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ADText: Advertising Curriculum
Unit 7: Representations of Masculinity and Femininity in Advertising

ADText Unit 7

1. Introduction

Representations of gender in advertisements provide powerful models of behavior to emulate or react against. Masculine images typically convey power, strength, virility, athleticism, and competitiveness whereas feminine images show beauty, submissiveness, nurturance, and cooperation. Such themes appear repeatedly in popular culture (including advertisements) and are often accepted by those who see them as natural aspects of the human condition.

The scientific understanding of gender, however, is at variance with such representations of human nature. Ever since the anthropologist Margaret Mead first reported her findings among South Pacific cultures in the 1930s that masculine and feminine attributes are not always the same as those assigned by Western cultures, social and natural scientists have been investigating which aspects of gender are biological and which are cultural. As this research continues, one thing is for sure—cross-cultural evidence continues to demonstrate the enormous variability in what are deemed masculine or feminine behaviors in particular cultures. Current evidence is sufficient to conclude that many aspects of gender are learned, not inborn, and are therefore cultural in nature.

Who teaches the behavioral expectations of gender roles? Certainly parents and other early caretakers instill these cultural norms, but there are many other influences as well—peers, other adults, schools, and the mass media. The end result is that individuals are shaped, patterned, and encouraged to take on their culture's appropriate roles as males or females.

What they learn—the internalized attitudes and behavioral expectations about maleness and femaleness—is gender. Most social scientists use gender to refer to these learned attributes of masculinity and femininity in a culture. By contrast, they use sex to refer to the biological differences between males and females. Distinguishing between these two ideas—that is, between what is innate and what is learned—is helpful in studying masculinity and femininity.

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