Women’s Magazines: The Contemporary Guide to Feminine Subjectivity

It all begins at birth, when a new life emerges and the doctor cries “It’s a Girl!”. The anatomy distinction is the easy part, but what does it truly mean to be a female, born into this world where gender’s association to identity is constantly being negotiated? There was a time when a women’s role was much more defined and her identity was strictly formulated by her environment which taught her most, if not all, that she needed to know in order to assume her cultural role, mainly as wife and mother. Today, in a society of cities where women have taken on a diversity of roles in an environment of opportunity and freedom, identities are much less defined and constructed than before. But what does this mean for a young woman, who is seeking for definition in an environment that no longer provides her with easy, unavoidable access to one?
When I was young, I learned much from my environment about how I should behave, how I should dress, how I should regard my sexuality; but then I learned from the media about what women could act like, look like and be like. Women’s magazines were my primary source. I envied how beautiful and stylish the women looked. I loved to read about the steamy romances and relationship problems. I read all the adds that told me their products could make me beautiful too, and I did all the quizes to see if I was too selfish, or too shy. But most of all, I read all about sex. As young teenagers, my friends and I would hide with a Cosmopolitan or Glamour magazine, a little too old in content for us, and read about how to please your boyfriend, or get lipstick that wouldn’t come off while kissing, or how to know if your man was cheating, and we giggled with excitement about what was to come for us. The magazines showed us the glamourous, sexy women and we wanted to be like them and look like them; have all those fun experiences. Here was a guide to an identity, but not one as a daughter, or a Catholic, or a girl, but one of a girlfriend, a business associate and most of all, a beautiful, sexy woman. So upon receiving a project to write about a method of communication in the light of culture, drawing on my own experiences, I could see no other medium that communicates popular culture and gender definition, of course in relation to the dominant discourses, better than the contemporary women’s magazine.
I would like to explore how, in an increasingly large and disassociated society, where a woman’s identity is less inwardly defined, women’s magazines have managed to become a primary source in the effort to construct a female identity which conforms to the ideals of contemporary culture, and is so determined by consumerism and changing gender roles. Since it has recently been Glamour magazines 60th anniversary, and the magazine is one of the leading magazines in North America, I would like to draw on it for examples of how a woman’s magazine attempts to construct identity in regard to personality, appearance and sexuality. I would also like to discuss the advantages and disadvantages to such a medium and its methods in regard to the construction of a female identity driven by both popular feminism and consumerism.
Chris Weedon, author of Language and Subjectivity, describes that there is a
…common-sense assumption that there is a natural way for girls, boys, women and men to be. This gives rise to a battle to fix particular versions of femininity and masculinity as natural….a struggle to fix meaning temporarily on behalf of particular power relations and social interests. (98 )


Society wants to establish gender identities that will best conform to an established cultural and political order. There is a desire to maintain boundaries in regard to appropriate gendered behavior and identities, which will enable society to maintain its structure and order. Such determined identities change over time, yet are directly related to the cultural and political climate of the time. Identities are thus constantly re-negotiated and re-presented by the dominant discourses that must maintain them to retain stability and power. In her article, More!: New Sexualities in Girls’ and Women’s Magazines, Angela McRobbie writes: “the women’s magazine [is] possibly the most concentrated and uninterrupted media-scape for the construction of normative femininity” (172). Micheal Schudson, in his article The New Journalism, elaborates: “The news [in papers and magazines] serves primarily to create, for readers, satisfying aesthetic experiences which help them to interpret their own lives and to relate them to the nation, town, or class to which they belong” (142). Hence, Glamour, and the other highly popular women’s magazines, target North American women, predominantly white, heterosexual and middle to upper class, in their efforts to relay the dominant discourses of society and encourage women to adapt to them in regard to their feminine identities. “Follow this practical advice or buy this product and be a better lover, a better mother, a better wife, a better woman” (Storey 148 ).
But women’s identities, as depicted and encouraged in the magazines, are not only directed by the dominant discourses, but also by the consumer industry. As explained by John Storey, in his book Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: “[Popular Culture] is presented as that which holds ‘the people’ in thrall to the commercial and ideological manipulations of the capitalist culture industries” (181). The dominant discourses support a capitalist cultural ideology, which encourages and advertises consumerism as a means to acquire the media represented, dominant identities. “[A]dvertising occupies a critical place in the production of femininity” and the magazine serves as one big advertisement of the dominant ideologies and identities (McRobbie 173).
