Considerable criticism has been levelled at problematic visual portrayals of women in consumer and popular media. Current Western media landscapes feature images of women that engender problematic ‘narrow’ identity constructs – marginalising agency and intellect, promoting physical idealisation, sexual objectification, and commodification – and, as such, reproduce patriarchal discourse. Despite the rise of feminism and the resultant increased awareness of and advances in the area of gender equality, stereotyped images of sexualised, objectified and idealised women seem to persist globally and in South Africa. Images exert discursive power and have the ability to shape people’s identities, beliefs, and behaviour. In this way, consumer images possess ‘normative’ authority and are able to mediate identity. Media representations that objectify women, sexualise them, and remove intellectual and authoritative agency are unhealthy, even destructive, especially considering the social challenges present in South Africa, such as the disturbingly high incidents of gender violence and rape.
Within this context, design education has a responsibility to advocate an approach that carefully considers the role that visual media representation plays in shaping identity and works towards more constructive and ethical visual practices. Students, as future professionals in the visual communication industry, including graphic design, photography, and art-‐direction, need to understand and appreciate the important role they play in mediating ‘personal’ identity, and ultimately in shaping collective ‘community’ identity.
This research paper functions as a broad critical-‐theoretical analysis, engaging with academic concepts relating to social, cultural and aesthetic communities. The paper outlines and discusses visual techniques evident in problematic representations of women in mainstream approaches in
Western consumer media. Amongst other things, body language, physical perfection, commodification, and sexual objectification are discussed. The implications of problematic portrayals of women are considered in general, and more specifically within the sociocultural context of South
The aim of the research is to argue against harmful media portrayals of women and to consider the visual communication industry’s complicity in the problem, as well as its power to correct it.