Images of Woman Then:1970
Why was this new?
The research into the portrayal of women in women’s magazine advertising was carried out at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies between 1967 and 1970. A lot had been written about advertising but it a) focused on text and b) tended to be anecdotal and/or polemical. There was little on pictures and even less that was systematic and properly analytical. The one study that stood out (and then only referenced one advertisement) was Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image.
I wanted to find a way of analyzing pictures and then to apply it to an interesting and significant area. My PhD research grant enabled me to do that – imagine such a thing now!
During the research I looked at six magazines covering a range of readership: Woman, Woman’s Own, Woman and Home, Honey, Nova and Petticoat. All of the full and half page advertisements from March and September 1969 issues were included, several hundred in all when duplicates were excluded. The last three magazines closed during the 70s and 80s and the first two are vastly changed.
Influences and Inspirations
As I progressed, it became clear that insights from art studies and film studies would be crucial, and the developing field of semiology – the study of signs – gave further inspiration for work in what was, I found, a pretty difficult and unexplored terrain.
I was also lucky to be able to be referred to texts such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the last of which seems to me an underrated book. I was both lucky and unlucky to be publishing an analysis of this kind just as the Women’s Liberation Movement was gathering strength. On the one hand, this was encouraging and the source of inspiration; on the other, research by a male went, to some extent, against the current zeitgeist.
What did the research discover?
1. That it was possible to study visual images methodically. >> Methodology
2. That visual images in advertising depicted women in a significantly restricted number of stereotypes. While this may not come as a big surprise, it was important to see how far painstaking research evidence supported or refine anecdotal impressions – and to gain a deeper understanding of how those stereotypes emerge and interact.
IMAGES OF 1970
The section on method has more detail about the process of analysis but it’s helpful to have some idea of the factors which were taken into consideration in arriving at the stereotypical portrayals of women (and, to a lesser extent, men).
As well as the content of each illustration, form was also taken into account. The style of the advertisement will affect our interpretation. The uses of focus, close-up, colour, cropping, lighting and angle will all have an influence. There are also rhetorical devices, association being one of the most interesting – a bunch of grapes alongside menthol cigarettes, for example.
Content was broken down into actor(s), settings and props. Within the category of actors, pose, expression, clothing and direction of gaze were among the factors considered. For more on this, see Methodology.
The rationale underlying the detail here was to see how far there were repeated patterns. For example, would adverts for cosmetics tend to be soft focus close-up with one female actor and no setting? Would women in the home be presented in a different way to those in non-domestic settings? Would similar images be repeated across the range of publications?
Repeated patterns did emerge. Advertising images for certain products did have factors in common, both in style and content. More interestingly, certain images of women began to emerge quite clearly. As the patterns became clearer, I was able to categorize them with the following labels: Mannequin, Self-involved woman, Wife and mother, Hostess, Carefree girl and Career / Independent woman. The term ‘narcissist’ was suggested for the rather clumsy ‘Self-involved woman’ but it seemed to have too many negative associations. The following section will examine these categories in more detail.
Taking account of all the characteristics, from pose to hair style, expression to clothes, two distinct types of image emerged. One was inward and self-absorbed, the other outward and more ‘concrete’, more involved in the world around her. One the one hand:
the self-involved woman / manniquin
On the other:
wife / mother / hostess
These could be viewed along two axes, social / personal and inward / outward:
Outside of these categories, there did exist two other stereotypes, the carefree girl and the independent / career woman, characterised by:
Attention to the reader
Catalogue / carefree expressions
Dummy / carefree poses
Exotic / informal / office wear
The PDF of pages from Images of Woman will provide a detailed discussion of these.
In summary, the mannequin is a clothes horse: she poses but does not interact. She is aloof, haughty and only interested in the impression she is making. The ‘self-involved woman’ is literally and metaphorically wrapped up in herself or perhaps seemingly deep in reverie. She has, typically, a soft expression and directs her attention and tactility towards herself. She will rarely have props or be in a realistic setting. The hostess has something in common with the mannequin. She sees action on the social front but it is her surroundings that speak for her, not her clothes. The wife and mother shares some characteristics but in her case it is not her surroundings but her duties which are foremost. She dresses more functionally and exists in a plain, simple honest world.
Those unaccounted for in the list so far are the carefree girl and the career woman. The carefree girl (and it is always a girl) sits in the middle of the schema, enjoying a short-lived freedom before settling into one of the surrounding roles. She is outward looking but rarely involved with anything or anyone else.
