Photography and the use of girls in contemporary advertising – a quick introduction

When we talk about early childhood sexualization we are not referring only to the hypersexualized messages to which minors are exposed, but also to the abuse that takes place against them when they are exposed as sexual objects.

Relationship photography-advertising – original article HERE

The affiche immediately conquered the general public. Manet deals with the relationship between art and advertising, thus marking a crucial step in the evolution of the language of advertising: the work is the poster ‘Les Chats’, created by Manet in Paris in 1868 for the book of the same name by Champfleury.

In Italy, advertising posters were mainly published by Officine Grafiche Ricordi (Ricordi Graphic Workshops)

With the development of printing techniques, photography gradually replaces text and then illustrations resulting, over time, the dominant medium, suitable for illustrating products for commercial purposes. Consequently, it also modifies the approach of a creative mind called to unravel the knots of representation.

At the end of the First World War, the production of consumer goods increases exponentially, and the focus shifts to the mass market. Russian designer Alexey Brodovitch is a key figure who helps identify this new market and define the contours. Within his studio, many men photographers, and artists have passed, who have made the history of fashion photography of those years proposing images of young women. It is worth mentioning, in particular, Irving Penn e Richard Avedon, Bob Cato, Otto Storch e Henry Wolf, who thanks to Brodovitch will be art directors of the most influential magazines.

The feminist movement, anti-war demonstrations, and Pop Art deeply affect the visual media, of which they shake up both the sense and the form.

See Laurie Simmons or Birgit Jürgenssen 

But the artistic directors on top of the pyramid still remain men, with the eye on the woman which, instead of representing her, digs into the security of social roles and proposes a model woman that does not reflect the real society, protecting that narration of woman that the cultural feminist movement was undermining blow after blow.

“Sex sells”
The Sixties are therefore a turning point in the large-scale representation of the woman through photography; the female body is now explicitly shown with the aim TO SELL. But to sell to whom? Who are adverts addressed to? They are addressed to the western white male pumped up by the myth of the very male man, whose desire is to have one or more languid women at his feet. Associating female sexuality with the identity of a certain product has proven not only a golden goose for advertising agencies, but it has had psychosocial consequences in the life of real women around the world. In many adverts, women are simply insulted and made to feel useless, made great only by the male figure, and even proposed as objects.

Fashion magazines are the first to explore the social and sensual codes through clothing and lifestyles, proposing images of unreal and ‘perfect’ women for the male imagination, bringing them into every home.

Many advertising campaigns have been deconstructed to unmask sexism and racism, but I think it particularly relevant to note this one: making something visible means influencing reality through an edulcorated perception, generating inevitable consequences.

The woman proposed in this advert is dressed as to look like a baby girl; she lifts her skirt, her legs are apart, she is sucking on a lollipop miming a fellatio: every single detail is meant to give and deny at the same time a sexual message, exactly what the product suggest you to do, namely to be innocent and sexy at one time. This is obviously an insult to adult women. This kind of pattern was to be repeated in an escalation until today, when it is acceptable to use little girls to send a hidden message to those who are not familiar with the reading of images, ergo the majority of the world population.
Each object acquires a precise identity that is conveyed through advertising, and everyone is able to distinguish and associate it. In this sense, if products actively create identity and society, it can be easily understood how the role of industry becomes crucial, and how it somehow acquires responsibilities that were previously given to literature, philosophy, and art.

Let us not delude ourselves that we have passed to a happier season because of adverts: mimicking a cumshot on the face of a young woman to advertise dairy products is just an example to show how the trend has never reversed.

From the eternally young woman to the use of little girls:
We have been besieged by the kind of images we have just described since childhood and it is right there that we learn and internalize an ideal that we will try to emulate when adults. Jean Kilbourne, writer, director and feminist media activist, in 1968 assembles Killing Us Softly, a series of slides composed of advertising posters with the intention of deconstructing the images and questioning for the first time the feminist culture about the figure of the woman proposed in the creative and advertisement sectors. In 1979 Cambridge Documentary Film produces Killing Us Softly, which provides the basis for visual analysis and visual research in the field of feminist theories. Kilbourne will come back 3 more times on this analysis, observing that over time things not only have not changed, but they are proposed with much more hypocrisy and violence. The young women proposed decades before are increasingly young and, although the experience of lollipop fellatio seems to be long gone, the tendency to propose juvenile innocence as sexually appealing has never stopped, but has instead undergone a mutation of form.

In 2019 the Media Education Foundation Presents a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Killing Us Softly with the event, Killing Us Softly: Then & Now. Here the full video that includes video clips and a panel discussion on the impact of Kilbourne’s work

The internet is crammed with images and videos of little girls dressed and made up like adult women, in sensual positions and attitudes, engaged in activities as grown-ups, or worried about their beauty and their look. This is a perfect and didactic example of how femininity is a socially constructed and violently imposed standard.

Sexualised in our clothing and attitude
To indicate a problem as “of society,” in fact, includes to emphasize that there are active agents, from publishing groups and large companies up to single numerous abominable individuals, and passive agents: the victims precisely, towards whom it is necessary to walk a very thin line between the urgency of protection and the need not to be censured.

The operations that sexualize girls TOO OFTEN have a specific public: adult men. It is worth pointing out, in addition to the Audi campaign, also the one that uses the photographs by Letizia Battaglia to advertise one of the most famous luxury brands: Lamborghini.

The role of the intellectual in the mass society: the case of Lamborghini and Letizia Battaglia shows how the industrialization of photography is a “mutation” of adaptation. It is quite curious how a woman photographer ,prized for documenting mafia’s consequences, defined and self-defined feminist and with decades and decades of experience has not noticed this at least suspicious combination (luxury cars and preadolescent girls).

The problem lies largely in the generalized lack of awareness of what sexualization of childhood means, and moreover in ignoring that certain things, even those that may seem smaller, actually have more weight than we can imagine.
The problem of the hypersexualisation of children are the adults: superficial adults inserted in a heteropatriarchal capitalist system that normalize attitudes and personal development binding boys and girls to a misogynistic culture.

This is the basis on which not only gender roles are based, but also the idea that for women the most important aspect is the physical one, which must be a showcase to attract the attention and approval of others, while intelligence, personality and character are of secondary importance. That is why, if we want to protect and defend children from early sexualisation, we should above all prevent their bodies from becoming objects to be manipulated.
The Overton’s window and the manipulation of masses:
There are a lot of Overton’s Windows; one of these was Leon, a 1994 film by Luc Bresson.
There are three versions of this film: the cinematographic one ( 110 minutes), the international one (127 minutes) and finally the complete one, which has a total duration of 136 minutes. The film is about a young girl whose family has been exterminated for drug affairs, and a hit man with whom he will have a friendship on the edge of sentimental history. Exemplary is the scene in which Mathilda sings Happy Birthday Mr. President mimicking Marilyn Monroe singing for President Kennedy, one of the most sensual images ever of the Hollywood diva.

“I excitedly opened my first fan mail to read a rape fantasy that a man had written me. A countdown was started on my local radio show to my 18th birthday, euphemistically the date that I would be legal to sleep with. Movie reviewers talked about my budding breasts in reviews.”

Natalie Portman does not hesitate to talk about sexual terrorism which the actress, at the time 13, had to face. Video here 

The cultural industry is still dominated by the male gaze; we really need support for gender studies in the field of visual culture to dismantle this approach and propose new aesthetics and new practices that are not degrading and objectifying.
There is still a long way to go.