Visual Rhetoric/Gender and Visual Rhetoric

Introduction edit

Gendered images have been effective in perpetuating both the positive and negative connotations that we associate with gender. The history of promotional images, along with the visual rhetoric of advertising sheds light on how the constructs of masculinity and femininity contextualize fabrications of social role, power, status and sexual allure. Specifically, appeals of glamour and the usage of nature images powerfully contribute to the influx of image-based advertising based on gender identification. Additionally, childhood gender development contributes enormously to stereotypes regarding masculinity and femininity.

History of Gendered Images edit

Historically, the nudes of European oil paintings portray women and men differently, in specific roles and purposes. Traditionally, women have been seen and judged as sights, while men act as spectators. In other words, women appear while men act. John Berger suggests in his work, Ways of Seeing, that this affects relations between men and women and also the relations of women to themselves. The renowned painting of Adam and Eve was groundbreaking in introducing the concept of nakedness in regard to women being seen as submissive to men. “… the woman is blamed and is punished by being made subservient to the man. In relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God” (Berger 48). As paintings became more worldly and had fewer religious undertones, the common denominator remained women illustrated as being seen by a spectator. “She is not naked as she is; she is naked as the spectator sees her” (Berger 50).

The facial expressions of women in images also coincides with the notion that they submit to being surveyed. Berger suggests that in poses of women, a woman’s gaze and facial expression sells her femininity. Paintings and photographs often depict this by showing the woman looking over her shoulder at the viewer, rather than at the male shown in the painting or photograph.

While these attitudes and ideals regarding the portrayal of women are rampant in photographs and paintings, it has also seeped into popular culture, disseminating into various media, including current advertising, journalism and television.

Identification and Advertising edit

Identification fulfills an essential role as it allows advertisers to appeal to each viewer’s individuality. In the article, "Defining Film Rhetoric: The Case of Hitchcock’s Vertigo," David Blakesley introduces the idea of identification as he describes the notion as longing to find similitude between ones self and a particular idea, picture, object, etc. He explains, “we pursue that identification as one way of expressing…pushed to its extreme, we desire to become the other, to inhabit that psychological and physical space, to take ownership of some kind, to walk in someone else’s shoes for awhile” (Blakesley 117). As a result of such desire for identification, women and men are often characterized in a generalized manner, only to appeal to their own gender-specific identify.

Diane S. Hope suggests, in her chapter "Gendered Environments: Gender and the Natural World in the Rhetoric of Advertising" from the book, Defining Visual Rhetorics, that advertising demonstrates and perpetuates gender-specific attributes of men and women in order to identify with their gender-specific audiences. Hope comments, “visual rhetoric depends on strategies of identification; advertising’s rhetoric is dominated by appeals to gender as the primary marker of consumer identity. Constructs of masculinity or femininity contextualize fantasies of social role, power, status, and security as well as sexual attractiveness” (155). Within the visual realm of advertising Hope observes how women are often depicted in a way that promotes beauty, fertility and sexuality while men possess more ‘masculine’ attributes. Contrary to feminine traits, masculine attributes include strength, adventurous nature, and physical prowess.

Although many of these characteristics and behavioral tendencies are thought to be innate, the advertising industry reintroduces and reiterates such gender roles as the norm. People become conditioned to believe that there are specific and isolated behavioral differences and attributes that define us either as men or women. Such differences have gone beyond the obvious physiological makeup that separates male from female.

Glamour edit

Societal roles based on one's gender are defined and controlled by culture and have been reiterated through visual means. See Visual Rhetoric/Cultural Theories of Visual Rhetoric. Such gender roles are especially evident within the visual realm of advertising. Advertisers use visual means to communicate to their viewers feminine and masculine ideals. These gendered ideals are closely linked to the concepts of envy and glamour. “Publicity persuades us of a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour” (Berger 131). Predominantly, glamour is a tool used by advertisers and aimed at men and women in an effort to increase consumerism. The language of publicity harps upon the concept of a spectator-buyer imagining himself or herself transformed by a product, and thus an object of envy by others. People crave envy, and this advertising tactic is aimed at both men and women to create consumption of various products. Women are generally persuaded when glamour is presented as enhancing to their lives by making them more beautiful or desirable. Alternatively, men are influenced by ads that appeal to their desire to be in power and in control.

