.

More stylised and cookie-cutter beauty: Though there has been some widening of the definition of beauty when seen in personal care and colour cosmetic advertising. the women featured in ads that target men seem to still adhere to a more fixed notion of beauty. This is underlined by how they are usually styled in these ads - typically wearing more make-up and figure-hugging clothing.

Passive receiver: Women typically get portrayed as being mute, passive and receptive in representations, usually reacting wordlessly to the demeanor or actions of men who are central characters.

The article is based on the excerpts of the study report ‘GenderNext’ brought out by Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) and Futurebrands