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Magazines and Gender by Stephen Hill, first published in Media Magazine

Zoo magazine Bliss magazine Smash Hits magazine Q magazine
Introduction

In this article, I am going to discuss the assumptions made by four contemporary magazines about gender: Zoo, Bliss, Smash Hits and Q. I will look at this in relation to the forms and conventions of each title, the representations of gender on the front cover, the institutional backdrop and issues to do with audience. The logic in comparing two general lifestyle titles with what are nominally music magazines is to see if the assumptions made about gender pervade beyond the surface culture of ‘lifestyle’ into other areas of society and culture. First, however, I would like to clarify what is meant by gender with specific reference to magazine publishing.

Defining Gender

Gender is different to sex; there is general consensus that while sex is biologically given gender is a social construct. The traditional male order of society and culture known as patriarchy (the rule of the father) is something that Feminists have long challenged. For example, Judith Butler (1990) argues that gender is an artificial performance. The influence of Feminism on Media Studies can be felt in the work of Janice Winship (1987) who has argued that, historically, women needed lifestyle magazines because they were excluded from mainstream culture. Others, (Frank Mort and Sean Nixon ) have argued that the rise of the men's lifestyle title from Arena in the 1980s to Loaded and FHM in the 1990s is suggestive of a crisis in masculine authority. Contemporary society is often characterised, therefore, as post-Feminist. Like other aspects of post modernity, current attitudes towards gender politics have become fragmented: characterised by playfulness and irony.

Representation of Gender — Bliss and Zoo

Looking at the representations on the front cover of Bliss and Zoo would seem to reinforce the confusion about the assumptions that are being made about gender. For example, denoted on the cover of both titles are low angle medium shots of slim and youthful female figures with long hair and careful makeup. However, the connotations of this are quite different. On the cover of Bliss the clothing codes and facial expression connote openness and sisterly friendship, while the seductive pose and partial nakedness of Zoo's main feature photography connote sexual passivity and permanent availability. This binary is inverted when we look at the representation of male figures on the cover of Q and Smash Hits.

Representation of Gender — Smash Hits and Q

The main feature photograph of Smash Hits is a boyish male figure framed by two female figures whose body language suggests that they find him irresistible (this is reinforced by the plug ‘Celebrity Snogs exposed’). However, his manicured appearance and in particular his highly coiffured peroxide blonde hair connote a more feminised representation of masculinity — he seems to be purposely de-sexualised (connoted also by ‘snog’ as a opposed to a more explicit sexual reference). The juxtaposition of this against the black and white medium close up of John Lydon's snarling face on the front of Q could not, therefore, be greater. The staring eyes and unkempt appearance connote aggression and authenticity: an altogether more violent representation of masculinity. The use of black and white photography and the phrase ‘Punk 76’ as the main cover line anchors the historical symbolism of the image and with which the representation of masculinity is seen as synonymous.

Forms and Conventions — Bliss and Zoo

Superficially the forms and conventions of all four titles are very similar. All have a prominently featured masthead on the front cover that connotes something specific about the magazines assumptions about gender. Zoo for example implies a primordial wildness while Bliss connotes heavenly pleasure: constructing the male subject as active and the female subject as passive. The typography and colour pallet of the house-style then reinforces this. Zoo deploys a bold red font in capital letters to communicate the no nonsense assertiveness of the heterosexual male. By contrast Bliss uses a range of different fonts, swirling italics and pastel colours that encompass the feminine ideals of delicacy and daintiness.

Forms and Conventions — Smash Hits and Q

This distinction is extended by the titles Smash Hits and Q. While Smash Hits connotes the ephemeral short term pleasure of the pop hit, Q is more retrospective in its reworking of the phrase ‘cue the music’. Both titles configure themselves around the division between pop and rock. As Norma Coates argues rock is metonymic with ‘authenticity’ while ‘pop'’ is metonymic with ‘artifice’; sliding even further down the metonymic slope, ‘authentic’ becomes ‘masculine’ while ‘artificial’ become ‘feminine’ (1997). This is reflected in the typography of both titles. While Smash Hits utilises Warholian pink to connote its Pop Art ideology, Q uses the more learned Times New Roman in bookish black to signify its cultural authority.

