A critical approach to womans magazines in current society
This essay will discuss women’ magazines and the functions they have for their readers.
It will focus on mainstream popular magazines with a target group of 18 – 24 year-olds.
It will argue that magazines are mass media and address their readers the way they see them; As a target group with a certain set of interests.
It will also discuss the mixture of information and entertainment that has been present from the early publications, and the amount and role of advertisement. It will also highlight some of the duality that is present on many levels of the magazines’ content.
The essay will claim that the magazines functions as a form of informative entertainment, and will argue that the magazines are used as a way of relaxation; they open a dream-world for ordinary people to fantasise about.
Women’s magazines are mass media and have in their address to women “postulated a set of shared and common interests, concerns, tastes and circumstance.” The magazines assume that all the women in their target group are alike and have the same interests.
(Ballaster, 1991: 161) “The editorial aim of the magazines is to constantly and endlessly say the ‘right’ things to the ‘right’ women” (Braithwaite, 1979: 110) This doesn’t have to be the universal truth, but the “right” truth to the “right audience”.
“Cosmopolitan is about YOU, your life, your hopes, your dreams and most important of all, your relationships” (Candy, 2002: 8) “Glamour is for successful, independent, modern women who know how to have fun, how to dress and how to spend” (Glamour, 2002: 2)
The typical mainstream magazine reader is white, middle class and heterosexual.
(Ballaster, 1991: 9) If you as a reader don’t fit into the set of assumptions, you are not part of the “right” audience and therefor unlikely to enjoy reading the magazine in question.
While women’s magazines cover a wide area of publications varying in content from specialised to more general interest magazines, they do have more or less the same functions. To acknowledge these functions it is important to realise that there exists a duality concerning most issues and the most obvious one is the general aim of the editors; “to produce a magazine both entertaining and useful for women.”(Winship, 1987: 52)
This duality is one of the keys to attracting a mass audience; The ability to join the real and the imaginary so that the boundary between the two becomes progressively vaguer. (McCracken, 1993: 5)
“This mixture of entertainment and advice has been consciously promoted by editors since the inception of women’s magazines” (Winship, 1987: 13)The first leaflets especially aimed at women that were distributed in the 1770’s and today’s “Cosmopolitan” both want to inform as well as entertain. ‘The Lady's Magazine’ in the 18th century offered a varied editorial diet of both instruction and entertainment (Braithwaite, 1979: 5) and the editor of British ‘Cosmopolitan’ have recently said “Cosmo is here to inform, as well as entertain you”. (Candy, 2001: 9)
To manage this, a lot of the editorial material is entertainment disguised as information. The magazines’ layout and graphical language portrays most articles as fun to read, but with a “serious” content.
The “agony columns” have always been one of the elements that have served as information as well as entertainment. The writers and “aunts” of these pages are often seen upon as “silly” by more “serious” colleagues and the problem pages as “unimportant”, but “aunt” McFadyean argues that “problem pages serve a crucial function for millions of readers who don’t have access to a world of councillors or sex- educators” (McRobbie, 1991: 156)
Information about sexual problems is widespread in these columns as well as relationship difficulties. To a girl whose partner’s condom has split McFadyean recommends the morning after pill and supplies her with information about how to get hold of it. To the girl who has been sexually abused since she was 2-years-old she gives several column inches on where she can get help
(McRobbie, 1991: 160)
This is clearly information, but it also serves as entertainment in the form of voyeurism, as readers seem to enjoy reading about other people’s troubles. Some experience a sense of pseudocommunity, noting, for example, that the advice columns aid them with their problems and help them to assure that other women experience similar difficulties (McCracken, 1993: 6).
It can be argued that the magazine industry is a twofaced industry, because their products are at the same time a medium for the sale of commodities to an identifiable market, women, and itself a commodity, a product sold in the capitalist market place for profit. It is also, of course, a text, a set of images and representations which construct an imaginary world and an imaginary reader. (Ballaster, 1991: 2)
The role of advertisement
The amount of advertisement have been a point of criticism for magazine publishers since it was first introduced as a means of keeping the cover price down and profits up. One view is that magazines are purely money- making-machines, and the editorial content is there only to attract readers. These readers will then see the advertisements and buy the products.
McCracken claims that “all of these magazines base their continued existence on the cycle of publishing profit, advertising and the women’s role as the primary purchaser of consumer goods.” suggesting that it is “only because of her spending power and buying patterns she is addressed at all by this attractive form of commercial culture” (McCracken, 1993: 10)
Advertisements are the profit making factor, and they are vital for the production of the magazines. This leads to a vicious circle of the reader complaining that popular magazines carry to much advertisement but the publisher needing to fill his pages with enough advertisement to pay his basic costs and provide his profit. (Braithwaite, 1979: 27)
The usual amount of purchased advertisement is about 50% – 60% of most women’s magazines. ‘Vogue’ who has even less editorial material claims that “ most of its readers buy the magazine to read the ads” (McCracken, 1993: 40) This shows that the duality of information and entertainment are present also on this level of the magazines’ content. Not only does the advertisements make the publisher a profit, but the magazines’ readers are entertained by the pictures and informed of new and existing products.
