All societies have certain expectations of how males and females should behave, what they can achieve and what their purpose is within that society. These usual expectations are the dominant ideological views. Over the years expectations have changed, as have the ways in which men and women are represented but the question is to what extent do magazines reinforce these views?
The first magazine was published for men entitled The Gentleman’s Magazine and was all about hunting, shooting and fishing, the traditional pursuits of a gentleman, while the first for women was Vogue published in 1897. Within its pages the formula was simple – the 3 Rs – Romance, Royalty, Recipes – a formula that has changed little in some magazines. The Victorian woman was expected to be in charge of the household but had no independence of her own: status or financially, and all women were expected to have a husband and want children.
Some things have changed but, sometimes it seems, not that much. Women’s magazines increased in number until the 1960s but mainly confined themselves to reinforcing the dominant views of women as homemakers, wives and mothers; apart from a brief period when first of all women were encouraged into the workplace to replace the men gone to war, and then immediately after the war when they were enticed back into the home to allow the men ‘their’ jobs back. Betty Friedan criticises how she felt society discouraged women from making careers away from home and family.
Falling sales in the 1960s caused Vogue’s change of direction and the ensuing emphasis on body image and appearance created the current climate of obsession about our looks while generating whole new industries based on looking our best.
Cosmopolitan in the 1970s was the first women’s magazine to dare to suggest that women could be unconventional, could challenge the stereotypes and have a career and a man and even their own sex life! Sadly this too created a whole new set of neuroses.
We in Britain have lived in a patriarchal society for so long we no longer realise the effect that its views have had on the way we see ourselves. According to Laura Mulvey, the patriarchal society is a phallocentric society; one in which women are displayed as sexual objects and also where the male gaze is active and the female gaze is passive. Women see themselves through the eyes of men and are continually measuring themselves against male standards of beauty and femininity. While another theorist, Fiske said that magazines ‘reveal just how insistently and insidiously the ideological forces of domination are at work in tall the products of patriarchal consumer capitalism.’ We can best see these points in the front covers of both men’s and women’s magazines. On both there is almost always a woman; on a men’s her gaze will be ‘invitational’, ‘romantic’ or ‘sexual’ (as identified by Marjorie Ferguson) while on a woman’s magazine she will be either a ‘super-smiler’ or a ‘chocolate box’.
Janice Winship suggested that magazines were ‘like a club…the soaps of journalism‘ and again, look at the titles and it is immediately obvious: FHM, just the initial letters and often one is blocked by the model’s head.
Basically magazines divide not just down gender lines, as in the binary conflict theory, but women’s can be labelled aspirational (women should want to look like the model on the front and have the lifestyle displayed within) and men’s are accepting of what men are like and don’t encourage them to be any different. One recent modern exception to this is the magazine ‘Men’s Health’ where the model on the front is male, always muscular and this magazine, atypically, is very much like women’s in that it promotes lifestyles and appearance as things to work towards and that in buying the magazine you are one step closer to achieving. Even the titles of women’s magazines allude to the ‘More‘ culture, the idea that all women can be the ‘Best‘ and aspire to be such archetypes as ‘Eve‘ and ‘Elle‘.
In modern lifestyle magazines it could certainly be said that this medium generally reinforces the dominant ideologies of society and the exceptions to that stand out distinctively. But what has happened is that women end up confused by the variety of images or representations available to them. ‘Red’ magazine probably best illustrates this because within its pages we have the clash of executive woman with successful mother. Its own mission statement promotes it as for the woman who wants a life but has probably also got a home and family and aims to enable women to have it all but somewhat inevitably ends up making the reader feel inadequate because she can’t do it all and feeling dissatisfied with her lifestyle choices!