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Magazines Men Women

Literature Review

Many scholars have argued the media play an increasingly central role within contemporary society, and the shaping of identities (Holmes, 2007; McRobbie, 2000). Kellner (1994, cited in Durham, 1995, p.2) argues the media provide individuals with the materials to forge their identity and sense of selfhood; including our notions of male and female and what it means to be good or bad.

As a medium, magazines have not been studied in as much depth as newspapers, television and radio. However they are still an important cultural tool and a valuable medium to study, with a unique function ‘to bring high-value interpretative information to specifically defined, yet national audiences’ (Abrahamson, 1996, cited in Holmes, 2007, p.511).

The analysis of images within magazines is a valid way of studying gender roles and relations according to Butler and Paisley (1980, p.49). They argue images formed from mediated precepts become part of a viewer’s conception of themselves. Vigorito and Curry (1998, p. 136) point out that popular culture is ‘increasingly visual’, and that magazine pictures ‘carry significant messages about cultural norms and values, including the norms of gender relations’.

In a study of the pictorial images featured in Playboy and Cosmopolitan, Krassas et al (2001, p.752) argue that images within magazines ‘have a demonstrable effect on how we think about ourselves’, and that they ‘explicitly advise the reader about how to look and act’. The following study that is predominantly image-based analysis is therefore a legitimate and valid way of studying the sample material.

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Research into masculinity and male depiction within women’s magazines has been scarce according to many scholars (Holmes, 2007; Farvid and Braun, 2006; Vigorito and Curry, 1998), with most research focused on ‘the social construction of femininity’ (Vigorito and Curry, 1998, p.135). However, with an established theory that identifies gender as a social construct that defines masculinity as historically reactive to changing definitions of femininity (Kimmel, 1995, p.14), the study of the representation of men and their roles within women’s magazines has become increasingly significant. As Farvid and Braun (2006) explain:

The focus on men is particularly relevant because, in a heteronormative world, male and female sexualities are constructed simultaneously. Therefore, although previous examination of femininity/female sexuality in magazines have been useful, they are only partially complete, as female (hetero)sexuality is also constructed through the magazines’ account of male (hetero)sexuality (p.298).

The following study concerned with the sexual representation of men in contemporary women’s magazines is therefore pertinent to existing theory. As the majority of studies are also American and at least five years old, there is justification for a contemporary, English study on the sexual presentation of men in women’s magazines.

In his observation of women’s magazines, Gauntlett (2002, p.51) notes that the changes in content coincide with societal changes in gender relations. The 1940s and 1950s saw the emphasis was centred on a domesticated ‘simpering housewife’, that saw education and careers as the masculinisation of women. The 1960s saw the sexual revolution that marked the seeds of change within society and women’s magazines. From this time the sexual longings of all women including the ‘respectable’ and the unmarried, could openly be acknowledged and discussed (Wouters 1998, p.188). In the 1970s and 1980s magazines continued to change, to account for women and their changing positions within society (Gauntlett 2002, p.52).

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Attwood (2004, p.15) argues since the 1990s popular media has depicted ‘new sexualities’, which break existing norms of feminine behaviour by addressing women as ‘knowing and lustful’. McNair (2002, p.88) has also noted that we increasingly live in a ‘striptease culture’ that is focused on ‘sexual confession and self-revelation’, that manifests itself within print media. On a broad level, the following study is concerned with how this emerging sexual discourse within the media and society is manifested within women’s magazines.

Alongside changing societal values and morals, there are strong arguments suggesting the content of women’s magazines can be directly influenced by the interests of advertisers. In the relentless search for new markets by advertisers, erotic images of men are designed to appeal to both liberated women as well as the new male consumer (Rohlinger, 2002, p.61). In the 1990s, rumours circulated that women’s magazine Company, had found a sales formula relating to circulation figures with the number of times the word ‘sex’ appeared on the cover lines (Gough-Yates, 2003, p.139). Consumers that buy young women’s magazines also have the most desirable demographic to advertisers – young, single, employed, well educated and urban – and are the most likely to buy a magazine for it’s coverage of sex (Rohlinger, 2002, p.61).

