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The Construction of Readership in Ebony, Essence and O, The Oprah magazine
By Lee Miller, Doctoral Student
1623 Hershey Ct., Columbia, MO 65202
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Bonnie Brennen, Associate Professor
Missouri School of Journalism
208 Neff Hall, Columbia, MO 65211
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and Brenda Edgerton-Webster, Doctoral Student
Submitted to the Magazine Division of AEJMC for consideration of
presentation at the 2004 Annual Conference, Toronto, Canada
The Construction of Readership in Ebony, Essence and O, The Oprah magazine
By Lee Miller, Bonnie Brennen and Brenda Edgerton-Webster
Grounded in cultural materialism, this research uses a critical literary
analysis to examine the construction of readership in three prominent
African American owned and/or operated lifestyle magazines: Ebony, Essence,
and O, the Oprah magazine. The authors suggest that these magazines profess
to set a political and social agenda for target audience members to
privilege them and their ways of experiencing patriarchal power by invoking
self-definition, spirituality, and a heightened awareness of "sombodiness."
Constructing Readers in Ebony, Essence and O, The Oprah magazine
The birth and rebirth of definitive black culture
The earliest African-American-specific lifestyle publications were born in
the wake of a bludgeoning Freedom Movement. The need was intrinsic: In the
mainstream press there was an innate invisibility of black1 people and
black life. Historically, images depicting black culture were littered with
racial stereotypes grounded in slave culture and were further accepted by
society as "the way things were" or "common sense." The founders of both
Ebony and Essence magazine in 1945 and 1970 respectively, recognized the
need for a media source that accurately constructed the black race in a
racist society and gave voice to black aspirations. American culture was
replete with racial and cultural ideology that circumscribed for them what
"black" was and even more so, what blacks were not. Black publishing
entrepreneurs believed that readers would appreciate a resource for
definitive black culture. The news vehicles would not only highlight the
intelligence and achievement of black Americans, in this renewed sense of
racism and oppression called the Civil Rights Movement, the magazines were
also viewed as a medium for the onset of African-American discourse.
The rebirth of African-American specific publications is less motivated by
politics and racial ideology and more driven by the demands of popular
culture and gender self-affirmation. Current examples include Today's Black
Woman, Savoy, Honey, Black Hair and O, The Oprah Magazine. The most
successful magazine launch in American magazine history, O appears as a
major competitor with Essence and, according to an interview with Oprah by
Essence contributing writer Audrey Edwards, Oprah's monthly cover image is
positively changing the world's perception of African-American women
(Edwards 2003). Along with Essence and Ebony's longstanding and successful
run of black faces on their covers, O magazine joins them to deconstruct
the belief among magazine publishers that "blacks on covers don't sell"
Self-identity, Self-respect and "Somebodiness"
This research study examines the construction of readership in three
prominent African-American owned and/or operated lifestyle magazines:
Ebony, Essence, and O, The Oprah magazine. The authors argue that Ebony,
Essence and O profess to set a social and political agenda for their target
audience, to privilege them and their ways of experiencing a patriarchal
and disconnected world by invoking self-definition and a heightened idea of
"somebodiness." The self-awareness/self-respect doctrine is principally
defined in the individual mission statements and fuels the magazines'
content, thereby demonstrating how mainstream publications encompass the
ability to start a revolution, be it political, racial or spiritual. In an
effort to articulate the specifics of black culture and the black family in
relation to American society, Ebony, "founded to project all dimensions of
Black personality in a world saturated with stereotypes," (Ebony 1995, 80)
builds a bridge linking history -- from slavery to the appointment of an
African-American in the White House -- with present-day accomplishments and
black intellectual thought. The crux of self-definition, according to
Essence editors, is the discovery of ones spiritual self in reference to
definitive black culture and ancestry. By befriending the reader and
providing testimonial shared experiences, Essence contends "to give Black
women what they need to make them feel whole" (Essence Editorial Objectives
2001, 1). The uncertain post-9/11 era propels O magazine readers to consume
the relatively new monthly committed to intimately addressing the
epistemology and "unshakeable" belief system of each reader (Granastein
In addition to publishing, production and mission similarities and an
ethnic bond, Ebony, Essence and O were created in response to a social and
political urgency, according to the respective founders. The post-WWII
political atmosphere and racial tension inspired the founding of Ebony
magazine. American society overlooked African-American life, directly
criticized their employment capabilities and further ignited racial
stereotypes. Ebony sought to define black culture and polarize the depth of
the black personality and intellect (Ebony 1995, 80). Now the
longest-running African-American magazine, Ebony is published by the
Johnson Publishing Company under the direction of the first
African-American media entrepreneur, John H. Johnson.
