Nana Aba Anamoah writes on sexualisation of women in mass media

Nana Aba Anamoah
Nana Aba Anamoah

“If I did it, so can you”

There is a phenomenon which has garnered a fair deal of attention in recent times; how the presentation of anything, especially in visual adverts, from plastic buckets to soap, automobiles, energy drinks, well, even children’s toys is done by a woman who is considered extremely physically attractive.Whilst this might be considered ‘normal’ due to its pervasiveness, it betrays a more sinister matter – the hypersexual portrayal of women in the media.

Let’s make no mistake on the matter, sex sells and it does so because it commands attention. People notice sexually relevant information, so adverts with sexual content get noticed. A study from the University of Georgia, conducted in 2012, which examined adverts in print and other media, showed that sex-infused adverts had been on the rise, with no sign of slowing down.

For shock value, Forbes magazine, for instance, indicated that in 2019, there were 115 million daily visits to leading pornographic website, Pornhub in 2019; a figure expected to balloon in 2020 on account of the pandemic-induced lockdown.

Inasmuch as both sexes are evidently exposed to exploitative sexualisation it is overwhelmingly skewed negatively toward women. This has not been helped by social media and the unending appetite for sensationalism and scandals with the entertainment and advertisement industries merely capitalising on this to their advantage.


In many cultures and over various time frames, some people have been treated as property, scarcely qualifying to be fully human – occupying a place above wild beasts but beneath that of a man. It was worse for the poorer, less desirable members of society. This applied most specially to slaves, who received some of the worst expressions of this vile abuse.

History abounds with many such examples. Take for instance the tragic case of Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman; a Khoi woman from modern-day South Africa, who spent the better part of her adult life being exhibited as a caged freak-show attraction in London and Paris. Her crime? She had Steatopygia, a condition common among women of her tribe, which results in substantial levels of tissue on the buttocks and thighs.

Whilst this might make us cringe today, and quite rightly so, we must wonder how different this is from the window sex workers of Amsterdam’s infamous red light district, or closer home, those in our very own music videos, advertising campaigns and fashion runway shows.

The worst culprits

Inasmuch as players across the entire media spectrum have their hands soiled with the hypersexualised representation of women, perhaps, the worst offenders have come from advertising. The earliest record of sexuality as a tool to sell products dates back in 1871.

According to World Heritage Encyclopedia, the earliest form of using sex in advertising was by American tobacco firm, Pearl Tobacco. Their cigarette package displayed an image of a “naked maiden,” a barely draped woman standing in front of rising waves.

This was quite provocative at the time, but proved a stroke of genius as sales immediately rose. Other cigarette companies joined the sex bandwagon with Duke & Sons inserting trading cards of “sexually provocative starlets” into each cigarette pack. This worked for Duke, who became the best-selling cigarette brand within a couple of years.

Not before long, the strategy extended to other everyday products and has remained same ever since.

With the advancement of the television and rise of films, the trend continued with women, even when cast in leading roles, expected to drip with sensuality and oftentimes expose their nakedness. Following suit, music videos have served to continue the trend with reckless abandon.

This might appear to be an overbeaten trope but it has, and continues to beggar belief that in a music video the men, who are oftentimes the singers, fully clad with hats, shirts, baggy jeans and high-top sneakers or boots. The women on the other hand are ordered to strut their stuff in barely-there attires which leave little to the imagination. This appears to be the magic potion, so to speak, to ensure a hit video.

The effect

This has perpetuated a false view of human sexuality. The over sexualisation of the female body and the insertion of a sexual imagery into almost every form of entertainment and advertisement has normalised acts like that of groping, aggression, shaming, ease teasing and  outright violence as well as cat calling. It has done much harm in perpetuating the erroneous idea that women are mere outlets for male sexual fantasies.

Mass media has found ways to exploit women even under the guise of empowering or liberating them. It then comes as no surprise that the vast majority of women in the media are not only subjected to meeting certain physical criteria including impossible body dimensions, borderline picture-perfect skin tone and texture. These continue to drive the multi-billion-dollar cosmetic industry.

The obsession with aesthetics continues to run unabated. Beauty pageants, music videos, television all seem to sacrifice substance for aesthetics. Now, even news anchors are judged, not based on their delivery but on their looks. Just to be clear, elegance and beauty are not to be demonised, they are a desirable bonus, however, substance ought never to be sacrificed.

The consequence is that, enough is never truly enough. The paradox is that even the most beautiful women, who know they are beautiful still do not feel beautiful enough and oftentimes feel the least beautiful, as they are made to focus on their flaws and asked to match up to impossible standards of beauty.