Childhood Gender Development edit

Advertisers create ‘gendered environments’ in everything from children’s toys to motor vehicles. For example, early on children are exposed to toy commercials that are set out to target a specific gender. As a result, society is conditioned to believe that dolls and houses are for little girls because they represent the idea that females are to be fertile and nurturing. Whereas little boys are conditioned to believe that they can only play with toys that will define their masculinity, such as cars and toy weapons. Hope says, “masculinized environments present a natural world made for conquest and control” (174). Much like the masculine ideal, toys for little boys often include cars, action figures, and sporting goods, all which fulfill the idea of a conquest. These items and the advertisements redefine the gender role ideal that men are active, strong, and courageous. On the other hand, little girls are raised to believe that their roles is to care for the family. Typically, little girls toys include baby dolls and play houses.

Since the idea of identification carries immense weight in the targeting of specific audiences, advertisers begin promoting the concept of gendered environments early on beginning with children's toys. However, as people grow older the gender roles are only made more evident and are further perpetuated in advertising that is targeted towards adults. For example, Hope discusses how the advertising of sport utility vehicles is a primary example of the gender role divide. She talks about how an SUV reiterates the idea that men are conquerors of territory and must have a powerful vehicle to traverse through their difficult journeys. She describes the more ‘masculine’ advertisements as a place where man can conquer land and explore the vast wilderness. She states, “the features of these advertisements emphasize a mythic world where men play [as] heroics and a vast environmental wilderness promises control and adventure” (161).

Nature images edit

Hope analyzes the characteristics of the specific visual environments that promote the sales of such masculine or feminine products. She concludes that advertisers use certain natural environments within a commercial or print ad in order to appeal to a specific gender. She observes in one advertisement how femininity is characterized using a picture of a waterfall. Hope explains that the waterfall acts as, “a sign of nature’s unending fertility…images are exotic and lush with icons of fertility and female sexuality” (157). In such advertisements women are one with nature. Advertisers also use specific natural environments to appeal to males. However, these images depict a sense of acquisition unseen in feminine advertisements. Hope suggests that for men "nature is the object of conquest or background for demonstrations of power." "... there are no environmental problems in this space or in the fertile seas of feminized lands, there is only opportunity to consume" (Hope 162). She observes in one advertisement how masculinity is distinguished using the image of "Marlboro Country". In Marlboro Country, men are free from responsibility and routine. In one particular ad, two cowboys are depicted riding wild horses. The mystical west is perceived as for "real" men (Hope 160). " . excepting the occasional cowboy or Indian, the space is there for urban man to play at adventure" (Hope 161).


Ultimately, Hope articulates, “advertising appropriates a rich visual history of nature images as sites of femininity and masculinity in order to sell commodities" (Hope 173). Through the use of visual rhetoric and the natural world, gender specific behaviors are promoted to appeal either to both genders. The existence of gender roles and gender identity through images will continue to be present in the future of advertising.

Conclusion edit

Gendered images are omnipresent in modern society. Understanding the history of these images is important in understanding how they are capable of persuading us. Gendered images are considered rhetorical because they have a persuasive quality. It is important to remember that since birth, we have been conditioned to make the distinction between men and women, masculinity and femininity, and to recognize both the positive and negative aspects of

Works Cited edit

Berger, John. "Ways of Seeing." London, England: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972. 45-64

Blakesley, David. “Defining Film Rhetoric: The Case of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Ed. Charles A. Hill. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 117.

Hope, S. Diane. “Gendered Environments: Gender and the Natural World in the Rhetoric of Advertising.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Eds. Helmer, Marguerite, Charles A. Hill. 155-174