Essence magazine is jointly owned by media giant Time Inc. and Essence
Communications Partners Inc. The black power movement, fused with a
feminist movement that marginalized black women motivated the launch of
Essence magazine in May 1970. The initial goal was to differentiate this
publication from traditional magazines by illuminating the black woman and
addressing her cultural, social and political needs. Essence, which is the
first African-American publication to make Advertising Age's "A-List,"
ranked seventh among top 10 magazines in 2003 (Essence.com 2004). "Essence
is the magazine most read by black women in the United States" although
circulation numbers have somewhat dropped (Kuczynski, March 6, 2000).
Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Productions), the celebrity phenomenon that energizes
O magazine, shares the publication with Hearst Corporation's magazine
division. Though not as demographically specific as its counterparts, O
purports to intimately connect with all women on a level beyond the
superficiality of weight loss and elevated sexual pleasure. The O editors
seek to guide their readers in a spiritual exploration of their life, to
encourage her to explore what she wants opposed to what is wanted of her
(The Magazine Guys.com 2004). According to Winfrey, the events of September
11, 2001, in line with the cultural, social and economic divide all paint a
picture of societal disconnect. "What this magazine does is reconnect
people to what deserves priority and to bring meaning to their lives"
(O'Leary 2001, 53). Ironically, Oprah's magazine has a predominately white
female readership (95% women and 86.6% white) with a median age of 38 and
nearly two times the median household income than either Essence or Ebony
($61,204) (Carr 2002).
This research is grounded in cultural materialism, Raymond Williams'
theory of the "specificities of material cultural and literary production
within historical materialism" (Williams 1977/88, 55). From this
perspective all cultural practices are forms of material production that
exist as explicit practical communication found in a historically specific
society, that is produced under particular social, economic, and political
conditions. Specifically this essay focuses on Antonio Gramsci's concept of
hegemony to recognize the completeness of the entire social process,
including the dominant ideas, meanings, and values. Hegemony is an active
dynamic process that extends beyond culture and ideology as it relates the
entire social process to specific understandings of influence and power.
Hegemony unites the persuasion from above with the consent of those
individuals below, as it operates through "a complex web of social
activities and institutional procedures. Hegemony is done by the dominant
and collaborated in by the dominated" (Gitlin 1980, 10). It enters all
facets of daily life as it frames leisure time, interpersonal
relationships, and work; it impacts creative energies, thoughts, beliefs,
In contemporary society, the hegemonic process does not attempt to
brainwash "the masses" but instead focuses on the ability of public
discourse to "make some forms of experience available to the consciousness
while ignoring or suppressing others" (Lears 1985, 577). Williams suggests
that hegemonic forces deeply saturate the consciousness of society, as a
highly complex combination of internal structures that must be continually
renewed, recreated, and defended. These dominant ideological structures are
continually challenged and modified by emergent and oppositional forces.
Any hegemonic process must constantly be aware of alternatives and
oppositional forces that question or threaten its dominance. As Williams
explains, "the reality of any hegemony, in the extended political and
cultural sense, is that, while by definition it is always dominant, it is
never either total or exclusive" (Williams 1977/88, 113). From a cultural
materialist perspective it is possible to evaluate cultural practices to
see how a dominant hegemonic position is constructed as well as to see how
oppositional forces may arise to challenge the dominant worldview.
In his seminal article "Encoding/Decoding," Stuart Hall rejects the
traditional mass communication sender/message/receiver model that envisions
a passive audience absorbing ideologically dominant messages. Instead Hall
conceptualizes an active audience that decodes messages in a variety of
ways: audiences may align themselves with the dominant hegemonic position,
however they may also decode messages from a negotiated understanding, or
even from an oppositional stance (Hall 2001). Hall also problematizes the
encoding or production process suggesting that within the creation of
cultural products producers construct an intended audience based on
professional ideologies, images, assumptions, and past knowledge about the
audience. It is the construction of an intended audience within the
hegemonic process that we seek to understand in our evaluation of Ebony,
Essence and O magazines.
In an effort to understand how an intended audience is constructed in the
magazines we employ a critical literary method of analysis in which we
examine the January 2004, February 2004 and March 2004 issues of Ebony,
Essence and O, The Oprah Magazine in their entirety. Hall suggests that
because critical literary methods of analysis focus on the complexity of
language that they are particularly useful in delving the latent meanings
of a text. A critical literary analysis provides relevant contextual
evidence to situate the analysis, identifies key themes and concepts, and
offer strategies for understanding a particular emphasis in a text. Such
strategies focus on the placement, positioning, and style of the elements
of a text, the tone and emphasis of the material, word choice, mode of
address, as well as the use of visual elements. Yet Hall suggests that the
most "significant item may not be the one which continually recurs, but the
one which stands out as an exception from the general pattern – but which
is also given, in its exceptional context, the greatest weight" (Hall
1975,15). A consideration of the absences found in a text would focus on
the avoidances that are the aspects of the text that one would normally
expect to see but which is missing. Absence is often crucial to a text's
ideological structure and can be a critical aspect of a literary analysis.
