Get JoshGraphic Designer
Author ······· Joshua Downton-Lewis
Medium ····· Print
Published ·· November 2020
Language ·· English
Graded ······· First
Medium ····· Print
Published ·· November 2020
Language ·· English
Graded ······· First
The Impact Gossip Magazines have on the Iteration of Internalised Misogyny.
This study explored the control that gossip magazines exercise over the iteration of internalised misogyny among its female readership. Focusing on the impact that, the reoccurring, narratives have on the expectations women have for themselves and other women. The example of visual culture I will be discussing is a 2018 cover from the magazine Closer (Fig.1) which exhibits a number of signs which can only be interpreted by people with the correct set of social and cultural understandings needed to draw meaning from the signs - this intended group is working-class women.
I am studying the impact that gossip narratives have on the internalised misogyny amongst its female readership and how in turn, the readership reiterate these behaviours on to themselves and those around them. I have chosen to write this case study to demonstrate that these covers from Closer magazine have been designed in such a way to manipulate the psychology of its readership - they are designed with intent and purpose and so should be held accountable for the subliminal manipulation, mis-use of semiotics and exploitation of the psychological wellbeing of its audience. By utilising the research previously conducted by leading theorist on gossip magazines, Rebecca Feasey, I will highlight that the sole purpose of these magazines is not to create a sense of inclusivity and sociality for women but rather to demoralise them: positioning these women in such a way that they condemn women who do not conform to the idealised ‘norm’ put in place by the patriarchy. To put perspective on how, culturally, these magazines target women I will be using Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze to further the idea that these magazines are tools used by the patriarchy to control women.
The conception of gossip emerged in a historical context as a term of endearment. Used originally to indicate a close friend among females, it has since been used to ‘[signify] idle, backbiting talk, that is, talk potentially sowing discord’ the polar opposite of the intended meaning. (Federici, S 2018) This shift in meaning, for the once endearing term, served to destroy the female sociality that had arisen in the middle ages, a time when most activities carried out by women were done as a collective within a tight-knit community.
This was the start of an era that revelled in the demonisation of women, men gained status and power as the female social position deteriorated giving way for what can only be described as a war on women, especially those of the lower-classes. This ‘… society was oppressive and patriarchal, … women were expected to know their place and to keep to hearth and home.” (Tonge, D. 2015) The target for this war was female friendships, this was made clear during the witch hunts over the course of the trials “…when witchcraft trials resumed on an unprecedented scale in the… sixteenth century their victims were overwhelmingly women, up to 80%…” (Ross 1995) Accused women were forced under torture to denounce each other, friends turning in friends, daughters turning in their mothers. This was the start of encouraging women to condemn women who do not conform to the norm. Alongside this development, this is the time when we begin to see a misogynistic shift in the meaning of gossip, now often used to negatively brand a woman engaging in idle talk. With scholars suggesting that this may have been “because the side effects of women coming together in solidarity was an increase in hassles for men” with this resulting in the weaponising of the word gossip to lessen these hassles.(McAndrew, F. 2015)
Almost five hundred years later and it would seem that women are on the cusp of taking back gossip, as a term of endearment, through the means of gossip talk shows and gossip magazines. This industry, centred entirely on the idle talk of women, tops more than $3 billion per year, according to The New York Times. Despite the successes of this industry being worth ‘billions’, the female social position is no better off and it is this unbalanced relationship that I will be exploring.
“Internalised misogyny is when a woman observes gender stereotypes and is influenced by the patriarchy, therefore inflicting sexist attitudes and behaviours towards themselves and other women.” (Gohil 2019) These gendered stereotypes are exhibited heavily in “celebrity gossip magazines such as Closer, Now and Heat [all of which] are notorious for their irreverent attitude towards famous figures in general, and for their slightly mocking presentation of female celebrities in particular.’ (R.Feasey 2012) These magazines have a long history of diminishing the achievements of female celebrities, focusing on the uncovering of their troubled romances, emotional tumult and dietary choices - reducing their stardom to nothing more than a debate over appearances and physicality.