The magazine could be seen in similar terms as an environment of images and meanings which deliver the reader to themselves as ‘shaped up’ individuals…and also as consumers into the hands of the cosmetics companies without whose advertising revenue the magazines could not exist. (McRobbie 181)
Therefore, magazines present the ideal women as one who becomes so through consumerism. And as Rosalynd Williams states, in her article Dream Worlds of Consumption: “Consumer goods, rather than other facets of culture, became focal points for desire” (166).
With the growth of industry and the higher wages of many citizens, beginning in the twentieth century, more and more products were produced that went beyond those of necessity i.e. food clothing and shelter, thus new needs were created by industries. Which such and such a product one could live a better life. William Leiss, Stephen Kline and Sut Jhally, in their article Advertising, Consumers, and Culture, expand: “marketers and advertisers eventually fashioned a richly decorative setting for an elaborate play of messages, increasingly in imagistic or iconic form about the ways to happiness and social success” (207). Society today is so rich with industry and production, that the need to create more needs is excessively high. Industries count on extensive, sophisticated advertising to help sell more and more products that are produced and becoming available every day. Women are primary consumers and thus they are the best targets. What better medium than their own magazines, to advertise, and potentially sell, all the products that make our consumer culture tick?
So this is what magazines are made of—dominant discourses meet capitalist, consumer culture—but what are they telling women? What kinds of identities are women supposed to have, according to the dominant discourses and industries? The magazines provide the guidelines for it all: the right personality, appearance and sexuality. To an audience that is perhaps unsure of themselves, or is perhaps searching for a way to deal with an environment so diverse, the women’s magazine becomes the guidebook par excellence.
I would first like to discuss some of the reasons why there has developed a need for such a guide at all. Jib Fowles, in Mass Media and the Star System, develops this discussion:
In moving from farms and small villages to towns and cities [beginning in full force after the Civil War], individuals were undertaking a radical shift from one kind of social existence to another. The lower the human density had been in rural areas, the stronger the social emphasis had been upon conventionality, fellow feeling and cohesion. But in the cities, the higher the density became, the greater was the extent of impersonality and normlessness. (197).
In smaller, more cohesive environments, individuals were part of a collective whole that provided personal definition amidst strong “religious and community pressures [that] lent sure guidelines to beliefs and behaviors” (Fowles 197). “But once individuals had joined the urban throng, they were stripped of those supporting prescriptions and left to their own devices. For the new urbanites the abiding question became one of self-definition” (Fowles 197). People looked and “needed models of personality—models of worldly, successful, attractive people” (Fowles 198). Primarily, these models were discovered in film and people flooded to the cinema where they could catch a glimpse of behaviors, appearances and identities that were popular and admired by all. Magazines are a contemporary form of this star system and remain a means for people to find models for an identity that will bring them success in today’s society. “[W]omen’s magazines…operate as survival manuals” (Storey 147). They demonstrate how one should act and behave and for people in an urban environment, without the support and guidance of a smaller community, “identities [have] to derive from inside, not outside. To establish the self [calls] for establishing one’s personality” (Fowles 198).
Glamour provides the perfect guide to successful, amiable, popular and contemporary personalities. “The magazine, as adviser or agony aunt, can come to the rescue of any unfortunate reader who is counseled in a way which assumes a fundamental shared commitment to dominant femininity” (McRobbie 182). Glamour provides guidelines for personality in four main ways: 1) the quiz, to access yourself in relation to how you “should” be, 2) the advice columns, 3) articles addressing issues that relate to one’s personality or attitudes and, 4) the question column, which asks, are you too much, or too little, of this type of person or that?
The prime example of Glamour’s use of the quiz as a guide to personality is: “The Get-Ahead Guide to Jobs and Money” (March 99) (see fig. 1). The quiz asks its readers: “What’s your scorecard at work? Find out if your work style is propelling you forward or holding you back”. The quiz proceeds with various questions regarding the quiz-takers work habits, professional attitudes and ambition. Points are given according to one’s answer, more for “right” answers and less for “wrong” ones. Basically it tells women how to act as professionals with a good work ethic that will be admired, and how to treat bosses and colleagues in order to insure that they like and appreciate them. At the end of the quiz, depending on your points accumulated, it offers advice as to whether you’re on the right track, need minor adjustments or major changes. Thus Glamour supposedly guides the working women to a successful career by making her see what the best behavior should be and what behavior is faulty.