"It virtually becomes the raison d'etre of the text, that which is
constructed to avoid (rather like a by-pass – a road built specifically to
a void a place but which only exists because of that place) (Cormack 1995,
Race and representation
The progression, or regression, of minority magazines lies in their ability
to holistically encapsulate individualized culture and serve as a platform
for black life. Representation of the black physical and political image,
both male and female, and black culture, void of stereotypes, has received
a great deal of scholarly attention (Leslie 1995; Bramlett-Solomon &
Subramanian 1999; Bertram 2001), inherently due to the proliferation of
images of blacks with primarily Eurocentric features -- straight hair,
pointed nose, and light eyes. During the "Black is Beautiful" movement in
the 1960s and 1970s blacks were energized by the socio-political heroics of
the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Scholars affirm
that from this movement a direct connection to the African Diaspora was
made and African-Americans, then 11 percent of the total U. S. population
and a group who contributed more than $30 billion to the American economy
each year, became discontent with advertisements and images that did not
represent the normative black individual (Leslie 1995, 427). Literature
assessing the social atmosphere of this era reports a decline in skin
bleaching and lightening agent advertisements and an increase in a more
Representation and racial and political ideology in reference to magazine
advertising continues as a source of conflict among the media, scholars and
readers. Publishers, in their quest to increase advertising dollars and
address the growing health concerns in the African-American community, were
criticized for misrepresenting black culture and under emphasizing specific
health risks such as diabetes and heart disease (Hoffman-Goetz 1999; Wise
et al. 2004; Palmer et al. 2003; Ononuwa 2001; Pratt & Pratt 1995). It was
found that in comparison to publications with a non-African-American
readership, the advertisements in Essence and Ebony displayed more alcohol,
oral contraceptive and cigarette ads and less health-promotional
advertisements. Based on the literature, however, Essence magazine on
several occasions granted access to their subscriber database for health
initiatives and research in the area of body image and representation,
HIV/AIDS, reproduction and menopause and cancer. Ebony was not as receptive
to this reform and was later further criticized for its failure to
acknowledge the influence of black scholarship in the public sphere and at
majority-white universities (Bertram 2001; Krishnan 1997; Pratt & Pratt
1995; Omonuwa 2001; Palmer et al. 2003; Wise et al. 2004; Hoffman-Goetz
1999; JBHE Autumn 1997, Winter 1999, Winter 2000).
Black culture and political economy
Blacks were not only politically and socially inferior. Their economic
picture was also unpromising. A burgeoning African-American-based
publication, according to the founders, provided professional growth for
underdeveloped writers, editors and publishers. It established a homestead
for the politico-economic advancement of the black race in a society
dominated by a white male upper class structure (Ebony 1995; Nation's
Business September 1994; Black Enterprise August 1995, July 1995).
Cultural Contestations: Body image and sexuality
The body image theory and sexuality discourses debate is prominent in the
production of media content, and African-American magazines are no
exception. It was formerly theorized that black females favored a curvier
body type than their white counterparts, and the publications that target
them editorialize their mission and promise to present this mirror image.
The competitive magazine industry and racial dominance has, however,
assumingly forced an assimilation of sorts on some minority-directed
publications. Therefore, in today's culture, white and thin is the default
standard of beauty. According to several feminist researchers, minority
women suffer mentally and physically from the onset of depression or eating
disorders as a result of this socially constructed standardization (Lager &
McGee 2003; Younger 2003; Fabrey 1994; Bertram 2001).
