This essay will explore and uncover the complex issues that contest the representation of women via social media. Through strong contrast and discussion, the essay will attempt to educate in hopes of inspiring the reader to actively engage in strong political design. This essay will reference Kim Kardashian’s KKW Beauty campaign for her ‘Flashing Lights Collection.’ The campaign explores the complexities surrounding self-sexualization via social media and the effects this has on influencing visual culture. This example will be strongly juxtaposed to Sara Andreasson’s illustration titled “GRL PWR”. However, through semiotic analysis of the illustration reveals the difficulties surrounding the representation of women and the improvements that need to be made. It is important to note, the positive progress and accomplishments made by past feminist groups regarding the representation of women. However, we must re-evaluate the current position to continuously work towards closing the patriarchal gendered bias gap.
Throughout history, the visual representation of females continues to support the patriarchal ideas that are deeply ingrained into the visual culture. The representation of women within mainstream media often subjects females to the male gaze and simply renders them as sex objects for the patriarchy’s own pleasure. Furthermore, women are often depicted to be heavily reliant on the male protagonist, always needing their assistance. Through the sexualization of the female figure, it allows the patriarchy to remain in control, with males and females having vastly different experiences within society. The supremacy of the patriarchy would be destroyed if women achieved gender equality in today’s political environment. The increased usage of social media, via platforms such as Instagram, has only increased the prevalence of the poor representation of women. On a worldwide scale, one billion people use Instagram monthly. Within the political landscape, managing and maintaining social media presents is becoming more vital in creating a social status for contemporary society. Using this platform, people can now create a profile with the perceived perfected image, acceptable for social consumption. However, the usage of social media by developing minds has major ramifications, that directly impact self-construction, specifically among female users. Designers often don’t realize or neglect to understand the impact the poor representation can have on both women and men subsisting within the visual culture. In the ever-changing politically charged environment, designers must increasingly know their own individual impact indirectly influencing the visual landscape.
Influencers on Instagram, such as Kim Kardashian with 139 million followers, fundamentally form the direct content that influences the visual culture of contemporary society. Her social media reach is dramatically vast, but what is her role in creating a political design? Gender bias can clearly be represented through Kim Kardashian’s KKW Beauty campaign. The campaign was shot by David LaChapelle in 2018 for the Flashing Lights Collection. (See figure 1) Kim Kardashian posted the photo on her personal Instagram account, receiving over 2 million ‘likes’. The photograph depicts a male figure holding up a mirror, whilst Kim stares into it. The main focus of the photography is the accentuation of Kim’s body, clearly making her an object for others to consume. Although both figures are strongly sexualized throughout the campaign, different gender connotations are extracted from the photograph by the audience. The male’s body is viewed as strong, authoritative, and commanding; while Kim’s body is viewed as delicate and dependant. Via social media, women are far more likely to be presented as dependant with their physical appearance viewed primarily. This is clearly shown in the photograph posted on Instagram and clearly aligns with the key ideologies discussed around the traditional representation of women. This showcases the strong prevalence of the poor representations of women that exist within social media and the attention it draws. Social media provides the perfect platform for brands to capitalize, however, the continuous sexualization of women via social media is beginning to impact body confidence. Furthermore, studies also suggest that the increased objectification of women via social media has led to a greater prevalence and acceptance of sexual violence against women. Kim Kardashian has released an object for others to consume, without adding any value to the political feminist design. Influencers with such a vast reach, need to reconsider their political stance and act appropriately in order to positively impact their visual landscape.
It is important to note the complexities surrounding the representation of women in the media. Some argue, through the lens of third-wave feminism, the female figure has the power, through creating sexual liberation. Kim Kardashian has embraced her sexuality and representing herself how she sees fit, thus redefining femininity. The sexual liberation that continues to inspire women to reclaim their bodies from the patriarchy remains vital. However, the increased dependence on social media for social expression and acceptance has increased self-sexualization by users, females in particular. There is now an increase in peer pressure forced onto young females to self-sexualize in order to be accepted into particular social groups. Women are taught to be aware of their appearance while balancing trying not to arouse a male’s “unruly and potentially dangerous sexual appetite”. This clearly expresses the patriarchal hierarchy that not only exists but thrives within social media. Social media designers must be aware of the message they are sending and the impact these can have on developing minds.
Evermore, we are progressing into an era defined by ‘post-feminism’, coined by Angela McRobbie. The young populace is no longer deeply connected with feminism and its key ideologies, believing that gender equality has been accomplished. This is evident through the 2014 trending #womenagainstfeminism, in which users posted photos stating why they no longer need feminism. This movement has meant that young educated women have become desensitized by the sexualization of women due to the increased prevalence via social media. This has only increased the occurrence and support for brands that continuously sexualize and objectify women. This should only further motivate designers to produce feminist political design, in order to continue the fight for gender equality. Together designers must further educate themselves and reinterpret the important information for consumers to learn. The role of the designer is becoming increasingly more important as the political environment becomes more complex. Thus, within the ever-changing political landscape, designers have a direct influence on changing the populace’s understanding of the representation of women in mainstream media.
