In a recent Quilmes advertisement by advertisement agency Young & Rubicam, a battle is staged between the sexes, with male and female leaders spurring on their respective flag-bearing, animated ‘tribes’. The woman shouts to her clan “We’ve come a long way…do you want to return to not having the vote?”, while her male counterpart retorts “men have reached the moon and now we can’t even get to 10pm” without having to deal with female issues.
Tired of losing his male ‘authenticity’, he rallies his troops with a vengeance. Sticks are waved, chests are bared, hair braids are shed and tribal marks are daubed on with lipstick, in preparation for battle. But in the ultimate of bathetic moments, the battle dissipates into passionate embraces with the tagline “when machismo and feminism meet (later adjusted to ‘men and women’), equality is born.”
Aside from the tangentiality of Argentina’s iconic brand in the staged reconciliation of these age-old social movements, the advertisement serves to reinscribe essential notions of gender, all too common in the advertising industry in Latin America. Rather than reaching a compromise between alternative agendas, as one would conjecture from the tagline, the implicit conclusion of the advert is that when women are put back in their place – in the sanctioned world of domesticity – society, and by extension, one is lead to assume, consumerism thrives.
An Imported Ideal
In a country which generates myriad cultural myths, and which remains in thrall to European ideals, according to Sharon Haywood, founder of Any-Body Argentina, it comes as no surprise that advertising is thriving in Argentina. With a 20% increase in the last five years alone, Argentina currently holds claim to have the fastest growing advertising industry worldwide, according to statistics from MagnaGlobal.
The Argentine internet is, accordingly, an assault cause of prurient pop-up boxes, which require so much clicking and manoeuvring
that, by the time the viewer reaches any pertinent information, their attention span is already besieged by commercial plugs, multiplying their needs exponentially.
As print editions of newspapers continue to decline, overtaken by the web’s ceaseless wellspring of information, the media has become more dependent than ever on the revenue of an industry whose intrusive techniques and subliminal messages are in direct
contradiction to the seemingly transparent agenda they uphold.
According to Haywood, the predominance of advertising in this country is intimately related to the propensity of Argentines to look to Europe as its cultural mirror.
“We in the west have exported this perfect image of beauty….and Argentina is a prime example of how that image has been imported and manipulated to an extreme.”
Take the recent L’Oreal advertisement which sets up the old-style glamour of Cannes with the tagline “All that, Argentine women have it too.” According to Haywood, this imported ideal serves as an indicator of allegiance to European models and as a determinant of social status.
For the sociologist and historian Dora Barrancos, exporting western images is an integral tool in the mechanics of globalisation, obsessively drawing attention to alternative, stylised worlds.
The white, fair-haired, western figures which confront the passerby from magazine stand and advertising billboard alike, argues Haywood, have few natural counterparts on the capital’s ethnically diverse streets. It is perhaps unsurprising that the world’s first store dedicated to Barbie, frequently held up as the Trojan horse of western influence, was launched in Buenos Aires in 2007. And that plastic surgery, often included in personal health plans, has become a national phenomenon.
Insistently, the message propagated by the press is that “the key to happiness lies in reproducing this aesthetic ideal and in successfully nailing down a man.”
The demand for beauty in Argentina is insatiable. As in Catherine Hakim’s mantra of erotic capital, beauty – in its marketised form – is all too often equated with instant success.
Images of women baring-it-all in suggestive poses are the currency of television, advertising and the printed press. The country has imported the western world’s fixation with Andy Warhol’s ready-made celebrity culture and transformed it into something more unsettling. Television dancing contests are morphed into prurient, titillating strip tease, with a camera that obsessively zooms in on silicone-enhanced assets.
The whole notion of personality, individuality and uniqueness are subsumed within a standardised maxim that the body is an asset to be exploited. Women are, accordingly, expected not only to emulate, but to exhibit a model-like physique, air-brushed to perfection.
Digitally or surgically enhanced, this ideal exists solely as a construct, a profitable commodity exploited by the supremely powerful fashion, beauty and diet industries.
“This is a society that is constantly telling you that you need to fix something physically about yourself,” says Haywood. The hypersexualisation of images of women in the media serves not only to objectify the fairer sex, but to systematically discredit their sexuality.
In The World Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995, attended by representatives from 189 countries, communication was considered to be a fundamental area in the advancement of gender equality.
The media, it was decided, should “develop, in terms that do not conflict with freedom of expression, professional directives and codes of conduct, and other forms of self-regulation, to promote unstereotypical images of women and increase the participation of women involved in decision making in the media.”