Since the birth of Ebony, Essence and O magazine, there was the direct
indication of the male perspective. Essence and Ebony are both the
brainchild of aspiring male entrepreneurs. O was the result of a
collaboration between Hearst Magazines and Oprah Winfrey's Harpo
Entertainment Group. The latter purports to detract itself from the premier
dominant messages in mainstream magazines: Weight loss and a healthy sex
life defines your identity and self-worth. On the contrary, Essence and
Ebony have suffered lawsuits, public scrutiny, and threats of a decline in
readership based on their decisions to incorporate or not incorporate a
dominant male perspective or homosexual views and content (Bird 1996;
Nealon, 1990; HERA 1991; Gadsden 2000; Gadsden 2002;). The literature
communicating the race and sexuality conflict in African-American
publications posits that the magazines exhibit homophobic tendencies and
fail to acknowledge a specific group of readers because non-traditional
sexual practices are "deviant" and could potentially threaten more
Black culture is grounded in religion, mostly structured aspects of
Christianity. However, spirituality, not formal religion, is the new feel
good trend in women's and lifestyle publications. This new "holistic genre"
has branded itself and substantially motivates subscription rates and
reader's attitudes and acceptance of magazines. The media defines O as a
no-nonsense feel-good emotional energizer that is free of product
materialism but high on spiritual worthiness. The publication brings solace
to its readers in a time of international political unrest and instability,
according to critics (Mediaweek January 2001/ October 2000, 2001; Newsweek
January 2001; Mediaweek April 2000/January 2001; Folio February 2003;
Spring Magazines 2001). Oprah's humanitarianism, in accordance with the
fact that "people just like her" garners a global readership that includes
and considers every woman, from the Fifth Avenue socialite to an
impoverished mother in a South African village. The magazine uses
spirituality to set trends in the media industry and in the lives of its
readers. According to media critics, O elegantly weaves its way around
common magazine themes so that it can focus wholly on self-acceptance,
self-affirmation, emotional stability, and a balanced home life through
spiritual enlightenment. Says Amy Gross, O's editor-in-chief, "We're
speaking to a set of values, not a set of demographics. We try to create a
very intimate conversation with readers" (O'Leary 2001, 53). A direct
linkage to her ancestors spiritually motivates the Essence reader along
with sharing the intimate details of the physical, intellectual and
emotional lives of other black women. However, unlike O, the Essence reader
and Essence magazine acknowledges a specific "higher being." O and Oprah
Winfrey have both received criticism from religious leaders because of the
absence of the term "God" in the publication (Hoffman-Goetz 1999; Hamlet 2000).
Magazines as a media launch pad
The possibility of spiritual alliance through enlightenment and
empowerment prompted the launch of the South African edition of O magazine
and Ebony South Africa (Africa News Service January/December, 2002; Black
Enterprise, May 1996; Carr, 2002). Media analysts celebrate the mergers and
global initiatives of the two lifestyle publications, even in a market as
unstable as South Africa. Initiatives involving race, education and
lifestyle matters by Ebony, Essence and O magazine were prevalent in the
literature reviewed, including Essence's acquisition of Latina magazine, a
bilingual publication similar to Hearst's Cosmopolitan (Folio 1995;
Mediaweek October 2000; August 2003; Marketing to Women September 2001;
Variety August 2003; Mediaweek June 1996; Folio October 1996; Publishers
Weekly February 1996). Researchers and critics argue that this signifies
the magazines' awareness of and interest in promoting social change and
reiterates their responsibility to minority and global readers.
Ebony: A glamorous urbanization of the black power movement
Political overtones emerge as a primary signifier of readership
construction in Ebony magazine. The increased exposure to symbols of black
liberation and measures of equality, in accordance with a narrative and
semiotic emphasis on the African-American family and the social progression
of blacks in America implies that there is a visible awareness of several
different audiences and an apparent assumption that readers are highly
invested in politics and consumed with black culture and black life. The
combination of three critical agendas: race politics, black political
economy, and socio-cultural mobility work to create a subject, or a defined
people, rather than an objectified and stereotypical Other. The objective
of this conscious shift from object to subject is to move away from racism,
oppression, sexism and primitivism so "that those relations are no longer
abusive" (hooks 1992, 47). Ebony makes an attempt to elevate racial
consciousness for the African-American reader who is not racially and
socially aware by playing on spatial relationships between blacks and
America, blacks and whites, urbanites and the elite, male and female, and
the liberal and conservative.
Cover blurbs and headlines incorporate terms such as "you," "your," and
"our" to imply ownership and possession and authorize the African-American
reader. bell hooks revisits the invisibility of ownership that surfaced
with desegregation, "What I remember most about that time is a deep sense
of loss. It hurt to leave behind memories, schools that were "ours," places
we loved and cherished, places that honored us" (hooks 1990, 34). Such
vocabulary revises the implied meaning of the word American in the
hierarchy of American society to identify a collective space in a place in
which black culture is commonly made invisible or negatively idealized by
the dominant society. "The Martin Luther King Nobody Knows" (January 2004,
emphasis added), a literary strategy used by many publications, attracts
the reader by again giving the illusion of possession, but in this sense
the reader is granted access and offered an intimate look at a prominent
African-American political figure. The intrigue with the particular piece,
which is positioned in prime magazine cover space, the upper right corner,
is the placement of this newly discovered information in an
African-American specific publication.
