PEIRCEK TEENAGER 93 MAG Socialization of Teenage Girls Through Fiction
Socialization of Teenage Girls Through Teen-Magazine Fiction:
The Making of a New Woman or an Old Lady?
Southwest Texas State University
San Marcos, TX 78666
A content analysis of _Seventeen_ and _'Teen_ magazines revealed
that few of the stories offered anything but traditional socialization
messages for teenage girls. IN more than half, the main character did
not actively solve her own problems but depended on someone else to do
it for her. Almost half of the conflicts were about relationships with
boys. Excluding those ranked neutral, all but two of the 44
occupations mentioned in the stories were stereotypically protrayed.
FULL TEXT OF PAPER
A new woman, according to _New Woman_ magazine, is a woman who
is neither defined by her relationship to a man nor dependent on or
inferior to men. She is concerned more with brains than with beauty
and is as good in the boardroom or courtroom as she is in the
kitchen. She is free to choose whatever combination of marriage,
children and career she wants and doesn't feel obligated to follow
the traditional female path of homemaker and child-raiser.
The new woman is someone who has escaped or overcome the
socialization that limits her to stereotypically feminine
roles, attributes and behaviors. Such socialization begins
from the moment a girl is born, wrapped in a pink blanket
and given dolls to play with. It continues at school, with
textbooks depicting boys as good at math and girls
bewildered by it (Schau & Scott, 1984) and with teachers who
call on boys more often than girls (Sadker & Sadker, 1988)
and reward boys for academic behavior and girls for
nonacademic behavior (Fagot, 1984).
By adolescence, the traditionally socialized young woman
will believe that, in addition to math, boys are good at
athletics and girls are not and that being pretty and
popular and having a boyfriend are more important than
academics (Romer, 1979, pp. 50, 66-67). She will believe
that the definition of feminine success is being attractive
to men, attaining a desirable social status and marrying the
right man (Weitzman, 1979, p.46). Such girls will not grow
up to be new women.
While the media tend to reinforce traditional roles
through their portrayals of women (see, for example, Busby,
1985, Signorielli, 1989 and Butler & Paisley, 1980),
alternatives exist. In the magazine field, the new woman is
the focus of such nontraditional and relatively new
magazines as _Working Woman_, _Ms._ and _Savvy Woman_ as well as
_New Woman_. These magazines recognize women's roles outside
the home and offer women alternatives to the older, more
traditional magazines, such as _McCall's_ and _Good
Housekeeping_, whose target audience is the homemaker. Even
some of the older magazines have begun to broaden their
horizons a little by showing more women working outside the
home, though their work tends to be in traditionally female
occupations (Ruggiero & Weston, 1985).
All is not perfect in the world of magazines, however.
While the nonfiction in women's magazines has given women's
magazines a slightly more feminist slant -- primarily through
the birth of new magazines -- the fiction in women's
magazines has remained decidedly traditional. This is in
part because of the new magazines mentioned above only Ms
carries fiction; the majority of fiction is found in the
Studies of women's magazine fiction have found women
portrayed as passive, insecure, vulnerable and naive
(Friedan, 1963) and in control of their fate only a quarter
of the time (Lugenbeel, 1974). In fiction from 1940-1970
women worked only if they had to or because they wanted to
find a husband, giving up their low-status jobs as soon as
they got married (Franzwa, 1974). The heroine in magazine
fiction in 1957 and 1967 was an attractive married woman
26-35 years old whose occupation was housekeeping and whose
goals were love-oriented (Bailey, 1969).