Code 1: Women need men to survive
‘What is of concern here of course is not merely the dismissal of talented performers, but what the devaluing of female celebrity means to girls and young women who read these texts.’ (Feasey, 2012) It is this focus on the idle aspects of these successful women’s lives that proves that these gossip magazines ‘reflect, reveal and even play on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle’ (Mulvey, 1975: 6).These gossip tabloid magazines can arguably be seen as an accurate interpretation of the active and passive roles that men and women are socialised into within the constructs of modern society. With women being placed in the role of the subordinate to the active male, fundamentally being present in a narrative in the ‘traditional exhibitionist role [where] women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.’ (Mulvey, 1975: 11)
With five out of the six headlines on the Closer cover presenting a (subordinate) woman in distress over losing her (active) male partner, it would seem that the subconscious message here is that a woman simply can not survive without a man. For example, “Coleen faces life without Wayne” a headline communicating a romantic split between two people. However, the headline has been phrased to highlight that the subordinate female is the one at loss by losing her active male in this narrative and as such will be sentenced to life ‘without’ him, subconsciously communicating that she has diminished her worth as a woman by losing him. Pairing this, purposely worded, headline with an image of the subject in a bikini at the beach communicates to the female readership that women are worth less, unless they’re fulfilling their ‘traditional exhibitionist roles’ to serve the eroticism of a male protagonist.
The subliminal messages behind these headline and image pairings is explained by Bignell, stating that: “women’s magazines communicate their mythic meaning by means of signs, thus their representations of the imaginary are dependent on the symbolic, the signs which do the communicating” (Bignell 1997: 78). In this context all signs are composed of the signifier (the image or text) and the signified (what is understood) by the reader or observer; meaning is only derived when the sign means something to someone (Williamson, 1978: 40). The women being exposed to these signs are crucial in the success of them, this is because they bring their own experiences, perceptions and cultural understandings to what needs to be understood. A male consumer of the magazine would draw very different meanings from the signs being weaponised in the cover. This is because his cultural understandings and experiences, from living in a patriarchal society that favours him over a female counterpart, would provide him with a different set of perspectives on each of the headlines. Being the male protagonist, he would draw pleasure from looking at the images of the subordinate females, as that is the position that he has been “socialised into within the constructs of modern society” instead of projecting the subliminal expectations of subservience on to himself, as a female reader would. (Mulvey, 1975:11)
Bignell also states that the format of the magazine is, itself, a ‘sign’ as it “connects together the mythic meanings of femininity and pleasure” (Bignell, 1997: 66). Essentially saying that when consuming the content of a magazine the intended female audience is presented with a range of values and expectations that society holds them to fulfil as gendered females. This dictates how they operate as gendered subjects in a wider patriarchal society, relating to their identity as a female, their sexual identity and their body image expectations.
Class and race
With the editorial focus for Closer magazine’s covers being on the retention of men, body image and babies - it would imply that the readership have a larger interest in family life over careers, which points the spotlight at working-class women being the intended consumer for these narratives. This is further supported by Karl Marx arguing it’s because women are expected to be providing “free [emotional] labour at home within moderate limits for the support of the family." (Marx 1867) With “women and girls [being] responsible for 75% of unpaid care and domestic work in homes and communities’’ this further reiterates the idea that these magazines are curated for women, with the intention of conditioning women to measure their worth by the means in which they are able to care for a man and nurture a family. (Moreira da Silva 2019)
“Of 214 covers published by the 19 bestselling glossies last year, only 20 featured a person of colour.” (Hirsch 2018) This is because “white people [control] the entertainment industry and chose what images of Black people to portray” (Kulaszewicz, 2015) This suggests that the intended audience for almost all of the gossip magazines in 2018 was white women, as they’d be more likely to relate to the white subjects featured on the majority of the covers - as intended by the “white people” who curate them.
