Women’s media genres include women’s magazines and romances in print media, the soap opera on television, and romantic comedy in film. They are not generally the corollary of men’s media but defined in contrast to general audience media such as newspapers or “family genres,” including situation comedies, quiz shows, and action series on television. In some cases, they are specifically made for female audiences. In other cases, they have, over time, come to be identified as “women’s genres” due to their consumption by largely female audiences. For instance, the classic detective novel has long been typical reading for middle-class women and as such has come to be known as a women’s genre. Western women’s movements, notably second wave feminism from the 1960s onward, pointed to women’s media genres as sources of women’s oppression. They criticized the assumed effect on readers of these genres because of the traditional gender definitions in them. To be referred to as a “women’s media genre” is not particularly a mark of distinction for a media form. It is sometimes used as an indication of (overly) high emotional or sentimental content. Audience reasons for using women’s media genres include widely divergent arguments ranging from the everyday usefulness of traditional women’s magazines (Winship 1987; Hermes 1995; Currie 1999; Gough-Yates 2002), via recognition of real-life dilemmas in soap opera, to the guilty pleasures afforded by romantic fiction.
Feminist critical attention started a tradition of research in women’s genres and women as readers (known as feminist media studies, also part of the new audience research in cultural studies in the early 1980s). Over the years, a nuanced view emerged based on recognition of the triple role of these genres. First, the label women’s media genres and their existence confirm a traditional definition of gender that defines femininity and masculinity as opposites. Second, they disseminate traditional gender roles, and third, they afford a unique pleasure to readers. Readers’ pleasure in these genres may well also include subversive resistance to traditional coding of gender roles. It has been generally accepted that feminism has become a presence in all types of audiovisual and print texts made for women. Sometimes this is an absent presence, forcing conservative portrayal of gendered identities to relate to a wider range of roles, responsibilities, or options for women and for men. More commonly, storylines in women’s media genres reference emancipatory or feminist arguments or introduce emancipated characters, even if the overall message favors a traditional view of gender. Although minor, lesbian film, detective novels, romances, and magazines form recognizable women’s sub-genres.
In terms of content, women’s genres tend to deal with private rather than public life. They generally address the reader in an intimate manner. Their subject matter is not found elsewhere. Women’s media genres do not often prioritize the analysis of fact or arguments. Rather, facts are presented as part of a worldview that also recognizes intuition and emotions as acceptable components of a reflexive knowledge of the world. Part of the private-life orientation of women’s media genres is their focus on relationships. In some women’s genres, the maintenance relationships require takes precedence, in others their coming into being. Not surprisingly, use of these media can be seen as voluntary training for the role of emotional and practical caretaker of households and family relationships. The fantasy today’s mainstream women’s media offer is that of a woman capable of doing a job well while raising children and maintaining a fulfilling relationship with a male partner. Glossy magazines and girls’ magazines especially present slim and young-looking women with no physical handicaps as an ideal, hard to imitate, example. Most though not all of the women portrayed in ads, in fashion spreads, or as main characters in narratives in western media forms are white.
Early Criticism Of Women’s Media Genres
US feminist author Betty Friedan’s The feminine mystique, published in 1963, is generally regarded as the start of western feminist criticism of women’s media genres. In this book, she describes women’s magazine content as convincing audiences that they could find identity and meaning in their lives through their husbands and children. Such a “false belief” system would cause women to lose their identity in that of their family. Friedan referred to the problem of gender roles as “the problem without a name.” Others used terms such as “the happy housewife myth.” In empirical communications research, the content of women’s magazines and daytime television was further indicted for producing a gender gap in society. Available images did not prepare young women well for their future roles as wage earners and professionals. In a famous largescale study conducted in the US in the early 1970s, Gaye Tuchman (Tuchman et al. 1978) showed that women made up a significant part of the North American workforce. The media, and especially women’s media genres, however, depicted them solely in domestic roles and in relation to men: their husbands, fathers, brothers. Tuchman suggested that women were “symbolically annihilated” by the media. While general audience media rarely portrayed women, women’s media genres relegated them to the home. In turn, she felt this would provide young women with an entirely skewed notion of what society needed from them when they grew up.
Underlying the symbolic annihilation thesis is the idea that the media provide “role models.” Given the right role models, girls would behave less “girlishly” and stop underachieving in order to do well in the marriage market. Gender, argued second wave and earlier feminists such as Ursula Scheu, a German researcher, and Simone de Beauvoir, a French philosopher and novelist, was not imprinted on one’s genes. It was Simone de Beauvoir who famously remarked “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (“One is not born a woman: one becomes one:) in her 1949 book Le deuxième sexe (The second sex). Scheu and many others echoed this observation in books that after 30 years are still in print; for example, Scheu’s Wir werden nicht als Mädchen geboren, wir werden dazu gemacht (We are not born as girls, we are made into them), first published in 1977. Apart from the expectations of parents, the media in this view are mostly to blame for disseminating skewed images of women. Although the role model theory is seen as somewhat less than adequate by academic critics today, it is still an important part of common wisdom about the media. It does fit with academic discussion today that suggests that gender is a social construction that is built and rebuilt, in different situations and contexts (socia constructivism).
