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The Role of Women's Magazines in Society
by Attreyee Roy Chowdhury Bookmark and Share


My starting point for analysis is that the way in which women are represented in women’s magazines can shed light on how society perceives the rest of the group.

Press profiles of female personalities represent a kind of social recognition and endorsement of their fame, status and/or success. Their stories and personal lives become newsworthy because they are a part of the social elite. They inevitably become the role models (overt or covert) of the rest of society. Through women’s magazines, these women are presented to the public in ways, I argue, which are consistent with society’s assumptions about women in general. It is thus a cyclical process: on the one hand, how successful women are represented has a great influence on the representation of women in general; and on the other hand, the representation of these women is also affected by ‘common sense’ assumptions about women as whole.

The analytical framework that I will adopt for this study is critical discourse analysis, drawing eclectically on the tools and methods of the feminist analyst Sara Mills, and critical linguists such as Roger Fowler, Bob Hodge, and Gunther Kress.

Hence, this study attempts to deconstruct, through a critical study of female personalities in women’s magazines, underlying gender stereotypes which still hold the supposed ‘liberated’ female personalities captive.

Part One: Introduction

1.1. Aims of the Study

Research has shown that rather than just neutrally reflecting current social values, the language of the press constructs a kind of social reality via the meanings and categories already known and accepted by society (Roger Fowler et al., 1979; Roger Fowler, 1991; Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress, 1993; Norman Fairclough, 1995). In other words, press discourse also expresses and represents what should be said or done, and what is acceptable or not, i.e., it constitutes, maintains, and reinforces the socially constructed stock of common knowledge shared by the members of society. The print media thus serves as a powerful instrument in which dominant ideologies are generally unconsciously communicated, maintained, and perpetuated through its discourse as the unquestioned, ‘common sense’ knowledge of everyday life.

I aim to show that media representations of female personalities are still deeply embedded in the dominant ideology, via its ‘common sense’, ‘natural’ assumptions of how women should behave, even though they may be popularly perceived as ‘liberated’. In other words, women who are successful enough in the male-dominated public sphere as to warrant them press attention can then be assumed to be the ‘breakaways’ of the traditional system which still confines women. However, this study attempts to show that this is far from true.

Indeed my proposed research aims to deconstruct, through a critical study of female personalities represented in women’s magazines, underlying naturalized gender stereotypes which still hold the supposed ‘liberated’ women captive.

Thereafter, the relevant texts will be investigated at the semiotic level so as to present a full-fledged analysis and discussion. The linguistic explanation comprises a quantitative analysis of the text at the lexical, i.e., word choice, and/or clausal levels, i.e., transitivity patterning, syntactic transformations, and presuppositions.

The above theme was chosen because it is found to be the most salient in the general representation of the feminine in women’s magazines:

Women are often referred to in a different way from men in newspaper reports; however, not only are women more often referred to in terms of their sexuality, but also often in terms of their relations to others (Mills, 1995; 163).

Familial dependence, powerlessness and sexual and physical excess are some of the attributes predicated of women . . . (Fowler, 1991: 95).

The above essentialist representations contribute to women’s subordinate positions in society because women are defined mainly in terms of gender stereotypes, and not as autonomous individuals. In the same vein, elite or privileged women cannot be perceived as ‘liberated’ when they are still confined to such stereotypical portrayals.

The analytical framework that I will adopt for this study is critical discourse analysis, drawing eclectically on the tools and methods of the feminist analyst Sara Mills, and critical linguists such as Roger Fowler, Bob Hodge and Gunther Kress, who are themselves heavily influenced by Michael Halliday’s grammatical model.

1.2  Methodology

This research addresses issues of language, gender and ideology; hence various areas of research have been brought together here, resulting in a multidisciplinary approach. This essay provides a survey of the relevant literature in the areas of ideology, media discourse, gender/feminist studies and critical linguistics. I also attempt to show the common thread that runs through these multiple perspectives.

Part Two: Literature Review

2.1 The Role of Women’s Magazines in Society

Women’s magazines are pervasive in the extent to which they act as agents of socialization and the remarkable degree to which they deal and promulgate values and attitudes. For instance, they instruct women what to think and do about themselves, their lovers, husbands, parents, children, colleagues, neighbours or bosses. Added to this is the power of advertising which is directed at women through their pages and the conclusion follows: here is a very potent formula indeed for steering female attitudes, behaviour and buying along a particular path of femininity, and a female world view of the desirable, the possible and the purchasable. To the extent that their female readers accept their messages, the influence of those messages can be multiplied many times through a mother’s influence on her children, a wife’s influence on her husband, a lover’s influence on her partner, and women’s influence on one another.

