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Book reviews:
Gender and culture

This page features books on gender and its relationship with media culture.

If that's what you're interested in, you will also want to see the pages on queer theory books and the more general cultural studies books. Even the internet culture page has gender stuff on it.

Peter Jackson, Nick Stevenson & Kate Brooks (2001), Making Sense of Men's Magazines, Polity Press, Cambridge.

There's a tidy concept at the heart of this study of UK lifestyle magazines aimed at men. Having traced the history of titles like Loaded, GQ and FHM from their roots in 80s consumer/style mags to their unexpected boom in the subsequent decade, Jackson, Stevenson and Brooks approach the cultural significance of their subject in similarly linear fashion. They begin by interviewing senior staff members about their editorial decisions, move on to analyse the actual magazine content, and eventually explore readers' interpretations via an impressive selection of focus group evidence. Of course, our guides are the first to point out the forced logic of this structure (which enables some vague conclusions to sound more coherent than they really are), but it does make for rational and rewarding reading.

The thrust - that men's magazines provide an 'ambivalent space' for men to "explore the contradictoriness of modern masculinities" (p.146) - is a workable and progressive one, and reflected in the 'caring/laddish' interior contradictions of the publications themselves. Unfortunately, it's also reflected in Jackson et al's critical stance, which has its own share of inconsistencies. Perhaps because there are three writers (and perhaps because they didn't entirely agree, or couldn't bring themselves to criticise each other's sections), some of their arguments stretch broadly but thinly over the bulk of the book. They never quite deliver in their endeavour to provide their "own conclusions about the 'crisis' of masculinity and the significance of the alternative images of masculinity that appeared during the 1990s" (p.44). Despite their assertion that it is too simplistic to say that masculinity is 'in crisis', the authors fail to criticise this notion satisfyingly in their enthusiastic discussions of 'constructed certitude' and irony. Similarly, chapter conclusions often don't so much sum up the evidence and implications of their preceding pages as strike out in new, less substantiated directions.

Although critical of Joke Hermes's 1995 study Reading Women's Magazines, with its "emphasis on readers to the neglect of content and editorial design" (p.9), the authors here arrive at many similar conclusions (using most of the same terminology) regarding readers' personal 'repertoires' and the ways they 'make sense' of magazines. But this isn't necessarily a criticism. In fact, it's one of the strengths of this wide-reaching book that it is able to identify and tie together some of the most useful current thinking and apply it to this new area without limiting its future possibilities.

This review was written for by Ross Horsley. Readers may like to note (this is a plug) that the new book Media, Gender & Identity also discusses men's magazines.

Anthony Clare (2001), On Men: Masculinity in Crisis, Arrow, London.

— Like some of the other books on men and masculinity (such as those by Connell, Seidler, and others), Anthony Clare's On Men takes quite an old-fashioned seeming view of men's problems -- men are 'in crisis' because they can't just fit into the old model of provider and protector any more. In the end, though, unsurprisingly perhaps, he finds that men don't really need to have a crisis, but may need help adjusting to modern living. Men don’t need to become ‘like women’, he says, but can develop a new form of masculinity which places ‘a greater value on love, family and personal relationships and less on power, possessions and achievement’, he suggests (p.221).

Clare carefully sifts through scientific evidence in order to reject the idea that men cannot help themselves for biological reasons. He is particularly good on the masculine drive to ‘prove’ oneself through work -- perhaps because, as he admits in the book, he has suffered from this himself. He marshals evidence from major studies, though, to support his point that the quality of personal relationships has a much greater impact on a person’s levels of life satisfaction than their success in work. Indeed, ‘once a person moves beyond the poverty level, a larger income contributes almost nothing to happiness’ (p.100). Therefore he recommends social changes to allow men and women to spend less time in work, and more time experiencing their relationships with each other, with children, and with the world in general -- which, the evidence shows, makes for happier people and -- lest employers be worried by all this hippy talk -- happier workers. Good.

Sheila Whiteley (2000), Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity, Routledge, London.

— Very good on the changing role of women in pop music, from female stars of the 1960s up to a good discussion of the Spice Girls and their 'girl power' discourse - a kind of populist feminism (which ties this book with McRobbie's In The Culture Society, reviewed below, which looks at magazines like More as a vehicle for a kind of 'popular feminism' too). Between these two points she also discusses Siouxie Sioux, Annie Lennox, Tracy Chapman, Bjork, and several others. The use of musical notation at various points (used to quote bits of music) creates the impression that Whiteley may not understand pop music at all -- but she does. She writes well too. She is academia's hippest grandmother, and this book is recommended.