The second method Glamour uses, to help direct personality, is the advice column, which usually addresses a large audience as opposed to responding to individual, personal questions. Primarily, Glamour, in keeping with the star system, chooses well- known “personalities” to give advice to the masses. The prime example of this means of famous advice giving is called: “All-Star Allure” and it tells us: “Resistance is futile—take some personality pointers from these star charmers” (April 99) (see fig. 2). It depicts 5 famous actors and actresses with added personality captions to there first names: Wonder Will (Smith), Delightful Drew (Barrymore), Dear John (Cusack), Cute Keri (Russell) and Likeable Liv (Tyler). It advises “self-deprecating, sweet guy humor” like Will, “bubbling, giggling” character like Drew, “offbeat, oddball appeal” like John, “unaffected, innocent charm” like Keri, and “sweet big-screen smile” like Liv. Here, glamour offers character advice derived from the fictional characters that these actors and actresses play. The reader has no idea as to their real personalities, but they associate them with the movie roles they love and thus those personalities are the ones a reader seeks to incorporate. These stars are always successful, loved, admired and popular and so by being like them a reader hopes to have similar success.
The third method of constructing the “right” personalities amongst readers often involves lengthy articles, which explore various common personality deficiencies. Three examples here, offer women advice on how to stop trying to please everyone, how not to be shy and how to stop worrying. The first asks: “Do You Suffer From Serial Pleaser Syndrome?” (March 99) (see fig. 3). Hence implying that it is a personality disease that of course has a Glamourafied antidote. The article goes on to describe the various types of so-called “Live-To-Give” women and offers them advice on how to remedy themselves. The “over-apologizer”, the “boyfriend serf”, “the “family drudge”, and the “office martyr” all get advice on how to face their friends, boyfriends, families and colleagues and stand up for themselves, voice their own opinions, stop feeling guilty and gain some respect, recognition and confidence. It encourages women to be independent and to not have to be completely selfless. It is a contemporary view that a woman’s role is not that of always taking care of everyone while putting her own needs and desires at bay.
The next example “Bye-bye to Shy”, tells readers: “Don’t paralyze your potential—read here how to beat being bashful and stick out in the confidence crowd”(March 99) (see fig. 4). In following 6 easy steps, readers are told they can “Kiss [their] shy goodbye”. Glamour encourages: “1) Remember—you do a lot right. 2) Remind yourself: Unless you’re Madonna or the president, people usually aren’t watching you’re every move. 3) Go ahead—blame somebody else for once. 4) So, you’re not an extrovert? Fake it. 5) Breath. 6) Don’t be too shy to seek help”. In following these steps, a shy reader will hopefully become more outgoing and confident and thus have a “better” personality that will enable her to feel better about herself, meet more people and be more expressive.
The final example is called, “Are you a toxic worrier?” (April 99) (see fig. 5). It tells readers: “Here’s how to cleanse yourself of the useless anxiety that can poison your mental health”. There are four steps. “Step 1: Don’t isolate yourself. Step 2: Get the facts. Step 3: Make a plan. Step 4: Let it go”. Here Glamour is providing tools for the overly stressed out, worrisome women, for dealing with life’s busy schedules and numerous concerns, so that she may work towards the goal of peace of mind and body.
The forth method Glamour magazine uses to help women monitor their personality health is that of the questionnaire. They have a section called “20 Questions” devoted to this exercise. Three examples of such questions the magazine asks are: “Are you paying enough attention to yourself?” (September 98), “Do you care enough (or too much) about money?” (June 98), and “Are you decisive enough for your own good?” (March 99) (see figs. 6-8). The questions attempt to make readers reflect upon themselves and discover if they are acting as they should be. The questions are less instructive and more revelatory. Examples of these questions are: “what did you dream about last night?” or, “Quick: How much money is in your checking account?” or “Have you gone blond—or red or Winnona-short—on impulse?” or “Have you ever caught a waiter rolling his eyes as you change your order yet again?”. Such questions encourage readers to reflect, answer the questions, and determine whether they are neglecting themselves, care too much or too little about money, are not decisive enough, or make decisions too quickly. Glamour asks just the right questions, under the appropriate caption, to make readers realize aspects of themselves that perhaps need some attention and adjustments.
