Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women is the newest update of Jean Kilbourne’s examination of the way female bodies are scrutinized, objectified and derided in advertisements. Kilbourne guides the audience through the countless images she’s collected since the late 1960s, mixing some dark humour with her sharp criticism. Though the ads seen in this film offer a wide variety of products, they share an unsettling common ground in the way they use a narrow, unattainable standard of female beauty and sexuality to sell them. The result is damaging to our collective psyches as far as the way we view real women and ourselves.
The issues related to the advertisements presented in this film include a sharp decline in self-esteem experienced by adolescent females, eating disorders, and violence against women, among many others. Kilbourne shows the way the ads sell values and lifestyles as well as material things, and some of the most common ideas portrayed in advertising construct desirable femininity as silent, fragile, sexually available, and, of course, a result of never-ending, expensive, arduous labour on the woman’s part. This pattern has become inescapable, and there are pretty much no alternatives.
This 2010 instalment of Kilbourne’s long-running series of classic documentaries includes the many over-the-top, Photoshopped, ridiculous ads seen in the recent years, such as the one where the model’s pubic hair is waxed in the shape of the Gucci logo, and the scandalous image of Filippa Hamilton used for a Ralph Lauren campaign, in which her head is somehow bigger than her pelvis. Other recent developments targeted in the film include the increasing sexualisation of younger and younger girls (did you know you can now buy “heels” for babies and bikinis for toddlers?), and the acceleration of sexualized violence in ads (I would think that an image of a woman falling down the stairs in an evening gown would only make you worry about the danger of wearing a dress that restricts your movements. And don’t even mention that Dolce and Gabbana ad that portrays and glorifies gang rape!).
The images seen in this documentary can be affecting to anyone (even if you’ve already seen them around; watching so many right after the other in a critical context can knock you out of your desensitized state), but they are especially important to the younger demographic, who are yet to hone their media literacy. I remember watching the earlier version of Killing Us Softly in school, and I hope that many members of the current school-aged generation will get to see it.
The founder of BITE ME!, Jill Andrew, has contributed to this cause by organizing a workshop for young women between the ages of 12 and 18, in which they discussed the issues of body image after watching the film. The girls were asked how they felt about the documentary, and, not surprisingly, feelings of anger and frustration were common reactions. Through worksheets and discussion, they were then presented with concepts such as the male gaze, the deconstruction of the female body into separate parts, racism in the media, and becoming an active media citizen. Having studied social sciences for so long, I can’t remember what life was like without those ideas, but it’s important to keep in mind how many young people might be new to this type of criticism, even though they are exposed to the images of pop culture every day. In another activity, the girls were asked to create portraits of the way they see themselves, and surround them with positive words that they feel would describe them. With youth culture becoming more sexualized, more demanding of one’s appearance, and more exposed to or intertwined with popular culture aimed at the older crowd, it is more important than ever to encourage youth to be critical media consumers, and to find alternative ways for them to see themselves.