Front-of-book departments "For Brothers Only" and "Sisterspeak" strive to
give a place and individual physical space to black woman and men. The
terms brother and sister are specific to black culture. Language, here, is
a primary component of cultural and social identity. For instance, "No More
Drama," the title of a January 2004 cover story, is also the title of a
contemporary rhythm and blues song. "Soul Yoga" is reminiscent of other
cultural traditions -- soul music and soul food. The intent here is to
strengthen readers by reacquainting them with the past and black life, and
also to privilege them or build upon what blacks have accomplished thus far.
Ebony addresses several components of African-American life, and most
likely due to recent criticism in African-American scholarship,
incorporates articles that consider intellectual discourses. The
unfortunate reality, however, is that Ebony suffers from sub par writing
standards and although they display potential, interviews rarely delve
below the surface of issues, even those of a complex nature. The word
choice paradigm, "All of these outstanding young people represent not only
themselves but also thousands of other talented young African-Americans,"
(Ebony Feb. 2004, 91) for example, resonates with that of the traditional
suburban newspaper. In the case of scholarly driven articles, and those
formatted for the purposes of the celebration of academic and professional
achievement, the rhetoric and overall expectation of education or reading
level of the audience is also ostensibly low in comparison to Essence and O
Accomplishment and economic mobility is yet another theme. The original
intention of this publication was to highlight the intellect and talent of
black Americans, not to emulate the conventional construction of a
capitalist patriarchal society, but to combat the commonsensical norm that
blacks are professionally and intellectually incapable and inferior.
Departments such as "Front Row" underscore professional, intellectual, and
artistic accomplishments by placing scholars, noted corporate figures and
entertainers on the forefront of mainstream society because historically,
they were once marginalized and downplayed.
Ebony is produced under the notion that American identity is established
through the ability to be successful and the capability to withstand the
internalized norm of incompetence that defined blackness. A parenting guide
in the January 2004 issue teaches "How to prepare your child for success."
In the same issue, "The "Brothers Only" column continues the theme with "A
Roadmap to Success." And "Sisters Speak" features the "Fruits of the
Kingdom," a descriptive historical analysis of how Martin Luther King was
the preeminent "seed [that] was sown that became an oak tree in the modern
civil rights forest" (Kinnon Jan. 2004, 38) and incubated black female
leadership. The feature references "disciples of the King" in an effort to
accentuate central and otherwise unknown women "who also had a dream."
Even more significant than editorial elements in this reading of Ebony
magazine is the methodical practice of addressing the intended audience.
The potentially progressive content is supplemented with politically
instructive tones that warrant a radical reaction or engagement. On the
January 2004 cover a twenty-something Alicia Keys (R&B singer and pianist)
offers the illusion of black liberation and social awareness. Keys is
dressed in a black leather suit with an accompanying black leather cap,
which is very reminiscent of the Black Panther Party, yet effeminized with
an urban contemporary bent. In activist mode, she assumes an Uncle Sam-like
stance, pointing in the direction of the reader. The reader is reminded of
the plight of African Americans and the social and political consciousness
that resonated with political rallies during the Civil Rights Movement. The
message is enforced by Keys' stark stare and commanding pointed finger.
Ebony understands the concept of the sexual object and the male gaze. Below
Keys' visible abdomen is a blurb communicating a story of black men and a
recently introduced sex pill. The cover model's physical appearance
juxtaposed with the political overtones is an attempt to bridge generations
by recreating the agony of a now glamorized black power movement atmosphere
and manipulating images and tendencies of a sexually liberated popular
culture. In her attempt to center sexuality in the crux of the race
revolution, hooks declares that black power and liberation literature
reveals the manner in which "black women and men were using sexualized
metaphors to talk about the effort to resist racist domination" (hooks
Essence: A testimony of shared experience
Scholars (hooks, 1990; Hamlet, 2000; and Balkin, 2002) agree that although
language and rhetoric have always been a place of struggle for minority
groups who live and work among the dominant culture, it is also a place of
liberation and identification. For the Essence reader, testimonial
rhetorical speech fused with an understanding of the spiritual importance
of their history and ancestry, is the cultural artifact with which they
identify to construct their identity. Essence's unified mode of direct
address assumes that its readers share interconnecting ideologies about
fashion, beauty, love, life, spiritual growth and self-improvement, and
that they "buy into" the notion of a "spirit-led" life (McCormack 1995,
34). In the January 2004 issue, Susan Taylor's "In the Spirit" column
encourages readers to acknowledge and experience God's light in their
lives, "Our soul and psyche need breathing space – a respite from leaping
from one-to-do to the next…Prayer, meditation, walking, journaling,
spiritual reading, help us see clearly and hold depression and disease at
bay. Moments free of work, worry, stress, and strain let our insight rise
like sunlight." In this conversational letter Taylor uses first-person to
describe her spiritual insights and merges it with direct intimations on
how readers might incorporate these self-discoveries into their personal
The transformation, consciousness raising and empowerment potential of
testimonial cultural rhetoric are employed here to not only connect with
readers through shared experience and communal knowledge, but also to break
stereotypical barriers that oppress and objectify the black woman.