Thus Glamour uses four different methods to present common personality problems in women, and offers methods for women to improve themselves. The magazine also encourages women to reflect upon themselves and the proposed solutions, in order to help prevent them from further endangering their social and physical well being. Women can both look to Glamour for help and advice, and see examples of how successful people deal with life and cultivate amiable and admirable personality traits. For the most part, Glamour’s intentions are positive and their advice is useful for it attempts to help women feel better about themselves, have higher self-esteems and more confident behaviors. But in an authoritative position, Glamour is also defining for itself, based predominantly on dominant cultural discourses, what proper feminine personalities entail. “Gendered subject positions are constituted in various ways by images of how one is expected to…behave, by rules of behavior to which one should conform…and by the absence within particular discourses of any possibility of negotiating the nature of femininity” (Weedon 99). Clearly, Glamour is exclusive of many other interpretations of femininity as well as personality characteristics. Women are supposed to embody a mythical character, who is situated in the perfect medium of self and selflessness. They are not to be too concerned with money, or make decisions too quickly, or think of themselves too often, or try to please everyone, but they are supposed to please people, care about money, be adequately decisive etc. “[S]elfhood [becomes] a lifetime task for individuals: an endless series of exercises in self-improvement, personal development, self-expression, mental and physical tone, ‘selling oneself,’ cultivating approval, ‘winning friends and influencing people’” (Lears qtd. in Leiss et al. 210).
Consequently, as Ellen McCracken denotes, in her article The Cover: window to the future self, “Hidden beneath the glamourous ideals are subtexts that play on anxieties and encourage feelings of inadequacy, while promising pleasure and the acceptance and love of others if we purchase” (100, my italics). Purchase here includes the magazine itself, which offers all the answers, as well as the products, which can make women more beautiful, desirable, amiable and confident through their appearance. This leads us now, into the next area of instruction within the magazine: that of the appropriate feminine appearance and how it can be (supposedly) attained.
On every other page of Glamour, as well as any other popular magazine, there are advertisements. The majority of these relate to the appearance of women: how women should look, and what they can buy and do in order to look that way. Advertisements everywhere are rich in the displays of feminine beauty and perfection. It is inescapable in modern society. And though these advertisements and images may be appealing and even enjoyable, they are targeting women as primary consumers and are feeding off their sense of inferiority in hopes that this will lead them to consume more and more, in the endless plight for physical perfection. As McCracken critically reveals:
[Magazines] that use the photo of a glamourous woman to represent physical perfection rely on readers’ personal sense of inferiority, especially about their physical appearance. As Berger has noted, the consumer envies not only the glamourous model in the advertisement but herself as she will be in the future after having purchased the product advertised. (99)
Women see endless depictions of female beauty and perfection everywhere they look. Unfortunately, as Linda Lazier and Alice Gagnard Kendrick, in their article Women in Advertisements: Sizing Up the Images, Roles and Functions, point out, after having “been fed a steady diet of stereotypical, sexist, thin-and-flawless imagery [females] seem to be, quite frankly, socialized to it in a ‘that’s the way it is and that’s the way we do it’ mind set” (206). With only images of perfection surrounding women, women feel that that is what they must live up to and work towards in order to be both beautiful and desirable. Glamour provides a premium example of such advertisements that portray idealistic women so that other women will buy the product advertised to hopefully look like them. The example is a milk add with super-model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in a bikini (April 99) (see fig. 9). The add seems to be proposing that if you drink milk you can have bones and a body like Rebecca. Clearly this is ridiculous. No matter how much milk the average women drinks, she will never have a body like this. When this body is an example of the female body in the media, women could not avoid feelings of inferiority. Bodies like this are so unrealistic as representations of the female form, for it is only a very small part of the population that possess such attributes. Therefore, “the portrayals of women in advertising are not only potentially debilitating and demeaning, but they are also inaccurate. We do not have a demography of demigoddesses” (Lazier and Kendrick 200-201).
