The taming of the shrew: Women's magazines
and the regulation of desire
Department of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712
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Submitted to the Qualitative Studies Division for presentation at the
1995 AEJMC conference in Washington, DC
Running header: Women's magazines and desire Abstract
The taming of the shrew: Women's magazines
and the regulation of desire
This paper demonstrates how discursive practices in women's magazines
contribute to the negotiation of women's position in society.
Michel Foucault's construction of sexuality as institutionally
and Deleuze and Guattari's theorization of the social channeling of
desire, I examined the three top-selling magazines for 18- to
34-year-old womenDCosmopolitan, Glamour and SeventeenD with the aim of
deconstructing the ideological dimension of written texts on women's
sexuality. The analysis yielded four main themes: (1) the presumption
of heterosexuality; (2) the goal of marriage or monogamy; (3) the
oppositional tension between the imperative of sexual expression and the
need to submit to men's desire; 4) the male-centered construction of
women's desire as either insatiable lack or a passion in need of
control. I concluded that the discursive practices in these
should be challenged, with the goal of ending the channeling of
desires in patriarchally prescribed and socially "safe" directions.
Women's magazines and desire
The taming of the shrew: Women's magazines
and the regulation of desire
Love and sex are prominent and recurring themes in women's magazines: as
McCracken (1993) has noted, these magazines "reach a broad
women with messages that conflate desire and consumerism" (p. 2).
most casual perusal of the contents of any magazine in this genre,
Cosmopolitan to Ladies' Home Journal or Seventeen, inevitably yields
plethora of titles on these subjects that range from the banal to
exacting: "When he wants you to take charge in bed," "Cycles of
how couples reconnect," "Lust horizon: in search of sexual
"How to make your man better in bed," and so on, ad infinitum.
Articles on love and sex in women's magazines are generally
prescriptive, normative or explanatory in tone (Ilouz, 1991); they are
intended, quite clearly, to guide readers in making decisions about
their personal relationships. This tone is unremarkable in the
tradition of women's magazines, which have, since their genesis in the
mid-seventeenth century, sought to instruct women in appropriate
for living. That these magazines have been phenomenally successful
this aim is almost beyond question: women's magazines comprise the
largest segment of the consumer magazine market and have been shown to
be enormously influential in the socialization of women in
Western society (cf. Friedan, 1963; Ferguson, 1983; Wolf, 1991;
McCracken, 1993). In terms of this practice, women's magazines comprise
part of a web of societal institutions that exercise a certain
regulatory function in the governance of women's behavior, and, in
particular, their sexuality.
A number of studies have examined the role of social institutions in the
control of women's sexuality (cf. Tuana, 1993; Bartky, 1988;
1987; Brownmiller, 1976; Millett, 1969), but most of this work
or trivializes the influence of mass culture in this process. In
respect, I would argue that a significant factor in this system of
regulation and control is being neglected. Mass media messages play
increasingly central roles in contemporary society. Kellner (1988)
Radio, television, film and the other products of media culture
provide materials out of which we forge our very identities, our
sense of selfhood; our notion of what it means to be male or
female; our sense of class, of ethnicity and race, of nationality,
of sexuality; of "us" and "them." Media images help shape our
of the world and our deepest values: what we consider good or
positive or negative, moral or evil. Media stories provide the
symbols, myths and resources through which we constitute a common
culture and through the appropriation of which we insert
into this culture. _ We are immersed from cradle to grave in a
media and consumer society (p. 5)
In women's culture, consumer magazines hold a preeminent position. They
are powerful representations of women's lives. McCracken (1993)
The ostensibly authoritative grand narrative of reality developed
month after month in [women's magazines] appears to be a
women-centered articulation of the world. Rendering thousands of
aspects of everyday life as knowable, controllable entities,
s magazines suggest _ that an apparently comprehensive and
straightforward detailing of the everyday can capture reality
discursively for readers. _ [W]omen's magazines exert a cultural
leadership to shape consensus in which highly pleasurable codes
work to naturalize social relations of power" (pp. 2-3).
