Q&A with Jean Kilbourne: Internationally recognized feminist activist, filmmaker, author, and advertising critic

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Melissa Seymour: Hello, Dr. Kilbourne! Thanks for speaking with us today. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Dr. Jean Kilbourne: I’ve always had a hard time describing what I do because I’m involved in so many different fields.  I basically invented my career and I need to come up with a name for it!  Mostly I say that I am a cultural theorist, a feminist activist, and a critic of advertising. For decades I’ve been studying how advertising and marketing contribute to a wide range of public health issues, such as violence against women, eating disorders, the sexualization of children, high-risk drinking, addiction, and other problems.  Usually when there is a public health problem, there is an industry (or industries) contributing to it and profiting from it, as in the case of the junk food, sugary beverage, and diet industries and obesity, for example.


MS: What was it like working on the first Killing Us Softly? How has your approach or perspective changed?

DJK: I made the first version of “Killing Us Softly” way back in 1979.  It was simply a filmed version of my lecture on advertising’s image of women.  It was done very cheaply, with one take and only one camera.  There was virtually no marketing but, in today’s language, it went viral and has gone on to become one of the most popular educational films of all time.  I’ve remade it three times, most recently in 2010.  Much of what I said in 1979 is still true, but I think my analysis has deepened and certainly the films are infinitely better technically.  Although they are still based on my lectures, we now use commercials and graphics and a range of film techniques – and several cameras!


MS: Your work with gender issues and media coverage is brilliant—especially the concentration on eating disorders. Do you think things are getting better or worse?

DJK: Thank you!  In terms of the image of women in advertising and the popular culture, things are getting worse.  The ideal image of beauty is more tyrannical than ever before, as is the obsession with thinness.  This is partly due to the widespread use of Photoshop to create impossible ideals.  The sexualization of children is worse and images of violence against women are more widespread and extreme.

Alarmingly, pornography has become our nation’s primary form of sex education. On the bright side, however, I was alone when I started speaking about these issues and my ideas were often considered radical.  Now these ideas are mainstream and there are countless individuals and organizations working on these problems.  So this is heartening.


MS: So Sexy So Soon demonstrates how scary our society really is for kids… What can we do each day to try and combat these issues?

DJK: The most important thing we can do as parents and caregivers is to talk with our children honestly and openly about sex and sexuality and relationships (in an age-appropriate way, of course).  Children need at least one adult in their lives with whom they can have authentic conversations.   We also need to lobby to change this toxic cultural environment.  It would be great if we could ban all advertising and marketing aimed at children (as some other countries have done) but,  since that’s impossible in our society these days, let’s at least get advertising out of our schools.  Let’s support organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, SPARK, the Brave Girls Alliance, and others.

I have an extensive resource list on my website (www.jeankilbourne.com)


MS: Was there ever a time in your career when you weren’t taken seriously?

DJK: Was there ever!  I began speaking at a time when some people still believed that women shouldn’t speak in public.  To make matters worse, I was a feminist talking about sexism.  Women are still taken less seriously than men (and there’s a whole lot of research backing up that assertion) but it has gotten better.  I had many jobs before I launched my career as an activist and public speaker.  I was a waitress, a secretary, a teacher, a saleswoman, a model.  And I was sexually harassed and discriminated against in every one of these fields.

MS: What are you currently working on? Is there a specific issue you’ve been drawn to recently?

DJK: I’m still lecturing and working on updating my presentations.  But I’ve begun to think about writing a memoir, maybe something about the making of an activist.  I’ve also been taking more time for personal travel.  In the past few years I’ve been to Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan, Morocco, and many other places.  My mantra these days is If not now, when?


MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

DJK: I’ve been so lucky to have many people in my life who inspired and helped me in a variety of ways.  Jean Baker Miller, the author of Toward a New Psychology of Women, was a friend and mentor, as was George Gerbner, a renowned researcher and professor.  My mother died when I was nine, so I’ll always be grateful to the mothers of some of my friends who made a bigger difference than they could ever know – especially Inez Emerson, Helen Perry, and Rosalie Cartwright.  In 1968 I had the great good fortune to begin therapy with a brilliant psychiatrist named Paul Russell.  I am not exaggerating when I say that he saved my life.  I’m also inspired and moved by all the people in recovery from addictions whom I’ve met along the way. And my daughter Claudia Kilbourne Lux and her friends give me hope for the future.


MS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

DJK: I’d just like to say that, although things often seem quite bleak and hopeless, I do think we are making progress.  And I’ve always believed that action is the antidote to despair.

Follow Jean on Twitter: @jeankilbourne
For more information, visit www.jeankilbourne.com