Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., Activist, Speaker and Writer
If the name Jean Kilbourne rings a bell, it’s because you’ve probably encountered her work. An activist since the late 60s, Kilbourne’s words, films and television appearances have been seen by millions of people worldwide.
Named by The New York Times Magazine as one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses, Jean Kilbourne tackled the misrepresentation of women in advertising and sparked a global conversation.
Kilbourne is the creator of the renowned Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women film series and the author of the award-winning book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel and So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids (with Diane E. Levin). Here, our teens speak with Jean Kilbourne about leadership, the construction of beauty, community and the co-opting of social movements.
We’re curious to know what took you to a path of becoming one of the nation’s leading authorities on the image of women in media?
Sometimes I feel like my whole life led me this way. After I graduated from Wellesley College, I had to go to secretarial school to get a job because there were such limited job opportunities for women in those days. This was a really long time ago.
At the same time I had these limited and boring jobs, I had some opportunities to model. This was one of the few ways a woman could make a lot of money then.
In those days the concept of “objectification” wasn’t talked about but I certainly felt objectified. And there was a lot of sexual harassment that came with the territory. It was soul-destroying in a way but it was also kind of compelling. I ended up not taking this path, but it left me with a life-long interest in the whole idea of beauty and image and who wins and who loses. I’ve always felt that everybody loses ultimately.
Most of the time when I was modeling, I was living in London. Once I dated Ringo Starr, the drummer from the Beatles. These were the days before everyone took pictures of everything so I could be making this whole thing up but I’m not!
This is part of what happened. Another part is that I was heavily involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war that was going on at that time. Soon thereafter I became involved in the second wave of the women’s movement. So I was interested in sexism and stereotypes as well as the power of the image.
One of my jobs was to place ads into The Lancet, a British medical journal.
One day I was struck by a particularly offensive ad for Ovulen 21, a birth control pill. The ad said, “Ovulen 21 works the way a woman thinks — by weekdays not by cycle days!“
Basically the ad was saying that women were too stupid to remember our cycles but we could remember the days of the week. The ad featured a smiling woman’s face and in her head were seven boxes, one for each day of the week. Monday’s box pictured a laundry basket, Tuesday’s an iron, etc. I remember thinking, “This is outrageous…and it is not trivial.” I took the ad home and put it on my refrigerator with a magnet. Gradually I added other ads.
I didn’t intend to make a career of it but I was just interested in what these ads said about what it means to be a woman.
No one else was looking at them and taking them seriously at all. I began to see a pattern in them and I got a camera and a macro lens and a copy stand and I made slides of them.
Eventually I became a teacher and used my slide presentation of ads with my students. It became a very effective way to teach about sexism and stereotypes. One thing led to another and people heard that I had this interesting slide presentation and I was invited to speak to larger and larger groups.
But I had a problem. I had a terror of public speaking.
Maybe some of you can identify with this. Indeed most Americans fear public speaking more than they fear death. I was so terrified that when I had my first really large speaking group, I considered driving off the road (not to kill myself, but just to be incapacitated). I didn’t do that though. I went there and gave the lecture.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who is one of my heroines, said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” I was passionate about the topic and so I just kept speaking out. My knees were shaking behind the podium and I had to put Vaseline on my teeth so my mouth didn’t dry up. But I kept doing it and eventually all of the things that I feared happened and I still was alive and okay.
And now I can get up in front of five thousand people and my heart doesn’t skip a beat, which amazes me.
Each step was difficult. Once I got used to live audiences, then there was local television to deal with. Then there was national television, which was really scary. The first national show I did was “The Today Show.” I had about two days notice and I was a nervous wreck. My brother said, “Relax, Jean, the worst that can happen is that you’ll disgrace yourself in front of twenty million people.” I was terrified but I did it and it was okay. Then I did “The Oprah Winfrey Show”. That was even more terrifying especially as people became able to record shows and play them back. It used to be when you’d do a TV show, it would play once and you’d never see it again.
Could you explain the construction of the “Beauty Ideal” and if it still exists?
People often ask me, knowing I have been doing this for forty years, if things have gotten better. They’ve actually gotten much worse. One of the ways they’ve gotten worse is that the beauty ideal is even more tyrannical than it used to be. This is mostly because of Photoshop. Today it’s possible to make a human being absolutely perfect.
