Like it or not, popular culture is an undeniable influence on how society perceives itself. When examining mass culture, one must keep in mind the equilibrium between how much we, as a society, affect the way popular culture is constructed and to what extent popular culture influences the way we view ourselves and shapes our ideologies. An aspect of popular culture that may serve to greatly exemplify this theory of society as both the affected and the affected is the genre of magazines targeted at young women. Though these publications are targeted as the representation of our society's adolescent females, they actually have a great influence over the ways in which teens view and construct certain social ideologies. This essay will shed light on the influences these publications have in shaping, regulating, and defining young women's perceptions of femininity, sexuality, and romance. Consequently, it will also reveal an irony in the fact that "women's magazines", written for (and mostly by) women actually mold their beliefs and actions into those that reinforce female subordination through the traditional standards of a patriarchal society.
For the purpose of analysis, I will focus on three publications for women, each with a slightly different audience according to the age and class brackets targeted and the subjects offered. In her analysis of one of Britain's women's magazines called Jackie, McRobbie identifies four codes that form the content of these publications: those of fashion and beauty, romance, personal and domestic life, and pop music (Christian-Smith, 8). The magazines I will examine all exemplify the four factors of McRobbie's codes. The first publication is a magazine called Twist. From the content, one may infer that the main target of this magazine is a high school age bracket. The cover stories include "Make-him-Melt Prom Hair and Makeup", "Is it Love or Lust", "Real Guys Reveal What Their Mixed Messages Really Mean", "New Zit Zappers", and "Celeb's Happiness Secrets." Inside, the reader finds pop music icons, advice on how to act and look to find a member of the opposite sex, advertisements targeted at younger consumers of cheaper goods, and pictures of stereotypically attractive teenagers.
The second magazine I will be discussing is Complete Woman. This magazine is aimed at a slightly older audience and includes more mature and in depth articles that focus on sex, dating, commitments, and love. The cover stories include "Men, Sex, and You: Real Men Tell You How to Push Their Pleasure Buttons", "Ten Ways to... Have a Lust-Worthy Body", "Sex and Love Guide", "Dare-to-Wear Lingerie", and "Make Him Yours Forever (Or, For as Long as You Want Him) ." While Twist deals with sex more evasively, Complete Woman gives more detailed and open sexual advice. From the subject material, we can gather that this is a magazine aimed at older teenage to early twenty-year-old women.
Because this publication contains no advertisements, it is difficult to make an analysis of class-orientation of this publication. However, we may assume because of the age bracket it targets, Complete Woman is aimed at about the same consumer class as Twist. The final magazine I will be examining is Marie Claire. This is another publication aimed at a more mature audience, with a deeper focus on beauty through materialism.
Like Complete Woman, it contains more explicit sexual detail and a more serious focus on relationships. Also, because of its abundance of advertisements of expensive cosmetics and clothing, we may assume that this magazine is class-specific to a wealthier consumer. Marie Claire's cover stories include "What Your Style Says About You", "How to Get Perfect Skin: 44 Products that Really Work", "How Often Do You Have Sex?" , "Men: What They Don't Want You To Do", and "428 Fashion and Beauty Ideas." Though the three magazines have slightly different audience targets, the underlying themes are basically the same. They deal with (heterosexual) romance, (hetero-) sexuality, physical beauty, and the idea of power and control through these factors. They teach young women the essential importance of a male romantic object and the importance of stereotypically subordinating physical and mental attributes in attaining such a goal. In conjunction with the advertisements, reading material, and photographs, the importance of materialism and consumerism is a constant underlying message.
With the incorporation of some feminist analyses, it will become apparent that the messages these publications convey play a definite role in constructing ideologies of femininity and reinforcing stereotypical gender identities for their audience. The key factor in popular culture via women's magazines is romance. Christian-Smith points out that romance is one of the "organizing principles" of the domestic and public spheres of young women and that the "code of romance" plays an active role in constructing feminine ideologies (16). If one considers the cultural influences of romance available to young women, they will find that much of it is represented through media such as women's magazines. While Christian-Smith focuses primarily on romance novels, she parallels her work with that of McRobbie's study of Jackie in a way that makes her work applicable to the women's magazines of this essay (148). Christian-Smith offers seven themes that structure the "code of romance" in popular culture: 1.
Romance is a market relationship. 2. Romance is a heterosexual practice. 3. Romance manages sexuality while privileging non genital forms of sexual expression. 4.
Romance is a transforming experience giving meaning to heroines' lives and endowing heroines with prestige. 5. Romance is about the dominance of men and the subordination of women. 6. Romance is about learning to relate to men. 7.