There is a general agreement that the content of women’s magazines has reached a sexual peak in today’s society. Sex ‘sets the tone, defines the pace, and shapes the whole environment’ of women’s magazines (McRobbie, 1996, p.177). There is currently a ‘lust revival, an acceleration in the emancipation of sexuality’ (Wouters, 1998, p.200). Winship (2000, p.43) argues sexual discourse, which was once a private dialogue, has been re-positioned in a public space, moving it from a private to a public discourse. Attwood (2004, p.15) supports this idea, arguing that ‘sexy images have become the currency of the day’.

Not only has the sheer volume of sexual coverage increased dramatically, Scott (1985, p. 387) points out that there has also been a complete liberalisation of the treatment of sex within women’s magazines. Sexuality has replaced romance as the ideological focus – with a more pronounced emphasis on ‘strong, frank, and explicitly sexual representations’ (McRobbie, 1996, p.192).

With sexuality replacing romance as the ideological focus of women’s magazines, Giddens (1992, p.1-2) argues sexuality has been released from the confines of a heterosexual, monogamous, procreative hegemony and has been replaced with ‘sexual pluralism’, a sexual identity defined and structured by individual choice. This individual choice and ‘sexual pluralism’ can be seen within the pages of women’s magazines as young women are actively encouraged to be ‘sexual actors, even predators’ in their search for sex (Gauntlett, 2002, p.206).

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Gauntlett (2002, p.97) supports Giddens arguments for a post-traditional society, referring to the increased levels of divorce and separation as individuals move from one relationship to another. Furthermore, Wouters (1998, p.208) argues there is now a ‘sexualisation of love and an eroticisation of sex’.

With the liberalisation of women’s magazines in favour of a more sexually confident standpoint, debates surround the change in attitude and treatment towards men in favour of an objectified, sexist approach. Men, it has been argued, are no longer treated with respect ‘but could be seen as inadequate, or the butt of jokes’ (Gauntlett, 2002, p.53). As Wolf (1994) explains:

Male sexuality, once cloaked in prohibitions that kept women from making comparisons, is under scrutiny, and the secrets of male virility are on display (p.24).

After years of women complaining about the objectification of their bodies, the male body was ‘on display: cut up, close up and oh! so tastefully lit’ (Moore, 1988, p.45). As women’s magazines became more sexual, the availability of men’s bodies as sex objects became ‘central to this emergent discourse’ (Ticknell et al, 2003, p.54).

Counter to the argument of women’s magazines as a stage for demeaning and objectifying men, is the admittance this it is something men’s magazines have been doing for decades, and since both sexes chooses to do so it probably doesn’t matter in sexism terms (Gauntlett, 2002, p.174).

Women’s magazines also do not treat men as just bodies or ‘sex machines’ all the time; they are also presented as thoughtful, emotional beings (Gauntlett, 2002, p.188).

Additionally, it could be argued that far from being an ‘emergent’ discourse, the male appearance has been available for the viewing pleasure of women for centuries. In the nineteenth century, a man’s physical appearance was taken as a sign of intelligence and morality, and women were invited to view men’s bodies as a sign of their superiority and harmony (Stern, 2003, p.220).

Despite evidence to suggest it is not a valid criticism that women’s magazines objectify men; the viewing of men’s bodies in today’s society is done so in a mainstream context, using mechanisms historically associated purely with men and how they look at women, signalling that, for the first time, ‘erotic spectacles had crossed gender boundaries’ (Moore, 1988, p. 47).

Laura Mulvey, in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975), first introduced the idea of the ‘male gaze’; Mulvey argued that mainstream Hollywood cinema primarily sets out to satisfy the unconscious desires of men. She argued that male characters do most of the looking within films, making them the (active) subjects, and female characters are looked at, making them the (passive) objects.

Male spectators identify with the male protagonist, and female spectators, Mulvey says, are also compelled to take the viewpoint of the central male character, denying women of their own perspective. A temporary masculinisation is the only way Mulvey can offer pleasure for the women viewer. And while the male hero in the film cannot be viewed as a sexual object, ‘according to the principles of the ruling ideology’, he can be admired by men narcissistically as an ideal version of the self (1975, p.14).

