Jean Kilbourne isn’t dropping her guard just yet, but she believes we might be at a turning point in the battle against media exploitation of women. Things are bad, she made clear, addressing a primarily female audience in Livingston on Nov. 13, with sexualized imagery used even with little children, but people — women in particular — are fighting back.
For real intimacy to flourish in healthy relationships, she said, it’s essential that youth grow up with a respect for women — and men — as human beings, and not simply as sexual objects to be used and abused.
The event, held at Cedar Hill Country Club, was the fifth annual Women to Women lunch hosted by the Rachel Coalition, a partnership of nine northern New Jersey organizations dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by domestic violence. The coalition is a division of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ, and a beneficiary of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
At the event, NJ Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Dist. 34) was honored for his efforts to combat domestic violence, and his support for the work of the coalition.
Kilbourne titled her talk “The Naked Truth in Advertising and Domestic Violence.” Using a slide show of advertisements, she stressed the connection between degrading imagery and abuse of women — psychological as well as physical — and paid tribute to the work done by the coalition to counteract such mistreatment.
Though advertising isn’t solely to blame, she said, its impact is one of the most pervasive in our lives. Most people see hundreds of ads a day, many pushing the notion that by buying the right product consumers can achieve that most lauded quality — sexiness. Such a message, Kilbourne said, can mean that our daughters “will be hanging out at malls the rest of their lives.”
Males aren’t exempt from objectification and manipulation, she said; in their case, the image upheld is of the surly, tough, and potentially violent male. But the impact is less debilitating. For girls, the media onslaught can lead to lifelong dieting and the pursuit of a totally unrealistic “ideal” figure and “poreless” skin.
The message is actually profoundly anti-erotic, she said. Though sexiness is implied, it comes with the contradictory message that women should be virginal and innocent and has nothing to do with real, healthy relationships.
Kilbourne, 69, has been fighting this battle since the mid-1970s. The author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel and coauthor of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids has been named by The New York Times Magazine as one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses. Her documentaries, TV appearances, and slide lectures — like the one she gave Nov. 13 — have reached millions of people around the world.
Given that reception, she was asked, how is it that the situation has gotten worse, with more and more explicitly sexual imagery in advertising and emaciated, juvenile models still used as if they were ideals of female beauty? Kilbourne attributed the trend to the ascendance of corporate power and the drive to increase sales.
Wherever consumerism has taken root, she added, the same damage ensues. In Fiji, for example, it used to be a compliment to tell someone, “You’ve gained weight.” After three years of American-style advertising on television, 62 percent of young women were dieting.
“Money!” she exclaimed, with a mixture of exasperation. “This will go on as long as profits are regarded as more important than people’s well-being.”
There is, however, hope on the horizon. “But I think that we could be at a turning point,” she said. “We might be getting to the stage where enough people won’t accept this situation.”
In conversation after her talk, Kilbourne was asked for her view of conservative cultures that shun images of scantily clad women and require that girls and women wear modest garb — as in the Orthodox Jewish community or in Muslim communities that require women to wear burkas.
She said the ideal doesn’t reside at either extreme, and that fear of women’s physicality can lead to violence just as its exploitation does. “What we want is the middle ground,” she said, with respect for the body as an integral part of the human being.
Shari Bloomberg, clinical coordinator for the Rachel Coalition’s domestic violence services, emphasized the need for collective action. “Domestic violence is not just a problem of the victim and the abuser,” she said. “It impacts their children, extended family, neighbors, community, and the world around us. It is a societal crisis, and the only way to end it is to acknowledge that it is everyone’s responsibility to help.”
She said, “If you suspect someone is in trouble, know the resources to give them. Don’t be afraid to tell them you are concerned, and if you hear something, call the police.
“Just as drunk driving wasn’t recognized as societal until people began to speak out, so too will domestic violence not change unless society accepts responsibility for making changes.”