Romance is a personal, private experience (17-18). These stereotypes are ever-present in all three of our magazines, inferring that romance should be the main focus of a post-pubescent girl's attention. None of the magazines I examined offered advice on how to lead an independent life, but focused on happiness through a male counterpart. The best article to represent the view of the magazines comes from Complete Woman and is titled, "Listen Up - Don't Break Up!" . As a result of these types of ideals, girls learn to base their femininity and self-worth on the existence of a significant other, consequently leading her to her own subordination (Christian-Smith, 28). Further, young women realize their gender identity as that based on a sense of powerlessness to control their own lives, for need of a man (Modleski, 149).
If romance is imagined as the foundation in the way popular culture shapes a young woman's ideas of her gender, then there are several other significant factors that she builds upon this, that stem from Christian-Smith's "code of romance." She identifies the next step as sexuality. First, it is important to keep in mind that this is a strictly heterosexual ingredient. Ellen Lewin refers to this as the "heterosexual assumption", meaning that heterosexuality is the only natural form of sexuality and that it should be accepted universally without explanation (Lewin, 324). Once the "heterosexual assumption" is established, one must realize that sexuality is also based on a level of knowledge of the accepted social mores dealing with the topic. This knowledge includes definitions of "proper" sexuality and the regulation of it (Christian-Smith, 30).
Now we must examine one of the sources from which young women gather this knowledge - popular culture. In the magazines that I examined, some norms were easily identified on the topic of sexual expression. The first, of course, was hetero sexism. Another implied rule is that younger girls should not be participating in free forms of sexual expression. Twist, representing the youngest age group, avoided any specifically sexual information, but Complete Woman and Marie Claire were much more explicit, and even included sex-related articles as cover stories. Twist advocated Christian-Smith's "non genital forms of sexual expression" with articles on how to entice boys like, "Flirty Styles to Flatter Any Figure" and "Make-Him-Melt Prom Makeup" but directed its audience away from the act of sex with an article called "10 Sex Myths Busted." This article avoided any direct sexual language and offered advice like, "Realizing you " re not ready - and not rushing into anything - is actually a sign of maturity...
You " ve got plenty of time to wait until you " re really ready. When it does happen, you " ll appreciate it more for having waited 'til the time is right." (p. 85) Once a girl has established the rules of the game of sexuality, she finds herself with one of the only forms of power popular culture grants her - that is the power of choice in having sex, or choosing to abstain from sex. Even this power is a small one, since even that denotes a significant level of passivity in giving her body to a man. Christian Smith offers five codes of sexuality that are relevant to our magazines: 1. Romance is the only proper context for sexuality.
2. Genital sexuality is mostly reserved for adults. 3. Girls respond to boys's sexual overtures but do not initiate any of their own. 4. Resistance to genital practices is encouraged.
5. Sexual definitions reside within a network of power based in romance and the family. (Christian-Smith, 32) As we have seen, there is a definite set of rules regarding a young women's sexuality. Through her women's magazines, she learns that feminine sexuality is dangerous and must be channeled in the right direction. She also realizes, and by following the advice of popular culture reinforces, the double standard that centers around the subject of sexuality. Consequently, she is contributing to the continuation of a set gender division in our society (Christian-Smith, 41).
So, now we have the "code of romance" with the ideologies of sexuality and power built upon it. Christian-Smith says that the next factor to be built upon our social structure of romance is "beautification" (43). This aspect is especially important to our study of popular culture in magazines because it leads to and augments consumerism. Before a woman learns to consume, however, she must first be stimulated to do so. Christian-Smith uses a metaphor of mirrors to explain this stimulation into consumerism.
She describes first an actual mirror, the girl's self-perception. The next mirror, she says, is the girl's boyfriend, the main stimulus of her desire for beautification. She says another mirror is society, which "holds up to [her] a standard of beauty that is almost impossible to attain" (43). This social mirror is best viewed in the pages of Twist, Complete Woman, and Marie Claire with the combination of their feature articles on impossibly attractive pop icons and models, articles on how to improve your physical appearance, and (especially in Marie Claire) advertisements for luxurious, life-changing cosmetics and figure-flattering clothes. The aspect of beautification plays an especially important role in young ladies' magazines because the articles seem to imply that physical beauty is the first step in attaining a man, romance, and her consequent happiness.
This perception beauty has turned femininity into the cosmetics and material items that build it. It turns femininity into an achievement, rather than a biologically natural occurrence. Craik says, "Femininity is a masquerade which involves masking, manipulating, and transforming the raw bodily material" (Craik, 90). Further, she says that femininity is based upon the techniques of costuming to achieve a certain statement or degree of femininity, depending on the style she chooses (106). The idea of beauty through materialism adds to the fragmentation of a woman's ideologies of femininity (Christian-Smith, 45). This emotional fragmentation is materialized physically through the way many advertisements of women are organized.