2.2  Feminism and Women’s Magazines

I shall use women’s magazines as a case study of the way in which different feminist approaches have been utilized in media analysis.

As far as women’s magazines are concerned, there is a clear distinction between analyses conducted in the 1970s’ and those of more contemporary feminism.

For liberal and socialist feminists looking at women’s magazines in the mid-1970s, female oppression was perpetuated through romance and advocacy of submission and female consumerism. In what they viewed as almost a male conspiracy, the magazines were aimed at keeping women at their place, that is, as decorative objects for men or domestic home makers and carers.

In her classic text The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan ascribes mythic power to women’s magazines to keep women within their homes (1963: 59). Gaye Tuchman, in another classic text, Hearth and Homes: Images of Women in the Mass Media, writes: ‘The ideal woman, according to (women’s) magazines, is passive and dependent. Her fate and happiness rests with a man, not with participation in the labour force’ (1978: 18). Professor Tuchman looks at the way so-called “women’s magazines” present sex roles for women. She views the popular magazine as creating narrow, stereotypes roles for women, primarily to satisfy advertisers who sell products to women. Her concern is that these roles, repeated in all media, become models which women are compelled to follow. According to her, young women would be unduly influenced by this and would be ill-prepared for their place in society and in the work force. Analysis of the text, and occasionally the production process (women’s magazine journalism and the structure of ownership in the women’s magazine market), led to these pessimistic and sometimes angry evaluations. Given that readers were supposed to be ‘socialized’ by magazines and made to see the world according to the magazines’ priorities, there was no theoretical or other need to interview readers. She does, however, find hope in the fact that some magazines are responsive to the changing roles of liberated women.

One of the problems with this approach is that it assumes a passive audience, thereby ensuring that the readers soaked up the messages of the magazines unquestioningly. This view of the relationship between media texts and their audiences assume direct effects. If the media, in this instance, women’s magazines, were so powerful, what was it that protected the early feminists from the messages disseminated by the magazines? What defenses did they possess that enabled them to reject the influence of the magazines, given that they assumed that the magazines were such powerful tools in the subjugation of other women. As with the various moral entrepreneurs against media violence, these feminist writers must have assumed that their readings were the ‘correct’ ones and that being academics they were able to debunk the system. However it seems less than ‘sisterly’ to attribute such gullibility or extreme naiveté to all those non-academic women who were unable to understand the ‘true’ nature of ideological oppression offered by these magazines.

As feminist analysis developed, so did the construction of femininity. More attention came to be paid to different meanings of femininity, but underlined by the dominant understanding of what it was to be a ‘real woman’. Women’s magazines have been considered an important aspect of popular culture for women. They have often been seen as the pivot around which women’s personal and social identities have been created. Several feminist researchers have used magazines to demonstrate changes in the lives of women.

Angela McRobbie (1991) examined the codes of romance in the magazine Jackie. She maintained that teenage magazines such as Jackie encouraged girls to focus exclusively on romance and boyfriends at the expense of female solidarity and independence. In 1978, Judith Williamson decoded advertisements and argued that they had a critical role to perform in the ‘production of femininity’.

In women’s magazine research, two studies are partially based on the experiences of readers. Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Woman’s Magazine (1991) by Ros Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer and Sandra Hebron includes a chapter which reports on group interviews. Janice Winship’s Inside Women’s Magazines (1987) is a study of one reader, the author herself. Regretfully, the text of Ballaster et al. is preoccupied with how feminism can most effectively challenge gender difference as it is reified and fixed by women’s magazines throughout their centuries-long existence. It echoes the older feminist position of concern, which is combined uneasily with a more postmodern, celebratory tone that stresses the pleasure, the creativity and the criticism of readers: “When talking about magazines, women endlessly and delightedly, parody and mimic them, displaying their own literacy and mastery of its generic conventions’ (Ballaster et al., 1991: 35). On the other hand, the harmful quality of women’s magazines is emphasized, and this, however, implicitly undermines the respect shown to readers for their point of view: ‘Despite the clear-sighted criticism by a number of readers, it is not our view that the construction of femininity we find in the magazines is harmless and innocuous’ (Ballaster et al., 1991: 131). How do women’s magazines ‘harm’ readers? Do they do so more than other media or other constructions of femininity? Do harmless and innocuous constructions of femininity exist at all? These are questions the reader is left with. Consequently the only relatively comfortable reader position is to share the authors’ mixture of pleasure and guilt: ‘When we began work for this book we realized that our enthusiasm stemmed from our mutual pleasure in reading women’s magazines themselves, tempered by the knowledge that this pleasure is by no means pure, unambiguous and unproblematic…Reading women’s magazines can have exactly the same effect as eating two or more bars of chocolate – the original craving was real but in the end seems to have been for the wrong thing’ (Ballaster et al., 1991: 1).

