Gender Norms in Women’s Magazines

Introduction

Women’s magazines currently represent the largest segment of the U.S. consumer magazine industry. The circulations of these magazines range from 500,000 to more than one million (Garner, Sterk, and Adams 59). For many women, these magazines play an important socializing function through the stories they tell in their articles, photographs, and advertisements.

Literature Review

Women’s magazines have been the subjects of numerous communications research studies. Scholars have examined topics such as the change in women’s magazines over time, the sexual etiquette advice given in magazines for teenage girls, and relationship themes in women’s magazines compared to men’s magazines.

In 1993 a study concerning the change in relationship advice given in women’s magazines in the 1970’s and 1980’s found that women’s magazines consistently promote stereotypical gender behavior. Communications students organized articles in selected women’s magazines into topical categories such as platonic relationships, dating, and affairs. The study found that women’s magazines promote the idea that a woman’s role is to be a wife and mother. The three most popular topics in women’s magazines between 1974 and 1990 were resolving conflict, sex, and revitalizing relationships (Prusank, Duran, and DeLillo 311).

A 1998 study examining ways magazines teach teenage girls about sexual behavior found similar themes in magazines aimed at a teenage audience. The study conducted a textual analysis of a variety of magazines, including YM, Teen, and Seventeen. The study found that these magazines encouraged readers to present themselves as sexually desirable, develop the skills of sexual therapy to enhance men’s sexual pleasure and performance, and become communication teachers to help men become better relational partners (Gardner, Sterk, and Adams 68).

In 1997 a study comparing relational themes in men’s and women’s magazines found that both magazine types commonly discuss themes of sexual relations, understanding the opposite sex, initiating relationships, and ending a relationship. The methodology used for this study was a textual analysis of several men’s and women’s magazines published in 1990 and 1991. Findings indicated that while women’s magazines discuss much of the same relationship issues as men’s magazines, women’s magazines cover these topics more frequently – reinforcing the stereotype of the woman as the relationship communicator. The study also found that the men’s magazines with the most coverage of relationship issues were considered by women to be pornographic in nature (Duran and Prusank 183).

Hypothesis

The theory I am using in my study is gender norm theory. This theory examines the stereotypes surrounding gender and how these stereotypes are reinforced throughout our society. \

My hypothesis for this study is that women’s magazines are using their power and influence to reinforce gender norms. I believe that these magazines are teaching women stereotypical notions of what the ideal woman should look and act like.

I plan to compare magazines aimed at a teenage audience to those aimed at an adult audience to show that gender norms are continually reinforced – that the messages a young is introduced to as a teenager are echoed in the magazines read by adult women.

Methodology

The method I chose to use for my study was textual analysis. I examined the November 1999 issues of Seventeen and Glamour magazine. Seventeen is a popular magazine aimed at teenage girls. Glamour is a popular magazine aimed at young adult women.

For my analysis I examined the articles, photographs, and advertisements in each magazine. I looked for information that offered a portrayal of the ideal woman. I grouped my findings into the categories of appearance, relationships, career, and hobbies.

Analysis

In contrast to previous studies of women’s magazines, I found a much more diverse portrayal of what the ideal woman should look like. The stereotypical blond-haired, blue-eyed, exceptionally thin woman was present in both magazines, but other types of women were portrayed almost as frequently. For example, both Seventeen and Glamour featured a minority woman on their cover. Seventeen’s cover model was Mya Harrison, an African-American and Italian R&B artist. Glamour’s cover model was Mariah Carey, an African-American, Venezuelan, and Caucasian singer. Seventeen also included a fashion question and answer column by Mia Tyler, a popular plus-size model.

Information about relationships in Seventeen and Glamour could be grouped into two categories: romantic relationships and other relationships. Coverage of romantic relationships was extensive. Advice was given on attracting a man, dating, pleasing a man sexually, and making a long-term relationship last. Coverage of other type of relationships was almost non-existent.

In both Seventeen and Glamour traditional gender stereotypes were evident in the romantic advice given. Seventeen contained a quiz titled, “Innocent Crush or Mad Obsession” and an article titled, “How to Cast a Love Spell.” Overall, Seventeen appeared to send the message to its readers that the search for a boyfriend should be the most important part of their lives – even if they must result to devious tactics to achieve their goal. In Glamour relationship advice focused less on getting a man and more on pleasing a man. Glamour’s main cover story was titled, “What You Can Learn from Peeking into Other Couple’s Sex Lives.” Another story in Glamour was called, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in Love: The Best Make-It-Bliss Relationship Tips Ever.” This article was one of the strongest examples of gender stereotypes in women’s magazines I found. It told women not to overanalyze their men, not to nag, not to threaten, and not to get upset about the “little things.”

Interestingly, I found had trouble finding concrete examples of non-romantic relationships in either Seventeen or Glamour. I found brief mentions of family and friend relationships in each magazine’s question and answer section, but only two actual articles on the topic. In Seventeen there is a monthly feature called, “Girlfriends.” This space is devoted to profiling girls who have overcome difficulties in their friendship. November’s girlfriends were two girls who had to move far apart because their fathers were in the military. In Glamour there was a short article asking for reader’s opinions of the HBO television show “Sex in the City.” Glamour wanted to know if this show accurately portrayed the way women act around men and each other.

I found the coverage of careers in Seventeen and Glamour to be the most interesting aspect of my analysis. Seventeen’s coverage of careers seemed to focus on inspiring girls. Glamour’s coverage seemed to focus on helping women achieve a more “realistic” view of their careers. Seventeen contained articles on Eileen Collins (the first female astronaut commander) and Jason Natstke (the nation’s youngest sitting mayor) as well as a profile of three teens whose businesses have made them millionaires. Seventeen also contained Marine and Coast Guard advertisements showing women in military careers. Although Natstke and two of the three millionaire teens were male, I thought Seventeen did an excellent job of informing young girls about their future career options. Glamour’s coverage of careers was not as outstanding. Glamour’s “The Get-Ahead Guide to Jobs and Money” contained examples of devious tactics readers used to get promotions and tips on how to manage a boss with a “monster ego.”

Information about the hobbies of women was almost identical in Seventeen and Glamour. Both magazines contained horoscopes, reader’s most embarrassing moments, and recipes. Both magazines only contained news stories tailored to the interests of their readers. Seventeen contained an informative piece on the conditions migrant teenage laborers face. Glamour contained articles on abortion and the portrayal of minorities on television programs. Glamour also contained a timeline of “millennial milestones” in women’s history.

Conclusion

My hypothesis for my study was proven to be inaccurate. While the findings of my study suggest that women’s magazines do promote gender stereotypes, they also find evidence that these magazines are working to offer a more realistic portrayal of the ideal woman. It was obvious that Seventeen had tried to provide a mixture of frivolous and realistic material for its readers. This concern for readers was echoed in Glamour, although not as extensively. Perhaps this is because media watchdogs have predominantly focused their efforts on reducing the media’s harmful affects on children.

Overall, I found the content of Seventeen and Glamour to be no more offensive than that of other media forms in today’s society.

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