Mirror, mirror on the wall…who’s the fairest of us all? Sounds all too familiar? A fairytale that every girl has read and perhaps even acted out in front of the mirror, Snow White and the seven dwarfs.
One will also remember that it’s a male voice that relays the talking mirror’s firm retort.
It is with this in mind that young girls from an early age begin to measure their worth through male acceptance. In other words, men set the benchmark for a woman’s beauty, acceptance and acknowledgement. Furthermore, the fairytale also adds meaning to the saying: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. This is apt as one would remember that the stepmother turns to sinister and vile ways to eliminate Snow White, wanting to be the fairer one. It also creates the perception that step mothers are evil, as in the case of Cinderella too.
However, it is with fairytales too that girls begin to develop vanity, a sense of shallowness and the idea that beauty surpasses intelligence. So it is natural to ask: where does gender identity begin?
Some could say that it begins at birth as we announce the arrival of our “bouncing” baby boys or our “gorgeous” little girls. Or is it when parents decide different toys for different sexes? Does it begin in school, when girls receive a verbal retort for misbehaving and boys a more aggressive approach? Is it in the household, where soft domestic chores are for the young girl and the more physical tasks for the “strong”, “developing” boy?
Whether you have answered yes or no, it is evident that the household and school environment set the precedent for a particular mindset or perception. This observation is affirmed by Marian Baker, a Sociologist in Education at the Wits School of Education.
Baker says that it is our sex that informs our gender identity which transforms itself into our “performance”. In other words, our performance levels are determined by our gender identity. We believe we can only attain certain levels of success due to the fact that our mindsets on our gender have been moulded in that manner.
She identifies a turning point in a women’s life where women become “gender aware” or “gender sensitised”. It is at this point where women either conform or resist the “norms” set out. These post-modern ideas are brought about through influence. This includes critical thinking and reading widely which would lead to resisting gender stereotyping. Educators would agree that the media is another influencing factor.
Media has a profound influence on the behaviour of different sexes. Adverts for young girls depict how they should develop into blossoming young women. Pictures of little girls carrying handbags and wearing matching clothes set the platform for their role as women or ladies. Boys will be seen playing in the sand, climbing trees and getting dirty. What the media does in Noam Chomsky’s words is “manufacture consent.”
Adverts also play a role in gender stereotyping. This is according to Kubi Rama, the CEO of the Gender and Media Southern Africa Network. Rama says that through the media including adverts, women are told what to look like, what to be like. Models are used to project the perfect weight, height and skin colour. Rama highlighted that gender and race are linked. According to the statistics from GEMSA, women are used in 41% of adverts. However, it is imperative to note that in majority of these adverts, women are used for two purposes, either for domestic use or for their sexuality.
Rama further says that women are portrayed in a particular way that emphasises more their sexuality than their intelligence. She says that gender is based on power relations. These power relations are mostly determined by men as they show women in nurturing, caring and supportive roles. Rama added that advertising has not meaningfully evolved or done much to challenge the stereotyping. Women are still not seen as having beauty and brains but rather just beauty. It is clear, she says, that men set the platform for a woman’s value and a woman’s attractiveness.
Rama identifies the implications of stereotypical adverts saying: “this leads to physical disorders such as eating disorders and also emotional trauma such as self esteem issues.” An example of how an advert should market their product without exploiting women, she says, is Coke. Rama says Coke adverts tend to be balanced. Women are not used sexually or domestically.
One also needs to take into consideration whether advertising agencies are aware of the stereotyping they portray and the implications thereof. Iqbal Jassat from the Media Review Network says that advertising agencies are consciously aware of the stereotyping their adverts portray. They are also aware of the implications. However, he says, it is a marketing strategy in order to sell a product.
He adds that interest in the product is generated if there is a pretty face and a beautiful body. This occurs regardless of the relation of the product to the woman used. He says that perhaps there is not much being done to challenge the stereotyping and retain a woman’s dignity. Instead the trend has become global and continues via the television, billboards as well as the internet.
The only measure in place that can curb the gender stereotyping would be the Advertising Standards Authority. However, the ASA is being funded by these advertising agencies which do result in a conflict of interest.
Jassat says that the mainstream media has stripped women of their dignity and modesty. Advertising, he says, continues to project the stereotyping for two reasons. Firstly women are used to market a product and secondly, women set themselves up to be used.
One wonders whether advertising has evolved. In comparing two adverts from the same brand, it would seem that women were previously regarded as useful for domestic purposes alone, and now they are projected as “being comfortable ion our own skin”. However, in both adverts a woman’s intellect is not depicted and goes by unnoticed.
Perhaps it’s time for women to stop waiting for their knight in shining armour to ride in on his white stallion but rather master the art of horse riding themselves.