The media is a very powerful force
An example is in 1999 Cosmopolitan published an issue of their magazine with a voluptuous woman on the front. Sales went down and this experiment has not been tried since. This is not only an example of the way society is conditioned to slim women in the media, but it displays that the audience do have power over what is published, because magazines are like any other business – driven by considerations of profit. Perhaps the biggest argument concerning women’s magazines is not only that they portray women as powerless, passive victims but also that they are anti-feminist and derogatory.
Certainly magazines such as Vogue and Harpers Bazaar do primarily contain ‘fashion and beauty’ material which does reinforce the cultural expectations that women should be concerned with their appearance. However, flaws are evident in this criticism, if we look at it in terms of Foucault’s argument that knowledge is in fact power (1998: chap 2). Magazines such as Dolly, Girlfriend, Cosmopolitan and Cleo are full of articles offering information and advice about careers, sex and relationships. Whilst they have been described as trashy, these articles are often a young girls’ only resource of information.
Consequently, they can be a powerful in promoting confidence, self-awareness and assertiveness amongst their peers and the opposite sex. As Gauntlett asserts “women are encouraged to know their own bodies and their needs, to articulate what they want, and to make well-informed decisions based on their own interests and desires, and not what other people want them to do. ” (2002: p182) Gauntlett continues to argue that rather than being anti-feminist, the messages put out by these magazines actually reflect a “feminist turning of tables” (2002: chap 9).
Men are objectified and treated in the way men have traditionally treated women, which is a vast change from the subservient feminine models of the past. As Gauntlett concludes “The self assured ‘girl power’ messages of magazines… give young women a language of empowerment and self fulfilment. “(2002: p184) The representation of gender and race within women’s magazines is a constant source of argument for media critics. However, representation is at play in many more forms than just stereotyping female women.
In accordance with Leisbet Van Zoonen’s argument (1995: pp 311 – 327), representation within the media is not only a literal reflection of women’s and men’s lives and identities, but also in modes of thinking, sets of norms, values and current discourse. This can be applied to women’s magazines in the sense that, whilst photographs and stories within magazines may not adequately represent “the average Australian” woman”, they do represent ways of thinking in modern society. Within the majority of women’s magazines there is an obvious misrepresentation of the Australian woman.
The most stereotypical representation of the female gender within these magazines is of an air brushed, uniformly beautiful, thin, object of male desire. We only have to look to the fashion sections of this month’s Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Woman’s Day, Woman’s weekly, NW, New Idea, Girlfriend and Cleo to find this common stereotype. Whilst the average Australian woman is a size fourteen, the average model is a size six to eight. However, there is also a much less publicized racial and sexual misrepresentation or under representation, evident throughout women’s magazines.
Foucault, Gauntlett and Adorno all follow the line of argument that misrepresentation is imbedded in the media, because its content encourages conformity. “The concepts of order which (the culture industry) hammers into human beings are always those of the status quo”. (1991: p90) In Australia we live in a multicultural society, and yet white female women still dominate on the pages of most women’s magazines. Throughout NW, Woman’s Weekly, Cosmo and New Idea, the only slight diversion from this look was photographs of black celebrities in America, not in Australia.
Women’s magazines tend to take the same line in relation to lesbian, gay and bi-sexual people. Despite the fact that tolerance of sexual diversity is growing in our society, and Australia has one of the most accommodating gay communities in the world, heterosexuality is still promoted as the “norm”. These three points highlight that the way gender and race is presented within women’s magazines does not adequately reflect the true nature of society. However, following Karen Jennings (Theorising Race and Representation p9) and Van Loonen’s argument (1995: p319), these factors actually represent a way of thinking within our culture.
The media do not simply reflect or mediate reality. Rather they utilize certain conventions and codes, both aesthetic and technical, to re-present things to us. (1995: p9) The fact that the majority of women’s magazines primarily contain size eight models can be taken to represent that we live in a society where many women aspire to be “thin and beautiful”, whilst the under representation of races and different sexuality preferences could demonstrate that white English speaking people still have power over other ethnic races.
These conclusions depend on interpretation; however they exemplify how representations in the media can highlight qualities about our culture, despite the fact that they are not “true” representations of reality. As Van Loonen adequately summed up; Media representations of gender discourse are relevant to the realities of daily life because they have become part of our subjectivity by offering modes of understanding and representing ourselves. (1995, p326) Due to the fact that Australia is such a multicultural society, we are as Rose suggest a “watershed” (2002: p102) of hundreds of different cultures.