Angela McRobbie (1999), In the Culture Society: Art, Fashion and Popular Music, Routledge, London.

— A brilliant, fascinating and very relevant book, showing Angela McRobbie to be one of the most incisive and up-to-date commentators on contemporary popular culture.

Of particular interest is the way that McRobbie considers popular women's magazines and other texts, recognising that feminism has influenced such publications, but is also now often seen, by young women, as the discourse of middle-aged authority figures. It's an intelligent way of dealing with feminism in contemporary people's lives, and reflects McRobbie's important awareness that an analysis of gender and culture today cannot be the same as one from the 1970s. Rather than seeing young women (or men) as a let-down to feminism, McRobbie is sympathetic to young people's desire to carve out their own spaces in contemporary life and to enjoy 'feminist' ideas in more popular forms which older critics might see as trivial or vulgar.

A very good book, lucidly written and well worth reading.

Anthony J. Cortese (1999), Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.

An interestingly old-fashioned discussion of representations of gender and ethnic minorities in advertising. Anthony Cortese asserts that 'Ad deconstruction reveals a pattern of symbolic and institutionalised sexism'. Although Cortese's text mixes older and more recent examples and arguments, without acknowledging that different approaches might be relevant to different decades, the reader may be carried along by his well-illustrated argument that women are often shown as the 'perfect provocateur':

The exemplary female prototype in advertising, regardless of product or service, displays youth (no lines or wrinkles), good looks, sexual seductiveness, and perfection (no scars, blemishes, or even pores). The perfect provocateur is not human; rather, she is a form and hollow shell representing a female figure. Accepted attractiveness is her only attribute. She is slender, typically tall and long-legged. (p. 54)

This all seems accurate, although it is, of course, silly to complain that a photograph is 'not human' and has no attributes apart from visual ones - that will always be the case with pictures. Cortese rightly points out that if women want to look like the ones in the adverts, they will have to spend a lot of time and money on this never-ending quest. So the author seems to have proved his case regarding sexism in advertising. But then we get to his analysis of images of men in advertising, where he reveals that men are often shown as... the 'perfect provocateur' (p.58). He's not wrong, of course, but the argument about advertising being sexist seems to drop out of the window.

Baudrillard [in Seduction, 1990] states that only women are seducers, but empirical evidence on advertising suggests otherwise. Men, too, are seducers - a male version of the perfect provocateur. The ideal man in ads is young, handsome, clean-cut, perfect, and sexually alluring. (p. 58).

Oops! We no longer seem to have a critique of sexism in the media: instead, we are left with a criticism of advertising for telling everybody that they have to look great at all times. This is a fair point, and helpfully redresses the weight of all those texts which suggest that it is only women who face visual demands for physical 'perfection'. But Cortese's unsubtle analysis doesn't really draw out these points. The fact that different physical standards are set for women and men does actually mean that ads are sexist after all, but the author doesn't explore that very much.

Not a very good book generally, but excellent for discussion in school or college, because of its willingness to declare that things are sexist in cases where the claim is debatable or out of date.

bell hooks (2000), Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center - Second Edition, Pluto Press, London.

— This was one of my favourite books when I was an undergraduate student, eight or nine years ago. The book is even older than that: it was back in 1984 that bell hooks first published this intelligently critical, inclusive, personal and very accessible feminist polemic.

Now it's been re-released in a "second edition", which means it has a nice new cover, and a new foreword by bell hooks in which she tells you how forward-thinking it was, and how brilliant it still is. These things are true, but for the author to rhapsodise her book in this way, within its own pages, seems, well, unneccessary at best.

Nevertheless, it's a very good book, promoting a feminism which includes women of all classes and colours, and which does not exclude men either. The experience of ordinary people, rather than largely white female academics, is at its heart. Still very relevant, and recommended.

Sue Thornham (1997), Passionate Detachments: An Introduction to Feminist Film Theory, Arnold, London.

— A well-written and accessible introduction to feminist film theory. The only odd thing is that it almost never applies the theories to actual films, which you would have been good fun for Thornham, and educational for the reader. But because she doesn't fill up the book talking about films (!), the author has more room to discuss the theories instead.

The book tells you about the postmodern turn in feminism, but seems slightly flummoxed by it -- rather as if it would be nice if we could go just back to the determinist theories of the 1970s without feeling embarrassed. But Thornham does recognise the problems with the earlier theories. So, overall, this is a decent introduction to the theories, even though -- like its subject matter -- it's a bit too straight-faced, and doesn't talk about enough films. (£12.99).