We all learn to measure ourselves against this constructed, artificial, and impossible ideal.
Even twenty or thirty years ago, the beauty ideal wasn’t absolute perfection because no one was perfect. Now you can Photoshop your own pictures and everyone is comparing themselves with this Photoshopped alternate reality. Also the emphasis on beauty and thinness for girls is starting at younger and younger ages.
I was with some high school friends a couple of weeks ago and we talked about the fact that when we were growing up we didn’t talk that much about weight. There was definitely prejudice against very heavy people (especially women), but we didn’t feel guilty about what we ate. We’d go out after the movies and have French fries and chocolate malts. We were active. There was also a broader range of body types that were acceptable.
When I was in high school, I was too tall and too thin. I wanted to be short and curvy. I wanted to be like Sandra Dee or Marilyn Monroe.
By the way, Marilyn Monroe was sexually abused as a child. This is going off topic but these days, when I see women looking sexual in that particular way I always suspect sexual abuse. There’s something about the way some famous “sex objects” present themselves that always makes me suspect they have been abused.
Is the sexualization of women still a major concern? How does it affect young women today?
Things have gotten much worse. The whole sexualization starts much earlier. My last book, So Sexy So Soon, is about the new sexualized childhood. There’s pressure now on even very little girls to be sexy. Tragically some parents think it’s cute and don’t understand the harm.
They put their tiny daughters up on YouTube. Little girls are sexualized in many different ways. They’re used in ads to sell stuff. They’re encouraged to dress and act in sexy ways. The objectification of girls affects boys too, but in a different way.
There’s a lot of research that proves that girls who are exposed to sexualized images from a young age are more prone to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
It’s not trivial. There are very serious consequences as a result. And there are for older girls too, teenagers and beyond. It’s like there’s no time to be a child anymore.
Has the Internet and social media affected the way women are sexualized and how they handle it?
One of the worst things about sexualization is when we turn ourselves into objects. It’s bad enough when other people treat us like objects but when we treat ourselves like objects it’s worse. We’re encouraged to do this by posting and texting sexy photos of ourselves.
Another reason for the increase in the sexualization of girls is the phenomenal increase in the availability of pornography. In the old days one had to go to an “adult” bookstore in a seedy part of town to get porn. One had to ask for a magazine that was wrapped in plastic behind a counter.
Today porn is not only available — it is inescapable. A child doing a research paper can stumble upon porn even if they’re not looking for it. I remember when my daughter was eleven and I suddenly started getting all of these porn messages on my computer and I asked her if she had done something on the computer and she said, “No.” I explained to her, “When I was your age, I might have typed ‘sex’ into the computer just to see what would happen.” She said, tearfully, “That’s what I did.”
It’s perfectly normal to be curious and to learn about sex. What is not normal is the porn that results from an innocent search.
Most porn is brutal, violent, and misogynistic. You can find some that isn’t but most of it is. So that’s bad enough in itself. It’s not about women’s pleasure, that’s for sure. Young people today learn about sex from porn — partly because we refuse to teach sex education in our schools. When boys learn about sex from porn, they have very screwed-up ideas of what women want.
We’re the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t teach sex education in its schools.
Even though we are awash in graphic sexual images, Americans are also quite prudish. Most adults don’t talk about sex with each other let alone with their kids. You should never have sex with anyone you can’t talk about sex with. We generally don’t teach our children about intimacy or relationships. We just teach about the ways that sex can hurt or kill you.
When my daughter was living in Amsterdam, she did a study of how Dutch teenagers talk with their parents about sex versus American teenagers. She found that American teens don’t talk with their parents about sex whereas Dutch teens do and they do so openly and easily. And the conversations for the Dutch teens started when they were very young. Sex is seen as a natural part of life. The Dutch have much lower rates of teen pregnancy and of STIs than Americans do.
While researching my book So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, I found that
the single most important thing for children is to have at least one adult in their lives with whom they can have honest and authentic conversations.
It’s great if this person is a parent, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a teacher, a mentor, a caregiver. It also doesn’t have to be the same adult over time. Different people can play this important role.
Is the current “Girl Power” trend in advertising helpful or are they just capitalizing on a trend in social movements? If something is popular, does that mean it is ‘okay’? What do you think about the recent wave that encourages women to “take back” their sexuality?