Sandra Lee Bartky, in her article, Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power, explores the effects of advertisements on women. She comments:
The current body of fashion is taut, small breasted, narrow-hipped, and of a slimness bordering on emaciation; it is a silhouette that seems more appropriate to an adolescent boy or a newly pubescent girl than to an adult woman. Since ordinary women have normally quite different dimensions, they must of course diet. (64)
And so, to come to women’s “aid”, “[m]ass-circulated women’s magazines run articles on dieting in virtually every issue” (Bartky 64). Magazines, such as Glamour, propose dieting, as a means for women to attain the physique of the model. This highly idealistic physique is the only one that women have to go by. Thus women are striving for a body that is not of normal proportions, or realistically attainable. Consequently all attempts to encourage dieting for health reasons appear superficial. Bartky elaborates:
Dieting disciplines the body’s hungers: appetite must be monitored at all times and governed by an iron will. Since the innocent need of the organism for food will not be denied, the body becomes one’s enemy, an alien being bent on thwarting the disciplinary project. (65)
Women are often made to feel ashamed about their bodies and are forced to monitor every piece of food they eat. They often sacrifice their health in their efforts to become as thin as models that are almost always of a much greater height than the average woman and who are also often unhealthy themselves. Lazier and Kendrick unveil:
A greatly increased reporting of the incidence of eating disorders among young American women in the 1970’s and 1980’s prompted some media critics to suggest that unattainable physical ideals portrayed in the media contributed to an eating disorder epidemic. (Creedon 208)
Furthermore, dieting is not sufficient alone as a disciplinary measure for women to attain the ideal body, women must also work hard and exercise, to sculpt their bodies into the right dimensions. “[T]here are classes of exercises meant for women alone, these designed not to firm or to reduce the body’s overall size, but to resculpture its various parts on the current model” (Bartky 65-66). Women are constantly exposed to what the ideal mold is and are lead to believe that they must, or even can, conform to it. Glamour illustrates this with their piece “Ballerina Butt—A star dancer tells you how to get one” (April 99) (see fig. 10). Along side a picture of a beautiful, perfect body, there are instructions on how to do exercises: the “pelvic life”, the “grand plié” and the “relevé”. If women do these exercises, and listen to the dancer with the great butt, they can “get one” as well. Doing these exercises three times a week may very well help women to get firmer bottoms, but not one like the toned and shapely ballerina. Magazines are full of exercises, diet plans, diet products and pills, and even clothing that can help hide or minimalize those unattractive or imperfect parts of one’s body. They provide a never- ending source of created needs and provided answers.
In addition to slaving over one’s proportions, women are also motivated to ornament the surfaces of their bodies and maintain them to perfection. “A women’s skin must be soft, supple, hairless, and smooth; ideally it should betray no sign of wear, experience, age or deep thought” (Bartky 68). Also, the women must master an exhaustive number of beauty tools and products. She needs shinny, volume-giving hair products, makeup to hide imperfections, to highlight her eyes, excentuate her lips, curl her lashes, and add color to her face. She also needs nailpolish, teeth whitener and sweet smelling creams and perfumes. She must become an expert with the curling iron, the hair dryer, the nail file and the tweezer. These products and tools, along with dieting and exercises are all part of the “disciplinary practices a woman must master in pursuit of a body of the right size and shape and that also displays the proper styles of feminine motility” (Bartky 68). Two Glamour adds demonstrate how products guarantee that women can appear more beautiful with their product that is better then the others. The first is an add featuring a cover-up face makeup, appropriately called “True Illusion”(September 98) (see fig. 11). It promises to provide a look that is flawless and it calls itself a “beauty breakthrough”. It implies that if a women uses this makeup she can hide all her wrinkles, pimples, or any other “flaw” that is preventing her face from being perfect. The second add proclaims: “Beauty’s A pain…Except when it’s painless” and it is depicting the new Schick Silk effects razor (June 98) (See fig. 12). With this razor, women supposedly wont have to suffer so much to be beautiful, thanks to Schick, now beauty will be less painful and more accessible.
But clearly, the disciplinary project of femininity is a “setup”: it requires such radical and extensive measures of bodily transformation that virtually every woman who gives herself to it is destined in some degree to fail. Thus, a measure of shame is added to a woman’s sense that the body she inhabits is deficient. (Bartky 71)
Unfortunately, it is this sense of shame and the desire to be more beautiful and like the models in the magazines, that keeps women buying products and magazines to read articles on how to lose weight and master imperfections. Anyone who develops a product that promises women that it will help them reach perfection, or do it easier or better then other products is guaranteed to sell because the media has already set the stage for perfection and the need for women to attain it. “[T]he media images of the perfect female beauty that bombard us daily leave no doubt in the minds of most women that they fail to measure up” (Bartky 71).
