Why do magazines target their readership by gender?

For thousands of years society has been composed of binary oppositions. From the old Chinese yin and yang through to male / female, hetero-sexual / homosexual divisions of today. Gender is probably the most obvious and most familiar way of categorising humans on the planet.


In the magazine world there are very few magazines which do not target by gender and those are usually the likes of the Radio Times and others, some hobby magazines and increasingly food and drink magazines where male and female interest are just as likely.


Of course within the gender divide there are many subdivisions because obviously young girls who read J17 are not interested in the same things as older married women with kids who might read Elle or Red. In the male magazine market those for younger males, such as Nuts, Zoo and FHM, tend to encourage ego-centricity, a fondness for alcohol, fast cars and women, as men get older magazines should tend to encourage more solid and traditional virtues (if only there were any of these magazines!)


The real question that needs answering is what exactly is gender? Interestingly in one of my magazines, Eve from May 2002, there’s a whole article on gender. From its puff ‘The smarter women’s read’ we immediately are encouraged to see this magazine as having some serious reading material. The strap-line on the front cover reads, ‘Sex Bombshell Jaw dropping news about who’s really male or
female‘ and within the article are a whole host of ordinary people who are tested for various hormones and then rated male or female accordingly. The conclusion, perhaps shockingly for some, is that surprisingly some really masculine males are actually quite feminine and vice versa and actually suggests ‘Maybe it’s time to drop the labels and celebrate our differences.’ Nevertheless it is quite clear what society expects of its women and its men and magazines to a large extent perpetuate that ideological viewpoint.


Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze Theory states that women are used to seeing themselves and their role through the eyes of men and that all that we do and want to be is seen in that context. In male dominated societies such as ours it is only inevitable that men have dictated what it means to be a woman and men have traditionally wished for women to be beautiful but unquestioning and submissive.


Traditionally men’s roles and their representation by the media were quite straightforward. From 1731 when The Gentleman’s Magazine began and was full of articles on hunting, shooting and fishing, with appropriate pictures of course, men were quite sure that to be a man you had to be interested in these hobbies, politics and the accumulation of wealth. In 1897 Vogue, the first magazine for women, was launched. The cover conventions were exactly the same as they are in the industry today. The ideal reader is represented on the front and the contents were the 3 Rs – Royalty, recipes and romance. Such were the interests of the traditional female. Very little has changed in the world of the female magazine despite the supposed liberation advocated by Cosmopolitan. Again from my copy of Eve, the cover-lines include ‘how to be naturally fit’Anti-ageing supplements…’ ’39 Body Boosters – Lingerie you’ll love’ and ‘The world’s best – sights, places, experiences’ With a supplementary cover-line suggesting Meg Ryan doesn’t ‘have a clue’ about dating we realise that we are all still expected to be interested in the same old subjects we’ve always been told we should be! Only today celebrity has replaced our old obsession with royalty.


Angela McRobbie recognises that the supposed feminist revolution popularised by Cosmopolitan and others failed to carry forward all of feminism’s messages. Although they were quite vociferous in their assertion that women should expect real pay for real jobs they seem to have lost the idea that you don’t have to conform to a glamorous ideal to succeed and rarely do we get other than glamorous women inside the magazines let alone on the front covers. And still my copy of Eve has pages of ‘mouth-watering recipes.’ And ‘How to do everything better (e.g.)…get him in the mood with food.’ So much for the 21st century woman!


Foucault and Giddens wrote about how people create a sense of self and construct identities and lifestyles and magazines are just one of the many kinds of guides available in society today.


Now a magazine like FHM is a different kettle of fish! Even Loaded is quite playful about gender identity, though apparently quite often that gets lost in the jokey laddishness, but FHM particularly offers quite a broad range of masculinity types. When David Gauntlett confessed he got fed up with the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ which men’s magazines project (and he was referring to Playboy, Penthouse etc) he went for FHM as a change. ‘It is the most ‘nice’ ‘ of the men’s magazines in that it was fun when its insecurities broke through its veneer of confidence. Yet FHM in its mission statement aims to try to cultivate a man who is ‘Good in bed, happy in relationships, witty, considerate, skilled in all things.’ The good thing about a magazine like FHM is that it does allow its readers to acknowledge that relationships do go wrong and that sex isn’t always perfect. Although often it goes about it in a jokey way e.g. ‘ Help! My woman is broken!‘ yet its advice is usually about not being a selfish lover. To this extent at least this kind of magazine has broken the mould of the previous generation of magazines. The magazine presumes that its reader is of average attractiveness yet cover photographs always imply that the model is ready and waiting for him and him only! Because she can’t resist him! The editor of GQ once said ‘ a magazine which aims to address men’s interests must necessarily include beautiful women.’


Loaded was the vanguard of the new Lads movement which recognised that its readers were trapped by the women’s movement in a situation of shifting gender roles, feeling unloved and useless and in a growing masculinity crisis, and that they needed cheering up. These magazines did this by allowing lads to be lads, to enjoy going out and getting drunk, one night stands, liking fast cars and fast women etc Nuts and Zoo are just the latest additions to the market and whereas at one time the subject matter and covers would have been regarded as inflammatory, in this post-modernist era they seem to be looked on fondly as ‘alright’!



Ultimately magazines are merely vehicles for the advertisers and it is they who dictate so much of how a magazine looks and who they target. In this way too then, to target by gender seems particularly sound financially. Traditionally women are in charge of household expenditures and men spend the larger amounts on the bigger items, cars, hi-fis, computers etc to maximise effectiveness and minimise costs advertisers choose magazines with well known and researched audience profiles. Using the ABC figures and mission statements produced by the magazines themselves they choose their vehicles carefully before investing but this does mean that they get quite a lot of say in the positioning of adverts within the text. As Tina Gaudoin said, ‘Editors are not in charge of the mags. It is the men in grey suits.‘ In terms of advertising the least important group is the middle-aged, lows-income group. McCracken identified covert advertising as cunningly disguised in the form of advice, ‘If a beauty columnist recommends a certain product the reader will feel more confident buying it.’ And ‘often editorial matter is an extension of the overt advertisements.’


Magazines target by gender because they believe this is what their reader wants; women want to read their own magazines and men their own. But of course it is yet another example of a situation that has actually been created by the media – that women are told they should have their own because women are different from men and they necessarily have different interests. Interestingly a magazine like Cosmo is well aware that they have a much wider readership than their actual sales figures would suggest – and a large proportion of those who read friends’ copies are men!


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