The independent or career woman is notable for being rare. She is the only one to be involved in something which has nothing to do with social success, home and family or her own femininity. Females in jobs, whether working wives or unmarried women are hardly ever represented. But why not? The majority of women work but advertisers don’t like to show them doing so – is that because a magazine is an escape from work?
How far is the female role portrayed a function of the type of product advertised? Product and role are closely connected but with significant variations. Clothes might be presumed to correspond closely with the mannequin role but this is not always the case, and products such as underclothes, cosmetics and hair preparations are to be found in several sectors.
However, the illustrations – in style, content and meaning - do exhibit strong correlations in terms of product type, so that one can say that each product has a cluster of meanings associated with it but which are by no means always derived directly from the function of the product.
Skip to Conclusions
Read about products:
Cosmetics are bright, modern, streamlined and visually appealing in
terms of style and techniques. They emphasize and depend on the
visual, possibly because the product ‘s effect itself depends so much
on the look it can create. The advertisement at this level is saying
that the make-up can create a work of art, is startling, exciting,
attention getting. There is a tension in the presentation, however,
between the narcissistic and the exhibitionistic. One strand of the
advertising emphasizes an intense femininity with a strong undertone
of narcissism and stress privacy, aloneness, inwardness. There are
few settings; woman is alone and her attention and tactility are
directed towards herself. On the other hand, there is the woman
presented as a beautiful and glamorous object, worthy of adulation
and emulation. Everything about her indicates a sophistication and
elegance which demands an audience but she can little except stand
and be wondered at – almost a work of art. In some ways, the woman,
her face especially, is presented much as food is presented: a complete
perfect dish, all in delicious close-up. And as one might expect, the
world of make-up, perfumes, body lotions, is one completely removed
from familiar surroundings, removed from a definite slot in time and
The exhibitionist/narcissist opposition is present in the illustrations for hair preparations, but in a less marked way. There is a concern with sophistication and elegance, manifested in clothes and appearance and also in an inwardness and aloneness similar to that described above. Overall perhaps, there is a tendency towards a middle ground, a more carefree, younger, less introspective emphasis. The element of carefreeness is given greater weight by the attention to naturalness in props and settings and the hair itself appears as a parallel to nature – its abundant healthy growth, its colour and texture.
The world of the hair and its care is a non-practical one however much the world is partly pastoral, verdant, Serena and blossoming, partly that half known mystic realm beyond reality and fantasy. The importance of hair preparations is that they should be effective but unseen. Their purpose is to render to the hair the natural beauty and sensual texture which is its original Birthright but which were vaguely understood and hinted at reasons is somehow been lost in the process of urbanisation and artificial living.
Menstruation is no longer a topic wrapped around with euphemism and secrecy. The advertisements for sanitary towels and tampons do have a slightly different character from those of cosmetics and hair preparations, however. They are quite streamlined and visually attractive and are if anything modern in style and stress. They are concerned with activity and with freshness and naturalness. There is a notable high incidence of blonde hair and white clothes speaking of freshness, cleanliness, purity. While sharing the characteristics of introversion with the other feminine products, the woman is not so much alone is private, independent, very self-sufficient.
These exhibit two strands: the social and the personal. The former is characterized by the abundance of settings, type of dress, pose and expression and the attention given to people and the reader. It is a world where the outside world is important, especially what others will think. The latter is characterized by narcissistic expressions and pose, self-directed attention and tactility and incidence of nakedness. It is closer to a world of make-believe where one can be a naked nymph, if only…
On the whole, the presentation of clothes is very calm and respectable. The illustrations are modern and sophisticated, but not exciting. There is a deliberateness about the atmosphere: the static poses, the catalogue expressions, the moulded hairstyles, the neutral but elegant backgrounds and so on.
If cosmetic illustrations concentrate on the personal and give less attention to the social, the opposite is true of clothes. Women are often in groups although their relationships are rarely close. There is little of the introspective woman about these illustrations in spite of the self-directed tactility. There is an element of romance and reverie, sometimes even mystery manifested in props and settings. The overriding impression is one of luxury and elegance in settings and sophistication and elegance in women. The elegance is accompanied by detachment, a cool aloofness made obvious by appearance, expression and pose.
The illustrations for underclothes are streamlined in style and visually inventive. The division between private and public, narcissistic and exhibitionistic is present again. The social role is characterised by the use of props to do with status and taste, the presence of others and expressions poses which are aware of onlookers even in the presence of others, however, the woman is withdrawn. The underclothes are moulding her, presenting her, making the best of her.
For the woman for whom pose, expression, hair, props, tactility and attention all come together to convey a narcissistic experience, the clothes are close, intimate, tactile things, caressing her, holding her, softly and sensitively. The atmosphere is moody and intimate, a creation of often bizarre or exotic settings and careful techniques of lighting and colour. It encloses the woman with her mystery and leaves her to herself.
