The pressures on women to maintain a particular sort of look are immense in our society. Thanks to the tween-oriented campaigns by the lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret, there are elementary school girls going around with shorts saying “I LOVE PINK” on them. The message is clear: these tween girls have bought into the idea that they need to look a certain way in order to receive approval. This brings sexuality into the minds of girls well before they are ready for it, and so by the time they reach middle school, many of them already view themselves through the lens of cellulite and cleavage – a lens that can be incredibly damaging for children who do not yet know what to do with the physical equipment that accompanies puberty. It also limits women’s sense of self, even before they become women in the physical sense. By viewing themselves through a lens of desirability, girls accept the idea that they are simply commodities, rather than autonomous individuals in their own right. Throughout the feminist world, there are thinkers and writers who argue that the media is rife with stereotypes that girls, and then women, accept as the truth. In Kilbourne’s essay “Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt,” the link between advertising and violence appears. Her argument is that advertising that uses women intentionally creates distance rather than connection. As a result, violence toward women becomes more acceptable for those who view those advertisements, even if just on a subliminal level. Morgan’s essay “From Fly-Girls to Bitches and Hos” traces a similar regression, but within the culture of the hip-hop music industry. Both essays argue that stereotypes in the media can and do lead toward violence toward women. The essays differ in their audience, their tone, and the types of evidence that they use.
The purpose in both essays is virtually identical – to connect images and stereotypes perpetuated about women in the media with the potential for violence against those women. Whether it is Kilbourne’s argument that the visual images of women in many advertisements make violence subliminally acceptable, or whether it is Morgan’s passionate plea that the very tenets that make African-American culture stand up to oppression from white America that are also harming African-American women, both writers argue that the time for passively accepting the work of the media is past. There are simply too many victims, whether it is the host of women who have eating disorders, who face depression, who hate themselves because of their perceived inferiority to images in the media, or whether it is the women who give themselves to freely to the men in their lives and then stand by when those men drain the very life out of them. Both of these authors argue that it is time for a change in the way women are represented.
Kilbourne’s tone is quite candid, and yet clinical at times. In the midst of a collection of pictures showing the images that she is in the midst of criticizing, this sort of sentence comes out: “The poses and postures of advertising are often borrowed from pornography, as are many of the themes, such as bondage, sadomasochism, and the sexual exploitation of children” (Kilbourne 576). While the concepts in this sentence are awful to contemplate, Kilbourne has taken the time to structure her sentence with prim parallelism, even working some alliteration into the first clause. While Kilbourne clearly feels strongly about this topic, the strength of feeling comes from the considerable pile of evidence that she has amassed on the topic. Morgan, on the other hand, pours her passion out onto the page for all to see: “But in between the beats, booty shaking, and hedonistic abandon, I have to wonder if there isn’t something inherently unfeminist in supporting a music that repeatedly reduces me to tits and ass and encourages pimping on the regular” (Morgan 602). This is also a well-crafted sentence, and it also contains shocking words, but the sarcasm that ripples forth from it shows that this author has had enough. This is not some slide show that the author takes us through with some vivid commentary; this is her life, and she is ready for her life, and for the life of the other women in her culture, to change. This is why her tone pops off the page, while Kilbourne’s tone makes the reader feel as though she is in a lecture hall.
The difference in tone may well reflect a difference in audience. Both of these essays come from longer works by these same authors. However, Kilbourne’s essay comes from a co-authored self-help book, while Morgan’s comes from a collection of essays. As anyone who has read op-ed pieces or other essays, those are tightly focused pieces of writing, with a clear rhetorical argument supported by devices that rips out and takes hold of the reader, if the writing is done effectively. Kilbourne’s audience is also lay in nature, but there is a clinical feel to her writing that Morgan does not include. Kilbourne is not trying to shock people into listening to her; she lets the pictures do the talking. Morgan’s audience is not looking at pictures; instead, all they have is her words to guide them. It makes sense, then, that Morgan’s prose would take a slightly more passionate tack on the subject.
The types of evidence that the two authors use differ significantly as well. One piece of evidence she uses is a three-page ad for the men’s cologne Drakkar Noir. The man stands in the middle, looking out at the viewer. On either side of him stands a girl, looking at him, beckoning with her eyes for attention. The two girls are not identical twins, but they look similar enough for the viewer to realize, on some level, that they are interchangeable. It does not matter which one he takes home, or even if he takes both of them home, because there is no connection. If there were a connection, he would be gazing at one or both of them, instead of leering out at us. The text of the ad reads, “’Do you want to be the one she tells her deep, dark secrets to? Or do you want to be her deep, dark secret? Don’t be such a good boy’”(Kilbourne 577). The obvious implication from the text is that it is more fun to be the subject of intrigue instead of being the person with whom one shares one’s intrigues. If the man remains the secret of the woman, then there is no threat of, say, a real relationship or a genuine connection of any kind. It might be that he is both of the women’s dark secret. The fact that the advertising encourages a lack of connection is the most chilling part, to Kilbourne. It is this chilling aspect to sexualized advertising that, in her opinion, makes violence an option, even if only on an unconscious level. Morgan’s evidence, in contrast, is part statistics and part anecdote. She does note the drop in black two-parent households (Morgan 602). She also takes on different experiences presented in hip-hop culture as ideal, such as “’40 and a blunt’ good times,” (Morgan 603) which really just stand for “alcoholism, substance abuse, and chemical dependency” (Morgan 603). She views much of the big talk of hip-hop culture as “straight-up depression masquerading as machismo” (Morgan 603). The fact that Morgan’s anecdotes come from widely known popular culture gives her a level of authority similar to that of Kilbourne, even if her evidence is not as academic.
Both of these authors believe, clearly, that the time for change has come in our culture. The time when women look at themselves in a mirror and realize that they are inferior must come to an end, and the beginning of that change could well begin with the media. If grocery store checkout aisles did not bristle with magazine covers featuring women who starve themselves to look like aliens in the latest trends, if every other hip-hop song did not feature violence toward either women or other men, if media could be about the honest and the authentic rather than the next way to banish depression or want or anxiety, then society could move forward. Until then, though, the corporate interests will continue to trample over our mothers, our wives, and our daughters, and we will pay full price for the entertainment.
Kilbourne, Jean. “Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt: Advertising and Violence.” In Rereading America, Gary Colombo, et al., eds. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010, 575-601.
Morgan, Joan. “From Fly-Girls to Bitches and Hos.” In Rereading America, Gary Colombo, et al., eds. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010, 601-607.