The Feminine Mystique Small 'Dream Girls' Small Casts Big Light on How Mass Media Depicts Women

By Cox, Ted | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Feminine Mystique Small 'Dream Girls' Small Casts Big Light on How Mass Media Depicts Women


Cox, Ted, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Ted Cox Daily Herald TV/Radio Columnist

"Fashions in beauty have a way of altering from day to day."

- A.A. Milne

"The proper study of mankind is man ... but the proper study of markets is women."

- Printer's Ink, 1929

"The consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife." - ad exec David Ogilvy, 1963

A small traveling exhibit has come to the Museum of Broadcast Communications but don't make the error of underestimating its impact based on its physical size. That mistake has already been made too often throughout history on this given subject.

"Dream Girls: Images of Women in Advertising" runs through the end of February at the MBC in the Chicago Cultural Center downtown. It occupies a single room, but its 550 pieces - ads that appeared in newspapers and in magazines, on billboards and on radio and television over the past 100 years - are sure to elicit dismay, delight and above all debate on the subject of the status of women.

The role of women in society has been slighted for most of the century - certainly leading up to the feminist '70s and our own more enlightened times. "Dream Girls" looks at the changing ways women have been depicted in the mass media.

Ads, after all, are the dreams products traffic in, and throughout the century women have accounted for 85 percent of all household purchases in the marketplace. A tour through "Dream Girls" all but charts the national subconscious in its weird, warped conception of women and the way they've been alternately championed and chided by advertisers. As an exhibit, it shows what society thought of women and what women thought of themselves over the years.

"Advertising holds great educational value," says Catherine Coleman of Oregon's American Advertising Museum, who helped put the exhibit together. "It holds the history of our country."

"It is an amazing vehicle to show people - especially children - history," says Ellen Moran, executive vice president of the advertising firm Bozell Worldwide, which brought the exhibit to Chicago. "Because people really want to know about how the media affect women and women's roles in the media."

"Dream Girls" doesn't just track changes in the idea of feminine beauty over the decades, although that is an obvious element of the exhibit. Women go from the Gibson girl of the turn of the century to the flapper of the '20s to Rosie the Riveter of the '40s, then on to the homemaker of the '50s, the more overtly sexual woman of the '60s, the independent woman of the '70s, the sculpted woman of the '80s and on to the more well-rounded and multidimensional woman who typically appears in advertisements today.

Rather, "Dream Girls" looks at the way women's roles shift from decade to decade, and the way ads try to appeal to those shifting roles.

"I tell people you have to go back in history to see how far women have come before you judge today's advertising," Moran says, "because it's a road that we have traveled."

Some of the ads are hilarious in the way they reflect the biases of the age. Palmolive uses neoclassical beauties to sell its goods at the turn of the century, while Coca-Cola poses a matronly woman alongside a bottle of the drink on an ornate classical stand. Later on, in the '50s, housewives are advised to keep their husbands happy by keeping lots of Kellogg's Corn Flakes on hand. "If you want to be taken out in the evening," the ad warns, "don't run out in the morning."

Braniff uses the "air strip" to show off its new, more revealing stewardesses' uniforms in the '60s in an attempt, no doubt, to get more men to book flights on the airline. More recently, Bodyslimmer by Nancy Ganz turns a more shapely body into a power tool for women with the advice that "while you don't necessarily dress for men, it doesn't hurt, on occasion, to see one drool like the pathetic dog that he is."

Other ads, however, are more insidious in the way they prey on women's social insecurities. …

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