Because of their prominence in women's lives, the influence of these
magazines in the shaping of women's psyches cannot be ignored. In
paper, I undertake a critical inquiry into the role that women's
magazines play in the "channeling" of women's sexuality in socially
prescribed directions. My aim is to demonstrate how discursive
practices in women's magazines contribute to the negotiation of women's
position in society.
The rules of desire: social discourse and female sexuality
Women's sexuality as a focus of intense societal scrutiny and regulation
is a centuries-old phenomenon. In the third century BC,
argued that women were unable to control their passions sufficiently to
lead good lives: left on their own, women would be led astray by
sexual drives. He concluded, therefore, that menD more rational and
thus more capable of moral rectitudeDneeded to govern women's desires
(Aristotle, tr. B. Jowett, 1984). This general belief has permeated
Western thought since that time. Indeed, women's sexuality has, over
the centuries, come to be seen as explosive and unnatural, a
danger in need of the strictest (male) supervision. In the
century, Freud declared women's sexuality to be inherently
resulting in "the greater proneness of women to neurosis and
to hysteria," characteristics he declared to be, "intimately related
the essence of femininity" (Freud, 1949, p. 99). Writes historian
philosopher Nancy Tuana,
The containment of woman in the private domain has long been seen
as necessary for controlling the destructive effects of her
passions on society. By limiting woman to the private realm and
channeling her passions and emotions into the nurturance of the
amily, her passions were contained and thereby rendered harmless
the public order (1993, p. 167)
It will be noted that constructions of female sexuality in Western
society have been developed and disseminated by men, and that even in
the late twentieth century, when women began to challenge these
constructions, patriarchal definitions of women's sexual attributes
still formed the basis for theorizing. The paradigms used by
"second-wave" feminists for conceptualizing women's sexuality were still
premised on male-centered models and metaphors (see Davis, 1990).
Challenging the discursive logic of these conceptualizations has thus
become a pressing issue for many feminist scholars.
Discourse is, in fact, key to understanding sexuality in the world.
This is not to say that sex and sexuality do not exist outside of
discourse, but rather that these biological phenomena are given meaning
through language. In the first volume of his treatise The History
Sexuality, Michel Foucault suggests that "juridico-discursive"
of power create and define the subjects they govern. These systems
power concentrate on the regulation of life forces in order to
the economy of material production. In the Foucauldian analysis,
sexuality is not only socially constructed, it must be socially
regulated in order to maintain hierarchies of dominance. A number of
social institutions were, and are, involved in this regulation.
Schools, the army, the family, the police, prisons, and others,
contribute to the discipline of the body by participating in social
discourse. In Foucault's construction, sex cannot exist outside of an
institutionally supported rational "law" that creates and defines
"Sex," writes Foucault, "is the most speculative, most ideal, and
internal element in a deployment of sexuality organized by power in
grip on bodies and their materiality, their forces, energies,
sensations, and pleasures" (1990, p. 155).
Other theorists support this view of the use of social power to enforce
sexual norms. Lorber (1994) writes,
[S]exuality is likely to be organized with norms of
appropriateness, if not with moral strictures, in the service of
community interests. Democratic states may restrict the undue
burdens they place on what citizens do with their bodies, but in
the end, bodies belong as much to the community as they do the
individual. _ Whoever has power in the community will be
influential in determining what sexualities will have moral
hegemony" (p. 79).
Deleuze and Guattari argued in Anti-Oedipus (1977) that desire is
controlled and channeled by social regimes, because uncontrolled
is revolutionary in its essence and threatens the structure of
This control and channeling is effected, they say, through social
"To code desire _ is the business of the socius" (p. 139).
Social discourse involves complex interactions among individuals and
institutions. Various theorists have explicated the crucial role
mass media in representing dominant social ideologies through
as well as institutional structure (cf. Hall, 1980; Gerbner, 1985).
women's culture, women's magazines are powerful vehicles for the
representation of ideology. "Women's magazines exist as a gender genre
apart _ [T]hese journals are not merely reflecting the female role
society; they are also supplying one source of definitions of, and
socialisation into, that role" (Ferguson, 1985, pp. 183, 185).
