Jean Kilbourne on “Killing Us Softly 4”

A 1993 study on women in relationships shows that 28% have experienced abuse by someone they know, and 15% have been forced to engage in unwanted sex under alcohol or drugs. It was with this statistic that Jean Kilbourne opened her captivating talk on what exactly advertising sells, and how it is linked to real problems in society.  Based off her fourth “Killing Us Softly” film (the first was in 1979), the presentation showed that the same subtle messages pervade advertising today. Here are some of the points Kilbourne made:

  • We’re exposed to 3000 brands a day on average (often without actually realizing what we’re seeing), and babies at the age of six months can recognize corporate logos. That’s scary, especially when you think about what exactly advertising is often telling us.
  • For women, it’s all about how to look and what to do in order to look that way. Often, this involves a body that is literally impossible to attain. In Pretty Woman, for example – Julia Roberts’ head is hers, but her body is that of a body double. Photoshop is another tool used to create these impossible forms – we’ve all seen the comical “Photoshop gone wrong” pictures, but often the mistakes aren’t quite so obvious – instead, we see the “perfect” thighs or arms or light, clear skin.

That's her head, but not her body!

  • Not only do impossible standards affect a woman’s self esteem, they also affect the way men look at the real women in their lives.
  • Kilbourne isn’t trying to say that advertising causes violence, but she does emphasize the way that advertising often turns women into objects. In any situation, the objectification of humans is the first step towards violence. How is this objectification achieved? First and foremost, advertising often dismembers the female body. There’s a focus on breasts, on grotesquely positioned limbs. There are the come-hither poses of the models and the frequent displays or insinuations of rape. Women of colour in advertising are often portrayed animalistically or exotified. There’s a terror of aging which perpetrates the ads, and again this is a denial of reality.

A pretty blatant example of selling sex and dismembering/objectifying women's bodies.

Wonderbra ad, 1999.

Stereotyping of women of colour using animal prints and a hostile gaze? Check! Click on the photo to see more examples.

Twiggy was majorly - and controversially - photoshopped for this Olay campaign. Click on the photo to see what they changed.

  • For males, there’s the trend of turning men’s bodies into sex objects as well, and this has increased from the past. However, this is different than women’s dismemberment because men don’t live in a world in which their bodies are continually judged. Statistically, there are fewer consequences for men as a result of this objectification. Males are also used to emphasize the importance of making money on a man’s worth. This is also a wounding stereotype, one that goes as far as making relationships into a financial transaction in some ads.

So many things wrong with this picture.

  • Kilbourne talked a lot about the obsession with thinness – the idea that girls should literally take up less space. With the high rates of eating disorders, this is not something that we can afford to perpetrate. There’s a constant shame towards eating, which is underscored by language such as “guilty pleasure” and being “bad” when you’ve broken your diet. Kilbourne emphasizes that dieting is a great way to wreck your metabolism and to eventually gain more weight. The fact that obsesity rates are rising while our obsession with thinness continues points to systemic, societal problems. In addition, the myth that women of colour don’t suffer from eating disorders is not true, as with men and boys – who now make up 10% of anorexia sufferers.

Something's a little off here...

Yes, these actually exist. The ads for these t-shirts, featuring a slogan made famous by Kate Moss in 2009, were banned in August 2011.

  • Trigger Warning: The following may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault. 
Sex in ads was another big theme in the presentation. This is something that extends from the sexualization of little girls, to the use of sex – and violent scenes suggestive of rape – to sell products. Moreover, the media offers conflicting views of sexiness: sexy yet innocent, experienced yet virginal. For men, the media’s sexual messages emphasize masculinity and power, painting men as dominating over women – often through violence or implied sexual assault. This distorted message promotes the view that men are violent, and anything feminine in men is negative. Most men aren’t violent, but many are afraid to challenge other men who show violence in their actions or words. Thus, advertising keeps us trapped in defined roles of masculinity and femininity.
This promotion for the Prada Autumn/Winter 2011 Collection doesn’t just hypersexualize and ‘dismember’ (thus objectifying) female bodies. It also contributes to the sexualization of girls – one of the models featured in the video is only 13!

How long did it take you to notice the tomatoes?

Apparently, Dolce & Gabbana can even go as far as to use gang rape to sell their products.

So what do we do about this? It’s a public health issue – one linked to sexual assault, violence and mental health. These are huge problems…

  • Nearly 30% of all female homicide victims were known to have been killed by their husbands, former husbands or boyfriends. In contrast, just over 3% of male homicide victims were known to have been killed by their wives, former wives, or girlfriends.
  • At any given time, 70% of women and 35% of men are dieting. A 1993 Statistics Canada Survey reported that in women between the ages of 15 and 25, 1-2% have anorexia and 3-5% have bulimia. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, with 10% to 20% eventually dying from complications.

… and if the media is perpetrating and contributing to these problems,  that’s something we need to be more worried about. We need to be conscious about our own choices. Before buying, find out who is making products and what messages those companies are sending or supporting.

Furthermore, support each other. Stop the negative self-talk, especially when around young girls. Women, stop bringing down other women for no reason. Stop calling your friends bitches and hoes. Don’t fall victim to this way of treating others. Be okay with all expressions of masculinity and femininity, and ask yourself why you feel otherwise.

Jean Kilbourne spoke at Queen’s University on October 27, 2011. Her two newest books, “So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids” and “Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel” are available to borrow from the Equity Library in the ASUS Core.

Visit Jean Kilbourne’s website at


About asusequitycommissioner

ASUS Equity Commissioner
This entry was posted in Equity Issues in the Media, Feminism, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Jean Kilbourne on “Killing Us Softly 4”

  1. This was raw, honest, and surely ignored by those who perpetuate recycled viciousness.

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