Returning to Janice Winship (1987), she analyzed the way in which different magazines viewed the interests and desires of the women who constituted their readership and the ways in which these interests and desires changed over time. Winship’s Inside Women’s Magazines is a study of three women’s magazines, Winship’s personal favorites, situated historically. Women’s Own, Cosmopolitan and Spare Rib are all analyzed for the pleasures they offer and the criticism one might have as a reader at the same time. This is one book that can make one understand the pleasures of women’s magazines more than any other text available. In addition, Winship also defends Cosmo’s ‘inclinations towards feminism’ while upholding her own criticism of the magazine: ‘My own view is that it is cutting off our nose to spite our face to outlaw wholesale what Cosmo stands for, to say nothing of manifesting the worst aspects of a political “holier than thou” moralism (1987: 115).

The ‘cult of femininity’ propagated by women’s magazines was examined by Marjorie Ferguson (1983). She was concerned with stereotypical representations of gender: specifically the extent to which women’s magazines shape the roles and values to which women aspire. Underpinning these representations are crucially different assumptions about the respective positions of men and women in society and the appropriate behavior and collective attributes that such magazines should foster among their female readership.

Ferguson charted the history of what she calls the ‘cult of femininity’ which, she argues, was perpetuated in popular women’s magazines between 1949 and 1974. She also establishes that at the very heart of the cult is the notion that women share a common bond which separates them from men and transcends the differences amongst their own gender. In other words, the belief system preserved by women’s magazines reinforced their differences from men, and at the same time makes them feel that their weekly journal is a ‘surrogate sister’ and that through collective veneration they belong to an exclusive female ‘club’.

The cult of femininity is revealed in a detailed, although not comprehensive, content analysis of three most popular women’s magazines of the period: Woman, Woman’s Own and Woman’s Weekly. Ferguson concludes that two overall themes dominate the representations of women: ‘love and marriage’ and ‘self-identity’, the sense of self derived from husband and children. Indeed at a later stage in her discussion, she argues that the three female roles most frequently featured are wife, marriage-fixated single women, and mother. Yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, the representations of men are not explicitly aligned to status as husband/father, but rather by personal achievements related to work, money and success.

However there are several problems with the approaches we have outlined above:

  • They assumed passive audiences, that is, they assumed that female readers unquestioningly accepted everything that was offered to them.
  • They took a media-centric approach, that is, they assumed that the messages given out by the magazines and advertisements were more important to the gender socialization process than other influences such as family and friends.
  • They assumed that femininity was white and heterosexual.

During the 1980s’ the focus changed from a sociological approach to a more psychological approach. This became especially popular with cultural theorists who wanted to explain the ‘pleasures’ of reading magazines. It was understood that the glossy pages, colorful visuals, glamorous imagery and romantic fantasies associated with the construction of conventional femininity enticed readers to buy. Psychoanalytical analysis tended to see feminine identity as being unlike male identity in the sense it remained undeveloped until it was linked to adult male identity, by pointing them in the appropriate gendered directions.

Eventually, however, some researchers became uneasy about the assumption that women readers were victims of ideology, seeing this as both demeaning and naïve. So during the 1980s’ a gradual acknowledgement of the diversity of representations developed, together with acceptance of a more active readership. Women were given more credit as readers able to counter the ideological influence of the magazines, and the relationship between reader and magazine was viewed as less mechanistic. There was an end to the censorious feminist analysis and a move towards building a more fruitful relationship between feminism and femininity.

2.3  Postmodern Feminism: Sex and Magazines

Angela McRobbie (1996) has examined the tremendous success of the crop of glossy magazines aimed at young women, such as More!, Bliss and Marie Claire. What is postmodern about these magazines is their irony, exaggeration and breaking of sexual taboos. Sex has been given a privileged position in this aspect of popular culture. It has become ‘up-front’; sex covers the front pages and it is selling magazines. Sex now provides the framework for the magazines.