Having said that, it is important to note that across the two Closer covers featured here (fig.1 and 2) there are two black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people featured out of seventeen individuals. The first being Megan Markle, the newest member of the royal family and her “crazy link to Cheryl!” The idea that it is a “crazy link” implies that it is impossible for two people, of varying ethnicities, to be linked either socially or through family. Not only this, but it also states that the link is Megan Markle’s to be had: suggesting that despite being in the royal family, that she is lucky enough to be linked to Cheryl Cole - the white female. With “racist attitudes among the white, working class [being] the key cause of racial inequalities in Britain today,” it’s no surprise that these narratives play on the innate racisms of its readership in order to build a relationship between the reader and the subjects featured weekly in the magazine, thus increasing it’s sales. (Hostettler-Davies 2020)
The second of these representations of black, asian and minority ethnic people, is referred to as a “hot felon” (fig.1). ‘Black men are often criminalised and represented as violent in the media’ meaning that the objectification of this person as just a “hot felon” is not only degrading but also racially isolating. (Kulaszewicz, 2015) Next to the headline is an image of the “felon” with a white backdrop, resembling the style of a prison mugshot which connotes danger and fear. Again, we see the subtle use of a signifier to stimulate the cultural understandings of the reader. In order to understand the subliminal message of this headline, it is required for us to have a fundamental understanding of prisons and also of the prejudice faced by BAME people: to draw a connection between the mugshot, a minority assumed to commit crime and the connotations of violence and abuse attached to being arrested. The headline states that “pregnant Chloe fears future with hot felon” which implies she’s fearing for her safety and the safety of her unborn child by referring to the active male as a “felon.” It also subconsciously implies that despite fearing for her safety that she would rather risk the danger of being with a “felon” than fail as a women and be without a man: again communicating the idea that women simply can not survive without a man.
It has been argued that “white women … are uniquely placed to challenge racism” but until they have been made aware of their “unchecked biases” they will remain as “part of the problem.” (Noor, 2020) With this being the case, this headline taps into the innate racism of its audience, normalising “racial micro-aggressions” through the means of subliminally manipulative signifiers. This also produces the argument that “racism is… still reinforced through news media whether conscience or not. (Kulaszewicz, 2015)
Code 2. Body image
Another reoccurrence across almost all of the covers is the focus on the physicality of these women. I will highlight the subliminal intent of these images. Images of weight fluctuation, dietary choices and bikini bodies have been featured for heavy scrutiny in these gossip magazine covers (fig.1 and fig.2).
As touched on previously, by continuously exposing the female readership to subconscious signifiers, the magazine is able to manipulate the desires and beliefs of these women. This is seen in figure two where the headline “having a baby has transformed my figure” is featured, accompanied by two images. The first, a picture of “Ferne” sat down, her hunched posture creating the illusion of fat around her abdominal area. This image is juxtaposed by a second, this time of her stood up elongating the figure, stretching out the body, making her look thinner. There is no obvious sign of pregnancy in the first photo and pairing that with the ideology of just “having a baby” as a form of weightless is a mis-use of communication and in itself, manipulation of the readership. Hegel argued that the master can objectify and dehumanise the slave and simultaneously need him to be human, and men can do the same to women. This headline plays into this belief of men objectifying and dehumanising women by communicating that a woman’s primary role as a female is to procreate, the second is that she should connote “to-be-looked-at-ness” with that being her main ambition, even going as far as to give birth to achieve it. This signifier is further supported by the headline “my new man’s helped me finally accept my body” implying that in order to accept a body that doesn’t fit into the patriarchal “norm” a woman needs the approval and support of a man in order to feel comfortable. Yet another subliminal message that teaches the female readership of this magazine that they need the permission and retention of a man in order to remain worthy.
With the magazine manipulating the maternal psychology of its working-class consumers, to sell the idea that having a baby is a form of weight loss, we can conclude that the editors of these covers are assuming that the women reading these magazines have no career aspirations. With this being the case, they are implying that these women should measure their worth by means of having children and their ability to remain coded for “strong visual and erotic impact.” (Mulvey, 1975:11) The fundamental arguments of Laura Mulvey’s theory on the Male gaze was a development of Sigmund Freud’s pioneering work into the area of psychoanalysis, taking particular interest in the concept of ‘Scopophilia’ which translates to English as ‘pleasure in looking’ (Freud, S. 1962.)
With this theory being further explored by Mulvey, she elaborates that we as an audience, regardless of gender or sexuality, are forced to act as a male spectator. The way in which these images have been captured and used can reveal the intentions behind them and the reasoning as to why they communicate certain messages. With ‘Fifty-three percent of all graphic designers [being female], only 11% of creative directors are women’ (Brown, O. 2020) Looking at these statistics, we can draw the conclusion that despite women being the majority when it comes to layout and design, it is usually a man who decides what content is featured and how it is represented. This means that we automatically assume the identification of the spectator, with the camera typically assuming the gaze of a heterosexual male: in this case it being a male creative director, selecting content through a heterosexual male gaze, for a women’s magazine and a female readership.
