Why do magazines target their readership by gender?

For thousands of years society has been composed of binary oppositions. From the old Chinese yin and yang through to male / female, hetero-sexual / homosexual divisions of today. Gender is probably the most obvious and most familiar way of categorising humans on the planet.


In the magazine world there are very few magazines which do not target by gender and those are usually the likes of the Radio Times and others, some hobby magazines and increasingly food and drink magazines where male and female interest are just as likely.


Of course within the gender divide there are many subdivisions because obviously young girls who read J17 are not interested in the same things as older married women with kids who might read Elle or Red. In the male magazine market those for younger males, such as Nuts, Zoo and FHM, tend to encourage ego-centricity, a fondness for alcohol, fast cars and women, as men get older magazines should tend to encourage more solid and traditional virtues (if only there were any of these magazines!)


The real question that needs answering is what exactly is gender? Interestingly in one of my magazines, Eve from May 2002, there’s a whole article on gender. From its puff ‘The smarter women’s read’ we immediately are encouraged to see this magazine as having some serious reading material. The strap-line on the front cover reads, ‘Sex Bombshell Jaw dropping news about who’s really male or
female‘ and within the article are a whole host of ordinary people who are tested for various hormones and then rated male or female accordingly. The conclusion, perhaps shockingly for some, is that surprisingly some really masculine males are actually quite feminine and vice versa and actually suggests ‘Maybe it’s time to drop the labels and celebrate our differences.’ Nevertheless it is quite clear what society expects of its women and its men and magazines to a large extent perpetuate that ideological viewpoint.


Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze Theory states that women are used to seeing themselves and their role through the eyes of men and that all that we do and want to be is seen in that context. In male dominated societies such as ours it is only inevitable that men have dictated what it means to be a woman and men have traditionally wished for women to be beautiful but unquestioning and submissive.


Traditionally men’s roles and their representation by the media were quite straightforward. From 1731 when The Gentleman’s Magazine began and was full of articles on hunting, shooting and fishing, with appropriate pictures of course, men were quite sure that to be a man you had to be interested in these hobbies, politics and the accumulation of wealth. In 1897 Vogue, the first magazine for women, was launched. The cover conventions were exactly the same as they are in the industry today. The ideal reader is represented on the front and the contents were the 3 Rs – Royalty, recipes and romance. Such were the interests of the traditional female. Very little has changed in the world of the female magazine despite the supposed liberation advocated by Cosmopolitan. Again from my copy of Eve, the cover-lines include ‘how to be naturally fit’Anti-ageing supplements…’ ’39 Body Boosters – Lingerie you’ll love’ and ‘The world’s best – sights, places, experiences’ With a supplementary cover-line suggesting Meg Ryan doesn’t ‘have a clue’ about dating we realise that we are all still expected to be interested in the same old subjects we’ve always been told we should be! Only today celebrity has replaced our old obsession with royalty.


Angela McRobbie recognises that the supposed feminist revolution popularised by Cosmopolitan and others failed to carry forward all of feminism’s messages. Although they were quite vociferous in their assertion that women should expect real pay for real jobs they seem to have lost the idea that you don’t have to conform to a glamorous ideal to succeed and rarely do we get other than glamorous women inside the magazines let alone on the front covers. And still my copy of Eve has pages of ‘mouth-watering recipes.’ And ‘How to do everything better (e.g.)…get him in the mood with food.’ So much for the 21st century woman!


Foucault and Giddens wrote about how people create a sense of self and construct identities and lifestyles and magazines are just one of the many kinds of guides available in society today.


Now a magazine like FHM is a different kettle of fish! Even Loaded is quite playful about gender identity, though apparently quite often that gets lost in the jokey laddishness, but FHM particularly offers quite a broad range of masculinity types. When David Gauntlett confessed he got fed up with the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ which men’s magazines project (and he was referring to Playboy, Penthouse etc) he went for FHM as a change. ‘It is the most ‘nice’ ‘ of the men’s magazines in that it was fun when its insecurities broke through its veneer of confidence. Yet FHM in its mission statement aims to try to cultivate a man who is ‘Good in bed, happy in relationships, witty, considerate, skilled in all things.’ The good thing about a magazine like FHM is that it does allow its readers to acknowledge that relationships do go wrong and that sex isn’t always perfect. Although often it goes about it in a jokey way e.g. ‘ Help! My woman is broken!‘ yet its advice is usually about not being a selfish lover. To this extent at least this kind of magazine has broken the mould of the previous generation of magazines. The magazine presumes that its reader is of average attractiveness yet cover photographs always imply that the model is ready and waiting for him and him only! Because she can’t resist him! The editor of GQ once said ‘ a magazine which aims to address men’s interests must necessarily include beautiful women.’


Loaded was the vanguard of the new Lads movement which recognised that its readers were trapped by the women’s movement in a situation of shifting gender roles, feeling unloved and useless and in a growing masculinity crisis, and that they needed cheering up. These magazines did this by allowing lads to be lads, to enjoy going out and getting drunk, one night stands, liking fast cars and fast women etc Nuts and Zoo are just the latest additions to the market and whereas at one time the subject matter and covers would have been regarded as inflammatory, in this post-modernist era they seem to be looked on fondly as ‘alright’!



