Privilege and Oppression in Advertisement

The representations of gender, race, and sexuality we have been discussing throughout Unit Two have brought the questions “What is oppression?,” “What is privilege?” and in particular “How do oppression and privilege interact?” to the forefront. While oppression and privilege seem unrelated, our discussions of advertising make it clear that they can interact cyclically. For example, it may seem that representation of a “minority” group within advertising is a marker of a new level of privilege within society. When models of racial minorities or depictions of queer identities are presented in advertisements, they are often hailed as indications that a certain group is gaining recognition and in-group privilege. However, the “privilege” of representation often acts to further oppress minority groups by enforcing harmful stereotypes. Black models are forced to pose with animal pelts in service to “wild” stereotypes (Kilbourne), bisexual women are styled as straight men’s fantasy objects, and trans women are treated as deceptive punch lines (Wan-Hsiu). This trope can also be extended to representations of “plus-sized” women, who are increasingly represented in advertising, but often accompanied by negative stereotypes about their attractiveness (see photo) or with so much fanfare and self-congratulation that their representation simply reinforces that they are different and less desirable than “regular” models. These examples make it clear that privilege and oppression interact such that both are relative terms, not objective criteria.

plus size

Kilbourne, Jean. “Killing Us Softly 4.” (2010).

Wan-Hsiu Sunny Tsai, “Assimilating the Queers: Representations of Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexual, and Transgender People in Mainstream Advertising.” (2010)

Image is publicly available and accessed through GoogleImages on Oct. 25, 2013.

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