The Medial Mirror - Female Representations in Men’s and Women’s Magazines

Seminar Paper, 2002

27 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)



1 Methods and Procedure

2 Introduction
2.1 What are images

3 Maxim versus Playboy – A comparison of their Gender Construction
3.1 General Differences
3.2 The Construction of Gender
3.2.1 Femininity
3.2.2 Masculinity in Comparison to the Female Representations
3.2.3 A quick look at PETRA
3.3 Summary

4 The Imperative of Beauty
4.1 Getting into the Subject
4.1.1 Men-made Beauty
4.1.2 Beauty and Success
4.2 A bitter Freedom
4.3 The Survey
4.3.1 Hypotheses
4.3.2 Diagrams and Charts
4.3.3 Evaluation of the two Diagrams and the Charts
4.3.4 Problems
4.3.5 Speculations about the Ranking
4.4 Conclusion of the Analysis

5 Visual Media as a Political Means
5.1 The Beauty Tyranny
5.2 The invisible Working Woman
5.3 Outlook and Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Methods and Procedure

In this paper I will deal with the present situation of women in media. I’ve limited the field to women’s and men’s magazines. My main focus will be on men’s magazines because this is a quite new area of print media that – as far as I know – has not been discussed before. The representations in men’s magazines I will then compare with how women are represented in women’s magazines. For my research I chose the magazines PLAYBOY, a magazines that has been available for 30 years (first issue 1972), MAXIM, a magazines for men that has been published in Germany since June 2001, and PETRA, a women’s magazine, sold since 1969. I won’t approach the magazines historically. This would also be an interesting field, to examine how the image of femininity has changed over the years. But it would take too much time and cost too much money. I will focus on the representations in the more recent issues. Of every magazine I have at least two issues, the oldest one is from September 1999.

The first part of my work will be concerned with the images these magazines promote.

Several questions are of interest for my analysis: How do women look? Do they correspond to the beauty norm? Are women just decoration and to which functions are they reduced? Are woman mostly connoted with sexuality?

And, in order to have a comparative object, I will look at men’s representation in the media mentioned above. I will deal with the following questions: How are men represented in comparison to women? Are gender roles still so stereotypic and rigidly divided, or have they become on both sides more fluent?

In part II I will take a look at the effects of visual media on women. My questions are: In what ways are they influenced by the medial representations? How do they feel about themselves and referring to the images of femininity, how do women behave in real life (e.g. do they fulfil the medial expectations towards their gender?)?

Furthermore I am interested in what men and women think, what a dream-woman or dream-man is supposed to be like. I tried to work out a chart with typical (body) characteristics which are considered beautiful and desirable and asked men and women how important, they feel, those characteristics are. The evaluation of the survey will show whether the dream-images are conform to what is presented to us as the ideal human being.

The last part of this paper will deal with the political side of visual media. Supposing now in advance that media still uses stereotypes, I want to find explanation why this is so. Who profits from presenting women according to the cliché? Why is it so difficult to change the medial image of women, and why are women still “in the kitchen” after over two centuries of feminism?

2 Introduction

Our world is visual. Every day we are flooded by visual impressions. Nowadays films, soap-operas, advertisements in magazines and on posters, TV-commercials and the Internet belong to our life like eating and sleeping. We even visualize things that are actually not visual at all. On a computer screen we can watch the heart and the brain working and with the help of special programs we are able to see the sound of music transformed into waves (conf. Mirzoeff, 2001, pp.6-7).

Pictures can show only a small part of the whole. We never get to see the complete cake. So pictures in themselves don’t tell the truth, they can be a vehicle for us to do so. But more often they show us an ideal-reality. Especially in commercials and adverts we are confronted with this ideal-reality. The sitcom-family never has to deal with real problems, the girl who uses shampoo X always has got shiny hair, and fund Y always rises, never falls. This entire parallel universe of “visuality” is constructed for showing us what we should wish, what we are supposed to buy, and how we should behave to be happy. Seeing is in visual culture separated from believing. This is but a great dilemma because not rarely we are fooled by commercials and buy products of which we later learn that they are not better or even worse than other much cheaper products. According to this observation visual media sets standards for our life.

But visual media also functions as a mirror for how we perceive our world and what values we pursue. So by depicting what we wish, it simultaneously creates wishes, and by creating standards we start living and thinking according to these standards. This is visual culture, we are what we see.

Bilder in ihrer sinnlich-anschauenden Gestalt be-deuten Welt. Sie sind immer nach bestimmten kulturellen Wahrnehmungs- und Deutungsmustern strukturiert und vermitteln so [...] auch Normen für Welt-Anschauung. Sie orientieren die Wahrnehmung, die individuelle Sinngebung von Wirklichkeit und das praktische handeln der Betrachter. (Dölling, 1993, p.30)

As I said above, pictures only show parts of the whole and often reduce and distort the real for good or bad purposes. The same applies for images of women and men. Both genders are reduced to certain clichés. Probably since the beginning of cultural life societies created ideals for behaviour and appearance. The question which interests me is, how women are nowadays portrayed in our visual culture, how is femininity constructed in twenty-first century. The purpose of this work is to find the image within the pictures (conf. Dölling, 1993, p.32), to find the meaning these reflections of women convey, and what this reveals about the status of women in our society.

2.1 What are images?

When we talk about images of women (or men) we mean all the little things that are connected with the notion “woman” (or “man”). We know what a woman is and how she should look and behave to be put into that category. Society has certain expectations towards the sexes. Often these expectations towards men and women are contrary to each other (e.g. man strong, woman weak). Every human being in the western societies is defined either as male or female. The different behaviours, that result from this division, and which everyone in the course of his/her life adopts are a social construction. It is called the gender. (Conf. Engler, 1997, pp.132-133).