More recent studies suggest that magazines haven't
changed much over the years. Flora (1979) and Schomberger
(1989) both looked at fiction in magazines in the early to
mid-seventies. Flora analyzed middle class (in _Redbook_ and
_Cosmopolitan_) and working class (in _True Story_ and _Modern
Romances_) fiction in 1970 and 1975. She found middle class
women less likely and working class women more likely in
1975 to be valued for dependence and ineffectuality. She
suggests that this indicates a definite shift in
middle-class fiction away from the passive female image and
stress on traditional roles. Schomberger's analysis of the
fiction in _Redbook_, _Cosmopolitan_ and _Ms._ for 1972-73 agrees
with Flora's analysis of 1970; however, she also analyzed
the fiction for 1982-83 and did not find any decrease
in dependence for women. She concluded that women
are still, or once again, defined in terms of men and
children and that the woman's place is still in the home
(p.175). Only five stories in the 1970s focused on any other
role for women. Of those five, three of the heroines were
teachers and one was a secretary. She did not find any
stories in the 1980s that focused on careers. Roberts
(1980), analyzing fiction in _Ladies' Home Journal_ from
1960-62 and 1974-76, found that it remained consistently
Such are the socialization messages in popular women's
magazines. Magazines, as part of the broader category
'media', are a powerful socialization force. The media
reflect and shape society, communicating messages about
gender roles that are extremely influential, especially for
young people who are still learning about the world (Basow,
1986, p. 136).
Largely overlooked in discussions of magazines as
socialization forces are teen magazines and the messages
they send to teenage girls, who have not yet made most of
their life decisions. With their circulations surpassing a
million each, these magazines must not be
discounted in the socialization process. What are they
telling young women about women's lives?
According to McRobbie's (1982) qualitative study in the
mid-1970s of a British teen magazine called _Jackie_, a
teenage girl's only concerns are romance problems, fashion,
beauty and pop stars. _Seventeen_, an American teen magazine,
says much the same thing: articles on fashion, beauty, food
and decorating made up about 60% of each issue and
relationships with boys another 6-7% for the years 1961,
1972 and 1985. While the percentage of feminist content was
higher in 1972 than in 1961, it was slightly less in 1985
than in 1961 (Peirce, 1990). Thus, the teenage girl learns
that her job is to look good, find a boyfriend and take care
of home and hearth. The nonfiction editorial copy is not
teaching young girls to become new women.
This study was designed to find out more about the
socialization messages in teen magazines by examining the
short stories for stereotypical portrayals. The findings of
previous research suggest two hypotheses. First, teen-magazine
fiction portrays teen protagonists as dependent rather than
independent. Second, teen-magazine fiction segregates
occupations stereotypically by gender.
Because the purpose of this study was to examine current
portrayals in teen magazines, the most recent five-year
period at the time of analysis was chosen for study. All
fiction stories were analyzed for the years 1987-1991 in
_Seventeen_ and _'Teen_, large-circulation (more than 1 million)
national teen magazines. (_Sassy_ does not contain fiction
and _YM_ quit publishing fiction in the mid-'80s so these two
teen magazines were not included in the analysis.) Not every
issue of every magazine included fiction, so the total
number of stories was 104.
Dependence and occupational status were chosen for
analysis because of their prominence in women's-magazine
research and because of their importance in gender-role
Two variables were used to measure the concept
dependence. Flora (1979) defined dependence as the heroine
depending on others for identity or survival, so the concept
was first measured by asking if the heroine depended on
someone else to solve the problem or solved the problem
herself. Categories for the variable problem solving were
"main character" and "other."
Having a boyfriend and marrying the right man are
important for the traditional woman for both identity and
survival, and teenage girls often become extremely
dependent on their boyfriends (Romer, p. 56). Therefore, the
concept was also measured by seeing how many
of the conflicts had to do with boys -- getting a boyfriend,
losing one or not having one. The categories for the
conflict variable were "boyfriend," "family," "friend" and
Occupational status was measured by noting whether
occupations mentioned in the stories were stereotypical,
nonstereotypical or neutral.
The stories were read independently by three pairs of
coders who determined whom the conflict was with and who
solved it. They also listed all occupations mentioned and
the gender of the character associated with the occupation.
Intercoder reliabilities were .85, .89 and .93 for the three
pairs. A third coder was used to resolve discrepancies. Two
undergraduate journalism classes (30 students) were given a
list of the occupations mentioned and asked to rate them as
typically feminine, typically masculine or neutral. The
highest percentage was used to assign a final rating to each
occupation. The ratings were then compared with the gender
of the character.
