The British Woman Today: a qualitative survey of the images in women’s magazines

I found this book in a Oxfam shop and thought it sounded interesting. I was hoping to find an intelligent analysis of British women’s magazines and the images therein. But as I read more and more of this small book, I began to find myself in the bizarre position of defending women’s magazines against the authors of this book. I know, I know!

They assessed eleven ‘leading women’s magazines’

This book was produced in 1997 by the ‘Social Affairs Unit’ which is ‘an independent research and educational trust committed to the promotion of lively and wide-ranging debate on social affairs.’ The book contains a selection of thoughts – I hesitate to call them essays – from 12 ‘leading commentators’, 6 men and 6 women). They are mainly journalists, writers, and academics. Each contributor was given two or three magazines to read and then each writer gave their impressions. All together they assessed eleven ‘leading women’s magazines’: Bella, Company, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Harpers & Queen, The Lady, Marie Claire, Prima, She, Tatler, and Woman’s Own.

Reading this was like being a fly on the wall at a middle-class, conservative, traditional dinner party, with people getting more and more irate and making preposterous, snobbish statements. This is definitely not an intelligent and understanding criticism of women’s magazines.

They consider magazines beneath them, and completely and consistently miss the point

I’m all for criticism of women’s magazines, which I often find irritating, superficial and dull. But I need intelligent criticism, backed up by explanations and arguments from someone who really understands them, not random impressions from people who blatantly have never read any of these magazines before, consider it beneath them, and completely and consistently miss the point.

The book argues that from the images in some of the magazines, there emerged a character they call ‘The Magazine Woman’. Here’s how she is described at the beginning of the book:

Today’s British woman has no children, no cares, and no responsibilities. Her life is a round of indulgences, and indulgences of a distinctly tawdry kind. She rarely thinks, and when she does it is about sex. In pursuit of sex and other whims she is happy to desert a faithful and loving husband. Increasingly she enjoys drunken pranks once associated with adolescent boys. She calls this ‘GIRL POWER.’

This is ‘magazine woman’, who is also supposed to represent ‘The British Woman Today’. It is a picture which is both insulting and stupid. Do they really think that this ‘magazine woman’ really represents British women? Well, on the one hand, they try to tone down their argument. They say that this is only the image portrayed in “some – we emphasise some” magazines, and they claim that it is only the image created by the journalists and what they think women want to read.

However, the authors conclude that the ‘magazine woman’ really does represent British women. Why? Because it is the “dominant” image; because “there is no doubt that laid out before us in these magazines is a significant chunk of the mind of Britain.”; because millions of women buy these magazines and their popularity indicates a “vote of approval.” Magazine woman, in the eyes of the authors, really does exist.

You with me so far?

They disassociate themselves from the readers of the magazines

It’s quite interesting how the authors refer to the readers of the magazines (who they call “British Women”): “They… they… they… ” All the time the readers of the magazines are “they”: suggesting that the authors themselves are not British Women, although some of them obviously are. They make sure that they disassociate themselves. Presumably they are a different kind of British woman? (The ‘better’ kind?).

This also suggests that they are not people who usually read or even understand why women read magazines. Not a good position to give an informed opinion, I would argue. Better to have someone who is sympathetic yet critical: who is a fan of magazines yet is not afraid to criticise them: like Susan J. Douglas in Where the Girls Are or Janice Winship in Inside Women’s Magazines. No, these are people who recoil with distaste at having to read them for this book. You can almost sense it in their writing.

Basically this book totally misses the point.

It is dubious to draw conclusions about the average British woman from magazines

It misses the point that the content of magazines is directed by advertisers and the cosmetics industry, and thus they are not a pure distillation of what British women want. Basically magazines are there to sell advertising space and do not make any profit from the cover price. These magazines do not always represent what the average British woman is like or necessarily what they really want to read. It is dubious to draw conclusions about the average British woman from magazines.

It misses the point that women read magazines as a form of escapism. The authors were puzzled that they were full of “shallow pleasure,” that in the magazines there is “little need for effort or hard work… no need to think of any time but the present.” I mean, come on! The authors do recognise that there is a theme of indulgence in the magazines. But they don’t understand why: they conclude that all women are selfish, self-obsessed, and lazy. They don’t even seem to realise that women read them to escape from the rest of the day’s hard work.

