Media, advertising fuel negativity in women

In an industry with stiff competition, entrepreneurs are going for the ‘unique’, which they believe would give them the biggest pay-offs as it is often the magic formula in selling otherwise ordinary services and products.

But it the long-enduring tradition of abusing women’s images to ‘sell’ products and services that have nothing to do with women’s abilities still holds a lot of sway despite efforts by various women’s organisations calling for a new perception on women.

Nightclub adverts, particularly in newspapers, are awash with pictures of semi-naked women most of whom would be pausing in sexual postures.

Loveness Mayingire, a design student at a Harare college, said some adverts were created on the basis of the “sex sells concept” where a product that is mainly targeted at men would carry images of semi-nude women. In some cases, the women would be in suggestive postures as a way of winning over the male customers so that a product sells fast.

She added that the concept was also prevalent in the clothing industry, where a number of male designers had become specialists in the “so-called fashionable” clothes that often left women body parts exposed, or body-hugging clothes.

“It is ironic that you don’t find men who wear such kind of clothes. And as a woman, if you don’t put on those clothes you become a laughing stock among your peers who would think you’re unfashionable,” she said, adding that it was imperative for women to resist that kind of abuse.

According to Vailet Mukotsanjera of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre Network (ZWRCN), the portrayal of women in adverts tended to overlook their value and capabilities as human beings and concentrating on stereotypical roles.

“In the print media, for example on entertainment pages, women are used to advertise shows, entertainment events and in some cases the whole newspaper in general carries articles with photogenic women,” she said.

Mannie Pazvakavambwa, a freelance designer who specialises in authentic African clothing, said she came up with her own style of women’s clothing, which covers the whole body as a way of restoring the African woman’s dignity.

“It’s sad that the images of women that we often see in newspapers and on television are degrading of women. I think as women, we are far much better and more respectable than the way in which we are viewed. I’m sure adverts can still be made with pictures of women in their clothes, which I believe is more respectable,” she said.

Charity Majuru from Waterfalls said highly eroticised portrayals of women in the mainstream media were demeaning and were not a true reflection of women.

“I think people who make those images need to appreciate that there is more to women than their bodies, which they seem to be obsessed with. The images tend to make women look more like sex symbols, which I don’t think should be the case,” she said.

A recent Gender and Media Audience Study conducted by Gender Links and the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ) revealed that women were more likely to feature in the news in roles such as victims, health workers, beauty contestants, home makers and sex workers.

Zimbabwean media audiences, especially women, found sexual images of women in the news “uncomfortable” and “insulting”.

“The vast majority of women (85 percent) and the majority of men (62 percent) agreed that the news would be more interesting if there were stories about women doing a wider range of things,” the study said.

A sociologist in Harare, Robert Mhishi, said the prevalent nature of advertising and general presentation of women’s images in the mainstream media “feeds off the cultural tenets of dominantly patriarchal societies” which elbowed women to the margins of society.”

“Given the power of advertising to create and transmit cultural meaning, the presence of stereotypes which are inaccurate, offensive, and confining is particularly troubling. Such stereotypes provide a base for the abuse and continued downgrading of women, who’re still ranked as second class citizens despite their many achievements in various fields,” he said.

Some however said there was need for caution in the interpretation of adverts with one designer saying sometimes messages had to be read between the lines.

He cited cases where there is a prevalence of women in adverts of a cigarette brand, which he said could be a way of reflecting societal where the smoking of women is now generally accepted or as a way of winning over female customers.

Andrew Mavingire, the director of an advertising and marketing firm in Harare concurred, saying people did not have to judge all adverts that carried women’s bodies the wrong way.

“When we come up with adverts, we want images that would positively put across our messages and in most cases, women’s images are used. However, there are some advertising companies that portray women in the wrong light and that is a bad habit that should not be promoted,” he said.

December 2006
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