Both hypotheses were supported. In 62% of the stories,
the main character depended on someone else to solve the
problem (chi square = 6.51, df = 1, p < .05). A typical
scenario is the case of one heroine who develops a crush on
a young symphony conductor who moves in next door. The two
become friends but any question of romance is answered by
the conductor's taking a job in Berlin. The story ends with
the girl wishing she could overcome her obsession but not
having done so. Another example is the case of the girl
whose grandmother moves out of her house and into a trailer,
leading the girl to think she doesn't want her to visit
anymore. Grandma takes command of the situation and invites
the girl to visit her, bakes her cookies and shows her the guest
bedroom. In other stories as well, it is someone else who shows
the girl the error of her thinking and not the heroine herself
who solves her problems.
In a significant number of stories (43%), the conflict
had something to do with boys (chi square = 23.01, df = 3, p
< .001). This category is followed by family (27%), other
(17%) and friends (13%). One particularly disturbing example
of the male/female theme is a story in _Seventeen_ in which
the heroine, a high school sophomore, suddenly finds herself
with a boyfriend. "Now I was someone with a future... Until
now I'd been a kid, stumbling along... A few weeks ago I'd
been a zero and now I had a boyfriend!" It turns out that
the boy is actually involved with someone else. "Now I
didn't have a boyfriend anymore, an Ivy-League,
advanced-math, possible husband-in-a-big-modern-house
boyfriend." But it's all right -- there's another boy waiting
in the wings, and she and the second boy head happily out
into the night.
Table 1 lists the occupations mentioned in the stories,
their student ratings and the character's gender. Of the 44
occupations listed, 10 were judged to be neutral. Of the
ones not rated neutral, the gender of the character was the
same as the rating except for two, psychiatrist and
government worker. Both were rated masculine and while there
was a male character in both occupations, there was also a
female. The rest were stereotypical: The women were the
nurses, clerical workers, social workers and secretaries,
and the men were the doctors, lawyers, judges and bankers.
It should be noted that while 'business owner' is listed
once, there were several businesses mentioned in the stories
-- service station, stable, hotel, store, restaurant, real
estate company and bookstand -- and all were owned by men.
Women were the sales clerks, usually in women-oriented
stores such as dress shops and gift shops, as well as the
clerical workers and secretaries. 'Teacher' is also listed
once, although there were several teachers of both genders in the
stories. The subjects they taught were not often specified, but the
English teachers were always women (except for the chair of an
English department at a community college) and the
trigonometry teacher was a man.
There was little difference between _'Teen_ and _Seventeen_
in stereotyping occupations but there was a difference in
the number of occupations assigned each gender. While
_Seventeen_ didn't play favorites, _'Teen_ gave almost twice as
many occupations to men.
<INSERT TABLE I HERE>
The messages in teen-magazine fiction are not unlike
those in women's-magazine fiction and do not contradict
those in teen-magazine nonfiction. Through the stories, a
teenage girl learns that male-female relationships are more
important than just about anything, that she isn't supposed
to act or be aggressive or solve problems -- others will do
that for her -- and that there really are male and female
More important than the themes in teen-magazine fiction
is the effect that the themes have on teenage girls. Do such
stereotypical portrayals cause or contribute to
stereotypical attitudes and behaviors? Answering this
question is difficult for 3 reasons: 1) A content analysis
can describe, analyze and monitor messages but cannot
directly and definitively answer questions of cause and
effect; 2) The prevalence of stereotypical images in the
media and traditional socialization messages from other
socialization forces make it difficult to isolate the effect
of one medium; and 3) media researchers have never been in
agreement about the power of the media - do they change
attitudes and behavior and, if so, how much and under what
conditions, or do they merely reinforce existing attitudes
Media researchers do agree that the media are not
all-powerful, as suggested by the hypodermic-needle theory popular
in the early 1900s, which says simply that a message sent was a
message received, understood and acted upon as the sender
meant it to be. Also rejected as too simplistic are such
limited-effects theories as Klapper's reinforcement theory,
which says the media primarily reinforce existing conditions
(Severin and Tankard, 1988, p. 313).
Several researchers have attempted to reconcile media
theories by looking at the interactions of media, audience
and other forces. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach's dependency
theory, which stresses the relationship of society, media
and audience, is the result of one such
attempt. The authors say the key to this theory is that
audience members encounter media messages with both
constructed social realities and dependencies on media
resources. Social realities are the product of the processes
by which society socializes people and structures their
social action. Media dependency is determined by an
individual's need for information, ability to get the
information elsewhere and interest in the subject. The
greater the media dependency, the more likely a message is
to alter audience behavior in terms of cognitive, affective
and/or overt behavior. Degree of dependence on media
information is a key variable in understanding when and why
media messages alter beliefs, feelings or behavior, the
authors say. When people's social realities are adequate and
messages aren't linked to dependencies, messages will have
little or no alteration effects (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach,
1982, pp. 251-253).