It is possible to argue that the postmodern age has taken a hold on women’s magazines, especially those aimed at younger women who have been less directly involved in the feminist struggle. These younger women have enjoyed equal opportunities in the educational and occupational stakes and are doing very well in both. This attitude towards freedom and independence is reflected in their magazines, but there are other factors at work too.

Why sex, why now?

  • Sex clearly sells magazines.
  • It suggests new forms of sexual conduct for young women.
  • It proposes boldness and brazenness in behavior.
  • It enhances sexual confidence and knowingness’.
  • It suggests an ‘ironic distance’ from the old rules of sexual behavior.
  • It uses an intimate, girls’ club mode of address and thus extends the possibilities of what it is to be a woman/girl.

McRobbie (1996) has researched the production of magazines, especially of the most popular young women’s magazines – More! and Marie Claire. She found that many of the editorial staff were young women who were graduates of media courses and themselves avid magazine readers. Indeed the readers had come to represent an extended community of the producers’ own circle of friends and acquaintances.

The emphasis on sexuality is a newer way of drawing the boundaries of a fixed gender identity, of what it is to be female. Though this idea changes over time, the focus remains essentially on women as feminine, white and heterosexual. Others, such as black, Asian and lesbian women, remain marginalized but are given token acknowledgement in the form of ‘interesting’ features about them. The very popular magazine Marie Claire has a regular feature on women in other countries – a quasi-anthropological look at the world of women. These women are categorized as non-mainstream, as somehow ‘exotic’.

2.4  What about the Readership?

McRobbie (1996) argued that being a magazine reader is not itself a defining category (that is, women do not define themselves as a ‘Marie-Claire reader’), even though publishers may like to think it is. Readers of magazines, as well as being readers, have significant subjectivities influencing their lives – education, family, age, community, social class, ethnicity and other media. They easily ‘slip through the net’ of the more fixed subjectivities offered by the magazines. Brand loyalty is uncertain, cruising is the order of the day. Magazines have to shout loudly from the shelves in order to be bought – hence sex and more sex.

The new postmodern sexual subjectivity indicates a transition of fluidity in what it is to be a (young) woman today. New sexual movements are being acknowledged, especially feminist and gay politics. These newer magazines have produced a new kind of openness about what it is to be a woman, which is not narrow, prescriptive or traditional. It is interesting to see that sales of Cosmopolitan have slipped in relation to other glossy magazines; although it is still a market leader, its appeal rests on a more American style of femininity that involves keeping your man happy while still being successful at work.

Where does this new sexual emphasis come from? McRobbie argues that it is a process of ‘denaturalizing sex’ – we need to learn how to do sex properly. Rather than an assumption that, like romance, ‘it all comes naturally if you are with the man you love. Both romance and sexual expertise have been revealed as myths and they have been replaced by a much more frank, even mechanical approach to sex, but one which is without the cold, clinical or moralistic language associated with sex education’ (McRobbie, 1996: 186). The consequences of this change can be summarized as follows:

  • Female sexual pleasure is emphasized.
  • Romance is demystified.
  • Sex is no longer viewed as magical and ‘sacred’.
  • It is possible that increased awareness of AIDS has also had an impact on casual sexual encounters.

Postmodernists argue that the main emphasis in popular culture is on irony, parody, mockery and a shared knowingness. This is clearly illustrated by the new magazines that trade in shared dreams and fantasies, not ‘truths’. So we are faced with complex and contradictory female subjectivities – a postmodern sexuality as the model for temporary female sexuality and a new framework for young women’s self-identities.

In conclusion, though there seems to be an increasing focus on strong, frank and explicit sexuality and sexual representation, the topical discourse is around safe sex, sexual subjectivity, self-knowledge and self-reflexivity, all aspects of the postmodern condition.

2.5  Women and Body Image

Feminists have expressed concern about the limited and generally negative representation of women in the media because they believe that it has a negative effect on attitudes towards the status of women. Recently concern has been expressed about a possible link between the representation of women’s bodies on the one hand and eating disorders and the distorted body images held by young women on the other.

