Masculinity in Advertising: Dominance and Violence

Advertising constantly represents the world to us: a carefully constructed and deeply deluded one that is. Advertisements are forever bombarding us with versions of ourselves that are better, healthier, happier, wealthier and more successful. And because they do such an excellently enticing job we want to buy into this world and, in turn, the products it promotes. Advertisements are purposely seductive, thus we inevitably accept its messages and meanings as real, natural and familiar. Whilst the majority of advertisements seem to be dominated by the sexualisation of women, flaunting their jarring hipbones, creating the impression that thin is sexy, shrouded in controversy over the damaging effects they have on feminine ideals: advertisements also impact men. In fact, men and boys alike are becoming increasingly insecure and damaged by media’s representations of masculinity.

Advertising plays a strong function in constructing gender roles. The male stereotypic role is to be assertive, competitive, independent and courageous; hold his emotions in check; and always initiate sex. During the 1950’s men were to go out and work, whilst women were to stay at home and attend to the male’s needs. Whilst society has somewhat outgrown these stereotypical and predominantly sexist gender roles both culturally and economically, such stereotypes are still aggressively evident in advertising today. The epitome of masculinity has maintained to be a man who is dominant, suited, muscular and successful whilst having his every desire fulfilled by a willing, submissive and of course beautiful woman. The sheer repetition and continuation of the ‘ideal’ man being dominant and aggressive has seriously warped men’s perceptions of what it is to be a “real” man.

What it takes to be a “real” man is often reinforced through depictions of male-female relationships in advertisements. Being dominant and aggressive are deemed appropriate and attractive masculine traits. It shows a willingness to succeed, lead and persevere. Such traits, as a result, are accentuated in advertisements portraying and aiming at men, cultivating the idea of hyper-masculinity. Hyper-masculinity is a psychological term for the exaggeration of male stereotypical behaviour, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality.

The term “hypermasculinity” first appeared in a 1984 study by Donald Mosher of the University of Connecticut. According to Mosher, is consists of three factors: 1) callous sexual attitudes toward women 2) the belief that violence is manly 3) the experience of danger as exciting. Shockingly, Brian Krans who conducted a study, which analyzed advertisements in men’s magazines, found that some magazines’ advertisements included hypermasculine messages 90% of the time.

Depicting sex and relationships provides the perfect opportunity for advertisers to exploit hyper masculinity. As an outcome, when men and women appear in advertisements together the women are often-if not always-depicted as the weaker sex and/or objects of the male’s desire: whilst men appear dominant, aloof and strong. This mirrors a social reality, which is still quite prominent today, that men have more power and status then women. Advertisers almost exclusively portray heterosexual desire between the men and women depicted also, thus reinforcing the notion of the “heterosexual matrix’. Men and women are expected to reflect their gender and mutual ‘straight’ desire for one another, hence being straight is considered the norm, reinforced again and again through visual media.

However, sometimes these adverts appear worryingly sexist and aggressive, almost encouraging much darker elements of the male species such as rape and violence. The problem here is what is being portrayed, as “ideal” masculinity seems to encourage negative behaviour in men whilst women appear happy and seemingly oblivious to their objectification. What’s more worrying is that due to the influential nature of advertisements male, as well as female, consumers seek to conform to the physical and emotional characteristics predicated by stereotypes in visual media. Thus, males and females alike could misinterpret violence and rape subtly suggested in advertisements and media as ‘normal’. Scheff Thomas in “Hypermasculinity and Violence as a Social System” states: “Advertisements depicting men as violent (particularly towards women) is disturbing, because gender portrayals in advertisements do more than sell products. They also perpetuate stereotypes and present behavioural norms for men and women.”


In a Dolce and Gabbana campaign we see a muscular male lean over and hold down a female as other male models stand by witnessing this sexually aggressive act. The muscles and physiques of all those depicted are highlighted and accentuated through a glamorous oily sheen: reminiscent to the sweatiness or after-glow caused by sexual activity or arousal. Lips naturally become darker in females during sexual aroused, which is accentuated through the use of red lipstick of the female model depicted. The female appears submissive, her arms and body held down by her male dominator: utterly helpless yet content as the man takes full control. Her body is contorted into a sexually suggestive posture: her back arched and pelvis raised as if the male is to penetrate her. The whole posture expressed by the main man and woman reflects the stereotypical gender roles expected of them: man as dominator and woman as object. The presence of the other male models presents something a little more disturbing. The males appear to all be gazing at the female depicted, creating a sense that they to want to take control and have their way with the female. Thus, ideas of rape, sadomasochism and promiscuity are aroused. This is increasingly worrying as this is an “ideal” masculinity being depicted where rape or gang rape is being portrayed as a-ok!