So why is it, that while “Soap and water, a shave, and routine attention to hygiene may be enough for him; for her they are not” (Bartky 71)? The answer “[i]n the regime of institutionalized heterosexuality, [is that a] woman must make herself ‘object and prey’ for the man; it is for him that these eyes are limpid pools, this cheek baby-smooth” (Bartky 72). Women’s magazines devote themselves to encouraging women to catch a man and they will show you and tell you how. The appearance of women is not guided by health concerns or physical fitness, it is guided by the desire to attract. A woman is presented as having to be attractive to men in order to be successful in all of her endeavors. Unfortunately, in our society, this has become required of her. Flight attendants, T.V hosts, actresses, etc. must all put their bodies on display to please a society that expects nothing less, and anyone else, whose position is not of a public or service nature, must still be on display to get a man.
Glamour magazine, and many others, tell women all about how they should look, dress, accentuate their good qualities, hide their bad ones, in order to attract male attention. Though, cosmetics, nice clothing, soft hair etc. can benefit a women’s self esteem and thus make her feel more confident, cashing in on her insecurities is wrong. Ideal representations of women and encouragement to be like these representations, though it puts money into the hands of cosmetics and diet food companies, can also severally endanger a woman’s mental and physical health. Women are constantly reminded of their imperfections and are constantly fighting them, in pursuit of what magazines, as representatives of the industries, promise—success, love and happiness. Some rouge and lipstick cannot guarantee this and therefore it should not pretend to. If magazines are attempting to re-write a more liberated and positive identity for the modern woman, why must it be one that is manipulated and continuously made to feel inadequate? If women are less and less confined to their roles as wives and mothers, subordinate to society and men, than why must they be slaves to their own appearances, still in the search for societal approval and acceptance? It is most unfortunate that these boundaries still exist in regard to women’s appearance but fortunately, women’s sexualities are less and less confined and are offering women new alternatives in regard to their gender positions.
The final area in which women’s magazines seek to instruct women, is in regard to their sexuality. McRobbie explains that there is “an intensification of interest in sexuality. More than ever before sex now fills the space of the magazines’ pages. It provides the frame for women’s magazines in the 1990’s” (177). In large bold letters, sayings such as “LUST LESSONS Teach Them tonight!” (June 98), “A MONTH OF GREAT SEX—you know you need it – here’s how” (September 98), and “SIN-SATIONAL SEX ADVICE—How to Get Extreme Desire Back Into Your Love Life” (April 99), grace the covers of Glamour magazines, luring in their readers to steamy secrets and juicy details (see fig. 13). “[S]ex sets the tone, defines the pace, and shapes the whole environment of the magazine” (McRobbie 177).
First, sex appears on all the covers and within the pages of magazines, in order to sell the magazine. People are interested in sex. It makes them curious and excited, while simultaneously promising them ways to get, or give, wonderful pleasures. But “[s]econd, this sexual material marks a new moment in the construction of female sexual identities. It suggests new forms of sexual conduct, it proposes boldness (even brazenness) in behavior” (McRobbie 177) McRobbie develops an important discussion in regard to the increased and more liberal sexual content in magazines. She believes that such content is helping define new roles of femininity. These roles are less subordinate to men and indicate a shift towards equality in regard to sexuality. Re-writing sexuality becomes a means of re-writing a very important aspect of femininity. Thus, the new more sexually liberal attitude in magazines
…destabilizes the more singular femininity which the magazines once endorsed and, in blurring the line between good and bad girls, some of the tighter constraints of normative femininity are broken up; new alliances are also made possible, between girls no longer strictly defined according to the older grid of sexual behavior and conduct. (187)
With content that encourages women to seek and attain pleasure, women are encouraged to break from subordinate roles and sexual oppression. They are also encouraged to cultivate pleasures of the flesh, which are no longer only privileged for men. There is a revelation that women want sex, can enjoy it and should have it; Glamour even states “you know you need it”. Magazines offer advice to women on how they can better enjoy their bodies and sexual experiences with their partners. Glamour features several articles, such as “6 Secrets of Great Morning Sex”, for their readers to learn from and enjoy (March 99) (see fig. 14). Furthermore, Glamour represents sex as a healthy part of relationships and it encourages openness and honesty towards one’s partner. The article provides women with tips on morning sex revealing it as something that will help them feel good to start the day, that will enable them to spend time with their partner and that will be something both positive and comforting to engage in before heading off to work.