It must come as no surprise that the results of a study conducted for the Dove Self Esteem Project found that only 11 percent of girls worldwide would call themselves beautiful and six in ten girls avoid participating in life activities because of concerns about the way they look. One-third of all 6-year-olds in Japan experience low body confidence. Australian girls list body image as one of their top three worries in life, while 81 percent of 10-year old girls in the U.S. say they are afraid of being fat.

Before we continue with our pseudo-virtuous` indignation, we must appreciate that the media is a reflection of us as a people, as a society and what it displays is a fair representation of what we deem acceptable.

More than skin deep

How then do we tackle this menace? Some have suggested that since men have profited from the sexualisation of women for ages and have left women economically disadvantaged and morally shamed, it is only proper for women to profit from their sexualisation as an expression of liberty. This has led a frenzied wave of overtly explicit content from women.

Last year saw global outrage over a coming-of-age movie which was supposed to speak against the hyper sexualisation of young women but in the end, only served to promote that which it was set against. One must wonder why the reaction towards this overtly sexualised content by women seeking to address the false representation of women as tools to pander to the male gaze has not been met with similar.

Simply put, it is self-denigrating and futile to attempt to combat a false narrative by promoting the very same.

What then, are some of the measures that can be taken to promote a more positive, progressive representation of women across media, advertising and entertainment? The ultimate step would be for all stakeholders to recognise that women are human beings who deserve and demand to be treated with the same dignity as the next human being; with their rights respected and all liberties accorded them. To see that women are not objects of pleasure to be beckoned upon and discarded at will but to appreciate the immense contributions they make, from the marketplace to the boardroom.

In an uneven world, this would not happen overnight, so in the interim, the following might help speed up our steps in this direction.

Legislation: Perhaps, it might best be enshrined in law, the framework required to ensure a proper representation of women in these spaces. From positive measures such as quotas to punitive measures, having this on our books should be non-negotiable.

It is a cause for concern that the Affirmative Action Bill continues to gather dust on the shelves of the esteemed House of legislature. It is perhaps, even more worrying that the most active proponents of the Bill have only been women; women who appear to have been fatigued in the fight.

This important piece of legislation must be championed by men also so the good of the wider society is at stake and ultimately, a win for women is a win for all.

Regulation: It is evident that competition drives innovation. Unfortunately, innovation might be positive or negative. The race for high(er) ratings and the potential economic gains (or losses) drives the processes – creative and otherwise – of many players within the space.

With fair, yet firm regulation of the airwaves and the will to enforce punitive measures for erring institutions, little progress will be made in the fight for a proper representation of women in the media space.  It would be counter-productive for the regulators to huff and puff and be much ado about nothing. To have supposed disciplinary measures, which serve only as a slap on the wrist only goes to embolden defaulters, especially when they can use the ensuing controversy to drive traffic to their platforms.

This would best find expression not only in the naming and shaming of the erring but also appropriate reward systems for those who distinguish themselves.

Leadership: Much has been said about creating a conducive environment for women to thrive across various levels of the corporate ladder, it has been observed that having women in leadership positions yields the best results.

It will therefore be incumbent on institutions, particularly those in media, advertising and entertainment to have women across their entire operations but especially in leadership. Institutions must be made to appreciate the long-term implications. This must not be approached as adapting to the newest, shiniest passing fad but with a deliberate desire to see change, knowing the wider indelible effects these images have on impressionable persons.

Stereotypes: Many roles in the media space have been defined by pre-existing stereotypes. Men have historically assumed the positions of power, discussing the more pertinent, hard-hitting issues with women relegated to peripheral roles.

Whilst we have seen progress with women taking on male dominated fields such as politics, business and sports, we notice that there are almost no men hosting lifestyles shows. Are we suggesting that there are no men competent enough to address lifestyle issues? There are great men cooks, yet cooking shows are almost universally hosted by women. One must wonder why the expression ‘beauty with brains’ seems to be applied to women only.

Whilst this might be touted as finding their roots in chivalry, they have only served to place people in boxes which have limited them. Talks of a progressive representation of women in these areas would be incomplete without addressing the subtler forms of misrepresentation.

Substance: As more women themselves begin to place emphasis on their work and ability, perhaps, the narrative will see a shift. It is to our collective shame that we should be having conversations about women having to focus on their craft, but sadly, that is the reality of the world which we live in.

To be a woman in the media, the buck must not stop with your looks, after all, there is no universal, uniform beautiful look. The excessive show of flesh ultimately serves as a distraction. You can be covered up and still be sexy, as a matter of fact, a focus on what is being communicated verbally speaks volumes.

All hands must be on deck to achieve this. The short-term gratifications for stakeholders in the industry have long-term implications for us all.

By: Nana Aba Anamoah,  General Manager of GHOne TV and Starr FM.

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