Although women's magazines allegedly create a "woman-centered" world,
their contents have historically been predicated on prevailing,
male-derived notions of femininity. The first women's magazines were
published, edited and written by men, and were developed as part of
a sustained campaign to impose a certain set of standards and
values on the woman reader. Indeed, many writers regarded this as
their raison d'etre, and intended their periodicals to be a
through which they could criticise women and reclaim them by
teaching. Thus the professed 'amusement' function of these
works was frequently subordinated to that of instruction.
1970, p. 27)
Women's magazines of the late twentieth century maintain this function.
"They tell women what to think and do about themselves, their
husbands, parents, children, colleagues, neighbours or bosses. It is
this, the scope of their normative direction, rather than the fact of
its existence, which is truly remarkable," writes Marjorie Ferguson
(1983, p. 2). Clearly, consumer women's magazines operate as
institutions of power in women's culture. While the editorial staffs of
women's magazines nowadays comprise mostly female editors and
this analysis indicates that the ideological underpinnings of the
magazines' texts on sex and desire conform to dominant social norms for
This analysis considered the three top-selling magazines for women aged
18-34. According to the latest statistics available from the
Rate and Data Service circulation figures, these are Cosmopolitan
2,741,784), Glamour (circ. 2,133,712), and Seventeen (1,873,039). I
drew a random sample of these magazines for the 1994 calendar year and
examined all the nonfiction articles on the topics of love, sex
desire that appeared in these issues. This yielded 81 articles for
The sample of magazines used here is limited in scope and cannot
represent the entire genre of women's magazines. However, the sample
served as a starting point for identifying ideological themes that I
hope to investigate in more detail in future work, using a broader
sample. For the purposes of generating some basic concepts and
postulates about the construction of sexuality in women's magazines, the
sample is adequate.
In analyzing the articles, my focus was on the ideological dimension of
the written textsDthe underlying logic supporting the explicit
or what Veron (1971) called "the implicit or nonmanifest
the message." This would address an axiological and implicit
of discourse that poses some problems in terms of formal, systematic
analysis. Traditional readings of discourse would differentiate
explicit and implicit meaningsD"denotation" and "connotation," in
semioticsDbut as Heck (1980) has pointed out, the denotative level of
discourse cannot really be distinguished from the connotative level:
"ideological meanings are present in both processes" (p. 127). To try
to get at this sub-surface level of meaning, then, I looked at the
relationships among three characteristics of each article:
(1) the explicit theme, identified by the headline, summary or lead
paragraph of the article,
(2) the social norm toward which the article was directed, as expressed
by explicit arguments advocating or prescribing particular values or
(3) the assumptions underlying these themes and arguments.
"Whether offered as the appearance of sex education in a magazine such
as Seventeen or spurious sexual liberation in Cosmopolitan, the
[in women's magazines] contain socially accepted moral values
the surface," writes Ellen McCracken (1993). In an earlier,
analysis of articles in British women's weeklies, Ferguson (1983)
that these magazines offered a contradictory construction of
they simultaneously urged women to shed traditional roles and
their independence while reminding women of the overarching
of 'finding' a man and achieving success as wives and mothers.
The same paradoxical construction of female sexuality was evident in my
analysis. While many articles emphasized women's freedom and
self-determination in terms of seeking out sexual partners and
expressing sexuality, the construction of that very sexuality involved
submitting to male desire. "The wildest, kinkiest turn-on of all
blared a cover line from Cosmopolitan (November 1994). The article
on to describe the importance of "mutual trust" in a sexual
relationship, admonishing women, "Knowing when you can assert yourself
is especially important" (p. 181). The same issue of Cosmopolitan
featured the article, "The surprising things men find sexy," which
included, "Those little pouts and other things women do with their
mouths when they put on lipstick," "The combination of tiny underpants
and big sweat socks," "The look of women when they're glistening
wetDlike if they've just come out of the pool or the ocean," "A strand
of pearls and a tan. Nothing else." The comments were all provided
men with the implication that women needed to adopt those standards
order to attract male desire.
