History Can Tell Us a Lot About Stereotypes

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Rebecca Swift
Nov 30, 2022
Getty Images has been committed to broadening the visualisation of women since 2014 when, along with LeanIn.Org, we launched a collection of images focused primarily on women in business. This followed five years later with the ground‑breaking #ShowUs collection1 in partnership with Dove and Girlgaze.
Throughout the last nearly 10 years, we have been aware of and a participant in the discussion about how women are represented in the media. All recent datapoints still indicate that women do not feel seen, do not feel authentically represented and even worse feel biased against when they do not identify the same way that mainstream imagery represents them.

Our 2022 VisualGPS research has found that while 81% of women believe they should be free to express their gender through clothing, hairstyles and mannerisms, still 90% of visual commercial content features women with long, naturally coloured hair who wear feminine, form fitting clothing3.
Stereotype is a word that has been applied more often to depictions of women than any other subject matter. Its root dates back as far as the 1950s when visual advertising was burgeoning, and brands used glamorous imagery to encourage women to stay at home and focus more on their looks than they had done during the war years that came before. These stereotypes sadly still survive 70+ years later.

Getty Images and the Unstereotype Alliance2 (an industry‑led initiative convened by UN Women that unites advertising industry leaders, decision‑makers and creatives to end harmful stereotypes in advertising) set out to create a large‑scale commissioned artwork to visually represent how women have been represented over the last 77 years. We believe that it is important to look at where we have been in order to understand what needs to be done to combat the prevalence of stereotypes in advertising. For this reason, the artwork is titled: “Looking Back, Moving Forward” and was launched at the 2022 Unstereotype Alliance Summit in the United Nations Headquarters in New York and will be residing in the United Nations lobby for private viewing for two weeks.

The piece is 12 meters long by 2.5 meters tall to denote the scale and weight of the history of how women see imagery through advertising campaigns, the impact that has and where it has evolved from, even in the years before she was born. The artwork has been created like a gallery environment although is relatable to everyone in a layout that is close to a feed grid. Every woman is represented by a single female figure looking from the center out across time. The visual timeline runs from 2022 back to 1945 in both directions to demonstrate the inescapability of the legacy. As she peruses the imagery, we as the viewer and the visitor to the piece also peruse it too.

We decided to create it because despite the volume of critique of women’s roles in advertising, there has been no chronology of visuals in advertising available. The Creative Insights team at Getty Images trawled archives in the US and the UK and assembled a set of 5,404 campaigns from the last 77 years. The focus is on fashion, beauty and retail products in print advertisements because it is the only medium that has been in existence for all 77 years but also because photography in those industries, are examined and revered within the photography industry. It is still the content that attracts large budgets and the best talent.

The production of this artwork was created by a female dominant production team and photographed by Emily Stein.
To see the process, watch the behind the scenes video:
What we discovered during the research:
  • While there is undercurrent of business as usual across the entire timeline from the 1950s onwards we have seen some shifts:
  • A rise in representation of women of color. While there was only a handful of campaigns until the 1980s and from then onwards predominantly diverse groups of women of which women of color were included. In the last two years, there has been a noticeable shift in the number and breadth of campaigns.
  • The rise of social media in 2011, brought with it a more authentic visualization of a broader range women but it was 2014 that the shift is more visually obvious. New brands such as Fenty and Glossier which have big social media following lead the way.
  • From 2019 onwards and since #MeToo there is a noticeable shift to straight down the lens portraiture suggesting boldness but more importantly we are seeing more diversity across race/ethnicity, body shape, disability, age, sexual orientation and culture.
  • The biggest change in 77 years has happened in the last two years. We see three times as much Black representation than previously, we see more representation of women over 40 and we have seen more diversity in body shape since the pandemic.
We have created the artwork as a starting point, as a celebration of where the industry has come from but also as a talking point for moving forward into the future.
Finding Brasilidade: Curadoria Brasil