Three-D Issue 32: Reading Pictures: women’s magazine advertising 1968 – 2018

Trevor Millum
Reading Pictures

It is 40+ years since my research at Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and the subsequent publication of Images of Woman – but the issue of the representation of women in the media, especially the pictorial representation, is as pertinent as ever. Cultural changes mean that bikini clad models now rarely decorate the bonnets of cars at the Motor Show – but does this signify a deeper change in the way women are portrayed in the media?

I was prompted to attempt an answer to this question when asked to present a paper at a symposium on Women’s Magazines at Kingston University in 2012. I carried out an in-depth analysis which could offer, as far as was feasible, a like-for-like comparison over time. As in the initial study, I took a range of women’s magazines and subjected all the display advertising to a forensic analysis, focusing on the pictures, not the words. 

The results were interesting in that, firstly, they showed a narrowing in the range of roles in which women were presented and, secondly, that overall very little change had occurred.

The major roles assigned to women in the 1960s were mannequin, narcissist, free-spirit, wife & mother and hostess. The 21st century sees a shift away from woman as wife and mother and as hostess but the move away from the domestic has not resulted in the increased portrayal of women as equals, as workers, as creative individuals. What has become dominant are the roles of mannequin and narcissist, roles which often merge. Whether this shift reflects changes in society or merely in the world-view of advertisers and their creative directors is harder to assess. 

Wishing to make both the findings and the methodology available to a wider audience, I have since created a website which describes both of the studies and the methodology employed. It also provides a gallery of magazine advertisement images from the late 1960s and from 2012:

The website stresses the importance of breaking down the medium being studied into definable categories and then applying the system of categorization to a significantly wide sample of images. The researcher is then able to perceive repetitions and patterns which may be significant, rather than making inferences from a few selected examples. 

The resource, I hope, will be helpful to students in a number of areas. Anyone concerned with gender issues should find relevant material there, as should those studying wider issues of stereotyping in the media, for example to do with race, age or class. The resource offers a way of analysing material which is often hard to pin down because of its polysemic nature and which can be adapted and further improved. And those interested in media representations, especially film, photography and digital media should also be able to make use of the systems of classification and correlations. There is much more work to be done in an area which is still under-explored.

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