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Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier

Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.

— Pierre Bourdieu

Language and visuals which used to be considered as simple, innocent, neutral, and passive tools of reflection and communication are now being viewed and studied from a totally different perspective. A number of linguists and social theorists have advocated now that language and visuals are highly political in nature and are not neutral in their essence. They are used as a potent tool to construct a certain kind of social reality and perpetuate certain stereotypes based on the contrived social reality. These also include the stereotypes related to gender. Gender, unlike sex, which is a purely biological phenomenon, is essentially a social construct, which is made up by society.

A society determines roles, attaches expectations, and offers opportunities differently for boys and girls. The stereotypes, based on gender construct, get strength by virtue of their excessive use and legitimisation by certain social institutions. These stereotypes are constructed, validated, popularised, and perpetuated with the help of language and visuals through different forms of expression. Advertisements, an interesting form of expression, construct and perpetuate a peculiar kind of corporate logic. This logic provides a recipe for good citizenship or conformity with the dominant culture. US-based sociologists Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles in Sociological Theory in the Contemporary Era suggest that “the lifeblood of culture industry is filling individuals’ leisure with standardized, conformist commodities, including information”.

Advertisements being persuasive and pervasive act as potentially powerful that impact people of all ages. Here I would focus on advertisements constructing and perpetuating stereotypes that widen the gender gaps and represent women in a biased way. In the modern times media advertisements are acting as powerful social institution in the process of socialization that leads to internalisation of gendered notions.

Some gender-biased stereotypes include that women are more talkative, less intelligent, cowardly, and confused. These stereotypes, like many others, have no scientific basis. Nevertheless they are perpetuated through advertisements in apparently playful but effective manner. For instance, one mobile phone company has a separate card for women with the title, Ladies First. The card contains the text: “Get beauty tips, cooking recipes, entertainment, shopping, and discounted call rates”. The last tag on this card is ‘…aisay karti hoon.” In this short ad a number of stereotypes are validated and perpetuated.

Some ads try to create humour at the expense of women. The humour is created on the basis of certain stereotypes. For instance the ad of a candy where a women is coming from shopping and talking non stop uttering the phrase, “chalti jae, chalti jae” suggesting the longevity of candy but there is a subtle reference to the talkative nature of women.

The ad of slim cigarettes suggests that how slimness is linked with women, referring to the social expectation about women. The most sensational advertisements are in the domain of make up products and garments. These ads focus on products to beautify eyes, lashes, lips, etc. One caption for an ad for the lipstick where a provocative picture is zoomed in is “kiss of approval”.

As mentioned before society, in the construction process of gender, attaches expectations to males and females in a discriminatory manner. The expectations from women in a South Asian society are that they should be beautiful, slim, tall, fair in complexion, and young. Expecting every woman to possess these attributes and remain young is unrealistic. There is a whole industry of beauty products that is minting a lot of money with provocative advertisements exploiting the so-called social expectations from women.

The slimming centre ads usually print two kinds of pictures…a fat woman before the treatment at the slimming centre and one less fat woman after the treatment. Again the stereotype working underneath is that women need to be slim. One would hardly see picture of a man in an ad of slimming centre.

The advertisements of certain products portray women as an object of display where a women is usually seen sitting on an elevated platform. In one ad of shoes a woman is posing with a shoe. This ad suggests the presentation of a woman as a commodity. In one ad of ice cream the caption that goes with the women’s picture is “All indulgence”. In an ad for garments a women is wrapped up with neckties and the caption reads: “I am all tied up with….”.

In some cases the actual product for which the ad is made is hardly seen. What is more noticeable is the provocative picture of a woman. For example the ads of a newly opened jewellery shop in Pakistan present women in a sensational way. In some ads where there is no relevance of women, we still see them for ‘aesthetic’ purposes. For instance shaving foam or razor blade ads where a man is shaving his beard a women is standing and watching him with interest.

In a number of products one sees the magical ‘feminine touch’, which is the creation of innovative minds of ad designers. For instance, in an ad of mattresses a woman would either be lying there or waving her hand on the surface. Similarly in a motorbike ad a women comes and brushes her hand on the seat.

The most unfortunate part of these ads is that the models, who are used in ads are provided best conditions in the studios with a lot of make over, are portrayed as role models for ordinary women. As I discussed before such ads create unrealistic expectations and women take on them tremendous pressure to become like models they see in the ads. Some cream ads show a girl who is hopeless about the prospects of getting married suddenly finds the recipe, the magic cream that makes her complexion fair followed by the jubilant music of wedding.

Such ads are not only perpetuating the gender stereotypes at mass scales but are also strengthening them through media. Media, being a powerful tool of socialization, validates these stereotypes and manufactures the consent of society at large. Women, in the wake of excessive media onslaught, internalise these stereotypes as facts. There is a serious need to realize that language and visuals are constantly involved in the construction of social reality and we should be using them with a lot of care. There is a need to design ads, which are not portrayed in a negative manner. Reducing gender gaps in ads and portraying a positive image of women will certainly help us reduce the gender gaps in real life.

Source: The News

Date:12/6/2007

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