Perhaps the biggest problem with Mulvey’s argument is the denial of a female gaze (Gauntlett, 2002, p.39). As Moore points out,

To suggest that women actually look at men’s bodies is apparently to stumble into a theoretical minefield which holds sacred the idea that in the dominant media the look is always already structured as male. (Moore, 1988, p.45).

Support for Mulvey’s masculinised female viewing is found in Krassas et al’s (2001) comparative study of gender roles in Cosmopolitan and Playboy. The study concluded that both magazines reflected the male gaze, regardless of audience, because both portrayed women as sex objects and the main concept within both was the idea of women attracting and sexually satisfying men.

Additionally, if gaze behaviour is characterised by the viewing of a passive object, Schauer (2005, p.57) argues men are often pictured in traditional roles with power tools, hammers, army uniforms and so on, to show a engagement in an activity as a ‘strategy to offset the passivity of being looked at’. If this is the case, Mulvey’s framework of the gaze cannot be applied to women.

However, since their earliest days, movies have included and celebrated attractive men whose sexual magnetism has no doubt drawn women into cinemas (Gauntlett, 2002, p.39). Since Mulvey’s argument, various writers have argued for the inclusion of the female spectator within the framework of the gaze and Gauntlett describes Mulvey’s argument as ‘untenable’ (2002, p.39).

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Van Zoonen (1994, p.97) argues Mulvey’s analysis of patriarchal cinema is ‘dark and suffocating’, which has lost ground to an alternative ‘more confident and empowering’ approach to female spectatorship that allows a ‘subversive’ way of viewing the texts. Moore (1988, p.59) also makes the case for a female gaze, arguing that it does not simply replicate a ‘monolithic and masculinised stare, but instead involves a whole variety of looks and glances – an interplay of possibilities.’

Attwood (2004, p.15) argues that in today’s society, objectification is a necessary precondiction for erotic gazing in a narcissistic culture ‘where the body is widely represented as an object for display’. In this climate, there is a ‘strong encouragement for a female gaze and the creation of a space for male narcissism’ (MacKinnon, 1997, p.190). Therefore, securing the gaze of others connotes ‘desirability and self-importance for both women and men’ (Attwood, 2004, p.15). It could be argued therefore, that women’s magazines may provide a stage for the objectification of men which in a ‘narcissistic culture’ is both inevitable and desirable.

The following study is concerned with whether there is evidence of a female gaze within women’s magazines that fits within Mulvey’s framework of gaze. Thus, whether men are actively viewed by women as passive objects. Furthermore, Mulvey points out that the appearance of women are often coded for strong visual and erotic impact, so that they can be said to connote ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (1989, p.10). This element will be analysed in the examination of the images of men within the three chosen magazines to discover if men display the same visual codes and therefore imply they are receiving a female gaze.

The growing preoccupation with sex and male bodies within women’s magazines has come under much debate by theorists, with one of the most passionately critical arguing they are morally reprehensible, offering ‘a depressing portrait of the modern British woman’ (Anderrson and Mosbacher, 1997, p.18). Women were described as dishonest and crude, with ‘no moral standard at all’ (p.56).

Women can be, once corrupted, both more disgusting and degraded than men. As Shakespeare said, ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds’. (Burrows in Anderrson and Mosbacher, 1997, p.57)

Despite the passionate and dramatic way the report denounced the content of women’s magazines and their sexual content, the arguments put forward were branded as outdated and rigid, with the overwhelming consensus agreeing that the liberalisation and sexualisation of magazines were, although not perfect, a good and liberating thing nonetheless.

Magazines borrow from feminist discourse, which imply to their readership a genuine commitment to the equality of men and women in their sexual worth (Tyler, 2004, p.96). The depictions of female sexuality are an empowered one, as there are representations of young women as sexually active and independent with the right to desire sex and receive sexual pleasure. The magazines can therefore be seen as sexually liberating and offering an image of sexual agency for women (Farvid and Braun, 2006, p.299).