Glamour also encourages women to not feel ashamed about their sexual bodies but to be open and honest. Two features include “Women Talk about Their Orgasms” and “What puts a crimp in your sex life?” which exemplify this attitude (June 98) (see fig. 15). Glamour hopes that by encouraging this honesty and openness, women will feel better about, and more familiar with their bodies, and also have greater sex.
Sexuality, the ‘fictive unity’ par excellence, is thus the key modality by which we know ourselves. Sexuality in magazines in this ample, intensive, and visually expansive form provides a guide for how we might be expected to be, for how we might expect to feel. In this way it also produces and brings into being new frank, fearless and therefore free female subjectivities. (McRobbie 185-186)
The sexual content also encourages women to take care of themselves and protect their bodies. Magazines are filled with information on birth control and sexual protection. “HIV prevention programs…have found that magazines offer one of the most effective vehicles for promoting information about safe sex” (McRobbie 187).
Magazines, most importantly, encourage equality in relationships. Men and women are approached equally as sexual beings who have desires and need to work together to maintain a healthy, happy relationship in and out of bed. One example of this is “Are men and women equally satisfied?” (September 98) (See fig. 16). The article discusses couples’ opinions in regard to their partner and what qualities they appreciate and which ones they could do without. It helps couples determine what they need, have, and don’t have in their relationships. McRobbie believes that these new attitudes in regard to sex are stemming from emerging feminist discourses. She explains:
The emphasis on female sexual pleasure; the demystification of romance and the idea that sexual technique has to be learnt;…the wide availability of information; the assumption that knowledge is power; the attention to sexual health and to equality in sexual relationships; even the question of sometimes liking what is bad for us; all of these were issues endlessly debated in feminism from the mid-1970’s onwards. (186)
Hence, new sexual attitudes offered to women are indeed, in many ways, liberating. A woman who picks up a magazine is definitely encouraged to seek bodily pleasures without guilt. No longer is women’s sexuality confined to the wedding bed or for procreation. Unavoidably, there are many who are upset with such sexual liberalism, believing that it leads to promiscuity, sexual irresponsibility, teenage pregnancy, immorality, perversion etc. etc. but the implications of the discourses are positive. The discourses imply that women are re-writing their subjectivities in order to reflect the changing gender roles and identities of women. “Sexuality [has become] the modality for the construction of contemporary femininity in women’s magazines. It provides a frame for identity” and this new frame allows women much more freedom of expression, verbally, sexually and emotionally, and it encourages gender equality and positive, independent and liberated female attitudes (McRobbie 189).
Here we are then, women in an environment of constant change. The feminine gender roles are constantly being negotiated. We are part of an urban driven society that has lost much of its cohesiveness, and feminine subjectivities are less often defined by outer influences of community, family, religion etc. We do take our backgrounds with us, but we are thrown into a mediated world and thus the media has become are strongest guide both consciously and unconsciously. Hence, as we pick up a magazine, in a store, a doctor’s office, or a friend’s place, we are immediately given an image of the femme idéale. Here we have a guidebook that instructs us on how to act, how to look and how to approach our sexualities. This guidebook promises us success, happiness, beauty, pleasure, experience and love; how could we not be drawn to such promises? Thus we buy, we pluck, we read on. The feminine identity is changing day by day and we discover the boundaries, the one’s broken, and the one’s maintained. “[M]agazines inevitably draw up boundaries of a fixed gender identity, which in turn is assumed to be the natural sign of an original sexual demarcation as female” (McRobbie 181). And so we find a gender identity; one that will define us and integrate us into our culture; one that gives us all the answers on how we should be.
Women are no longer required to be chaste or modest, to restrict their sphere of activity to the home, or even to realize their properly feminine destiny in maternity: normative femininity is coming more and more to be centered on woman’s body – not its duties and obligations or even its capacity to bear children, but its sexuality,…and its appearance. (Bartky 81)
So here we have are new identities as women, no longer those of the past, but sexually liberated and beautifully ideal ones. This of course, as I have demonstrated in my analysis of Glamour magazine, which is just one example representing many similar to it, is both advantageous and harmful to women. “In the first instance, the magazine embodies the stereotype of objectified femininity, unachievable and unreal” (McRobbie 173). The magazines, filled with, and supported by advertisements, target us women as consumers. They portray images of ideal women and encourage us to feel inadequate in hope that we will purchase products to improve our image. This is very harmful to women, for it leads to feelings of shame and deficiency; it makes us enemies with our bodies, it leads to health problems such as eating disorders and it forces women to discipline themselves, ornament their bodies and constantly be on display. The positive side of this, is that magazines can also provide advice to women in regard to their appearance, or suggest products that may help women feel better about themselves which is something gravely in need.