Women’s media genres have continued to be debated over the last half century. Cultural criticism, empirical research on texts and representations, and audience research form the three types of intervention in academic and public debate. Cultural criticism is both a part of reports on empirical findings and a contribution to public debate in its own right. Betty Friedan’s The feminine mystique fits this category, as does Australian feminist Germaine Greer’s equally well-known The female eunuch (1970). In this book, Greer discusses women’s popular culture, including women’s media genres, as part of the production of “femininity” that forces women to adjust to particular roles and rigorous work on their bodies and self-presentation (see also Coward 1984). The book’s main thesis is that the traditional, suburban, consumerist, nuclear family represses women sexually, and that this devitalizes them, rendering them “eunuchs.”
Humorous and witty, Greer found a wide audience. By the mid-1970s, men and women readers and nonreaders alike denounced women’s media genres. Although women’s magazines themselves changed significantly, their reputation as a “women’s genre” had been carved in stone. In that same period, the Dutch women’s weekly Margriet supported women’s right to abortion and significantly widened the scope of its questions and answers rubric. Feminist etiquette and sexist denigration of women and women’s media were in serious danger of becoming bedfellows.
It took 10 more years for a new kind of feminist criticism to put the record straight by seriously addressing the qualities of women’s media genres. In all this time, up to today, there has been little research on women’s media genres other than by women, who often hold a women’s studies perspective. Research in the early 1980s suggested that although these genres were clearly and exclusively aimed at the private sphere and excluded the public sphere, thus narrowing the reader’s view of the world significantly, it was possible that there was more to women’s media genres than met the eye. A number of publications, usually counted as cultural studies’ rewriting of audience research, were in fact feminist studies of women’s genres. The best known of these are Janice Radway’s (1984) extensive US study of romance reading and Ien Ang’s (1985) Dutch study of the prime-time soap opera Dallas.
The “Other” Side To Women’s Media Genres
By the early 1980s, the low status of popular culture had become a cause of disagreement for the thriving new discipline of cultural studies. From the outset – a general argument against the reproduction of class society via such distinctions as the one between “art and high culture” on the one hand and “mass culture” on the other – cultural studies soon turned to a revaluation of popular forms. Women’s media genres easily counted as forms of culture that had not been considered seriously. Radway’s and Ang’s key studies were preceded by Tania Modleski’s US study of Harlequin romances, gothic novels for women and soap opera. In Loving with a vengeance: Mass-produced fantasies for women, Modleski (1982) shows how using literary analysis, popular culture may be shown to be far more complex than assumed. She uncovers, for example, the psychological mechanisms needed for readers to identify with the heroines and thus for Harlequins to be written in the third person. Most interestingly, she shows how soap opera is a unique form of storytelling. Rather than a backward and slow example of television drama, Modleski argues that soap opera’s open-ended, multi-threaded structure suited the viewers for whom it was made. She points to soap opera’s cyclical logic as the formal counterpart to household chores. Likewise, the serials’ point of departure – that families may experience all kinds of upheaval but never really fall apart – would suit women taking care of their families in an age of increased divorce rates. Soap opera, in her discussion, is no less than a vanguard form of television drama. Not only does it provide never-ending stories, it also turns television’s weakness as a “talking heads” medium into strength. The close-ups of facial expressions so typical of daytime soap opera, suggests Modleski, is nothing less than the privileged gaze of the mother, appealing to and sharpening especially women’s dexterity in managing the relations and emotions of their loved ones.
Although revolutionary in its suggestion that women’s popular genres merited serious attention and should be treated as literature, Modleski followed earlier feminist criticism. Her basic contention was that while women’s genres provided a way out for women’s rage at their social oppression, women’s media genres reworked that rage in such a way that the social order was never threatened. On the contrary, Harlequins as much as gothic novels strengthen the ideological notion that a good man is the only thing a woman really needs. Soap opera likewise underwrites the value of being able to read and interpret the emotions of those around you in order to manage family relations. While Modleksi made it clear that women’s media genres were far more complex than they had been assumed to be, her work also confirmed that these were anti-feminist “fantasies” standing in the way of women’s liberation.
Although often read as criticism of Modleski’s text-based analysis, Janice Radway’s (1984) major study of Harlequin romances confirms Modleski’s conclusion. Radway based her study on a questionnaire and extensive interviews with popular romance fiction readers in a small US town. For contacts with readers, Radway relied on “Dot,” a bookseller who wrote a newsletter for her customers in which she rated all romances as they were published. It becomes immediately clear from Reading the romance that readers have a strong emotional investment in their novels. Popular genres are rescued from being seen as uniform trash. Rather, readers uphold the view that there are huge quality differences between writers and between different sub-genres in romances.
