Last Updated 19 Dec 2022

Killing Us Softly

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The female body in advertisements objectifies women, contributing to their derealization. Advertisements bring women to never feel good enough or “pretty” enough. This is due to the unrealistic standards that are made for the public eye. Advertisements also use images that contain violence to justify the act and to generate an idea that women are merely objects to society.

Judith Butler asserts in Precarious Life, that there is a lack of mindfulness of vulnerability, leading to the derealization of violence. Butler essentially explains that if something has become unreal and protrudes in the state of vulnerability, it is then when violence is forced upon someone. Many acts of violence are done in a disagreement, a reason that establishes itself as an opinion differing from other persons.

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As Butler informs, many individuals are “marked by unwanted violence against their bodies in the name of a normative notion of the human, a normative notion of what the body of a human must be.” (Butler 33). This idea correlates with how violence is seen as acceptable in the world of advertisement.

Advertisements have a long history of portraying women as lesser than men and or as highly sexual beings. Sometimes advertisements even glorify violence against women. As Kilbourne informs, “In this country we are exposed to approximately 1,500 ads every single day, this makes it extremely prevalent to us” (Kilbourne Killing Us Softly). This number was true over a decade ago, we can imagine this has grown immensely since then, and will continue to grow and appear in our day to day lives.

In Jean Kilbourne’s article “Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt”: Advertising and Violence, she claims “Sex in advertising is more about disconnection and distance than connection and closeness. It is also more often about power than passion, about violence than violins. The main goal is usually power over another either by the physical dominance or preferred status of men or what is seen as the exploitive power of female beauty and female sexuality” (Kilbourne 489). In sexualizing these human beings and creating such image of them, both in the literal sense and idea, they are then portrayed as objects. Sexualizing models and exposing their skin regularly, makes their vulnerability a normality to our eyes.

As a frequent viewer of these ads, I am under the impression that I have become numb to them, I do not put too much focus into them, most of the time I just sigh and wait for them to be over. However, even though I find myself waiting for them to be over I and everyone else who views such ads, in theory, are contributing to the works of these ads. We are consumers, we are the ones still going out and buying items from these brands, thus supporting their business and essentially promoting the approaches they take in publication as being acceptable.

This is a serious problem because if we normalize these kinds of ads we contribute to the dehumanization of people. We allow it to occur and do not speak up about it, we think it is okay to glorify women as objects. This leading the next generation to believe there is no other way to view such women.

As Martin Luther King said in his speech from the pulpit on courage “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” (Martin Luther King Jr. March 8, 1965). The fact that this issue is still a problem in today is appalling. As Kilbourne proclaims “In 1979, I made my first film, Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. In 1987 I remade it as Still Killing Us Softly, and then again in 2000 as Killing Us Softly 3. And now here we are a decade or so into the new millennium. Killing Us Softly 4.” (Kilbourne Killing Us Softly 4). Instead of these issues improving they are unfortunately, worse.

My friend Gillian Dittmer is a professional model, she has been featured in many online clothes shopping websites and even featured in New York Fashion Week. She believes that all different colors, shapes, and sizes of women are beautiful.

Gillian once disclosed to me after I claimed that I thought her no-makeup picture was remarkable, that it had been “edited several times over”, creating unrealistic ideals. She also told me that sometimes the makeup artists will view her as a mannequin, they will say whatever they want without thinking about how it affects the model’s feelings. Gillian mentioned once that a makeup artist told her right as they met each other that Gillian had “terrible skin and it doesn’t make sense that you could be a model”. This results in her feeling like an object to the world. Gillian has become dehumanized by others throughout her life in the industry, it is these acts of casual violence that leave individuals to feel worthless, a doll to be played with.

As Butler asserts in Precarious Life, “If violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated” (Butler 33). Butler talks about how vulnerability and how it effects individuals and how people can be viewed as unreal for someone who is violent. If a human is unreal than in their mind it is fine to harm them.

Is the fact that these models are treated as unreal make them objects in these advertisers’ eyes? If they are seen as this they have created this derealization to our society. Kilbourne claims that “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person.' (Kilbourne). Kilbourne expresses how it is disturbing to believe that people can see others as unreal, as all human beings are real and should never be anything less. Establishing a thought like this creates a distance between people, a loss of connection.

This lack of connection that we find within ads is based off the objectification of women. If you create an advertisement that convinces people that being sexual beings or objects with each other there is a disconnection. Because how can we connect to something that is “unreal” to us, objects. As Kilbourne informs that “The violent images in ads contribute to the state of terror. And objectification and disconnection create a climate in which there is widespread and increasing violence” (Kilbourne). Kilbourne makes the point that if we are equals that are connected and real it is impossible to have violence when you empathize. While on the other hand if perceived as a thing or object, it becomes easier to abuse in the eyes of a human.

In Killing Us Softly 4, Kilbourne claims that “Women’s bodies are constantly turned into objects” (Kilbourne Killing Us Softly 4). Despite women existing as objectis in advertisements is apparent to Kilbourne but has a derealization to the public eye, this inspired her documentary on this issue. Kilbourne finds herself making several films after this first one, this must only mean that we still have these issues in our society today. It does not seem to stop, it is only more carefully placed.

So, this question that continues to linger is what can we do? And what do we need to do it? Becoming aware of this issue is the first step in the process of improvement. Educating ourselves on the subject matter or problem at hand helps us to vocalize what is at stake here.

Kilbourne is a perfect example of someone who is knowledgeable about the subject as she has been researching and preaching her beliefs for years. We should strive to become a part of citizen activism to let our voices be heard, building the numbers.

Discussion on the matter and growth in discussion or spreading the word allows us to get our message to many people. The more people who receive this message the greater response or realization of the issue will be made. Media literacy will also help in getting the word spread accurately and effectively.

To help people see that we have become consumers of these brands and advertisements and that it is valid in our lives, proving that change must happen.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2006.
Kilbourne, Jean, director. Still Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women. Kinetic, Inc., 1987-2016.
Patrick, Diane. “Martin Luther King, Jr.” F. Watts, Martin Luther King, Jr., 1990. 

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