Permeating the psyche are images of an incompetent, hypersexualized,
demeaning, unattractive and evil woman who occupies the very bottom rung of
the socioeconomic and sociocultural ladder. Essence, with a spiritual
manipulation of emotional, societal and political instruments that
disenfranchise and disempower, takes the African-American woman and man,
and many other women of color, on a spiritual journey through an identity
movement beyond the socially unexpected.
The March 2004 issue embarks on a discussion regarding the solitude
experienced by two disconnected African-American female executives in one
patriarchal corporate structure. Taylor reminds the women that blacks
collectively exist in "two worlds"2 and "must know the language and
landscape of both." They "could have brought sunlight, support and
strategy" to each other. Taylor's direct advice to her readers is to "don
our spiritual armor," "have a plan" [of action in order to learn
navigational skills of one's workplace], and "stay connected to the
community." In the February issue Taylor's column assumes a political
stance and addresses the absence of America's attention to homeland issues
such as homelessness, hunger, suicide rates, the presumed heirs to this
country's wealth -- young white males, and the mediated portrayals of
African Americans. Exceptionally reminiscent of Martin Luther King who
urged American citizens seeking cultural and societal affirmation to
embrace communalism, Taylor again encourages readers to "Have faith in
black people...`the forces arrayed against us would wither before a
unified, spiritually fortified, determined people,' pick an issue, [and]
hold a vision of what shall be."
The positioning of the front-of-book, feature well and back-of-book
departments in Essence are strategically calculated to communicate several
points. Amidst several middle-to-high-end advertisements, "In the Spirit"
is the first department. The popular feature appears before "contents,"
"contributors," "your letters," "straight talk," the editor's letter, and
the masthead, indicating that black women are multidimensional and their
lives must be nurtured on the physical, emotional, intellectual and
spiritual level; however, spiritual development is necessary to
holistically progress the layers of individual life. Reverting back to the
nineteenth century practice of the implementation of religion and
spirituality in popular magazines, it is suggested that practicing religion
is traditionally natural and "the real test of reader's faith lay in the
feeling they brought to their daily activities (Kitch 2001, 20).
Following the preliminary introduction to the Essence "spiritual journey,"
the next portion of the publication features instructive health, fashion,
beauty and lifestyle information, including those articles magnified in the
cover blurbs, which instruct readers how to successfully progress to a
specific place, be it physical -- "Winning at weight loss" (January 2004),
spiritual -- "Inner peace: How to create 'Me Time'" (January 2004), or
economic – "Money: 5 Easy Steps to Credit Repair (February 2004). The
testimonial approach attempts to forge a link between the speaker and the
audience through the African-American Christian tradition.
"I'm a Survivor," (March 2004) "diary of my weight loss," (January, 2004)
"7 Deadly Dating Sins (#1: Sex too Soon)" (January 2004) and "Healing
Heartache" (February, 2004) exemplify testimonial rhetoric that insinuates
lived experience and implies understanding and triumph. For most African
Americans, culture is grounded in spirituality and religion, more
specifically, the black church. Therefore, Essence readers find comfort in
the testimonial assertiveness of "Godly" or biblical messages. Of primary
significance in the January 2004 issue is, "The Seven Deadly Dating Sins."
The illustration that accompanies this relationship how-to depicts an
Afrocentric version of Eve in the Garden of Eden picking the forbidden
fruit. Graphic elements are used to visually overdramatize deadly and sins.
Interestingly, the cover of the February 2004 and March 2004 issues picture
celebrities, an editorial method most mainstream magazines exercise to
attract readers. The January 2004 issue, however, is an exception. It
features a black female model who is representative of the race, yet does
not represent the political overtones of the month of January, Martin
Luther King's birthday. The cover image and editorial content, though
saturated with highbrow intellectual verse and spiritual innuendo, avoids
the social, cultural and political significance of the King holiday.
Although Essence does not delegate a significant amount of editorial space
to politics directly, the magazine does commonly demonstrate social
awareness and makes a visible effort to celebrate African-American
accomplishment, most notably in the area of political leadership.
