We are bombarded with images of sexualised women without even realising it because the concept of women as sexual objects has been so normalised that we don’t question it. The objectification of women in media starts off with seemingly harmless erotic images, and escalates into depictions of women in degrading and even violent situations. Images may seem harmless, but normalizing the idea that women are passive sexual objects, and trivialise sexual violence, translates into everyday acts of gender-based violence.
Media advertising is everywhere and we can’t escape it, unless we go live in a commune away from society (which sometimes seems like a tempting option). I’ve noticed more and more how advertising propagates sexist views for profit, and perpetuates the idea of women as sexual objects of desire without any agency of their own.
As women, we live in a world defined by the threat of sexual violence, and advertising and media do contribute to this issue.
The advert on the right is a familiar sight on the side of Coca-Cola fridges in Cambodia. These images may seem benign at first glance; after all, they’re just enjoying their drinks. But these images place the models’ lips as the main focal point - not the Coke. The viewer is drawn to their mouths not because the models are represented as women with voices and agency, but because they are erotic objects.
There are also adverts where the woman is just a faceless object, reduced to features which can be sexualised as objects of desire. These pictures depict women without faces or definable features except for those we can sexualise, which portray women as voiceless objects of desire, made for someone else’s enjoyment. This reinforces the idea that women are inferior to men and exist only for men’s desires.
But why is this damaging? They’re just images…right?! When we see an image paraded on a national or worldwide stage, we’re socialised to take this as fact and not to question the messages behind it. Brands and the media are now taking a central role in shaping cultural norms and values in our society, and - as these ads show - these norms and values are inherently sexist. We normalise images of women as sex objects, and encourage men and boys to treat women as such. And if women are sex objects, it’s acceptable to treat them however you want because women are just there for your enjoyment. This normalises in men and boys dangerous attitudes of entitlement towards women’s bodies, which may manifest in not listening to a women when she speaks up for her own body.
Women and girls are also affected by these images, as they reinforce the narrative of sexual objectification that women and girls internalise. As these images are taken as fact, young girls start to perceive them as how all women behave. This behaviour encourages young girls and women to be sexually available to men, and not take their own needs into account. This sexual behaviour is widely rewarded by society, as they are fulfilling their supposed role as women, and therefore women continue the cycle of internalising this misogynistic gender role.
And once you normalise this ‘softer’ form of objectification, it paves the way for more overt images of objectification and violence. These images portray women as submissive and passive to men, with their overall purpose as just being there to serve men. As these images have evolved, they also normalise violence, which desensitises us to and trivialises sexual assault and violence.
Once we see it around us everywhere, we assume that it’s normal and inevitable to treat women this way. That as women, we’re here to be submissive, sexual objects for men to be aroused by and dominate. This feeds into the narrative of sexual violence where violence is justified through the objectification of women. This objectification, left unchallenged, leads to catcalling, unsolicited dick pics, coercion, victim blaming and acts of sexual violence. Media’s portrayal of women is indicative of the wider society’s view on treatment of women, and if we can change this narrative, we can start to pave the way for more empowering and all-encompassing views of women’s lived experiences.