Ferguson noted "the primacy and constancy of Man as goal" in British
women's weeklies. In this analysis, also, interaction with a male
partner emerged as a prominent and overt theme. In the entire sample of
stories, only one article focused on lesbian relationships; none
mentioned celibacy or bisexuality. Many articles' headlines and cover
lines involved the active pursuit of a manDe.g. "How to hold a man
giving him his freedom" (Cosmopolitan, July 1994)Dwhile others
on the goal of marriageDe.g. "From love to marriage: how men get
(Glamour, January 1994), "How to tell if you'll want him for life" (
Glamour, November 1994), "Is this the man you want to marry? Find out
whether he's the oneDor merely a stud du jour!" (Cosmopolitan,
1994). Another article from Cosmopolitan ("A week in the life of a
single working woman," November 1994) mentioned marriage as an implicit
but unmistakable goal: "Twenty-four and not-yet-wed, this New York
media assistant shares a chapter from her personal diary _"
Monogamous, heterosexual relationships were the premise for all but one
of the articles: the male partner was often identified in the
"How a guy knows he's in love" (Seventeen, October 1994), "Eight
never to say to a man you love" (Glamour, September 1994), "How to
your man better in bed" (Cosmpolitan, November 1994) [italics mine].
This emphasis on seeking out or retaining male partners had various
ramifications, one of which was an emphasis on women being sexually
active. In a November 1994 Cosmopolitan article on "sexual anorexia"
(absence of desire), women are given ways to overcome "libidinous
apathy." "Experts encourage sufferers to seek help if sexual apathy
lasts more than a few months," intones Cosmo. "Waiting too long may
worsen the problem or ruin an otherwise fulfilling relationship.
Patients with a husband or long-term boyfriend should seek help as a
couple" (p. 104).
This imperative of sexual activity was perhaps the most interesting
theme in the articles, because of the way sex was characterized.
(1990) has pointed out that the common metaphor for sexuality in
society is hunger, or insatiable lack. But she characterizes this
male-centered construction: "[M]en's sexuality has been construed
way only through a particular social organization of body and a
particular aesthetic of sex and power. Sex-as-desire and
desire-as-hunger have been socially organized and individualized,
creating the interior experience and terrain of sexuality" (p. 6). But
women's sexuality is not like hunger, she argues. It is interesting
note that in Cosmopolitan, sex and desire (whether men's or women's
were characterized only in terms of the "hunger" or "insatiable lack"
paradigm, but that in the other two publicationsDSeventeen and
while male sexuality held to the sex-as-hunger metaphor, a
but equally male-centered paradigm was evident for women's sexuality:
what I will call the "pure woman" paradigm. I will consider each of
these models in turn.
Cosmopolitan's construction of desire involves tutoring women in
aggressive strategies for fostering voracious sexual appetites.
"Sometimes, there is nothing so exhilarating as fast, frenzied sex,"
writes Carol Weston in the July 1994 Cosmopolitan. "Sex that is
unplanned, impetuous, impulsive _ You must have him now, on the kitchen
floor. Or now, on the sofa in the den. If you're in heat and in a
hurry, the solution is the quickie. What are you waiting for?" (pp.
77-78). Another article (Cosmopolitan, June 1994) urges women to
"ravish" men. "Women can take sexually, too, and men can be taken _
Taking charge unleashes something in [a woman]. The hidden tigress
comes out. She gets wild and wonderfully out of control when she's
playing a dominant role _ [S]he is capable of turning him on when he
doesn't even realize that's what he wants" (pp. 162-163). A headline
from November 1994 reads, "As a lover, he's merely a lamb? Here's how
turn your man into a sexual tiger!" (p. 197). "The desire for a pa
rticular man to make love to you has to burn brightly from within," this
article reads. "Your rewards will be greater than the orgasms you
experience." Dimensions more characteristic of women's sexualityDwhat
Davis describes as "more relational, contextual, emotional
(1990, p. 5)Dare not addressed in Cosmopolitan articles about sex.
