Reimagining Depictions of Women

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Delmaine Donson
Tristen Norman
Jun 18, 2020
Over the last century, women in many parts of the world have made pretty tremendous strides forward. For example, the U.S. is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment this year, which provided some American women the right to vote. The number of female heads of state around the world continues to grow, with their transformative leadership in times of global crisis taking center stage in public discourse. And as of 2019, women account for 40% or more of the global labor force in many key countries.
The pace of cultural, social, economic, or political change often has a correlating influence on our visual vocabulary and the ways we depict certain communities.
As women made some visible progress both socially and politically, their depiction in media also evolved in kind to some extent. Last year, the Getty Images’ Creative Insights team studied thousands of advertisements from the early 20th century to our present day. What we found is that up through the 1960s or so, white women were often either depicted as housewives or emphasized as objects of beauty. Women of color were frequently left out of advertisements completely or grossly stereotyped. However, in the 1970s, there is a small, but visible shift away from showing white women primarily at home as wives and mothers. During this time, you also begin to see more inclusion of non‑white women in the advertisements of mainstream brands. This shift continued in fits in spurts through the 1980s and 1990s, up through today. While many brands continued to struggle with unrealistic beauty standards, the popular overuse of retouching and lack of dimensionality, it’s also clear that they wanted to do better and represent the progress of the times.  
Yet, we know from our research that progress hasn’t gone far enough, a truth noticed by other researchers as well.
In their Impact of Beauty Stereotypes study, Edelman Intelligence and Dove uncovered that 70% of women still don't feel represented in the media and advertising they see day‑in and day‑out. A study of diversity in advertising conducted by Deloitte found that while 94% of brands show women in a primary role, those depictions are often stereotypical. And in terms of the rest of our world, consider the recent study by UN women highlighting the shadow pandemic of violence against women and girls while we’ve been in lockdown; the multitude of inequities still faced by women of color, particularly Black, Latinx and Indigenous women; the ongoing struggle to gain gender parity in leadership positions; and so much more. When you take these realities into account, we know that we still have a long way to go for women on a variety of fronts.
So, how can we do better in our world of media and advertising? We must start by addressing these realities head on. In partnership with SEEHER/ANA (Association of National Advertisers, the largest marketing and advertising association in the U.S.), we’ve developed a comprehensive guide designed to help brands and advertisers take a more authentic and inclusive approach toward representing women in their creative practice. The guide explores seven key aspects of identity that influence the portrayal of women in media–age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, religion, ability, race and ethnicity, and body type. We name these identities outright because there is no such thing as a single experience that represents the entire gender. We also recognize that we need to make room for an expansive understanding of the variety of ways women show up in the world across different intersections of their identity. We hope that this guide will provide you with the tools you need to be intentional and inclusive in your effort to showcase the multitude of unique experiences of what it means to be a woman today.
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