Interestingly, Radway asked her readers to name excellent as well as very bad romances. Reading these, she reconstructs viewer pleasure to be mostly dependent on portrayal of the hero. A good hero is sensitive and masculine at the same time. He knows how to “mother” without losing his heterosexual attraction. A bad hero is not very sensitive and may come close to crossing the line between ardent lover and rapist. Radway concludes that the ideal hero is a rewritten version of contemporary masculinity. Such rewriting and the activity of romance reading itself as claiming time away from family and household chores suggest to her that romance reading is a crypto-feminist activity. At the end of her book, she laments that romances are still needed, suggesting that in a post-patriarchal world such diversion would not be wanted.
This point of view is challenged by studies such as Ien Ang’s Watching “Dallas” (1985). Ang placed a small ad in a Dutch women’s magazine asking readers whether they received “strange reactions” when people learnt that they liked watching Dallas. More than 30 viewers, most of them women, responded. In the study, Ang positioned herself as a viewer, part of the audience she wishes to research. The earlier view that women’s media would divert a viewer from becoming a feminist was thus falsified. Other feminist critics too have written about their favorites in (traditional) women’s media genres. Among them are Cora Kaplan (1986), who wrote about television melodrama (The Thorn Birds); Helen Taylor (1989), who shared the enthusiasm of the Gone with the Wind fans whose letters she analyzed; and Janice Winship (1987), who selected a feminist, a traditional, and a glossy women’s magazine she liked to read herself for a study of their content and ideology. The combination of an academic and a fan perspective proved highly fruitful. Ang’s study of Dallas, for example, laid bare how the “tragic structure of feeling” in the soap opera text produced a melodramatic imagination of the world for readers, who recognized and validated the soap’s view of the world. Although readers were aware that soaps such as Dallas are not factual representations, they translated the insight of soaps to another level. “Emotional realism,” the term Ang coined for this, has since been used widely beyond analysis of women’s media genres.
While discussion of women’s media genres has changed considerably over time, opening up to a more even-handed view of their social and cultural value, so did the market. Although second wave feminism has in many ways become part of commonsense views of the world, women’s media genres have continued to hold sizable market shares. The strength of women’s media genres in some cases has traveled to other genres. “Soapification” can be recognized in most types of television drama and notably in crime serials. While earlier these genres would not include much information about the personal lives of detectives, most of them in the 1990s started providing background storylines for their key characters, thus adding depth and emotional complexity.
Another significant development regarding women’s media genres is the growth of men’s genres as their corollary. While “men’s magazines” used to denote pornographic content, and all general interest magazines were in fact aimed at what were perceived to be “male” interests, there are now women’s magazines for men. Men’s lifestyle magazines differ from their female counterpart. They are less intimate in address and content matter and often rely on hard forms of humor. However, they do portray men as equally interested in fashion, gadgets, and other men’s lives. Their coming into being in the late 1980s and 1990s coincides with the marketing of new ranges of consumer products specifically at men, such as cosmetics. Clearly, men are now faced with perfect male bodies and the implicit pressure to conform to high beauty standards in terms of musculature and body fat percentage (Benwell 2003).
Women’s media genres meanwhile continue to go through cyclic changes in content. Sometimes there is overall more (post)feminist content, stressing women as autonomous agents in the world; sometimes there is a return to traditional definitions. Humor and reflexivity often soften the narrative impact of outspoken gender roles. Women’s media genres have not yet extended far into the world of the Internet and gaming. Although sizable numbers of women and girls are gamers, gaming is often either a male domain or a not heavily gendered field.
- Ang, I. (1985). Watching “Dallas”: Soap opera and the melodramatic imagination. London: Methuen and Routledge.
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- Benwell, B. (ed.) (2003). Masculinity and men’s lifestyle magazines. Oxford: Blackwell.
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- Kaplan, C. (1986). The Thorn Birds: Fiction, fantasy and femininity. In C. Kaplan & E. Carter (eds.), Seachanges: Culture and feminism. London: Verso, pp. 117–146.
- Modleski, T. (1982). Loving with a vengeance: Mass-produced fantasies for women. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.
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- Scheu, U. (1977). Wir werden nicht als Mädchen geboren, wir werden dazu gemacht [We are not born as girls, we are made into them]. Frankfurt: Fischer.
- Taylor, H. (1989). Scarlett’s women: “Gone with the wind” and its female fans. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Tuchman, G., Daniels, A. K., & Benet, J. (eds.) (1978). Hearth and home: Images of women in the mass media. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Winship, J. (1987). Inside women’s magazines. New York: Pandora.
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