Glamour and Seventeen, however, take different approaches. Male
sexuality conforms to the "insatiable lack" model. "Guys can
girls sexually in different ways," cautions Debra Kent in "Sex and
body" (August 1994). "Some will say stuff like, 'I don't think I
out with you any more unless you do this,' or 'you'd do it if you
me,' or 'you must be frigid.'" (p. 120). This article advises
's female readers to resist such advances, cautioning them to
their sexual feelings. "Things can move pretty fast and you can end
doing stuff you'd never planned on _ you should be really leery of
alone with a guy" (p. 122).
Glamour inevitably conflates sex and romantic love, and the sexual norm
upheld in this magazine is women's accommodation to men's sexual
In one story, "Cycles of desire" (April 1994), cases were cited in
women adapted themselves or changed themselves in order to match
male partners' sexual requirements. This adaptation was seen as
Brenda admitted that she often felt lonely during sex. She knew
Gene was an avid reader of pornography magazines, although she
never before realized how much this bothered her. "Sometimes
we made love, I would be suspicious that it wasn't me in bed
himDthat he was playing out some fantasy in his head," she
Over a period of months, alone and with their counselor, they
discussed how to make sex both safe and exciting for each other.
They agreed that Gene didn't have to give up his magazines, but
that he would let Brenda know, through his words and actions,
he was with her. A year after they began couples counseling,
two reported making love more regularly _ (p. 227)
In another case in the same article, "Wendy" experienced sexual
problems as a result of having been raped. "Though Peter offered to
to couples therapy with her, Wendy decided instead to join a support
group for rape survivors _ Wendy says their lovemaking is very
satisfying now because 'I'm not holding back. We've been making up for
two years' lost time!'" (p. 282).
Glamour's treatment of sexual relationships mirrors Carol Gilligan's
picture of a feminine sensibility in which "women _ try to change
rules in order to preserve relationships, men, in abiding by these
rules, depict relationships as easily replaced" (1982, p. 44).
One final note of interest pertains to the fact that a number of
articles in the sample were written by men. These articles invariably
focused on male criteria for women's desirability. Although only
feature stories were analysed in this study, it is worth noting that all
three magazines ran monthly columns written by menD"Guy Talk" in
Seventeen, "Men Right Now" and "Jake" in Glamour, and "His Point of
View" in Cosmopolitan. The subject of all of these columns was
male-female relationships from a male perspective. Discussion
Four main themes were evident in the magazines' constructions of women's
(1) the presumption of heterosexuality
(2) the goal of marriage or heterosexual monogamy
(3) the oppositional tension between the imperative of free sexual
expression and the need to submit to men's desire
(4) the male-centered construction of women's desire as either
insatiable lack or a passion in need of strict control.
These themes present a confusing and complicated picture of female
sexuality, yet they all make sense within a patriarchal frame of
reference. The notion of compulsory heterosexuality carries with it "a
relation of radical nonreciprocity between men and women" (Butler,
p. 41). The social matrix that mandates heterosexuality "accounts
all desire for women by subjects of whatever sex or gender as
originating in a masculine, heterosexual position. The
libido-as-masculine is the source from which all possible sexuality
presumed to come" (Butler, 1990, p. 53). Thus, a system of
heterosexuality locates women as objects of male desire, especially
social context where masculinity is privilegedDi.e., the society in
which we live.
In a context where heterosexual relationships are the prescribed norm,
the corollary goal of marriage is understandable. Marriage has
held a central position in the organization of society. Structuralism
informs us that marriage originated as a means for men to establish
cultural identity: women served as objects of exchange through which
patronyms were differentiated or joined (L vi-Strauss, 1969). Nancy
Tuana (1993) writes,
The Greeks believed that the animal passions inherent in woman's
nature could best be tamed through marriage. A proper union
domesticate woman by ensuring that her passions were properly
controlled and directed toward the welfare of her family. Her
sexuality would be limited to her husband; her passions would be
directed to the care of her children. (p. 156).
