Understanding Women’s Magazines

  • How do their readers consume them?
  • What factors shape magazines?
  • Feminists see magazines as a problem; as an oppression of femininity.
  • The women’s mag industry circulates mags which promote society’s male view of what it means to be feminine.
  • Early feminism was concerned with the ‘unreal’ images of women.
  • Betty Friedan 1963 said Women’s magazines perpetuate inequalities, that they were pernicious and alienating of women from their true selves.
  • Later feminism, Janice Winship 1978, saw ideology as having a material form and magazines as an oppressive force, instruments of domination that the producers disseminated deliberately.
  • Louis Althusser (the neo-Marxist philosopher) work informed many of these studies and later it was realised that these studies saw women’s magazines as essentially closed texts that imprisoned women within a dominant set of ideologies, thus reducing the text some said to little more than an agent in the service of patriarchal capitalism.
  • Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s notions of civil society and the production of hegemony allowed women’s magazines to be conceived of as an arena of political contest rather than simply a site of ideological manipulation.
  • His view was that hegemony was a situation in which a class or faction is able to secure a moral, cultural, intellectual and therefore political leadership in society through an ongoing process of struggle and compromise. Hegemony is therefore a process not a given.
  • As such women’s mags were seen as a site where women’s oppression was debated and negotiated rather than merely reinforced.
  • Hebron and Winship: highlighted issues of inequality and offered solutions that were simplistic and concrete, but the individual was encouraged to change rather than society. Offering a ‘post-feminist’ life that could be ‘whatever you, the individual, make of it.Winship 1987.
  • Hebron realised that magazines while appearing to offer help they actually blocked any perspectives deemed too radical or ‘controversial’.
  • Winship realised that the pleasure gained from these mags was not free but highly coded.
  • Other studies revealed that magazines had the potential spaces for ‘resistant’ readings but lacked the substance to effect meaningful change in either society or even the magazine genre itself!
  • Steiner‘s study of Ms. was more optimistic about its possibilities. 1991.
  • Ros Ballaster’s study concluded that readers were actually very conscious of women’s magazines as ‘bearers of particular discourses of femininity’ and many were indeed able to make a ‘critical assessment’ of the content of the magazine.
  • ‘[The] disagreement [of readers] is a response to, a reaction to, these versions [of femininity]…
  • Joke Hermes challenged the idea that women’s mags could somehow harm readers 1995 and found readers to be quite independent of the text employing them at particular moments in the formation of fantasy and imagined new selves; she felt they needed to be analysed in context of the readers’ everyday lives.
  • Influenced by Post-modern feminist methods, more recent accounts have delved into issues of consumption and attempted to examine the relationship between feminism, femininity and women’s magazines, exploring the extent to which they foster dominant forms of femininity among their readers.
  • Marjorie Ferguson’s 1983 study of production, consumption and the women’s press has offered the only study to date of production.
  • She argued that the relationship between women’s mags and their audiences was akin to that of the religious cults and their adherents, as outlined by Emile Durkheim. She argued that femininity can also be regarded as a ‘cult’ – a denomination in which magazines represented the holy testament.
  • For her then the editors are extremely important as custodians of the feminine cult and by setting the agenda within the magazines they were in a powerful position. The women’s mag ‘determinedly defines the female condition positively and ultimately around finding a male [and] equally determinedly defines women negatively in terms of their common oppression by men…
  • Although she gave only limited attention to the readers’ understanding of mags the patterns of economic ownership within the mag industry were presumed to determine fairly directly the activities of those working within it. They administered production processes in the interests of capital and any creative process was presented as a standardised, rational and thoroughly predictable process.
  • Reed’s study at Hearst magazines 1996, discovered from the position of women within the organisation that important shifts had taken place in the industry’s working practices and these had brought in turn a profound set of cultural changes within the industry and that industry concepts of their readers were also significantly modified.
  • Angela McRobbie’s study in 1996 discovered that the reader is regarded within the production as one of their own circle of friends. Market researchers also participated in this, helping to deliver the reader shaped into a concrete consumer profile. Even recruitment policies at mags ensured that the employees shared the same view as the reader, embodied the qualities of this ideal reader.
  • She also discovered that sexuality had replaced romance as the magazines’ ideological focus. In addition many new employees were uni graduates in media texts and had the same feminist world view as the readers and mags such as More! and Marie Claire thus spoke to readers about sexuality in an idiom that was ‘mocking and ironic’ thus providing a counter-hegemonic space for critical reflection and turning the tables on men who had for years scrutinise women as sexual objects within the universe of glossy magazines.
  • New women’s weekly magazines like Bella and Best, were shown to differ from the traditional ones like Woman because they offered the ‘illusion of participation’Oates 1999.
  • It must be remembered that the meaning of women’s magazines is not generated at the moment they are read by their audience but also at the point of production

 


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