In order to influence the political landscape, designers must harness the reach and influence social media has within contemporary society. Social media now allows information to be shared almost immediately, allowing the general populace to be instantly aware of current affairs. Designers must use this notion to educate and draw attention to their own personal political agendas in order to inspire social change within their visual culture. A strong example of a designer inspiring social change is Sara Andreasson, with almost 70 thousand followers on Instagram. Andreasson particularly focuses on underlining issues surrounding feminist and queer theories. Referencing Andreasson’s 2017 illustration, titled ‘GRL PWR”, depicts a woman boxing, with ‘Girl Power’ appearing on screen. The illustration was posted to Andreasson’s personal Instagram account and has currently almost received 3,000 ‘likes’ and almost 10,000 views. The protagonist in the illustration is presented as a powerful and strong individual. The illustration is absent of any male figures, abolishing stereotypes of the female being dependant on the male figure. The protagonist in the illustration has a defined stare, watching the audience as she completes her task. This challenges the male gaze, as the protagonist is not presented as passive to be consumed by the patriarchy’s desire. This illustration clearly contrasts the photograph posted on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account. Andreasson has released an image into the visual culture, which inspires viewers to be powerful and independent. Andreasson’s work provides a sound example of how just one Instagram post that tackles a political issue can alter the broader social sphere.
However, within the ever-changing political landscape, some argue that Andreasson’s work plays into the key ideologies of the patriarchy. In order to remain powerful, why does one have to be presented as masculine? The figure in Andreasson’s illustration is drawn to having exaggerated stereotypical masculine qualities. Andreasson states through her work, that she aims to challenge the gendered qualities embedded in society, by referencing the male figure when illustrating females. The term masculine is usually used to describe a dominant male, being both brave and un-emotional. Whilst femininity is usually aligned with someone with passive qualities, highly emotional, and is physically desirable. Andreasson is redefining masculinity, however, she is stating in order to be recognized as powerful within the mainstream marginalized society, female figures must have male-like qualities. This supports the patriarchal hierarchy and further embeds stereotypical gender qualities in contemporary society. However, through discussion, it is important to celebrate designers, like Andreasson, who are pioneers in creating a conversation within the new world of social media. It is imperative not to destabilize Andreasson’s practice, but instead, continue the debate on the positive representation of women and how designers can achieve this. Her work is evidence for the feminist movement, however, serves as an example of the improvements that can be made by designers in their political landscape.
Another complexity within this illustration is that Andreasson was commissioned by Adidas StellaSport, to complete an illustration for their campaign. The illustration raises ethical concerns referencing Adidas’s marketing strategy, in which they simply follow “prime time feminism”. Adidas has intended to affiliate its brand with feminist theories, in order to attract socially charged consumers following Andreasson on Instagram. Campaigns that support such movements often receive a large number of views, with the campaigns often going viral. Adidas understands the power of social media and has aimed to capitalize and exploit feminist theories. Brands often simply support feminism on a surface level, often having a deep patriarchal organizational structure. For example, Adidas only has one female on their Executive Board. Consumers must be aware of their own buying power and consider every purchase as a political one. Consumers must distinguish the difference between companies that are simply following trends and those who make authentic attempts to create social change. Designers must strive to continue their pursuit of the positive representation of women via social media. Designers must remember the consequences the poor representation of women has on shaping their core ideologies and continue their support after the conclusion of a social trend.
As discussed, the positive representation of women via social media is a complex and ever-changing social issue, that doesn’t produce one simple answer. However, McRobbie states that the populace can be inspired to fight for gender equality in order to rewrite the patriarchy, through clever political design. This can be achieved through correctly informing and educating the designer, in hopes of them using the information to design for political action. As a future project, I propose an educational lecture led by industry leaders lobbying for feminist issues. (See figure 3) The aim of the day is to educate designers on both the importance and complexities surrounding the representation of women through design and social media. I hope that the day would inspire designers to design and illustrate social change within their political landscape. The day would include open discussions and workshops from industry leaders, including Michaela Webb, creative director at Studio Round, and Nicole Aguirre Corbett, Chief Executive Officer at Worn Studio. Both studios pride themselves in redefining the patriarchal notions that are deeply embedded in the design industry. The day would also include workshops by Jane Connory, discussing the importance of networking with other females, and how to include more women within the design industry. Each designer will begin to gain their own individual perspective on how to positively represent women. In turn, they would then reinterpret this information, implementing their new knowledge in their own individual design practice, positively affecting their immediate landscape.
It is easy to identify the poor representation of women within contemporary visual culture, however, there is no one answer in identifying what a positive representation consists of. Andreasson serves as a sound example, however, only highlights complex areas that need further redefining and improvement. I hope through this essay, the reader has gained new profound perspectives on the representation of women via social media. As consumers, we must support brands with politically charged core concepts. As designers, we must consistently discuss the complex political environment, allowing our findings to be the focus of our designs. Designers must present forward-thinking ideas to consumers and reject the ideas surrounding post-feminism, in order to continue to underline issues surrounding gender inequality. Political feminist design, that positively represents women has the power to confidently alter the visual culture. However, in order to achieve this goal, designers must pledge to consistently educate themselves on strong political issues that interest them. This will only lead to a more enriched and diverse visual broader social sphere.