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The main elements and issues covered by women’s magazines all figure ‘high in the feminist agenda’, and confirm that women’s magazines strive to provide an image of equality (McRobbie, 1999, p.57).

Others argue however, that regardless of the emergent sexual discourse which implies women’s magazines provide a feminist message for readers; the obsession with men in the magazine’s reinforce an earlier notion that believes men are the route to happiness, and in reinforcing this attitude, they are legitimising and naturalising patriarchal domination (Farvid and Braun, 2006, p.296).

The ideological underpinnings conform to rigid and traditional norms. These constructions position women as objects of male desire and underscore women’s subordinate position in contemporary society’ (Durham, 1995, p.18).

Furthermore, it has been argued that women’s magazines use sex as a façade to represent women as dangerous and daring through sex when in fact, the sexual acts represented are only ‘mildly transgressive’, and are actually based on traditional gender roles (Machin and Thornborrow, 2003, p.455).

The theory of women’s magazines presenting traditional and stereotypical gender roles in the subtle undertones of the magazine’s, mirrors the opinion theorists felt about women’s magazine’s in the 1940s and 1950s; that they projected the image of a ‘simpering housewife’. Admittedly the appropriate roles for men and women were referred to more explicitly in those times, however it still implies that both present essentially the same message: that men are the route to happiness (Klassen et al, 1993).

Goffman’s (1979) study into gender stereotypes within advertisements commented on how different poses portray messages about masculinity and femininity. He found that ‘women were often portrayed in very stereotypical ways, such as in submissive or family roles and in lower physical and social positions than men’ (Baker, 2005, p.14). A number of theorists adopted his methods for analysing magazine images, all of which supported his findings that gender is stereotyped within images; with women portrayed as submissive and passive, and men as dominant and superior (Kang, 1997; Klassen et al, 1993; Krassas et al, 2001; Vigorito and Curry, 1998).

Similarly, Kim and Ward (2004, p.48-49) argue that women’s magazines skew the portrayal of males and females to their target audience so that editors, writers and advertisers can take advantage of gender myths and fears.

In contrast to this traditional view of gender is McRobbie’s (1999, p.50) argument that it is wrongly assumed the ideology of the magazine’s will be absorbed in a direct way by readers. Hermes (1995, p.148) supports this argument suggesting that readers only connect with part of what a magazine is saying, and cultural studies makes the mistake of assuming that ‘texts are always significant’.

Additionally Gauntlett (2002, p.207) points out that the encouragement of women to be active in their search for sex is a rejection ‘of passive femininity’, and ‘is feminist progress’. He adds that while women’s magazines may have a large proportion of content concerned with finding the right man, women are aggressively seeking out partners rather than waiting for a ‘nice husband to come along’ (p.191). He therefore rejects the idea of women being presented as passive, subservient beings which is a traditional notion of femininity.

The presence of men as objects to be viewed by women is in itself also a way in which traditional gender ideologies is subverted within the magazines. This approach to men is traditionally only associated with the way men have treated women (Gauntlett, 1999, p.188).

Though there are convincing arguments for both sides of the argument; that women’s magazines either present a feminist message, or a traditional ideological message, most scholars agree women’s magazines ‘do not construct a single mythic meaning of feminine identity, or present one ideological position for their readers. Instead, the discourses of women’s magazines are mixed, somewhat contradictory’ (Bignell, 1997, p.56-57).

The oppositional arguments surrounding the extent to which gender is presented within women’s magazines leads McRobbie (1994, p.163) to believe there are ‘spaces for negotiation’ within women’s magazines, and that they bring ‘half a feminist message’ to women that would not otherwise receive it.

In support of this, Hollows (2000, p.195) argues the feminist messages that are within women’s magazines produce spaces ‘where meanings can be contested, with results that might not be free of contradictions, but which do signify shifts in regimes of representation.’

Within the following study I wish to identify to what extent gender is portrayed as stereotypical and traditional, and how this is negotiated within the ‘emergent’ sexual discourse of the magazine’s, specifically in the objectification of men. Alongside this aim, I also wish to identify whether there is evidence of a female gaze in which men are presented in a way that implies they will receive an active sexual objectifying gaze.

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