LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Hank Willis Thomas studies the way we see ourselves, and he uses advertising to do it. In 2008, he used commercial print advertising shorn of messages and product names to illustrate how African-Americans are portrayed in popular culture. Now in the run-up to the 2016 election and the possibility of a woman being nominated, he's mounted a new exhibit of women in print. It's called "Unbranded: A Century of White Women," and it covers images from 1915 to today. Mr. Thomas joins us from our studios in New York City. Welcome to the program.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS: Thank you. It's great to be here.
WERTHEIMER: We've been flipping through the photographs looking at the choices you made. Did you see something that you did not expect when you laid all these 100 photographs out?
THOMAS: Yeah. I actually was amazed to look at how advertising can function as a mirror for the hopes and dreams or the anxiety of a society at a period of time. The one that's really kind of struck a chord with me was this image from 1955 of a woman being dragged by her hair in a corset and holding a telephone. When I first saw the ad, I was struck by the violence in it. It's a man kind of dressed as a caveman - or you can just see part of his body dragging her. And the text said come out of the bone age, darling. And the suggestion was that corsets were made with bones and that if you wanted to be advanced like a modern woman you would wear synthetic.
WERTHEIMER: Elastic corsets.
THOMAS: Yes. But at the same time that that image was produced, Emett Till was killed in the United States for whistling at a, quote, unquote, "white woman." And I found it fascinating that her virtue could be so challenged and maybe besmirched by him whistling at her allegedly, but it would be OK in the public to present images of white women being dragged by their hair by white men.
WERTHEIMER: At some point, I guess, maybe - what is it, late '50s, early '60s - the pictures that you show began to be very sexy. And that you see as a difference from 25 years before that or 25 years before that.
THOMAS: Yeah. And I also think that it's amazing that it really happens almost immediately after World War II. And I think this sexualization in mainstream ads, which is what I used, was part of this need for women to be kind of helped put in a place.
WERTHEIMER: There's one of a woman sort of lapping beer out of a glass - or a man is pouring her beer and she's sort of lapping it out of the glass.
THOMAS: Yeah, and he's got that really mischievous smile on his face.
WERTHEIMER: Yeah. Did it get any better for women as you came up through the decades - through the '80s, '90s and into the aughts?
THOMAS: Well, 1983 is a big year because "Mr. Mom" the movie comes out, and we see that kind of switching of positions. And then the '90s is where I think things start to get more diverse. And then into the aughts it gets, I think, crazier because we see really sexist images, but we see images where African-Americans appear for the first time as equals to white women. We see men being kind of in a lesser position than women in certain images. And we even see same-sex couples. But the final image is an image from 2015 for Ram truck where it looks like it's based off of the image of Washington crossing the Delaware. And there's all these women in bikinis.
WERTHEIMER: Sort of - not very much bathing suits.
THOMAS: In the cold.
THOMAS: It really speaks to the ridiculousness of it. I think what happens with ads when we put text and logos on them, we do all of the heavy lifting of making them make sense to us. But when you see the image naked or unbranded, you start to really ask questions. That's why we can almost never tell what it's actually an ad for because ads really aren't about the products. It's about what myths and generalizations we could attach and the repetition of imagery of a certain type.
WERTHEIMER: The exhibit is called "Unbranded: A Century of White Women," and it can be seen at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York City. Hank Willis Thomas, thank you very much.
THOMAS: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.