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Whether it is women’s magazines or whether it is a regular magazine suddenly deciding to pay a special tribute to the Indian woman, the bottom line is the same – getting a lot of ads because women are the best targets of all advertisements in any capitalist, consumer-centric country. From motor cars to baby food, from men’s shaving creams to washing machines to mixer-grinders, the major buying decisions in an urban household is made by the woman of the house. The entire mass media, including the commercial media of advertising and marketing, go all out to exploit consumerism in women. Such exploitation is based on the twin targets of maximum profit and the perpetuation of male dominance. In other words, women are fed with the kind of information the male-dominated society wants them to have – the latest fashions, hairstyles, cosmetics, domestic appliances and household goods; cleaning tips, cookery recipes from exotic lands, health needs, dietary details, nutritional information and behavioural problems are all supposedly a woman’s domain, never mind that it is all masterminded by the man in charge of the advertising agency! Few women run ad agencies here and when they do, they simply tail the strategies of their male counterparts.

The entire mass media, including the commercial media of advertising and marketing, go all out to exploit consumerism in women. Such exploitation is based on the twin targets of maximum profit and the perpetuation of male dominance.

“But isn’t every special issue of every magazine all about trying to bring in specific market-oriented advertisements by the hundreds?” I can hear you ask. Right. But when no one thinks of making the man a scapegoat of such plastic tribute, why pick on the woman? To skirt delicate questions like this, special issues of general magazines often carry the mandatory unisex ad on the occasional shirts for men or an ad for a bank. But every intelligent man and woman knows that that is just a face-saving strategy to avoid feminists and women activists queuing up outside their office! No questions asked. No answers were given. Everything is just so and every woman tucks a copy under her soft arm and goes home happier. Outlook for instance sometimes brings out a special issue on women called Stree. Just take a look at one of these and the message will be clear.

Most women’s magazines – Femina, Women’s Era, Savvy and New Woman – are too stereotypically women – recipes, fashion spreads, how-to-look-beautiful-on-your-16th Wedding Anniversary kind of stuff that has been the beat since the first woman’s page in a newspaper was conceived. Sometimes, these pages offer a kind of a balancing matrix by dealing with issues focussed on gender discrimination or issues of concern to women – old age homes, widow pension, property rights, legal issues, reproductive choices and reproductive health. But this balancing matrix is undercut by the unbalanced tilt of advertisements that arbitrarily use women for titillation along with a product, which may or may not is directly linked to women.

Manushi, edited by Madhu Kishwar, began by trying to be different. It carried and still carries investigative stories on rape, dowry deaths, Kashmiri women, are larger national and international issues. With time, however, the feminist stress shifted very visibly to a more political one that does not necessarily have to do much with gender unless it is ‘coloured’ with the colours of communalism, mythology, and a kind of Pan-Hinduism. Kishwar wrote a series of articles supporting the system of dowry on grounds that this was the only access the married daughter had to a share in her father’s inheritance. What then, about the deaths that happen in the name of dowry? Manushi came down hammer and tongs on Deepa Mehta’s Fire and was complimented by many of its international readers. Any magazine has the right to change directions. But then, where is the ‘woman’ Manushi began with?

The editorial and ideological confusion reflected in all the women’s magazines right from Eve’s Weekly and Flair in the fifties and Sixties to Femina and Family in the nineties is a Western import. None of them has an ideology, to begin with. Secondly, they are too influenced by women’s magazines in the West. As everyone knows, everything Western may not always fit the Indian psyche. Elaine Withington of the University of Michigan in her unpublished paper, The Women’s Magazines and the Business Woman, 1889-1919, reveals an interesting volte-face executed by Edward Bok, editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1900, the magazine warned women that they could not stand the physical strain of working in a fast-paced business office. But by 1916, the same journal compared the same female secretary with the heavenly body who “radiated the office with sunshine and sympathetic interest.”