Since the 1980s there has been an increased awareness of eating disorders among young people, especially girls, and statistics indicate that the frequency of eating disorders is increasing. Even girls as young as 11 or 12 are worried about their weight and body size and are striving to achieve unrealistic body sizes at very young ages. This has led some researchers to question whether the media might be in part responsible for imparting unhealthy messages about body size to young women. Magazines aimed at teenage girls have come under considerable attack from some feminists for their preoccupation with romance and reinforcing a dominant ideology of femininity. Women’s magazines have been attacked for their limited and traditional content, providing step-by-step guidance on how to be a ‘real woman’. Indeed for these women who have not succeeded in achieving complete femininity, there are important DIY (Do It Yourself) makeovers about achieving the ideal body weight, self-improvement and agony aunt columns.

In the past, public concern has been voiced about the ‘superwaifs’ of the 1990s’ – abnormally thin fashion supermodels. Their size has led to much speculation that many models are suffering from eating disorders and much criticism has been directed at the fashion and beauty industry for the message that ‘thin is in’. Research into women’s magazines seems to indicate that since the 1950s models have become steadily thinner. The message conveyed in women’s magazines seems to be that thinness equates with good health and attractiveness. However this is not new. One of the early American researchers into anorexia, Bruch (1978), said that she related the illness to ‘the enormous emphasis that fashion places on slimness…magazines and movies carry the same message…drumming it in, that one can be loved and respected only when slender’. This continued emphasis on slimness and indeed ‘thinness’ may have consequences for adolescent girls’ perception of the ideal body size and the increase in eating disorders among young women.

Rosalind Coward (1984) argues that advertising encourages women to view their bodies as a ‘project’, and one, rather like DIY, that can always be improved upon. This barrage of images produces in women a feeling that there is much work to be done before their own bodies can match the image of perfection in advertising. Moreover, women receive far more messages than men about staying in good shape.

Indeed the sheer number of advertisements and articles involving body shape or dieting aimed at women readers in the 1980s’ was staggering in comparison with those aimed at male readers. However in the 1990s’ we have witnessed a new range of men’s magazines that emphasize body size and the importance of staying in good shape. Therefore concern with the body and image may no longer be the sole preserve of women’s magazines.

Part Three: Discussing the Implications

Most of the female personalities are predominantly portrayed as passive in women’s magazines. That is, women are represented less in terms of ‘active’ processes or as agents, especially in terms of their work in the public domain, particularly when compared to their male counterparts. In contrast, in the private domain where they are expected to be active housewives and mothers, they are indeed portrayed as such in the press profiles.

Indeed women are all identified significantly in terms of how they look. As Sandra Bartky (1988: 42) has observed, “normative femininity is coming more and more to be centered on woman’s body and its sexuality.’ The preoccupation with their physical/sexual appearance is made more obvious when they are compared to the male personalities who have little or no attention paid to how they look.

The overall dominant representation of the female personalities in women’s magazines also works against their public image as independent career women. This is because a stereotypical representation focuses attention on them as women who fit the general mould, hence undermining their individual public identities and professional roles, and putting them in a subordinate position in relation to the men.

Taking into account the above summary, the discourse of the press profiles is therefore understood as perpetuating the patriarchal assumptions of society as a whole. This study also substantiates my claim that the dominant ideology maintains the subordination of women in the social hierarchy worldwide. This ideology is able to exercise its power in this way because it constitutes the “ideological common sense”, i.e., that which sustains unequal relations of power (Fairclough, 1989: 81) in this type of media discourse. The wider significance of my research is that women themselves might not be aware of their own subordination because such stereotypical, ideological assumptions often go unchallenged as they rest upon taken-for-granted ways of doing, thinking and being, which are reinforced everyday by social discursive practices.

As a result, a critical analysis of women’s magazines has revealed that the subordination of women in the social hierarchy of power is still very much the grim reality. Undoubtedly, the media is a prime site in which the contestation of meanings is constantly played out in the contemporary society (Scannell, 1998: 253). Thus, likewise, the ideological discourse of the press globally must be understood as a site and source of struggles over the control and definition of meanings.

My research is important for two important reasons: firstly, it focuses on women, who are rarely a subject of study; secondly, it provides a complex mapping of the structure and fabric of patriarchy universally. In this regard, I am extending recent arguments within Gender Studies that the term patriarchy must be understood as a socially and culturally variable influence on social life, and neither rejected as ‘essentialist’, or safeguarded as a monolithic category of analysis.

Given the above, I hope that my proposed research will be able to contribute albeit modestly to the empowerment of alternative feminist voices seeking to contest the dominant ‘truth’ politics of patriarchy in press discourse.


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