Therefore, it is stereotypical to say that women’s magazines completely define our culture; however they do have the power impact and influence us. It is this impact that I will discuss in addition to Gauntlett’s argument that culture is produced by the exercising of power, where there is a struggle to sustain one set of values against assault from others. (2002: p24) Everything that we absorb through the media represents ideas and notions within our society. Consequently, the messages that we receive through women’s magazines often have a significant impact on our culture.
This impact can be seen in many forms. When we are confronted with headlines such as ‘Blow his mind’, ‘Sexual bliss secrets’, ‘Get his sexual attention instantly’ and ‘What he’s thinking about you’, whilst doing the grocery shop, it is hard to escape the obsessions and enthusiasm of women’s magazines. Despite the fact that not everyone will absorb the same information in the same manner, there is no doubt that women’s magazines are a formidable cultural force shaping and reinforcing our attitudes about men, women and orgasms
The portrayal of women within the media, and the extent that it has affected the way women perceive themselves is a highly researched topic, particularly within adolescents. In 2002, researchers at Flinders University in SA studied 400 teenagers regarding how they relate to the media. They found that girl’s who were more exposed to underweight models within the media, lost self confidence and became more dissatisfied with their own bodies. (2003. ‘Media Self-Esteem and Girls’ Identities’ [www. media-awareness. ca]) Hugh McKay uses the “Happily ever after” (1993 p.
24) syndrome as a paradigm of the way women’s magazines place unrealistic expectations on relationships, by idealizing celebrity relationships. McKay believes the press coverage celebrities receive of their “prefect” marriages can influence our culture, by giving rise to uneasy feelings within relationships that are not up to the “perfect” standard. McKay believes that relationships are becoming short lived as result of this. The way our culture has evolved and is evolving via the media it the direct result of the way power and representation are at play.
Gauntlett argues that the power struggle within the media to sustain one set of values against another has can have great impact on our society. A prime example of this impact is in terms of race. Gauntlett hints that the result of white supremacy and power over ethnic races has resulted in a large monopoly of Caucasians within the media. The subsequent result of this on Australia’s culture can reach as far feelings of inferiority within different races which ultimately exacerbates racism. In conclusion, Power, Representation and Culture are all inherent facets of the media, particularly women’s magazines.
However, it is the way they interrelate, influence and function between the proprietors, journalists and audience that develops the society we live in. Neither Power nor Representation nor Culture can be looked at in a one dimensional manner because they are all at play in so many degrees. Therefore it is essential to look at varying arguments to establish our own understanding how the media functions.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Edgar, A & Sedgwick P (eds) 1999 Key Concepts in Cultural Theory, London: Routeledge Foucault, Michel 1998 The Will to knowledge: The History of Sexuality, Volume One, translated by Robert Hurley, London: Penguin
Fiske, John 1989a Understanding Popular Culture, London: Unwin Hyman Gauntlett, David 2000 Media, Gender and Identity, London: Routledge Herman, Edward 1990 “Media in the US Political Economy” in Downing et al. eds Questioning the Media: A Critical introduction 1st ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage McKay, Hugh 1993 Reinventing Australia, Sydney: Angus and Robertson Said, Edward W 1983 The World, the Text, and the Critic, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Tiffin R 2002 ‘Political Economy and News’ in Cunnigham, S & Turner G (eds).
The Media and Communications in Australia Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin Thwaites T et al (eds) 1994 Tools for cultural studies, Melbourne Macmillan Van Zoonen, L 1995 Gender, Representation and the Media’ in Downing. Questioning the Media: A Critical Introduction 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage WEBSITES: Chavanu, Bakari Seventeen, Self Image and Stereotypes, 1st April www. rethinkingschools. org Gautlett, David, Media, Gender and Identity, 2nd April www. theoryhead. com Istas, Brendan The Representation of Men and Women in Mass Media www.fejs. antwerp. planetinternet. be www. media-awareness. ca MAGAZINES:
Note: no particular articles were referenced Australian Consolidated Press (ACP) Cosmopolitan, April 2003 Cleo, April 2003 Dolly, April 2003 Harpers Bazaar 2003 Woman’s Day, March 31 2003 Woman’s Weekly, March 31 2003 Murdoch Magazines Marie Claire, April 2003-04-08 Pacific Publications B Mag, April 2003 Girlfriend, April 2003 New Idea, March 31 2003 Conde Nast Vogue, April 2003 New Idea, March 29 2003 NW, March 31 2003 Girlfriend, April 2003 Vogue, April 2003.