Realizing the movement’s failings 40 years later
By Julissa Trevino
A young woman is lying on the grass with her shirt unbuttoned, open to reveal her breasts, smiling and looking terribly happy to be selling herself. Oh, there is also a Dodge van behind her and the words “Put a Dodge in your garage.” This is a 1960s Dodge advertisement.
Traditionally, advertisements and imagery showed men and women playing their traditional gender roles in “proper” attire. But when the Sexual Revolution hit in the ’60s, the visual content of advertisements and the general acceptance of them were radically changed by what appeared to be a desire for gender equality, sexual freedom and liberation from societal expectations. But lurking behind these “freedoms from gender roles” was a male-driven desire for sex and women. Rather than liberating women from social expectations, the revolution has subjected women to another form of powerlessness.
Although women played a role in the movement, the Sexual Revolution can be traced back to (primarily) a few men’s ideas about sexual norms. Dr. Alfred Kinsey and Wardell Pomeroy, among others, released the Kinsey Reports in 1948 and 1953. These two books explain researched sexual behavior in men and women. The reports shocked a lot of people because they contain information about homosexuality, sexual norms and extramarital sex, which were taboo subjects at the time. The studies significantly altered the way people viewed sexuality. Another major turning point came in 1960 when American physician Gregory Pincus and chemist Frank Colton invented the birth control pill, allowing men to have sex with women with a reduced risk of pregnancy.
Additionally, men’s power over women is evident in the era’s imagery and visual culture. From Playboy to sex in advertisements, images of the 1960s reflect the influence of men on the so-called liberation of women an argument most people ignore.
While ideals of the Sexual Revolution—transmitted through images in film, advertising, art and the media—made women think they were liberated from sexual and social oppression, men and society were left to subject women to new standards and expectations.
Sexualized advertisements, although beginning in the 1950s, became a phenomenon in the late 1960s, banking on the ideas of the Sexual Revolution. Exploiting the true purpose of the Sexual Revolution, advertisements during this time period contained images that focused on certain ideas, particularly sexual freedom and gender equality. A unisex clothing advertisement, for example, shows a man and woman wearing identical pants, but nothing else. The advertisement reads: “not just a new way of dress, but a new way of life. It brings out all that’s feminine in a woman, all that’s sexy and male in a man. Proving, for once and for all, that it’s not the clothes that separate the girls from the boys.” This is an example of the equality people were fighting for in the Sexual Revolution, but this advertisement also constructs an image of the newfound sexuality women were supposed to follow and imitate. It lets women know it’s fashionable to be sex objects; it makes them think that being sexually objectified is, in fact, being free.
“The fact that so many advertisements profit, so many companies profit by selling advertisements that play on our desires for sex and our loneliness utterly shows how still entrapped and not free a lot of us are. It’s very profitable to sell people things based on how sexually unfulfilled you are-you can sell chewing gum, beer, condoms, Coca-Cola, anything,” says Alicia Swords, professor of sociology at Ithaca College.
Another business profitable in selling sex is men’s magazines. The most well-known and popular is Playboy magazine. Though it was first published in 1953, it gained much of its popularity during the Sexual Revolution because of society’s progressive outlook on sexuality. By 1968, the magazine was selling about five million copies a month. It also played a role in popular culture because of its interviews with iconic figures of the era, including Malcolm X, Frank Sinatra, Bertrand Russell and Salvador Dali, as well as short stories by writers Margaret Atwood and Ian Fleming. Nevertheless, Playboy used provocative images of women in order to sell more copies.
Many considered Playboy to have a libertarian outlook on politics and social issues. The magazine’s image represented not just changes in sexual norms, but also changes in cultural ideals-a shift toward an open dialogue of sexual, political, social and cultural ideals. Though it is a stretch to say people bought Playboy for the articles, considering that it sells primarily to men between 18-35 years old.
Hugh Hefner once said, “Playboy came at the right time, when the United States was experiencing a Sexual Revolution. My naked girls became a symbol of disobedience, a triumph of sexuality, an end of Puritanism.” He was right. Perhaps Playboy posed as a deep reflection of the societal beliefs of America during the Sexual Revolution, but it was also the beginning of the combined idea of sexualization, consumerism and commercialization, all of which have sold women as sex objects. Playboy and other advertisements hyper-sexualize women, rather than giving them the same rights and expectations of men.
“It’s very difficult for anyone today to look back at the ’60s and understand the cultural role that Playboy magazine played at that time, because we simply cannot put it in the right context…(People) pick and choose what’s going to be readable,” said Gary Wells, professor of art history at Ithaca College.
“The meaning (of sexuality in print) both reflects people’s ideas about sex and changes people’s ideas about sex. So I think pornography can be extremely profitable in a society that has created tons of insecurities about sex,” said Swords.
There were, of course, elements or themes of pop art during the ’60s that also exemplified the reconstructed social expectations of women. Andy Warhol, for example, played with the idea that women were created into sex symbols and objects of sexual desire.
“Warhol was not so much interested in the Sexual Revolution per say, but he was very interesting in how the sexualization of certain\ celebrities, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, played a role in popular culture,” said Wells. “(Andy Warhol’s series of silkscreen portraits) look the same, but it’s in that repletion that he makes a point about Marilyn being not necessarily a real person, but a symbol of sexuality.”
While women are perhaps now free to have casual sex, wear revealing clothing and express their own desires, these “freedoms” have now become expectations in modern society. There is a double standard: Women are expected to have sex with their boyfriends-sometimes pressured to; women are expected to wear certain kinds of clothing that men find attractive; women are expected to be knowledgeable and experienced.
Today, women are shown in a sexual context in many advertisements. Though we can acknowledge that there are plenty of males in ads and TV as well—Calvin Klein ads won’t pass on the opportunity to get a sexed-up version of a man, with a six-pack and a nice tan-women are overly exposed as sexual beings. Sex sells, and more specifically, women exemplifying the idea of sex sells: from Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears, with enough clothes to barely cover the parts that can’t be shown on any TV station, to practically naked women in rap and hip hop videos. We can’t really say that these women are victims of societal standards, however.
The Sexual Revolution could have been positive. But considering the negative effects the revolution had on the view of women as sex objects, perhaps the change merely gave men a different kind of power over women.
Julissa Trevino is a sophomore writing major. Email her at jtrevin1 @ ithaca.edu.