Ruthie Hawley ’15 isn’t the only one who reads Glamour magazine for the ads.
But Hawley may be the only one to study Glamour and conclude that advertisers have co-opted the notion of empowerment of women, entwining message and product to create a new and insidious form of sexism.
Working with her advisor, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Sonja Thomas, Hawley wrote a senior honors thesis that advances existing feminist theories about sexism in popular culture, and considers the new trend and its effects on young women.
“It’s not just applying theory to advertising but thinking through the theory and trying to retheorize,” Thomas said. That, she said, is a higher form of student scholarship.
Titled “What’s shampoo got to do with it? Empowerment sexism and the emergence of a fragmented body politics,” Hawley’s thesis was prompted, in part, by a Pantene shampoo ad that asked why women aren’t equal in the workplace. Fair enough, she said, “but why is Pantene profiting off of that statement when they are pitching us this notion that we have to have good-looking hair to be taken seriously?”
“I take serious issue with the marketing trend that uses [women’s] empowerment to sell products that have nothing to do with empowerment.”—Ruthie Hawley ’15
A WGSS and environmental studies double major, she worked with Thomas throughout the academic year, planning research, refining the paper’s argument, and formulating the analysis. Hawley’s conclusion: “In the contemporary moment, the young female body is being co-opted by the media along with a pseudo endorsement of female empowerment.”
As a young woman who identifies as a feminist, Hawley wrote, “I take serious issue with the marketing trend that uses empowerment to sell products that have nothing to do with empowerment, and everything to do with creating unattainable standards young women (ages 18-25) are pressured to live up to.”
Past feminist arguments have critiqued the mind/body split which equates the masculine with the mind and the feminine with the body. Young women today, Hawley argues, are pressured by popular culture and advertising to see not only one body in this mind/body split, but multiple fragmented bodies. Hawley locates six—possibly seven—bodies that emerge from her analysis of advertising in Glamour: the body in our minds, the motion, the sexual body, the body in relation to other bodies, the pathologized body, the aesthetic body. Advertising, in its bid to sell shampoo, clothing, and cosmetics, uses all of these to play to women’s vulnerabilities and insecurities. “Of course, you want to be empowered,” Hawley said. “But what kind of empowerment is it? It’s rooted in this very specific body and careful management of that body.”
And as Thomas points out, the women depicted as “empowered” in advertising are white, heterosexual, and middle-class.
“We don’t see women of color,” she said. “We don’t see classed women. We don’t see women doing work that they’re disproportionately doing in everyday life, service work.”
In short, the advertisements don’t reflect the reality of women’s lives in this country. They do hold up an unattainable ideal, with the implied promise that by purchasing the advertisers’ products, from shoes to lip gloss, real-life women can find empowerment of their own.
And men in the ads are still depicted as dominant in the presence of so-called empowered women, which, Thomas noted, leads male readers to feel they are entitled to that position in society and relationships.
The result of this pervasive messaging is to tell women that they no longer need to question the status quo.
“Ruthie is asking, ‘How can [we question] when this is packaged to us in a way in which it says that it’s supposed to be empowering to us,” Thomas said. “And it’s causing us to refuse to question. She’s saying, ‘I am going to do that questioning.’”
Hawley, who was to begin work at Amazon in her hometown, Seattle, after graduation, said she plans to continue to question the media’s portrayal of women. A varsity soccer player at Colby, she recalled a poster she had in her room growing up that quoted David Beckham saying he wanted to be remembered for what he did on the soccer pitch.
“Honestly, I feel like this [work] is my pitch,” Hawley said. “This is where I feel the most myself.”