The mind boggles at how the authors cannot see why women do not want to read about “everyday drudgery”, “temperance, self-control, self-sacrifice, self-discipline, abstinence…” and “the reality of sin and evil.”

It misses the point that women would hardly want to read magazines about, and I quote, “traditional virtues of self-control, self-discipline and delayed gratification.” For example, the authors tut-tutted in disgust at the fact that there is a “preoccupation with saving time and effort” in articles about cooking: “Magazine woman cooks largely for her own gratification, thinking little of those upon whom she inflicts her food.” [my emphasis]

They assume that a women’s magazine should be focussed on the needs of others

This book is most interesting in revealing the old-fashioned and unworkable ideas the authors have about what the role of a women’s magazine should be. For one thing, they assume that a woman’s magazine – and therefore by implication, a woman’s role – should be focussed on fulfilling the needs of others and caring for others. The fact that the magazines give women ways to improve their own lives is seen by them as disgraceful. One of the recurring complaints is that the magazines do not say much about looking after other people: be it the elderly, husbands, or children.

Ahhhh. Is it making sense now? What the authors of this book are incensed about is the fact that women dare to consider themselves: that they would cook for their own tastes (the authors do not even consider the idea that the woman might be cooking for herself and not for someone else). They are disgusted by the idea that women should try to make life easier for themselves. They are appalled that she enjoys sex and sees it as fun, like men do (they often use words like ‘immoral,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘wholesome,’ and ‘family values.’).

The other role that they seem to think women’s magazines should have is in teaching morality to these disgraceful young women. The magazines are criticised for not giving judgements about the real life stories they report on; the fact that they trust the readers to make up their own mind on moral issues such as adultery is frowned upon. The authors of this book think that women need to be told what to think.

They are snobbish, sneering patronisingly at the way soap operas are discussed: “Poor Magazine Woman has problems telling the difference between characters in soap operas and real people.” They disapprove of Woman’s Own, for being “monolithically working-class in vocabulary and culture references.” Even magazines which do report on world issues, politics etc. are dismissed patronisingly: “Marie Claire has pretensions to serious international reportage of a rather Continental style…” Certain magazines which focussed on ‘low’ or ‘popular’ culture were bad magazines, but ones like The Lady were seen as far superior. Get this:

Any young woman of reasonably good family, trained in child-care, who wants the chance to travel and live abroad, or to spend a few years working away from home in circumstances more luxurious than she could afford to rent or buy for herself, knows that The Lady is the place to look for jobs. [my emphasis]

Excuse me while I vomit. Here’s another lovely ‘insight’:

[Company magazine] reminds one chillingly of the well-documented fact that women can be, once corrupted, both more disgusting and degraded than men. As Shakespeare said, ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’

WHAT? Arrgghhh! I haven’t read such bollocks since I studied the Malleus Maleficarum at uni.

The book is filled with meaningless irrelevancies such as “18 per cent of Bella readers cook more roasts on Sunday than the average British housewife.”

Every other page infuriated me. Take this for example: “On education the She reader defers to psychologists and fashionable theories of the teaching ‘profession’.”

Why the sarcastic quote marks round ‘profession’? I mean – why? That’s just being nasty.

Needless to say, the authors take a pretty dim view of feminism. In fact, feminists are to blame for the crude nature of some of the magazines: “Feminists eulogise behaviour by women they used to condemn in men.” When describing She, Myles Harris comments: “There are none of the castrating wolf-like scowls to be seen on the faces of models in radical female glossies.” Oh dear…

Okay. Enough said. Is there anything good about this book? Well, there were a couple of insights which I did like, so here they are (all two of them):

“It is like a magazine produced by a syndicate of butlers to serve and flatter the people who employ them.” – Lynette Burrows on Tatler’s fawning over celebrities.

“If one were to derive guideance about how to live one’s life from women’s magazines, one would become a scizophrenic.” – Athena S Leoussi

There. At least you don’t have to read it now!