From ‘Vogue to ‘Woman’s Own

Women’s magazines constitute the largest section of periodical publishing to be directed towards a specialist market. However, we are not being addressed as individuals who happen to be women. The focus of attention is on that which unites us as a group which is the state of being female. The nature of that female-ness; our femininity is the subject of instruction and examination.

Generic titles such as Woman, Woman’s World, Woman’s Journal, Woman’s Realm, Woman’s Own, She and Elle ensure that they are easily identified by the 22.9 million females in Britain over the age of 15 who make up their potential audience, and in case of any doubt, identification is compounded by their cover pictures. This abstract notion of femininity is a socially constructed one, as well as being female we must satisfy the rigorous demands of being feminine. These magazines are a tool of socialization; they convey what society expects from us in our roles as women. The first women’s magazine appeared in the late sixteen hundreds (The Ladies Mercury 1693), intended to improve the minds of upper class Ladies. The instructional tone had intensified by the Victorian era, and the magazines moved down the class structure to an audience made up of wives and daughters of the expanding professional and business classes. The Family Economist (1850) and The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine (1858) were far more personal and domestic in outlook and dwelt on the Victorian ‘feminine ideal’ of purity, modesty and domesticity.

The magazines only gained their authority to speak on our behalf after the Second World War when the readership, united by the common experience of women in wartime, became more general and less classbound. Since the material affluence of the 1960’s the effect of consumerism has been that the transmission of values goes in both directions; the content of women’s magazines has been somewhat shaped by the demands of the market. In order to keep their audience and their markets the women’s magazines must reflect the needs and concerns of the readership.

When acceptance into society is based on the learning and practice of a complex structure of rules and beliefs, this practice can assume the status of a religious cult. Marjorie Ferguson, in her book Forever Feminine calls this preoccupation ‘the cult of femininity’. In this cult the magazine editors are the high priestesses and the religion is Womanhood. The adverts and the fashion plates are the icons which represent Woman in Her many guises. The magazines are devoted to imparting sacred knowledge through instruction in the rituals of the ‘holy tasks’ of quintessential Womanhood. From the glossy Homes and Gardens and Vogue end of the range to the popularist Woman’s Own and Woman’s Realm the emphasis is on whichever mix of homemaking, child care and looking good is deemed to suit the editorial line.

The mystique which surrounds these ritual practices is not lost on the advertisers. Adverts for make-up, if they are not based on scientific/technological notions, use icons of Femininity. The most familiar is of the head of the archetypal goddess/woman: skin flawless, head aloft, eyes glassy and distant looking. She is not a real woman, she is the paradigm of perfection. When promoting perfume the advertisers take a similar line. The image is the mysterious and terrible sexual power of the goddess. Only under this image construction could they get away with calling perfume ‘Poison’, exploiting the connection of sex with death and the irresistible and dire power of female sexuality. The models in these adverts are not looking directly out of the picture so the male viewer is safe.

The advertising industry makes very blatant use of iconic images. To successfully sell us a product, an advert must identify us and make us identify with it quickly, as the page turns and within limited means. By reducing the general category to a visual symbol the advertisers can tap into sophisticated cultural codes, which are instantly and unconsciously absorbed. Successful adverts get society to do the selling for them!

Although they make use of sophisticated symbolism, the approach is usually quite straight forward using the carrot and the stick method. The carrot comes in many forms; it can be an example which flatters you to emulate it, or it can be the promise of a reward. An example of the latter is the advert for Badedas. The familiar picture shows a woman wrapped in a bath towel looking down from a window with a balcony, at a man in a horse-drawn carriage. The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ motif coupled with the equally out dated suggestion of elopement frames it nicely within a ‘romantic’ notion. The image itself is sophisticated. The text is the hook line–“Things happen after a Badedas bath”. This ties the product to the cultural code.

Instead of the standard single point perspective of documentary photography, this presents us with the woman as the viewer and the object of view. A device often used seemingly to distract the female viewer from becoming too aware of the manipulation at work; if she can be seduced into identifying with the object, she will accept the view that has been constructed for her.