These are all good questions. I think that the current emphasis on “girl power” is essentially good. But it’s also true that advertisers are capitalizing on it and exploiting it.
Advertising and capitalism in general will always try to co-opt any serious movement for social change, whatever it might be.
In the second wave of the women’s movement, along came Virginia Slims with “You’ve come a long way, baby.” So they turned liberation for women into addiction. It is amazing if you think about it.
I did my doctoral thesis on this topic — on how these movements for change are co-opted. There’s been a whole lot of that with girl power. Power isn’t about what you buy. You can’t buy it. It’s not a product. It’s about who you are. Most important, I think, is the way you support other women. One of the most important things in my life has been the fact that I love and support other women and have received love and support. That’s always been incredibly important to me. That’s where girl power comes from.
Life is hard for all of us in one way or the other and we all sometimes have to put on a mask. We need safe spaces where we can take the masks off. A huge thing that happened in the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s was breaking the silence about all kinds of issues.
Back then, we didn’t have a term for sexual harassment. We didn’t have a term for domestic violence. Nobody talked about rape or sexual assault.
It was all something that happened to maybe a few people and we all sort of kept it quiet and to ourselves. A wonderful poet named Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” And it did. We started telling the truth about being sexually abused as children, about being raped. As we talked about these things, other women realized that we weren’t alone.
How do we draw the line in feminism between the contrast in other people sexualizing women and women being confident in who they are and being sexy?
It’s a great question. It’s hard because advertising and the popular culture presents only one way for a woman to be sexy. And if there’s only one way, it can hardly be considered an authentic choice to choose it. So if a woman wants to present herself in a sexy way, even if it’s coming from a place of confidence, she can end up presenting herself in a very clichéd and limited way.
What would be better would be if we recognize that sexiness is so unique and each one of us is sexy in our own way.
If you’re forced into a sort of model of this is what it means to be sexy and then you present yourself that way, even if you’re feeling okay about yourself, it’s still not very authentic. That’s the tricky part. How do you express your confidence and comfort with your body without looking like a porn star? We need to personalize sexiness. I love to see women broadening the model of what it means to be sexy.
I want to go back to your question about girl power because I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately about some commercials that some people think are empowering, such as the Always “Like a Girl” commercial which ran during the Superbowl in 2015. It’s an ad for a maxi-pad. Some people say they’re just still trying to sell you stuff which is true but I still think it’s good to get it out there. Even the Dove campaign, which has all kinds of things wrong with it, has some good messages. Some people complain that Dove is owned by Unilever, which also owns Axe, which has terribly sexist commercials. This is true and people should be aware of that, but Dove still can do some good.
What do you think about the recent wave that encourages women to take back their sexuality?
Well, again, I’d like to see women really take back their sexuality and not have it be that everyone has to flash their breasts in bars and not have such a narrow definition of sexuality. I’d love to see a much broader range because the truth is that there’s a range that is as broad as every single one of us. If you really think about what you find sexy about another person, it is definitely not all about what they’re wearing. It’s something else.
Eleanor Roosevelt is one of my heroines.
Do you have any other heroines?
There’s a whole thing now about putting a woman on the twenty-dollar bill. Wouldn’t that be great to have Harriet Tubman on it? But there are others that would be terrific too. Jean Baker Miller is one of my mentors and heroines. She wrote a book in 1976 called Toward a New Psychology of Women. It is about the way in which women’s strengths, such as our caring about relationships, are often considered weaknesses. It’s a wonderful and important book.
In October, I’m going to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, which is where the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in 1848.
This should be part of our history. Right now the National Women’s Hall of Fame has a little over three hundred women in it and every other year they induct ten more. It’s a great thing to have, I think. It means a lot to me.
One bit of advice?
Support other women.
Madeline Albright said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.”
I think that that’s really important and obviously that doesn’t have anything to do with not being able to love and respect men. By the way, she didn’t mean that you have to vote for every female political candidate! Just that in general we should try to support each other.
When I was your age, I was so afraid. And the more afraid I was the more I felt like it was important that no one knew I was afraid. I guess I would say that most people really are. Knowing that helped me overcome my own fears.
Insofar as you can, tell the truth about your life. When people get together and really tell the truth about their lives it’s just so beautiful. And you can understand just about anything.