Magazines also often positively contribute in regard to personality. Glamour is filled with articles to help one negotiate her attitudes and personality in order to become a “better” or happier person. In a world with less places to turn too for advice, magazines can be beneficial in giving the “stars” advice, the doctors steps to recovery, the psychiatrist’s easy methods to mental health etc. But it must be remembered that this “normative” femininity is both exclusive and based on dominant discourses. Glamour implies that it knows what is best for women, all women, but there are many who disagree, and who are unjustly placed outside of the boundaries Glamour establishes to determine femininity.
But on the other hand, though these boundaries are still exclusive, they are expanding. Sexual identity for women has changed more over the years than any other aspect of our gender. It is very surprising that a woman may still not get paid the same amount as a man for the same job, but she can be a sexually veracious, liberated, experimenting, anything-goes-in –the-bedroom, kind of gal. Clearly, magazines are windows into the new acceptable female sexuality as they depict it, maintain it, and even push it a little further, and this sexuality is contributing to changing female subjectivities and gender roles.
Thus the women’s magazine is not all that bad. We read them, we look at the pictures, read the juicy secrets, keep track of our quiz points, remember our lucky horoscope days and on and on. It is hard in today’s society to know how feminine identities and roles are changing. It is also hard to establish a modern subjectivity, devoid of much outer guidance. Glamour and the like, can then be good sources to help women who are in search, or in need, of some pop-culture guidance. So with its dangerous faults and with its positive contributing factors, magazines continue to sell and continue to communicate the dominant cultural discourses to women so that they might construct a feminine subjectivity within the normative feminine identities the magazine supports. For better or for worse, they are here to stay.

Sources Cited
1) Schudson, Micheal. “The New Journalism” Communication in History. Eds. David Crowley and Paul Heyer. New York: Longman, 1999.
2) Williams, Rosalynd. “Dream Worlds of Consumption” Communication in History. Eds. David Fowley and Paul Heyer. New York: Longman, 1999.
3) Fowles, Jib. “Mass Media and the Star System” Communication in History. Eds. David Fowley and Paul Heyer. New York: Longman, 1999.
4) Leiss, William, Stephen Kline and Sut Jhally. “Advertising, Consumers, and Culture” Communication in History. Eds. David Fowley and Paul Heyer. New York: Longman, 1999.
5) McRobbie, Angela. “More!: New Sexualities in Girls’ and Women’s Magazines” Cultural Studies and Communications. Eds. James Curran, David Morley and Valerie Walkerdine. London: Arnold, 1996.
6) Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993.
7) McCracken, Ellen. “The cover: window to the future self” Turning it on: A reader in Women and Media. Eds. Helen Baehr and Ann Gray. London: Arnold, 1996.
8) Ballaster, Ros, Margeret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer and Sandra Hebron. “A Critical Analysis of Women’s Magazines” Turning it on: A reader in Women and Media. Eds. Helen Baehr and Ann Gray. London: Arnold, 1996.
9) Lazier, Linda and Alice Gagnard Kendrick. “Women in Advertisements: Sizing Up the Images, Roles and Functions” Women in Mass Communication. Ed. Pamela J. Creedon. London: Sage Publications, 1993.
10) Weedon, Chris. “Language and Subjectivity” Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.
11) Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance. Eds. Irene Diamond and Lee Quinby. Boston: Northeastern University, 1988.

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4 Comments

Filed under Female Identity, Gender, Women's Magazines

4 responses to “Women’s Magazines: The Contemporary Guide to Feminine Subjectivity

  1. All very true! Society instills self limting beliefs and portrays the expected role of Women, which deters most women from tapping into who they really are! Tapping into true feminine power must come from within, and when a Woman exudes feminine grace it is purely magical!

  2. Oh, Thanks! Really amazing. Big ups!

  3. Nice Blog…. Keep Sharing

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