Researchers using dependency theory have found that
people dependent on different media have different pictures
of the world and that the more dependent one is on a
medium, the more likely the message from that medium will
have its intended effects (Severin & Tankard, 1988, p. 328).
While degree of dependency can't be determined through an
analysis of magazine content, it can be argued that teenage
girls are dependent on teen magazines for information about
These magazines are the only medium targeted specifically to them
and their popularity suggests that the magazines meet one or
more needs, which increases dependency. Teenage girls are
not yet secure in their social realities because they are
still learning about and being socialized in the ways of the
world. Being both insecure in their social realities and
dependent on the medium would, according to DeFleur and
Ball-Rokeach, make readers of teen magazines receptive to
whatever messages are sent. It would not, therefore, be out
of the question to suggest that any stereotypical views held
by teenage girls could in part be attributed to messages in
It has been shown that high-school students still
stereotype occupations. In a study in which students were
asked their career aspirations, certain fields emerged as
exclusively female -- teacher, fashion designer, clerical
worker, beautician and nurse -- some as exclusively male --
athlete, electrician, carpenter -- some as mostly male --
engineer, computer technician, musician and police officer --
and some as mostly female -- social worker and psychologist
(Michelson, 1989). Only lawyer, computer scientist,
accountant and business executive were not gender-typed. In
another study of elementary- through high-school-age girls,
teacher and nurse were the most frequently stated career choices
It has also been shown that children will reject
stereotypes if shown counter-stereotypes. Schau (1979), for
example, found that stories with reversed gender-role occupations
were effective in reducing occupational gender-role stereotypes in
Counter-stereotypical media content can also be used to
increase women's self confidence and independent judgment. Jennings,
Geis and Brown (1980) used television commercials with
traditional or reversed roles to explore changes in women's
self confidence and independent judgment. They found that
the women who viewed the nontraditional commercials showed more
independent judgment in follow-up testing and greater self confidence
when asked to deliver a speech.
Teen magazines have a unique opportunity to shape the
world of the teenage girl. There isn't an overabundance of
magazines targeted to that age group so the magazines that
do exist are read by hundreds of thousands of teenage girls.
Changing their fiction to include more nontraditional
messages, such as showing women in nontraditional
occupations and teen heroines who can think for themselves,
would not automatically turn teenage girls into new
women (and probably would not increase their public speaking
skills). It would, however, show their readers that there
are options, that women are not confined to a few limited
roles, and that while there are still occupations dominated
by one gender or the other, there are few occupations that
are the exclusive province of only half the population.
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OCCUPATION RATING CHARACTER
business owner masculine male *
judge masculine male *
symphony conductor masculine male *
usher at symphony masculine male *
naval officer masculine male *
private investigator masculine male *
druggist masculine male *
plastic surgeon/doctor masculine male *
dry cleaner masculine male *
thief masculine male *
security guard masculine male *
insurance sales masculine male *
taxi driver masculine male *
museum curator masculine male *
undertaker masculine male *
rancher/farmer masculine male *
lawyer masculine male *
builder masculine male *
banker masculine male *
grocery worker masculine male *
oil well foreman masculine male *
electrician masculine male *
factory worker masculine male *
veterinarian masculine male *
horse trainer masculine male *
band director masculine male *
police officer masculine male *
psychiatrist masculine both
government worker masculine both
nurse feminine female *
fortune teller feminine female *
secretary feminine female *
social worker feminine female *
clerical worker feminine female *
toll taker neutral male
teacher neutral both
restaurant worker neutral both
vice principal neutral female
art executive neutral female
sales person neutral female
graphic artist neutral female
performance artist neutral female
sculptor neutral female
laundromat worker neutral female
Chi square=26.49 df=1 p< .001
(using stereotypical and nonstereotypical as categories)
Presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communi-
cation (Magazine Div.) Annual Convention, Kansas City MO, 11-14 Aug 1993