Now I’m not suggesting that a man looking at this image would get a sudden urge to rape a woman with a friend or two. Nonetheless, I feel media representations could influence the morale of males, what is masculine and what is normal. According to the finding of Naomi Wolf in ‘The Beauty Myth’ page 165, Ms magazine commissioned a study into rape funded by the National Institution for Mental Health of 6,100 undergraduates male and female on 32 college campuses across the United States. One survey was conducted on 114 undergraduate men and these disturbing replies emerged:

“I like to dominate a woman” 91.3%

“I enjoy the conquest part of sex” 86.1%

“Some women look like they’re asking to get raped” 83.5%

“I get excited when a woman struggles over sex” 63.5%

“It would be exciting to use force to subdue a woman” 61.7%

It appears that advertisers are either supplying men with images that fulfil a deep-rooted fantasy of dominating women or that constant media representations that portray men dominating women have caused men to think this way. This roundabout issue is worrying but it’s not difficult to understand why men find domination normal or idealistic. Men are constantly being portrayed as being sexually aggressive and women submissive, where violence is seen as a sexual act or flirtation; perhaps even fashionable. This can seriously distort real-life and that’s the troubling thing but the immense amounts of such images make it difficult to distinguish if it’s unrealistic or actually possible.

Here are some other examples of high fashion advertisements and brand, which overtly express dominance and strength, almost to a dangerous degree, within masculine “ideals”:


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A cover for French Vogue shot by notorious Terry Richardson featured supermodel Stephanie Seymour being chocked by male supermodel Marlon Teixeira in what was described as “high fashion meets domestic violence”.

“Choking is a huge predictor of future lethality. A 2008 Journal of Emergency Medicine study of murders of women in 11 cities found that 43% of women who were killed by intimate partners had experienced at least one previous episode of choking before being killed.”-Eye opening statistics given in a protest against Vogue’s shocking choke image.

Domestic violence and women’s rights advocacy groups attacked the creators of the image, writing a letter of protest to the publisher’s chairman Si Newhouse and editorial director Thomas Wallace to have the magazine pulled from New York newsstands. They accused the ‘disturbing’ image of ‘glorifying violence against women as an act of love’.  They wrote: ‘This truly disturbing image of a woman being choked sends a dangerous message to anyone who sees this magazine – that choking is a sign of passion rather than of violence.’

The image depicts the stereotypical aesthetics of male and female roles and characteristics. Depictions of gender stereotypical roles heavily influence societal reality and people’s perceptions of normalcy, hence the uproar and controversy this image caused. Seymour stands straight and rigid, in a submissive pose with her shirt unbuttoned: her expression almost lifeless and fearful. Teixeira has a pre-orgasmic face, giving the impression he’s achieving sexual pleasure from the mere presence of Seymour, as well as the choking we assume. He stands tall and in control, with a firm grip around Seymour’s delicate throat-albeit for one finger which he seems to be licking-his other hand cupping Seymour’s rounded left breast.

The image exudes connotations of male dominance and female submissiveness, whereby the male is seen to be in utter social and sexual control whilst the female is a mere object of his desire. The choking is sensational and shocking. It reinforces ideas of men having strength over women, but what’s more it creates a sense of sadomasochism, so is deeply sexual and arguably violent in intent.


When applied to the world of advertising, violence appears to be a powerfully provocative aesthetic. The fashion brand Triton featured supermodel Evadro Saldati as an aggressive psycho, an axe being his ‘killer’ accessory, for their Spring 2010 campaign shot by photographer Tony Kelly. Saldati appears seductively dominant throughout the images, his muscular physique accentuated through a glamorous sheen, his callousness and wildness through his aggressive expressions. The females either appear frightened or aroused but always submissive and weaker. The images depict a macho man mentality and women as the weaker and endangered sex.

Overall, hyper masculinity in advertising and visual media convey the “ideal” man as strong, dominant and aggressive. Men are often if not always depicted as dominating women, initiating sex and looking physically strong. The added “shock” value in some of the advertisements have caused much controversy and have even been blamed for influencing issues as serious as violence and rape against women. Advertisers do not only sell products, they sell ideals and expectancies. In the world of advertising “ideal” men are seen to dominate women through sexually suggestive postures and gestures whilst women are seen as lifeless and submissive. This gives the impression that male desire overlooks female desire and women are here to control. This is an unhealthy representation of male and female relationships, but is a formula, which dominates the pages of magazines over and over again.

The repetition of men controlling women has been apart of advertising for a long time. So it’s no wonder that men associate ‘normal’ and ‘ideal’ masculinity with being domineering, strong and aggressive. Advertising portrays these things and associates them with being erotic and sexually pleasing. As a result, men believe that aggressive behaviour is sexually attractive so the more aggressive, the sexier you become. It seems that the epitome of masculinity represented in advertising echoes traditional and stereotypical male roles and traits, similar to the ones seen in the 1950’s. Such stereotypes trivialise sexist attitudes and negative behaviours and epidemic acts such as rape. Males feel the pressure as much as women when it comes to media representations to conform to gender “ideals” but is this representation really ideal?


Health Line (3 March 2013) Hypermasculinity in Advertising: Selling Manly Men to Regular Men [online] available from<> [28 February 2014]

Stuff (20 September 2012) Is domestic violence in Vogue? [online] available from<> [28 February 2014]

Jim Romensko (14 Septmber 2012) GROUPS PROTEST VOGUE’S CHOKING PHOTO [online] available from<> [28 February 2014]

Trend Hunter (22 April 2010)From Vividly Violent Portraits to Disturbing Nollywood Photos [online] available from <> [28 February 2014]

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