This shift away from traditional celebratory content is also visible in the
March 2004 issue, "The Career Issue," which features an Essence Exclusive
on Shoshana Johnson, the first African-American female POW.
Editor-in-chief, Diane Weathers makes a direct connection between Johnson
and "The Career Issue" in her editor's letter, which is focused primarily
on the ex-soldier. "It's fitting that Shoshana's story appear in this
issue, the theme of which is work and career," Weathers says of the woman
who presumably represents the true image of Essence. Again, Essence avoids
the political significance of Women's History Month and instead of Johnson,
readers are greeted by a semi-exposed Eve (Hip-hop artist and actor) on the
cover. The cover story, a combination of a fashion spread and Q&A, is
titled, "Blonde Ambition." Uncharacteristically, the phrase is customarily
used in a pejorative fashion against Caucasian blonde women who rely on
physical appearance for social and professional acceptance.
O, The Oprah Magazine: Consumer culture and a commodification of class
Like Ebony and Essence magazine, O relies on elements of the familiar to
construct its preferred reader. Unlike the abovementioned publications O
resists the use of cultural references and historical tenets with which
readers identify. Language, here, is that of the dominant culture only and,
therefore, it does not act as a cultural indicator or identification
vehicle. These visible absences, in accordance with the avoidance of
gender, socially or economically diverse content, work to construct not a
reader consumed with ethnic or political culture or an aspect of a
socio-cultural environment, but one who is financially apt to embrace
consumer culture. O magazine assumes a homogenous class of product-oriented
educated readers who, because they are void of financial need identify with
this consumerist construction of life and lifestyle. Both the film and
music industry are saturated with portrayals of abundant wealth accumulated
easily, through circumstantial inheritance or as in the case of most
mass-mediated portrayals of elitism, the desired socioeconomic position was
acquired unrealistically. Movies such as Clueless revert back to the
Mistress-Slave paradigm in which the blonde, blue-eyed wealthy young girl
flaunts her wealth frivolously while her less than financially privileged
black acquaintance is consumed with desire for an unattainable lifestyle
that is seemingly "the only aspiration that has meaning" (hooks 2000, 83).
The examination of O revealed an obvious assumption by the editors and
publishers that Oprah Winfrey's celebrity would bridge class, race and
gender; consequently, there is no conscious effort to discuss class-based
information, feature economically and culturally diverse content and
products or examine current political issues. Winfrey's phenomenon provides
the privilege of not creating class distinctions in the publication or in
the circulation information that publicly traded companies provide to
current and potential stockholders. The resulting readership construction
excludes several groups, most notably the group from which Winfrey
originated. In a magazine that is a self-professed connection of diverse
groups in a disconnected world rocked by war and racial and religious
politics, the dominant message in both the content and advertising appeals
to affluent white women age 30 to 60 years old. Ads for Nexium, a
prescription drug used to treat Acid Reflux Disease and a three-page
advertising spread for Zelnorm, used exclusively to treat Irritable Bowel
Syndrome (IBS) in women are featured along with a two-page layout for
Effexor, Xr, a doctor-prescribed drug used to treat symptoms of depression.
Both the advertising copy and the images in the ads target women. A similar
strategy is used in a three-page Botox advertising spread that pictures
women dermatologists who not only have used Botox themselves but also
recommend it to their patients. While Botox may be used to reduce wrinkles
in both men and women, the focus of these ads is primarily on women between
the ages of 30 and 60. Interestingly, this is one of the few ad layouts to
target women from various ethnic backgrounds. While the vast majority of
the ads use Caucasian women and men the ads for Botox include one
African-American physician, one Asian doctor, along with one Caucasian male
doctor and two Caucasian female physicians.
