This essay offers a critical analysis of the changing images of women in Bulgarian advertising during socialism and in the process of the post-socialist transition. During socialism, images of women, dressed in white lab coats, wearing construction hats, and lacking any sense of sexuality were on prominent display, created the most visually recognizable and ubiquitous symbols of communism—the frumpy babushka. Today, the babushka is an image of the past as Eastern European women have adopted a new highly sexualized identity. Advertising, which boomed during the transition, has become the primary cultural arena for the social engineering of a new, highly sexualized identity, quickly becoming a “normalized” trend in Eastern Europe with potentially dangerous consequences.
The purpose of this paper is to navigate the rich academic literature on gender portrayals in advertising, and then to provide an overview on key findings and trends observed throughout the years. For several decades, women in advertising were likely to be depicted in traditional and domestic roles and were excluded from empowering roles and professional settings. Some progress has been acknowledged during the last decades, however, it seems that female role stereotyping is becoming subtler but still remains present. Male depictions have changed as well, moving from mere traditional masculine portrayals to a greater variety of roles, including decorative and family ones. In addition, the paper offers a cultural perspective by summarizing key findings regarding the relationship of gender stereotyping in advertisements and various country gender indices.