Hence it is the male gaze that controls the content and intent of the subliminal messages used on the cover of this magazine, meaning ‘the object of the male gaze is fully present, for the spectator. The fetishistic representation of the nude female body, fully in view, insures a masculinisation of the spectatorial position.’ (Doane, 1982:85). With this further reiterating that the spectator often has little choice in whether they wish to identify with the male protagonist due to the male gaze perspective of the camera. This forcing of the female consumer into the position of the male spectator who captured and utilised this content is the reason for the cycle of women condemning women on the basis of a mans expectations, rather than rewarding their peers for their successes and achievements.
Many of the celebrity’s featured in the narratives of these magazines, in the eyes of the viewer, can be labelled as fame hungry, or simply famous for being famous. Allowing many to see this as enough evidence to brand these woman as ‘illegitimate…celebrities’ (D. Negra and S.Holmes) One of these “illegitimate…celebrities” being Jordan (otherwise known as Katie Price.) Over the two covers (Fig.1 and 2) she is branded as “desperate” for seeking the attention of an active male. Again, we see the magazine tarnish a woman’s worth, diminishing her as she “desperately” seeks the validation of a male in order to fulfil her “traditional exhibitionist role” as a woman. We as an audience follow the week-on-week narratives of celebrities making public slip ups because we enjoy witnessing their fall from grace as we feel that they haven’t earned the position of ‘celebrity’. We want to see them make mistakes as we envy their position ourselves, or simply feel that they are undeserving of it and ‘as Professor Negra says [we] ‘pleasure in seeing women brought low’ (M.Silverstein, 2011).
As this female readership revel in seeing these “undeserving" celebrities fall from grace, it would seem that this subconscious attitude of condemning the successes of women spreads into the everyday lives of its readership with “studies [showing] that women are … likely … to engage in indirect, relational aggression, and gossip (with the goal of socially ostracising rivals.)” (McAndrew 2015) It is this encouragement of dismissal and degrading of others which again forces women into the position of condemning women who do not conform to the “norm” preventing a tight-knit community from forming where women start to gain sociality and status. By continuously exposing these women to the subliminal messaging that a woman is worth less if she doesn’t successfully fulfil what is culturally expected of her by the patriarchy, these magazines are psychologically continuing this ‘war on women.’
However it is not entirely the fault of men as to why female celebrities are over-scrutinised in gossip magazines, this format was actually the doings of editor, Bonnie Fuller. Fuller is credited for the transformation of the often unsightly celebrity tabloid magazine into ‘a “reputable” magazine like People, except for the fact that it is all celebrity focused.’ (M.Silverstein, 2011). Fuller manipulated the format and reapplied it, focusing instead on the ‘over-narration about stars’ foibles and morality.’ Despite this invasive shift in editorial approach, Fuller was the reason for Us Weekly’s sales doubling annually. Many magazines followed shortly after and it was with this increase in sales that allowed the gossip magazine to start manipulating the psychology of it’s readership. The impact of this coverage can be quite extensive as celebrity culture “shapes not simply the production and consumption of media content but also the social values through which we experience the world” (Holmes & Redmond, 2006)
Through the use of misogyny, men still have the means by which to punish women who step out of line, yet punish those who follow the rules too closely by objectifying them. These Closer magazine covers have played a part in policing the beliefs of misogyny through psychological manipulation, semiotics and subliminal messaging. In doing so, they have successfully created a narrative for the celebrity woman in which she is seen as “desperate” for seeking the validation of a man, but also worthless if she can not obtain it. This essentially places the subject in a ‘catch 22’ situation in which she would be scrutinised week-on-week regardless of what she chooses to do. This ensures that the readership come back weekly to witness the celebrity’s fall from grace, because as Negra argued, “we pleasure in seeing women brought low.”
The subconscious messaging of these narratives instills this belief onto the readership, making them believe that they need a relationship to not only fulfil their role as a source of eroticism to a male but also to achieve their goals of procreation. Failure to meet these expectations would result in the shame and humiliation of those featured on the cover of this Closer magazine. It is these values that the magazine is implying this readership should measure their worth by. Not only that, the capturing of images through the heterosexual male gaze places the female readers into the position of the spectator - forcing them to contribute to the condemning of women who do not fulfil these expectations, expectations put in place by the patriarchy.
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Books and Papers
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Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). The phenomenology of spirit. A. V. Miller (Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press [Accessed: 9 November 2020]
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Kulaszewicz, K, E. (2015) ‘Racism and the Media: A Textual Analysis’ [Online] Available at:
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