They show women represented in a fragmented way, signified by certain body parts like lips, hair, face, legs, etc. (Winship, 73), teaching her that her worth is only to the extent of her physical parts. Lutz also comments on this phenomenon in a listing of postmodern gender ideologies. One of the identities she gives to the female is "woman as parts: face, breast, or womb" (Lutz, 257). If a woman chooses to avoid materialistic beauty, she is labeled as a "Plain Jane" in the most derogative sense for not fulfilling her social duty to be "beautiful" for others (Christian-Smith, 44). Complete Woman even includes an article that advises women on how to spice up their "Plain Jane" wardrobes.
Indeed, consumerism is the only way to true beauty as exemplified by the women's magazines. Here are some of the articles included in all three magazines (though the largest part comes from Marie Claire, probably due to its upper class consumer target and abundance of ads): "99 Swimsuit Fixers", "How to Get Perfect Skin", "The One Thing I Would Never Wear", "Get Gorgeous Now", and "My Acne Almost Ruined My Life." Another important result of beauty through consumption is the fact that many girls learn to identify themselves as women through what they wear. Some other articles in the three magazines are, "What Your Style Says About You", "Sexy Specs: Bye-Bye, Ms. Four-Eyes", and "Blonde Like Me: What Hair Color Says About You." Another point that Christian-Smith makes about beautification is that it is specifically ethnicity-oriented because it is held to a standard of "blond, slim, and small-featured" attributes (Christian-Smith, 45). Also, due to the consumerism shown with the three magazines, real beauty is also class-specific. The more money a woman can spend on things like makeup, hair products, clothing, and even surgery, the more she can consume, and the more attractive she may be.
Christian-Smith offers another list salient to our study of the women's magazine on the central elements of beautification. They are: 1. Heroines are plain before beauty routines. 2. Heroines must disguise the use of beauty products and appear naturally beautiful. 3.
Beauty is the precondition to romance. 4. Heroines are recognized for their beauty. 5. Beauty routines develop a consciousness of physical appearance as a dominant characteristic of femininity. 6.
Heroines' bodies are gradually sexual ized. 7. Heroines resist sexual objectification. 8.
Beauty models are class-and-race specific. Through popular culture, women learn that beauty is an attainable success, but it is not mentioned in the magazines that this success is made at the cost of separating physical attractiveness from mental attributes, rather than a working combination of the two. Purchased beauty makes a woman only as beautiful as the products she may purchase, thus drawing a connection between beauty and class status. However, a woman learns that she must be beautiful to attain her most important goal: a man. What she sometimes does not learn is that improvement of one's physicality for a man is to add to one's own subordination (Christian-Smith, 44). She also sometimes overlooks the fact that allowing the way someone views her to affect her sense of self, to become the recipient of another's assessment, is deepening her own oppression (Coward, 76).
Now that we have revealed the criteria popular culture gives women to help them construct their feminine ideologies, we must consider the reality of popular culture itself. Christian-Smith points out that mass culture creates an idea of female attributes that uphold the traditional stereotypes that have always oppressed women. She credits this, as we have seen is plausible, to "capitalism's consumer culture" (Christian-Smith, x). Popular culture, through mass media, is supported by the companies that pay to run their advertisements in publications. This much is evident. However, a factor that is not so easily perceived is that there is another, more important influence on the media - the government.
Philip Schlesinger says of this, "The study of media in Western capitalist democracies is inextricably bound up with central social institutions that seek to manage the flow of information" (Schlesinger, 293). He goes on to discuss the factor that censorship plays in popular culture as "information management" (296). It is essential to realize that our capitalist economy and patriarchal society plays a large, and frequently overlooked, role in mass media, thus influencing popular culture - including the women's magazines we have been studying. At times, it may be the case that we are taught what the government wants us to learn, that we know of the world as those further up the hierarchy wish us to perceive it.
The situation with women in America is affected by mass media. Young girls, just beginning to construct their opinions and perceptions of ideologies, are affected by the magazines that are supposedly a mere representation of teen culture. In regards to popular culture, the question remains: To what extent does it merely represent our society, and to what degree does it construct our ideologies? A broader representation of other forms of society would be necessary to dissolve the stereotypes that mass culture has come to represent. BIBLIOGRAPHY 1.
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Winship, Janice. "Handling Sex" 1981. reprinted in Feminist Cultural Studies I. Edward Elgar Publishing.
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