Women’s magazines’ editors argue that although there are a lot of advertisements there are important editorial material too. “I do believe magazines have a lot to say, otherwise no one would buy them” (Vogue) Lorraine Candy, editor of ‘Cosmopolitan’ argues that her magazine also provides its readers with a credible amount of serious content “In this issue we have 70 pages of features, NOT including fashion and beauty, of those only 15 are sex related” (Candy, 2001: 9)
Editor of ‘Women's Day’ have also argued;
Our goal as journalists and editors is to help women who are loyal readers in whatever arena they need support, from something as simple as do-ahead recipes that are as nutritionally sound as possible to something as serious as significant illness, financial need or emotional support.” (McCracken, 1993: 9)
Another important function of women’s magazines is, besides informing and entertaining their readers, to open up a fantasy world comprising of women’s needs and interests. “What you are offered from the cover is a careful balance between practical items linked to daily life and those which draw you, dreamily, into another world.” (Winship, 1987: 13)
Magazines are often read as time-passers and an escape from a busy reality; at the dentists office or at time spent commuting. We read them as relaxation at the end of a long day when children have at last been put to bed or to brighten up the odd coffee break and lunch hour when life is getting a bit though or simple dreary.” (Winship, 1987: 53)
Beatrix Miller, editor of ‘Vogue’ in 1976, claimed to be selling “60% a dream and 40% offering practical advice” (Winship, 1987: 13) The glamorous models and the too expensive clothes offers a dreamy lifestyle and even though few women readers will make an immediate identification with these cover images, they will respond to them selling an image to aspire to. Janice Winship argues that women find this fantasy world fulfilling because “women are placed first here. She is the centre stage and powerful.” The magazines persuade us that women, like the models, can succeed. (Winship, 1987: 11- 12)
This dreamy image is one of the main reasons why women’s magazines are so successful. Even though many readers complain about the amount of advertisements, too expensive clothes and far-fetched fiction this is what many readers buy the magazines to get. The ‘women’s world’ which women’s magazines represent is created precisely because it does not exist outside their pages. (Winship, 1997: 7)
As one ‘Elle’ reader put it ;
I love to look at the latest fashions, exclusive purses and beautiful make-up. It isn’t about having the money to buy these things, but the possibility of dreaming about it. To me this is a fantasy world, and I want the stunning models to be in that world. If the magazines’ models looked like me, and carried several pages showing me the best way to scrub a floor I wouldn’t buy them!” (Høgden, 2002: 12)
It is clear from examples given above that this duality is one of the attractions of the magazines. Women can read something they enjoy, whether it is gossip, fiction, true life stories or factual features, and in the same time learn something from it. This ability to mix the real and imaginative together is also, according to Michele Mattelart (McCracken, 1993: 5), the key element in attracting a mass audience. Women’s magazines does this on almost every level and is therefor hugely popular amongst its readers.
Women’s magazines functions as relaxation, escape from reality, entertaining and some times informative reading. The informative part varies greatly from magazine to magazine in truthfulness and relevanse, but is nonetheless present. Magazines like ‘Cosmopolitan’, ‘Company’ and ‘New Woman’ inform their readers of sexual issues, topical issues like domestic violence, rape and relationship related issues while ‘Elle’ and ‘Vogue’ focus more on informing their readers how to spend their money wisely on the latest fashions. And other magazines like ‘Women’s Own’ and ‘Allers’ inform about recipes and how to make your house look sparkling.
This is all categorised as information, but the content varies tremendously. It is also perceived as entertainment. The imaginary part of the magazines are filled with fiction and pictures. This is the part where the readers escape into another world, dreaming about being able to be as “perfect” as the models are, or to have the opportunity to wear some of the outfits on display. This part of the magazines are for some people the most entertaining part, as they enjoy looking at a dreamy world that doesn’t really exist.
This w/u was originally written by Haje Jan Kamps and Cecilie Haugen. It has been re-written to suit E2.
- Ballaster, Rob and others. (1991) Women’s worlds. Ideology, femininity and the women’s magazines The Macmillan Press LTD. London
- Braithwaite, Brian and Barrell, Joan. (1979) The business of women’s magazines. The agonies and the ecstasies Associated Business Press. London
- Candy, Lorraine (2002) Editor’s letter. Cosmopolitan March : 8.
- Candy, Lorraine (2001) Editor’s letter. Cosmopolitan October : 9.
- Glamour (2002) Glamour Philosophy and Profile The Conde Nast Publications Ltd. London.
- Høgden, Camilla (2002) Elle Post. Norwegian Elle February : 12
- McCracken, Ellen (1993) Decoding women’s magazines. From Mademoiselle to Ms. The Macmillan Press LTD. London.
- McRobbie, Angie(1991) Feminism and youth culture. From Jackie to Just Seventeen The Macmillan Press LTD. London
- Vogue (22 April 2002) E-mail from PR-office
- Winship, Janice (1987) Inside Women’s magazines Pandora Press. London