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Empowerment/sexism: Figuring female sexual agency in contemporary advertising

Gill, R. (2008). Empowerment/sexism: Figuring female sexual agency in contemporary advertising. Feminism and Psychology, 18(1), pp. 35-60. doi: 10.1177/0959353507084950


This paper argues that there has been a significant shift in advertising representations of women in recent years, such that rather than being presented as passive objects of the male gaze, young women in adverts are now frequently depicted as active, independent and sexually powerful. This analysis examines contemporary constructions of female sexual agency in advertisements examining three recognizable ‘figures’: the young, heterosexually desiring ‘midriff’, the vengeful woman set on punishing her partner or ex partner for his transgressions, and the ‘hot lesbian’, almost always entwined with her beautiful Other or double. Using recent examples of adverts the paper asks how this apparent ‘agency’ and ‘empowerment’ should be understood.

Drawing on accounts of the incorporation or recuperation of feminist ideas in advertising the paper takes a critical approach to these representations, examining their exclusions, their constructions of gender relations and heteronormativity, and the way power is figured within them. A feminist poststructuralist approach is used to interrogate the way in which ‘sexual agency’ becomes a form of regulation in these adverts, that requires the re-moulding of feminine subjectivity to fit the current postfeminist, neoliberal moment in which young women should not only be beautiful but sexy, sexually knowledgeable/practised and always ‘up for it’.

The paper makes an original contribution to debates about representations of gender in advertising, to poststructuralist analyses about the contemporary operation of power, and to writing about female ‘sexual agency’ by suggesting that ‘voice’ or ‘agency’ may not be the solution to the ‘missing discourse of female desire' but may in fact be a technology of discipline and regulation.

Publication Type: Article
Publisher Keywords: feminism, postfeminism, advertising, sexual agency, power, subjectivity
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HF Commerce
H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
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