Ann Brooks (1997), Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms, Routledge, London.

— This is a great book, clearly written and intelligently relevant (i.e. it talks about all the right things). The 'postfeminism' of the title doesn't mean the idea that feminism has been and gone; rather, 'postfeminisms' refers to ways in which feminism has grown and adapted in the 1990s, including lots of stuff on how contemporary feminisms, dissatisfied with seeing popular culture as simply a Bad Thing, have started to develop more sophisticated analyses of contemporary media. (£13.99).

Liesbet Van Zoonen (1994), Feminist Media Studies, Sage, London.

— All of this is good, but the chapter 'Gender and media reception' is particularly relevant to us. Good value, sensible and interesting. (£12.95).

Sean Nixon (1996), Hard Looks: Masculinities, spectatorship and contemporary consumption, UCL, London.

— I find this a bit disappointing since it's focused mostly on men's fashion photography and the 'upmarket' GQ-style ways of addressing men. It focuses in particular on the 'spectacle' of masculinity displayed in advertising, and some of the contradictions therein. So that's alright, but it would be nice to have a 1990s book taking a broader look at images of masculinity. (£12.95).

Tim Edwards (1997), Men in the Mirror: Men's fashion, masculinity and consumer society, Cassell, London.

— "Funnily" enough, my comments on Men in the Mirror are exactly the same as those for Hard Looks above. That includes the description of what the book is about, and the corresponding complaint. However, Nixon's book is the slightly better one. (£13.99).

Mairtin Mac An Ghaill (1996), Understanding Masculinities, Open University Press, Buckingham.

— This one isn't brilliant either. The curse of the edited collection: a bit of this and a bit of that, which doesn't add up to a full picture. It's not bad though. (£14.99).

Jane Ussher (1997), Fantasies of Femininity: Reframing the Boundaries of Sex, Penguin, London.

— This one looks great. A more informed review will appear here "shortly". (£9.99).

Maggie Humm (1997), Feminism and Film, Edinburgh University Press.

— Chucks a refreshingly more- contemporary-than-usual set of feminist theories at a bunch of films with interesting results. The nice chapter on postmodernism and Orlando provides a solid excuse for the lovely cover. (£12.95).

Kathryn Woodward, ed. (1997), Identity and Difference, Sage, London.

— Nicely-presented book from the Open University Culture, Media and Identities series. The chapter by Woodward, 'Concepts of Difference and Identity', and the one by Lynne Segal, 'Sexualities', are both excellent introductions to those subjects. (£12.99).

Cathy Schwichtenberg, ed. (1993), The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.

— The best and most intelligent of the academic Madonna books (see also Deconstructing Madonna (Lloyd, ed, 1993) and Madonnarama: Essays on Sex and Popular Culture (Frank & Smith, eds, 1993)), with sophisticated 1990s theories applied in a clear and not usually stupid way to Madonna's visual performances.

Rosemarie Buikema & Anneke Smelik, eds (1995), Women's Studies and Culture, Zed Books, London.

— Quite a neat little book, which whizzes through several feminist approaches to culture (feminist literary theory, feminist linguistics, feminist media studies, feminist film studies, feminist art history, feminist musicology, feminist semiotics, feminist psychoanalysis... and more) and illustrates each approach by applying it to The Color Purple. Good value and interesting. (£12.95).

Joke Hermes (1995), Reading Women's Magazines, Polity Press, Cambridge.

— The only recent study of what actual women get out of magazines. Enlightening and readable, with lots of quotes from the people she interviewed. (£12.95).

Imelda Whelehan (1995), Modern Feminist Thought: From the Second Wave to 'Post-Feminism', Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

— If you want a good general introduction to contemporary feminist thought, this is it. (£12.95).

Mary Eagleton (1996), Working with Feminist Criticism, Blackwell, Oxford.

— Nice introduction to a range of things of interest – see 'Gender play' (pp. 158–171) and 'Finding the Subject' (pp. 189–207) – and other stuff which you might find interesting anyway. Another good purchase if you're doing English. (£12.99).


Featured on this page:
Men's Magazines
On Men
Women & Pop Music
In the Culture Society
Feminist Theory
Passionate Detachments
Feminist Media Studies
Hard Looks
Men in the Mirror
Unders'g Masculinities
Fantasies of Femininity
Feminism and Film
Identity & Difference
Madonna Connection
Women's St's & Culture
Reading W's Magazines
Mod Feminist Thought
Feminist Criticism