The Female Body in Advertising in the 1920s

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The Female Body in Advertising in the US during the 1920s

The 1920s was a quite controversial decade concerning women’s position. People, trying to forget about the shock of the Great War, buried themselves in an unabashed materialism and hedonism. It was a decade when all old norms were extinguished not only for women but for the whole society. It was the time of one of the greatest changes American society ever experienced.

Probably, this change was especially true for women’s position. They acquired the voting right by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which brought a great deal of freedom for them. This was the time when they made the greatest efforts to break away from the traditional norms of womanhood, and I assert that this was the very time when today’s woman made her first unstable footsteps in history. I acknowledge that mainly positive changes happened concerning women’s position, but I argue that besides these positive changes there emerged new problems that they had to face.

The changes triggered by the Suffrage Amendment completely changed the way of life of women and thus transformed the way they were seen by men. Nevertheless we have to mention the fact that these changes mainly affected the lives of middle-class and upper-class white citizens. Nonwhites and working class people were mainly left out from this discourse and experienced very little, if anything, from the transformation of society and especially from the way this transformation affected women. Consequently, when I talk about women here I actually mean white, middle and upper-class women in the US. They were the ones that became both the targets and the objects of consumer culture in the 1920s, while nonwhite and working class women were simply ignored, but it is not surprising since the consumer culture of the twenties was actually the consumer culture of the middle-class.

The Woman Body in Advertisements and Magazines

“[An] ‘image industry” had emerged by the turn of the century, and advertising was the ‘quintessential institution’ in its development. The industry’s first major venue were the new mass magazines such as the Ladies’ Home Journal”[1], McClure’s or Cosmopolitan. These mass magazines had a great homogenizing effect on American culture promoting mass consumption and the transformed norms of the early 20th century to the average American household.

These magazines were heavily dependent on advertising and through advertisements they did not only invite the reader to buy, but also manipulated his or her view of the world and of himself or herself. These manipulations were totally conscious on behalf of the creators, while the audience accepted them as the new norms unconsciously. Of course, the masterminds behind these ads were all males, which makes it obvious why was the female body exploited in these advertisements while women were manipulated into believing that this was acceptable and even desirable. This phenomenon is perfectly described by Gramsci as “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”[2] Viewing this description in terms of consumer culture we can say that in the first half of the 20th century this dominant group consisted exclusively of men, even more explicitly of white, upper and middle-class men, who dominated every field of American life. The newly emancipated woman could have absolutely no control over the issue due to the very fact that she had not been a fully recognized member of society before. This made her inferior to men and kept her inferior for a long time. “The effort to naturalize advertising and commodities was accommodated by the use of visual illustration.”[3] The use of...
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