Very early in a child’s socialisation it learns that women and men are binary opposites. The bodily – that is sexual – differences are used to underpin the differences of the gender.

Out of the child’s experiences within society it starts creating the images mentioned above by which every human being is later going to be judged.

Irene Dölling (1993, pp. 23-24) calls these socially formed images collective and cultural patterns of perception and interpretation. Parents impose these patterns onto their children by reacting and behaving according to their sexes (Welz/Dussa, 1998, p.25).

Die Geschlechterstereotype, die vor allem [...] von den Massenmedien präsentiert und glorifiziert werden, [...] werden -zumindest teilweise- auch internalisiert und in das Selbstkonzept integriert. [...] Schon bei Schuleintritt haben Mädchen und Jungen die Geschlechterrollen verinnerlicht: sie äußern unterschiedliche Einstellungen und Interessen, und sie verhalten sich mädchen- oder jungentypisch. (Welz/Dussa, 1998, pp.24-25)

Images of femininity and masculinity are always present in every-day-life. Mass-media supports the gender specific perception and forms the examples to which we are supposed to be conform with. This as well contributes to the maintenance of stereotypic believes about men and women in our society.

3 MAXIM versus PLAYBOY – A comparison of their gender construction

3.1 General Differences

MAXIM is one of the rather new magazines for men whose primary purpose is not to visualize men’s fantasies (like it is for PLAYBOY) but to cover all topics that are of interest for men. It tries to be a pendant to various existing women’s magazines.

The target group for MAXIM are heterosexual, young (20-40), middle-class men.

It covers the following topics: sports, fun, sex, fashion, technical equipment (like computer and hi-fis), fast cars, and life-style (cooking recipes, information about vacation destination, money and jobs). About 36[1] pages out of an average of 182 pages, that is 1/5 of the magazine, deal with the female physique. The other topics share the rest of the pages[2].

Sexual topics range from big photos of young women in erotic postures, over a ranking of the hottest women in the current movies, to tips for men who have problems with their own or their girlfriends sexuality. The biggest part are the photographs of half-naked female bodies (an average of 30 pages).

PLAYBOY is a magazine that specialized in publishing professional erotic-pictures. Every issue contains three series of women which are photographed completely naked (in MAXIM the women always wear bikinis or underwear, the most they display naked is their breasts and those are often covered with hands or arms).

PLAYBOY’s target group is not that easy to define. In any case the reader is male and heterosexual, but it is directed to older men as well as to boys in puberty (at least some boys around the age of 15 or 16 find it very interesting to look at the pictures in PLAYBOY). Since it is a fairly expensive magazine (around 5€, MAXIM costs only half the price), only middle to upper-class men can afford it. The topics, especially life-style (see section below), fit to that estimation.

The magazine’s subjects besides sex are the following: fun, cars and technical equipment, life-style (fashion, cooking recipes, testing of wine, cigars, caviar, etc.), interviews with celebrities, sports, literature (mainly erotic short-stories).

About 40 pages deal with the topic sexuality, which includes the nude photographs (approximately 36 pages), a satire about typical male and female behaviour, the short story, and one page for the consultation about questions concerning sexuality (and other problems). At an average of 155 pages per issue, ¼ of the magazine covers the subject sex.

3.2 The Construction of Gender

3.2.1 Femininity

The photographs on the cover of both magazines are without exception female persons who are shown in sexy and erotic poses. Most often they almost wear nothing or are about to take the little they wear off. They are young, slim, have a well-shaped body with no cellulite, their breasts are rather big and their postures are an unmistakable offer for men. The focus of interest is the looks, everything else concerning women is treated marginally.

Women in PLAYBOY are always naked (little exceptions are reports about female celebrities like Hildegard Knef). When they wear clothes, they are rather accessories to point out their womanly characteristics.

Issue No. in 2001 of MAXIM portrays two female boxers. What stands in the foreground is not their sport but their looks. Although it is surprising that a men’s magazine portrays strong women who are moreover very successful, it can’t be read as an improvement. The article’s dominating pictures dismantle the image of a strong woman. They are photographed in underwear and with a little kitten on their shoulders or a teddy-bear in their hands, always looking coy or invitingly up to the camera, almost never being eye to eye with the viewer. If the women look straight to the camera, their eyes are half closed, with a seductive expression on their faces. All pictures of female persons in MAXIM follow the principle of “talking sex”.

The heading “Das wahre Leben” in MAXIM settles up with women as a group. The authors underpin binary opposition and clichés to ridicule women and to emphasize the female deviance.

For example: on the phone women chat incessantly and only about unimportant subjects, she is obsessed with her appearance, the woman buys unnecessary stuff with the man’s money, every woman wants to marry and forces her boyfriend into marriage, women are complicated, emotional and weak (appendix p.28-29).


[1] All data can only be approximate because statistically I don’t have enough issues to calculate the precise averages. For counting the pages and showing relations I chose the arithmetic mean.

[2] That sex is such an important subject in this magazine seems to contradict what I said few sentences before. But MAXIM is not necessarily a synonym for sex and naked women (like it is for PLAYBOY), even though there are plenty of them inside and on the cover. I get the impression that PLAYBOY’s purpose of issuing are the women, but for MAXIM the purpose of showing women is to get the magazine sold (women are rather a means). It is a difference to say I read MAXIM than it is to say I read PLAYBOY, although the purpose for buying the one or the other is probably the same.

Excerpt out of 27 pages


The Medial Mirror - Female Representations in Men’s and Women’s Magazines
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Sociology)
Feminist Theory
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
465 KB
Medial, Mirror, Female, Representations, Men’s, Women’s, Magazines, Feminist, Theory
Quote paper
Tonia Fondermann (Author), 2002, The Medial Mirror - Female Representations in Men’s and Women’s Magazines, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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