Audiences — Bliss and Zoo

As one might expect the audience for these four titles is very different. Bliss has the youngest demographic of readers focusing on the mid-teen age range while Zoo has a median age readership of 23. Both Zoo and Bliss have substantial sales: ABC figures for July to December 2005 were 260,470 and 277,165 respectively. This suggests conclusively that twenty years on from Winship's article there is definitely a market for men's lifestyle titles. There is, however, a definitive difference in the way in which the two titles address the reader. For example, the editor's letter in Bliss is chatty and conversational; it uses hedges and polite forms to address the audience (suggestive of what Robin Lakoff (1975) describes as feminised language). By contrast there is no direct letter addressing the audience of Zoo. The editorial of the magazines is fashioned from lists of facts and bullet points that the reader will then be able to use as ‘pub ammo’.

Audiences — Smash Hits and Q

Q and Smash Hits's ABC figures for the second half of 2005 were 168,547 and 92,398 respectively. For Q this represents the titles more specialist status as a music title (it is the best selling music title in the UK). This intimate relationship between Q and its readership is reflected in the high level of what Bourdieu (1979) would describe as ‘cultural capital’ that is required to access the magazine's editorial. Understanding of the magazine is dependent upon high literacy levels and a familiarity with a range of popular music performers and genres. While this does not necessarily preclude access to women (indeed there is a 70/30 split among its readership), it does favour certain kinds of male stars: cultural history and the history of masculine culture are presented synonymous. For Smash Hits, however, these ABC figures signalled the end and in February 2006 the magazine closed. The official reason given for this is that the magazine could no longer compete with other titles like Bliss and indeed, Smash Hits's emphasis on celebrity gossip as opposed to popular music have taken it away from the product that dominated the market during the 1980s.

Institutions

In a way it is ironic that the assumption made about gender in these four magazines are so mixed up given that the Media Company Emap owns them all. Launched in 1947 as the East Midland Allied Press, in 2006 Emap is a global giant at the forefront of the digital revolution. All four are multiplatform brands with synergised websites; both Q and Smash Hits also exist as digital television and radio channels. In part then the diffuse range of assumptions about gender that these magazines embody is a reflection of Emap's move away from broadcasting to embrace the niche markets of ‘defined communities’.

This institutional interest in assumptions made about gender in the wider society and culture is evidence by research that Emap has carried out into its audience. Projects like the ‘Alpha Male' investigation have enabled Emap not only to target particular demographics of magazine readers but to demonstrate to its advertising clients that the editorial strategy of a particular title will appeal to discrete groups of consumers. Nevertheless, the positioning of advertising campaigns across all four titles betrays considerable fluidity in the representation of gender. For example, in Smash Hits the hyper-femininity of Tampax's sweet campaigns sits quite comfortable next to an Army recruitment poster. This reflects not only the multiplicity of post-feminist ideals about what it means to be a woman in contemporary society but it also reflects the fragmented and detached uses and gratification that determine audiences' consumption of any post-modern text.

Conclusion

In conclusion the contradictory assumptions made about gender in these magazines can be seen as a reflection of the gendered order of society and culture. Surface level adherence to stereotyped ideas about gender in terms of representation and forms and conventions should not be taken at face value. On the one hand, there is no denying the objectifying focus of the male gaze in Zoo. On the other hand, much of the laddish posturing is laced with irony. Likewise, while Bliss re-enforces gender stereotyped representations, it does so to empower its readers in a celebration of the performative qualities of femininity. More worrying perhaps are Smash Hits and Q. While Smash Hits appears to redress the balance by offering up the male for objectifying consumption this is a neutered and desexualized version that perhaps says more about anxiety about female desire than the transformation of masculinity. Likewise, while Q is a lot less regressive in terms of its representation of the female body it is insidiously patriarchal in the representation of popular music's cultural history. What we can extract from this is a model in which surface representations of gender may appear stable and extremely stereotyped. However, the way in which media audiences read those representations is open to multiple interpretations.

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