Image Analysis: Harmless or Perpetrating Sexual Violence ?

 

dolce-imageD&G Spring/Summer 2007 campaign advertisement

Fashion designers are famous for their controversial ad campaigns, such as this Dolce & Gabbana 2007 image, which was widely castigated as a glamorization of gang rape and even banned in Italy. The scene within this image mimics a scenario where a young woman is held down and trapped by four men. The scene is set with a young woman looking dazed and confused while the men demonstrate control over her. The woman is seen as helpless, in a sexual and vulnerable position. Feminist writer Louise Pennington commented on the advertisement, stating: “Those who suggest this image is harmless fail to recognize the reality of rape culture and the dehumanization of women’s bodies in our pornographic mainstream media.”

 

In a closer analysis of this image, we see the men to woman ratio is four to one. While the female model lies on the ground, her pelvic bone is rising as if she’s attempting to lift herself off the ground to escape. Surrounding her, three men stand in powerful positions as the fourth, in a dominant bodily position, remains in physical control over the defenseless woman. While the woman lies in a submissive pose, dominating her is a muscular man restraining her arm – while the other men’s eyes are shown gazing down at her struggle but not coming to her aid. The woman’s eyes are looking away, avoiding eye contact both with the men and the audience. She appears as an object to be viewed, not valued or empowered.

 

With the preponderance of advertisements pervading every aspect of our lives, we have seen an increase in sexually explicit images- they seem to be everywhere we look. Some people even argue that sex is wrongly overused given its prominence in advertising for any medium. Perpetrating sexual violence, images that make assault appear as glamorous and sexy as this Dolce & Gabbana example simultaneously allure and stimulate viewers, while horrifying clinicians like myself who work with victims of sexual violence. The increase of hyper-sexualization in the media, in my opinion, is socially constructed and cyclically contributing to what we consider to be appropriate in advertisements. The more often we see and accept such graphic imagery and still consume those items, the more advertisers will believe it is ok and so continue to use sexually violent images to sell products. From body poses, facial expressions, camera angles, clothing, and exposure of body parts, all contribute to the message these advertisements are intended to get across- this product will make you dominant and powerful, and part of that is asserting yourself sexually upon others.

 

This being said, what, if any, are the repercussions, or influence that these hyper-sexualized images have on our viewers, on our society? There is already evidence emerging that sexualized media influences adolescent sexual behavior. As a clinician I am certainly concerned that when advertisements are portraying females in such a degrading and sexualized way, one can only imagine how this objectification of females affects not only men’s but also women’s perceptions of gender roles and appropriate sexual behavior.  Parents and caregivers are encouraged to seek out advice on guiding their children and teenagers through appropriate media consumption.

However, with media and social media being so accessible to young people, parenting our children becomes a constant war against the media teaching them morals, expectations, and social norms that we may not agree with. Who then is left to teach our children about the misrepresentation that is seen in the media images and that they should critically question the ways in which people are presented?

 

This image and those like it have the ability to influence thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, attitude, and perception in negative and harmful ways. In particular, adolescents can be more vulnerable when exposed to sexualized content during developmental periods of their life when sexual behavior and attitudes are being shaped. Journal article Adolescent sexuality and the media: a review of current knowledge and implications, explains that adolescents may be more at risk  “because the cognitive skills that allow them to critically analyze messages from the media and to make decisions based on possible future outcomes are not fully developed”.  As an increasing amount of adolescents use media sources and advertisements for sex education, there is often little guidance and discussion of the risks and adverse consequences, or even more prosocial issues such as enthusiastic consent and the importance of regular std testing.

 

As an individual who works with vulnerable young people, the idea that growing minds are shaped and molded when they are exposed to the increasingly violent sexualized images worries and saddens me. I have noticed many teens are left with a dehumanized perception of themselves and how society views them when constantly bombarded by sexualized subject matter. I believe this violent imagery contributes to trauma experienced by young people who are victims of sexual assault. When a victim constantly perceives the message that society views their trauma as sexy, normal, or cool, they are discouraged from coming forward and reporting to law enforcement or clinicians who can help them work toward relieving the effects of that trauma. The continuous portrayal of women in a hypersexualized degrading manner is increasingly being normalized over time with exposure. The more these images are viewed, and sexuality is  misrepresented within them, the more we become a society who views these images as normal rather than seeing them as dehumanizing, degrading, and inappropriate. And on that note, I leave you with a quote from the article, Re-Thinking the Famous Dolce and Gabbana Gang Rape Ad :

 “They are promoting the dominance of the men who wear these brand name clothes, but through means of controversial ideas that society takes for granted. They want people to see the superficial idea that if you wear these clothes, you will feel powerful and in control (just like these men in the ads).  This works because the social construct of our society has accepted this idea of male dominance”.

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