Women in advertising – from male gaze to female agency

Today we celebrate a Woman’s Day. It was first celebrated by the labor movements in Europe, to help women workers gain equal rights. Its significance changed – nowadays in some places it’s merely an occassion to give flowers to women, some other celebrations stay faithful to the initial purpose of this day and women’s movements see it as good time to talk about women’s rights. We are celebrating it in our own way – get into our time machine and buckle up – we are taking you for a ride across centuries of women objectification in art and advertising.

Stop 1: Naked ladies everywhere

Going to pretty much every art gallery will lead you to one conclusion – no matter what they did, women rarely wore clothes in the past.

Having a picnic? Why would you bother wearing anything?

Dejeneur sur l'herbe

Just chilling? Do it naked!

La Grande Odalisque

Reading Bible? No comment…

Penitent Magdalene


Or course, it’s more complicated and we know for a fact, that the more clothed women were in real life, the more unclothed they were in the art. A British artist, novelist and art critic, John Berger, came up with a term “male gaze” in his 1972 essay “Ways of Seing” (you can read it here, highly recommended!). To put it simply, a male gaze is a way of depicting women from a male and heterosexual perspective. Women in the patriarchal world of the olden days art were supposed to be decorative and pleasing to a male’s eye. Painted women reply to the male gaze with a female glimpse – they look at the spectator in a way that builds tension, they are either shy or flirtatious. Sadly, this didn’t end with the dusk of the classical painting.

Stop 2: Mad Men and men-pleasers

The male gaze was not going anywhere in the modern world. In fact, modern advertising was a perfect place for it. Women were depicted as an eye-candy – silly but cute men-pleasers. The Internet is full of this advertising archeology and scanned ads from the fifties and sixties – but also from nineties!

outrageous vintage ads


Advertising used to mistreat women in another, more sneaky way too: the way advertising works, according to John Berger, is simple: an ad is supposed to make you feel inadequate, like you are not enough. People who are happy with what they have are not going to buy things to make their life better, so ads should make them feel bad, and buying the advertised product should put things back in balance. This applied particularly to women.

Outrageous vintage ads

Stop 3: #metoo

The change in the way women are seen in advertising was coming.  The harbingers of change was the first Dove campaign (“The Real Beauty”) from 2004, showing women bodies that were far from perfect. The ad they created in 2013 was seen as empowering, but the message it conveyed wouldn’t be seen in the same way today. In the “Real Beauty Sketches” clip Dove told women: You are prettier than you think

Then the Me Too happened, causing powerful men make the headlines for all the wrong reasons, but also making women speak more openly about themselves, about their bodies, experiences and sometimes “ugly” biology that comes with it – body hair, stretch marks, pregnancies and period blood that is not blue. And Dove, like many other brands, did follow:

Stop 4: The wind of change

After Me Too, the new approach to femininity spread like wildfire. Suddenly women were allowed to talk about discrimination, womanhood, the real image of motherhood, small and big stereotypes – they were allowed, they did and brands picked it up and gave women agency and the right to speak for themselves. Mothercare prepared a campaign showing the way woman’s body changes after pregnancy.


There are some brilliant campaigns out there that we absolutely love and couldn’t wait to share them with you.


Always – “Like a girl” (2014)

Always picked up the trend of empowering women and girls. Their ambition was to reverse the notion of “Like a girl” from an insult to a compliment and to give agency to little girls, who have not been convinced yet by the society of their inferiority.


Bumble, “Good things come to those, who don’t wait” (2020)

The change is reflected even in the products. Bumble is the first dating app that requires women to make the first step, combating the stereotype of a woman waiting for a knight in her ivory tower. Both in their products and in their ads, Bumble gives women agency.


Royal Air Force “No Room For Clichés” (2019)

The last example of female agency in advertising that we wanted to show is the 2019 Royal Air Force ad putting the stereotypical women’s narrative against real jobs in the army – available equally for men and women. The ad uses wordplay – when the narrative talks about pads “with wings” we see a woman with wings – a jet fighter pilot.