In the illustrations for tights there are again two strands.
One involves activity and the other sensuality. The latter
is characterised by softness, tactility, isolation and the
sensual qualities of the garment as experienced by the
wearer. The frequently naked or semi-naked models,
their pose and expression, their attention to middle
distance and self-directed tactility all contribute to
these qualities. Tights are extension of the body,
but so intimate and extension as to be part of the body.
On the other hand, tights are also concerned with
activity, vitality, freedom and the outdoors, as can be
seen in the country settings, carefree poses and to a lesser
extent in expression and clothes. The actors are more
outward going, youthful, energetic. The product is a
conferrer of freedom rather than something strictly
The presentation of footwear is, in contrast, rather ordinary. The women themselves, while not plain, is certainly less sophisticated than in the other clothing sectors. The only tension is between the person-oriented and the object-oriented. The former is concerned with looks, elegance, beauty and fashion while the latter has to do with the world of things, with newness, variety and with qualities such as toughness and resistance to urban strain. This split is a version of the function versus fashion argument in the world of personal adornment. This is one of the few places where it is manifested in the actual advertising, however.
The presentation of wool is visually very ordinary. There is a strong feeling of the homely and conventional: in settings, appearance, pose, expression and hair-style. The world of wool is family centred with men and children joining women in substantial numbers, the woman presumably having created the garments worn. There is also something of the ‘nice romance’: the safe and secure male-female relationship which culminates in a knitted pullover for him and for her. Nevertheless, elements of deliberateness, artificiality of pose and appearance permeate this pleasant world so that the aura of love and sweet affection is rendered rather unreal and the attempts to appear motherly, full of love, creative, seem somehow desperate and false.
Appearances are as important food as in personal products. The illustrations emphasise this with techniques such as close-up and colour and the use of the super visual or hyperbole. The images of food are larger-than-life. Illustrations in food adverts are characterised by simplicity and wholesomeness together with freshness, health, energy and growth and these are reflected in settings and in props. There are more reciprocal relationships than with most other product types and the mother is the centre of this, of course. Abundance and multiplicity are constant features. It is not enough that the food is good and well-prepared; there must be more than enough of it and if possible a choice from many dishes. All this, the good mother or hostess brings about through her skill and creativity.
In contrast to most of the product types already discussed,
the world of food is object and people dominated. It is con-
cerned with practical and everyday things rather than with
social occasions and special people. More than anything it
is concerned with variety, abundance and appearance.
Clothing and feminine products are concerned with appear-
ances too, of course. To achieve a certain acceptable and
desirable appearance is an end in itself, for which the exer-
cise of skill and creativity is felt necessary. The face or body
must look like a well-prepared dish, elegantly served but
concealing secret constituents and recipes. The connections
with naturalness are another link with preceding products,
though the end result of cooking as much as making up or
dressing is often far removed from anything which could
be called natural.
Within the category of household goods we have a continuum that runs from kitchen equipment and household accessories through floor coverings, decorating materials and furniture. At the one end, kitchen equipment and household accessories give an impression of plainness or ordinariness, manifested in every aspect of manner and appearance, techniques, setting and props. The world is familiar, indoor, domestic and decidedly mature. As we move through the continuum we notice that elegance, sophistication and good taste become more important, not just in the settings and props but in techniques and actors also.
There is a tension between the practical and the modish, between function and fashion. This progression is closely tied to appearances, in that kitchen equipment and household accessories have least to do with, and floorcoverings, decorating materials and furniture and most to do with creating an appearance in the way the clothes and cosmetics to. One interesting thing is that furniture and kitchen equipment which might both be considered large pieces of household furniture, and thus very similar, are in fact poles apart.
The world of cures and preventatives is one of the ministration, concern, care. The mother takes on the nurse role, exhibiting competence and skill in the necessary practicalities as shown in expression, pose and clothes. Style, techniques, rhetorical devices, props, settings, appearance and manner all contribute to a practical outcome and domestic, familiar world. Illnesses are passing difficulties, cuts and bruises minor. Headaches appear to be the most upsetting and disabling sickness – perhaps the only occasions in the advertisement illustrations when the woman is shown to be under considerable strain. Cuts and bruises, measles and chills happen to men and children; headaches and period pains to women and the latter are dealt with before they occur. Headaches prevent, among other things, attending to visiting parents, dealing with children and doing the ironing. They are the deadliest enemy of the wife and mother in carrying out her duties.