Ultimately magazines are merely vehicles for the advertisers and it is they who dictate so much of how a magazine looks and who they target. In this way too then, to target by gender seems particularly sound financially. Traditionally women are in charge of household expenditures and men spend the larger amounts on the bigger items, cars, hi-fis, computers etc to maximise effectiveness and minimise costs advertisers choose magazines with well known and researched audience profiles. Using the ABC figures and mission statements produced by the magazines themselves they choose their vehicles carefully before investing but this does mean that they get quite a lot of say in the positioning of adverts within the text. As Tina Gaudoin said, ‘Editors are not in charge of the mags. It is the men in grey suits.‘ In terms of advertising the least important group is the middle-aged, lows-income group. McCracken identified covert advertising as cunningly disguised in the form of advice, ‘If a beauty columnist recommends a certain product the reader will feel more confident buying it.’ And ‘often editorial matter is an extension of the overt advertisements.’


Magazines target by gender because they believe this is what their reader wants; women want to read their own magazines and men their own. But of course it is yet another example of a situation that has actually been created by the media – that women are told they should have their own because women are different from men and they necessarily have different interests. Interestingly a magazine like Cosmo is well aware that they have a much wider readership than their actual sales figures would suggest – and a large proportion of those who read friends’ copies are men!

“The media simply reinforces dominant ideologies of society.” How far do you think this is so in lifestyle magazines?

All societies have certain expectations of how males and females should behave, what they can achieve and what their purpose is within that society. These usual expectations are the dominant ideological views. Over the years expectations have changed, as have the ways in which men and women are represented but the question is to what extent do magazines reinforce these views?


The first magazine was published for men entitled The Gentleman’s Magazine and was all about hunting, shooting and fishing, the traditional pursuits of a gentleman, while the first for women was Vogue published in 1897. Within its pages the formula was simple – the 3 Rs – Romance, Royalty, Recipes – a formula that has changed little in some magazines. The Victorian woman was expected to be in charge of the household but had no independence of her own: status or financially, and all women were expected to have a husband and want children.


Some things have changed but, sometimes it seems, not that much. Women’s magazines increased in number until the 1960s but mainly confined themselves to reinforcing the dominant views of women as homemakers, wives and mothers; apart from a brief period when first of all women were encouraged into the workplace to replace the men gone to war, and then immediately after the war when they were enticed back into the home to allow the men ‘their’ jobs back. Betty Friedan criticises how she felt society discouraged women from making careers away from home and family.


Falling sales in the 1960s caused Vogue’s change of direction and the ensuing emphasis on body image and appearance created the current climate of obsession about our looks while generating whole new industries based on looking our best.


Cosmopolitan in the 1970s was the first women’s magazine to dare to suggest that women could be unconventional, could challenge the stereotypes and have a career and a man and even their own sex life! Sadly this too created a whole new set of neuroses.


We in Britain have lived in a patriarchal society for so long we no longer realise the effect that its views have had on the way we see ourselves. According to Laura Mulvey, the patriarchal society is a phallocentric society; one in which women are displayed as sexual objects and also where the male gaze is active and the female gaze is passive. Women see themselves through the eyes of men and are continually measuring themselves against male standards of beauty and femininity. While another theorist, Fiske said that magazines ‘reveal just how insistently and insidiously the ideological forces of domination are at work in tall the products of patriarchal consumer capitalism.’ We can best see these points in the front covers of both men’s and women’s magazines. On both there is almost always a woman; on a men’s her gaze will be ‘invitational’, ‘romantic’ or ‘sexual’ (as identified by Marjorie Ferguson) while on a woman’s magazine she will be either a ‘super-smiler’ or a ‘chocolate box’.
Janice Winship suggested that magazines were ‘like a club…the soaps of journalism‘ and again, look at the titles and it is immediately obvious: FHM, just the initial letters and often one is blocked by the model’s head.


Basically magazines divide not just down gender lines, as in the binary conflict theory, but women’s can be labelled aspirational (women should want to look like the model on the front and have the lifestyle displayed within) and men’s are accepting of what men are like and don’t encourage them to be any different. One recent modern exception to this is the magazine ‘Men’s Health’ where the model on the front is male, always muscular and this magazine, atypically, is very much like women’s in that it promotes lifestyles and appearance as things to work towards and that in buying the magazine you are one step closer to achieving. Even the titles of women’s magazines allude to the ‘More‘ culture, the idea that all women can be the ‘Best‘ and aspire to be such archetypes as ‘Eve‘ and ‘Elle‘.


In modern lifestyle magazines it could certainly be said that this medium generally reinforces the dominant ideologies of society and the exceptions to that stand out distinctively. But what has happened is that women end up confused by the variety of images or representations available to them. ‘Red’ magazine probably best illustrates this because within its pages we have the clash of executive woman with successful mother. Its own mission statement promotes it as for the woman who wants a life but has probably also got a home and family and aims to enable women to have it all but somewhat inevitably ends up making the reader feel inadequate because she can’t do it all and feeling dissatisfied with her lifestyle choices!