With a production mix of about a 50 percent for both advertising and
editorial content, very little of the content of these ads appeal to older
women, regardless of background, and only a few car advertisements might be
of interest to male readers. Approximately one fourth of all of the
advertisements present make-up, perfume and skin care products. They
include an abundance of those most noted in the cosmetics industry --
Clinique, Elizabeth Arden, Neutrogena, Dove, Jennifer Lopez, Eucerin, and
Vaseline. These particular product advertisements do not target women of
color, for her image is nearly absent. The pastel pink lip gloss, nail
polish and blush in beauty features such as "beauty girls' toys" in the
February issue complement only women with a light complexion and blond
hair. The fashion layout in style pages such as "One Suit, Four Ways"
(February 2004) and "Fashion: Viva Las Vegas" in the March 2004 issue seem
best suited to slim, white women with blond hair. More importantly, the
fashion, beauty and lifestyle editorial products are not realistically cost
effective. In "Workstyle: The O Memo" (February 2004) a back-of-book
fashion feature depicting appropriate career attire pictures a striped silk
Michael Kors blouse valued at $750 and $980 for the coordinating pleated
Each monthly publication consists of nearly one hundred full-page
advertisements. In the February 2004 issue there are only eight images of
African Americans (including one image that exposes only the model's legs)
four images of Asians, and three images of multiracial men and women. As is
the case in the Botox advertisement, most of these diverse images are
grouped together in the same ad, while images of white men and women
proliferate throughout the magazine. "Advertising is especially persuasive
when it offers the new through familiar imagery" (Kitch, 2001, 160). The
dominant imagery in O magazine is not the advertisements or the products
placed within the sparse editorial pages. Readers are influenced by Oprah
Winfrey and what she represents socially and culturally. Therefore, they
approach the publication in search of self-identity and self-awareness
through the illusion that it is attainable through economic mobility and
Despite the absence of diverse material, there are several indications that
the consumerist view is funneled according to an editorial hierarchy.
Oprah's ongoing interest in dieting methods and exercise techniques is
reflected in the advertising as well. There are a variety of ads for diet
programs such as Atkins, as well as those for power bars and healthy
snacks. While issues of diversity abound on the Oprah Winfrey Show, they
are virtually absent in the January, February and March 2004 issue of O.
Such an omission seems especially noteworthy, and may certainly aid in O's
construction of their preferred reader. Winfrey, as an African American and
privileged member of an elite society, has assumed the role of mediator
"between the black masses and the white folks who are really in charge"
(hooks 2000, 91). hooks further argues that with the emergence of African
Americans into a society dominated by patriarchy and capitalism,
"Allegiance to their class interests usually supersedes racial solidarity"
(hooks 2000, 96). From this perspective, class then becomes not a caste
system but a commodified object available for purchase by upper
middle-class groups. From its conception O magazine has urged readers to
"see every experience and challenge as an opportunity to grow and discover
their best self" (The Magazine Guys 2004). Through visual and pictorial
content and advertising, O prescribes, offers and endorses the best of the
best of life for the reader searching for personal and material improvement.
From columnists Dr. Phil and Suzie Armand to celebrity interviews with
Jennifer Aniston (February 2004), Madonna (January 2004) and Sarah Jessica
Parker (March 2004), O magazine furthers the construction of a white
middle-upper-class reader. Analogous with Essence, O avoided a celebration
of both the King holiday in January and Black History Month in February,
opting to instead feature white female entertainment icons, Madonna and
Jennifer Aniston, respectively.
This research study examines the construction of readership in Ebony,
Essence and O, The Oprah magazine, three popular magazines that purport to
be a vehicle of identity and awareness for their target audience. Upon
evaluation we find that Ebony and Essence both challenge the hegemonic
process with the incorporation of cultural artifacts that call upon
collective memory to form reader association. Stuart Hall's concept of
encoding and decoding is relevant here in that the consumers of both
publications, also members of a patriarchal society, negotiate the media
messages, allowing them to resist stereotypes and internalized norms. In
some cases the magazines actually construct oppositional messages,
challenging the dominant hegemony that audience members embrace as
resistant readings. In Ebony and Essence, the primary method of reader
construction is language in the form of testimonial rhetoric and black
vernacular. Both work as cultural identifiers that manifest notions of
shared meaning and collective ownership among African Americans. Language,
as communicated by bell hooks, "is a place of struggle" (hooks 1990, 46)
for the minority who in order to remain productive and maintain individual
space in the dominant society, must navigate the landscape of
two-dimensional communication. In contrast O, The Oprah magazine constructs
a readership firmly entrenched in the dominant hegemonic culture.
Celebrating a culture of consumption and excess, O encourages readers to
fulfill themselves through conspicuous consumption. While Ebony and Essence
construct an alternative space for their readers, O maintains that
fulfillment and self-realization is the embodiment of fashion, make-up,
gold-plated stationery and Manolo Blahnik stilettos. Such is the
publication's luxuriant language, the constructed reader, a
middle-upper-class white woman, attracted to the magazine by its
representation of a "luscious" lifestyle that implies holistic individual
and social mobility.
 1 The terms black and African-American are used interchangeably in this
research study to describe and reference Americans of African descent.
 2 W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903 that the
African American "ever feels his two-ness… two souls, two thoughts, two
unreconciled strivings. What is to be understood here is that African
Americans must live their lives according to a societal measure that
excludes and scorns them. Double-consciousness is "this sense of always
looking at one's self through the eyes of others."
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