Deleuze and Guattari identify marriage as a social institution that
regulates desire for the benefit of men: "Through women, men
their own connections; through the man-woman disjunction, which is
always the outcome of filiation, alliance places in connection men from
different filiations" (1977, p. 165). Although Giddens (1992)
that marriage is losing its place as the basic social unit, Ilouz
has pointed out that capitalist societies need the powerful ideology
romantic love and pair-bonding in order to justify the social
reorganization necessary to support the economy of production. It would
seem, therefore, that even if legal marriage is losing its purchase,
social order still requires monogamous pairing. In promoting this
women's magazines uphold a traditional social system of economic
dominance and hierarchy.
The contradictory construction of women's sexuality in terms of sexual
expression and sexual submission has been the subject of much
from feminist scholars. In the Lacanian psychoanalytic
conceptualization, women exist sexually only as objects of male
To fulfill this role, they must seduce and entice men, and must be
sexually affirmed by men.
[L]ove relations involve an unresolved tension between demand and
desire. When the woman functions in the register of demand, it
to the man, his attentions, affections, and his capacity to
her and give her identity, that her demands are addressed. But
when she functions in the register of desire, she desires (to be)
the phallus. This entails that she is treated as a sexual
by the other, undermining her demand for recognition as a
(Grosz, 1990, pp. 135-136).
This contradiction creates a psychic conflict that is exacerbated in
women's magazines by their subscription to this characterization of
female role in a sexual relationship.
The fourth themeDthe construction of women's desire as either insatiable
lack or potential threat in need of controlDis a corollary of
paradox. Women's desire has long been regarded as a dangerous quantity
in need of male governance, so when Glamour and Seventeen urge their
women readers to control their sexual feelings and parry men's
they are merely reflecting social norms that have been in place for
several centuries. The construction of female sexuality in
, however, has a different genesis and history. Cosmopolitan was
launched in the late 1960s when America was in the throes of the "sexual
revolution." Using the rhetoric of that "revolution," Cosmo
the idea of "sexual liberation," constructing sexuality as
"self-motivated, driven, active, unattached, demanding, free _ like
men's" (Davis, 1990, p. 5). This masculinist model of sexuality tells
women that they can exercise their sexuality in the same way that
do. But, writes McCracken,
Many of Cosmopolitan's sexually daring pieces are based on male
fantasies about women that have habitually structured women's
of their own sexuality. Thus, although much of Cosmopolitan's
editorial matter appears on the surface to counter traditionally
accepted social values, it ultimately upholds many of them.
Suggestions for future research
A more extensive study of women's magazines needs to be undertaken to
determine whether the ideological themes found in this study are
characteristic of the genre. In particular, the so-called "seven
sisters"DRedbook, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman's Day,
McCall's, and Better Homes and GardensDwhose circulations make up the
bulk of all women's magazines sold in the United States, should be
included in the analysis.
Women's magazines are a powerful institution in the socialization of
women. They purport to present a woman-centered world view, yet
ideological underpinnings of their constructions of female sexuality
conform to rigid and traditional norms. These constructions position
women as objects of male desire and underscore women's subordinate
position in contemporary society.
The French philosopher Luce Irigaray (1985) has identified discourse as
a primary factor in the constitution of female identity in
society. She argues that male-centered structures of language and
thought have always defined female sexuality. "The sexes are now
defined only as they are determined in and through language. Whose
laws, it must not be forgotten, have been prescribed by male subjects
for centuries" (Irigaray, 1985, p. 87). Therefore, "it is indeed _
discourse that we have to challenge, and disrupt, inasmuch as this
discourse sets forth the law for all others" (Irigaray, 1985, p. 74).
In light of women's magazines' maintenance of patriarchal standards for
women's sexuality, it is imperative that women begin to challenge
disrupt the discourses in these publications with the goal of ending
channeling of women's desires in prescribed and socially "safe"
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