Ethics do not yet appear to have entered the media agenda in Argentina. Whilst European adverts have at least registered the need to address the ethnically and physically diverse characteristics of 99.9% of its consumers, albeit it in often self-congratulatory guises, Argentina still remains culturally enthralled by an exclusive, exclusionary ideal of beauty.
“All countries, and Latin American countries in particular, are profoundly contradictory,” says Barrancos. “Argentina remains backward in its representation of women, whilst in the legislative field, it has become very dynamic.”
According to Barrancos, since the restoration of democracy in the 1980s, Argentina has made significant advances in achieving a certain level of parity between the sexes. A number of critical laws have been passed in Congress in recent years, safeguarding and sanctioning female rights. Law 26,485, passed in November 2009, includes several critical clauses prohibiting the publication and dissemination of images and messages in the media which “naturalise the subordination of women.”
But, Barrancos argues, there has “not been a strong, concerted effort to address the treatment of women in the media” on a social level.
“Second-wave feminism never happened in Argentina because we were too occupied with social revolution… As a result female objectification and the marketisation of the body has not come into focus.”
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner famously sought to distance herself from the term feminism during her 2007 election campaign, declaring that she was “feminine, not feminist,” with the implicit suggestion that the two attributes were incompatible.
More recently, following a bombardment of media scrutiny, she has at least conceded that women face significant discrimination in the press on a daily basis.
For academic Carolina Escudero, the election of a female president and the significant increase in female deputies (41%) is a significant step in motivating Argentine women with the belief that they too can attain positions of power.
The ‘quota law’, a positive discrimination bill to promote female representation in legislative offices, was passed in 1991, making Argentina the first country to require a minimum number of female candidates in political parties. The law stipulates that for every two male parliamentary candidates, there has to be at least one female, thus affirming women as active agents in public policy.
But, Escudero argues, “there is a tendency to treat women in positions of power as celebrities.” By focusing on their physical attributes, the media systematically demeans and disqualifies these women from occupying the same status accorded to their male counterparts.
Haywood concurs. Having been dubbed the “queen of botox” by the opposition, “if anything, [the portrayal of] the president reinforces the standard.”
According to statistics from the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC), a biannual study which analyses gender inequality in mass media, only 24% of news stories feature a woman as the protagonist. And when women do feature in news stories, most frequently they are represented as victims (36%), according to a study conducted by ELA.
“Developed and undeveloped countries are both faced with the same problem” of under- or mis-represented women in the media, says Escudero.
“Women are frequently treated as pure decoration, as accessories to male protagonists. Only very rarely does a woman make a televised appearance in which she is consulted or asked to impart knowledge.”
The media is still a man’s world. “The fact that more women are visible in the workforce,” says Escudero, “does not necessarily correlate to a change in the quality and content of those media. When you do find women in managerial positions, they have often adopted a masculine perspective.”
“We need women who are prepared to bring a gender perspective to bear in terms of image and content, if we are to change that.”
The A la PAR network and the recently closed Artemisa Noticias have been collectively instrumental in providing alternative gender-based forums to the male-dominated mass media.
Over the past seven years, Artemisa has brought a gender perspective to bear on the mass media, drawing attention to the slant of the reportage, language usage and image selection. Besides training and sensitising more than 600 journalists and officials in Latin America, it held the first national conference on media coverage and access to abortion in 2008. A section of Artemisa’s team will continue to work under the newly launched organisation, Communication for Equality.
“It is undeniable that your culture or environment is going to affect your own perceptions,” says Haywood. Like her colleague, the British psychotherapist Susie Orbach, founder of Endangered Species, she argues that the monopoly of visual culture in contemporary society has resulted in a morphed, narrow concept of femininity.
“Society, of all ages, learns more from the media than any other single source of information,” according to an Artemisa study. The paucity of real women, of identifiable role models, inevitably conditions social and behavioural mores.
For Haywood, our current warped model leads to a dysfunctional relationship with the body. Divesting it of its practical and creative function, it is reduced to a fetish, a cultural artefact subject to the whims of the marketplace.
A recent study conducted by the lingerie brand Triumph, revealed that 87% of Argentine women are not happy with their bodies. Far from democratising beauty, the objectification of the female body by the mass media results in a propensity to self-objectify in a radically disempowering process.
In a mediated culture, representation is everything. “There is a still a real backwardness in the press.” says Escudero. “All too often you see images of nude women which have no bearing on the story they accompany.”
“The decree to ban Rubro 59 was a critical step, but much remains to be done,” says Barrancos. “Our problem is cultural, not legislative. But there needs to be strong intervention by the state to raise consciousness and regulate the marketisation of our media.”