Career advertisements occupy an anomalous role in that they do not correspond with the major role categories derived from the advertisements as a whole. Generally the illustrations are people and object oriented, with a concern for efficiency and order; presentation is plain and simple in the extreme: crowded design, restricted use of techniques and a low incidence of supervisual. There is a strand of youth and innocence which seems to express a naive questing after new and worthwhile experiences but overall careers are not exciting but ordinary, not full of freedom but of restriction. As an alternative to the other feminine roles a career does not stand out as the most attractive prospect.
In many of the products one notices a feeling for the natural as against the artificial urban world of things which is also the world of men. In the natural, biological world of women, a world of vital emotions and duties, she is the guardian of the real values of life. This world is set against and is superior to the constructed, material, sordid, hard, lifeless world of men. Paradoxically, the rejection of this man-made world is accompanied by the reification of the woman herself which, furthermore, is achieved by artificial means. With underclothes, tights, cosmetics, hair, sanitary and slimming preparations, something artificial/man-made is used in order to obtain the appearance of naturalness. The world is one in which a person has to be concerned about how things look, about the impression one is giving. It is in this way a false and artificial world, evolved not from personal needs and desires from received ideas of what is good taste, of what is socially acceptable and what is not.
Stereotypes , reinforcement, distortion…
What is the nature of the link between the world presented by the advertising and the ‘real world’? To what extent are the meanings expressed by the advertisements a reflection, a distortion or a reinforcement of the real world?
The first is certainly not the case: there is no one-to-one relationship of real facts to advertising facts. Distortion and reinforcement are terms which are more accurately describe the relationship, though the best analogy might be that of refraction. The advertisements provide an interpretation of reality which reinforces certain aspects of it, but because certain aspects are singled out and others are not, and those that are selected can be presented in a variety of ways, there must be some distortion occurring.
The transmission of cultural meanings by advertising is both conscious and unconscious and is executed both by commission and omission. Given the breadth of the culture within which the advertisements function, there is as much room for variation between illustrations as there are between different advertisements. There is, in fact, a startling lack of variation.
Thus the advertising does confirm conventions of ideal types or stereotypes. It confirms that grannies are like this, policemen are like that that women are either this or that, and so on. It confirms the convention that England is a totally white country. One could also say that it reinforces the styles and tastes of a particular sector of the middle class of the Home Counties. Certain fashions and decoration, types of interior and so on, recur in the illustrations to such an extent the one idea of what is acceptable and tasteful is broadcast as if it were the universal taste, or at least the best. Whether these tastes are those of the creators or merely what the creators feel is a fashionable thing of the moment, is of no consequence. In the same way that these ideas of style and taste are broadcast and reinforced, values pertaining not to things but to people are also broadcast and reinforced, so that the worldview of the middle-class media men or the worldview they wittingly or unwittingly adopt, gradually permeates the rest of the culture and attains the status of normality or desirability.
Advertising illustrations do not promote, however, a world of fantasy – at least in the usual sense of the term. It is a world more actual than that, yet in a crucial way distorted like a slightly bent mirror and thus not real at all. Advertising which is complete fantasy is a small and immediately recognizable sector. The rest is unreal in a far more subtle way.
A moulder of female outlook
The advertising in women’s magazines as elsewhere acts as a moulder of female outlook and serves as a legitimation of those roles in which so many women find themselves. The roles offered, the life patterns indicated, the stances adopted, are all consistent in their occurrence and their form, and it must be remembered, are cumulative.
Not only this, but the magazines themselves in most cases support the advertising in maintaining these roles. Even when seeming to turn over a new leaf, the magazines can move in the same old grooves. A pull out section on careers in Woman seemed positive, but what were the four headings under which the jobs were arranged: beauty, home, fashion and cookery!
The reification of the female, loss of individual independence, introversion, the retreat into the womb of the home, woman as the natural half of humanity, guardian of the past and the future, the emphasis on sexual attraction, competitiveness – all these occur again and again. The same roles are proffered again and again, consistently and cumulatively. The woman as man’s foil, his servant and subordinate seems to be the opposite of the woman as a self-sufficient inward looking being but they are two sides of the same coin. The alternative coin would show woman as man’s equal and woman as an independent spirit and this is the missing image.
None of this is to suggest that men emerge unscathed from the impressions advertising gives of them and their roles. Although they are rarely the central subjects of these advertisements (unlike beer or tobacco advertisements, for example) their role is also defined in a limiting and often stereotypical way. If the man of the beer drinking advertisements is tough, shrewd but silent, at home he is an extra, a subsidiary. Although acknowledged to be the boss and served as a master, he is somehow out of his element, and has to be content to leave the real mastery of home affairs to the woman.