Margery Davies in her article Woman’s Place is at the Typewriter – the Feminization of the Clerical Labour Force, writes: “It has not taken very long for the ideology to shift and for people to accept the presence of women in offices. Bok had argued in 1900 that women, by their ‘nature’ were unsuited to the office. But only a few years later, the LHJ (Ladies Home Journal) came close to arguing that the ‘natural’ temperament of women made them good stenographers. And by 1935, Fortune had concocted a full-fledged historical justification for the assertion that woman’s place was at the typewriter.”

In a content analysis-centred research in the US, the covers of 21 popular women’s and men’s magazines were examined for gendered messages related to bodily appearance. Magazine covers were divided according to the gender of readers and each cover was reviewed using a checklist designed to analyze visual images and text as well as the placement of each of the covers. Analyses showed that 78% of the covers of the women’s magazines contained a message regarding bodily appearance, whereas none of the covers of the men’s magazines did so. Twenty-five per cent of the women’s magazine covers contained conflicting messages regarding weight loss and dietary habits. Besides, the positioning of weight-related messages on the covers often implied that losing weight might lead to a better life. “Men’s magazines focus on providing entertainment and expanding knowledge, hobbies, and activities; women’s magazines continue to focus on improving one’s life by changing one’s appearance,” writes Amy R. Malkin in Women and Weight: Gendered Messages on Magazine Covers.

The editorial and ideological confusion reflected in all the women’s magazines right from Eve’s Weekly and Flair in the fifties and Sixties to Femina and Family in the nineties is a Western import. None of them has an ideology, to begin with.

Most English language women’s magazines in India today, in some form or another, follow, subtly or openly, examples set by magazines like Seventeen, Glamour, Mademoiselle, etc, all of which offer endless glossy layouts and editorial content on fashion, make-up, dating strategies, marriage counselling, counselling for parents, good housekeeping, all generously punctuated with pages and pages of the glossiest of advertisements one could imagine. In fact, at times, the advertising copy makes for more interesting reading than the editorial content. We do not have an Indian counterpart of the US magazine Working Woman. This magazine, though not committed to any feminist ideology, emphasizes women’s career concerns and the management of a busy life. This covers a substantial commitment to work as well as to friends, fashion and entertainment. Advice columns on legal and financial matters, health and diet are other regular features. The magazine focusses on individual effort rather than on social change. Which is a very good thing really because without ruffling too many feathers, it logically follows that hundreds of individual efforts will naturally augur social change? This is the prized formula that got the magazine a readership of 200,000 before the end of its second year.

When financial support is in the hands of businessmen, industrialists, corporate houses and multinationals, the editorial content of these magazines are determined and defined by a more convoluted but equally purposeful process. The purpose of words and pictures in the commercial media, from the sponsors’ point of view, is to give value to the advertising space they surround. They do this by attracting an audience that will then be exposed to the commercial message. Thus, whatever attracts readers is valuable in commercial terms, and its cultural, social and intellectual value for the readers is of no concern to the sponsors. The plethora of international honours at beauty contests notwithstanding, the bottom line of Indian women’s magazines remains unchanged – the total lack of options for women at any given point of time. Yesterday, they offered good motherhood and ideal wifehood. The day before, it was pregnancy and child-care. Today, it is the beauty of the body and face, everlasting youth and diamonds. Aren’t they forever?

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Dr Shoma A Chatterji
Dr Shoma A Chatterji
Dr.Shoma A.Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won two national awards for best writing on cinema -Best Film Critic in 1991 and Best Book on Cinema in 2002. She won the Bengal Film Journalists Association's Best Critic Award in 1998, the Bharat Nirman Award for excellence in journalism in 2004, a research fellowship from the National Film Archive of India in 2005-2006 and a Senior Research Fellowship from the PSBT Delhi in 2006-2007. She has authored 22 books on cinema and gender and has been a member of jury at several film festivals in India and abroad.
She holds a master's degree in Economics and in Education; PhD in History (Indian Cinema) and a Senior Research Post-doctoral Fellowship from the ICSSR. In 2009-2010, she won a Special Award for 'consistent writing on women's issues' at the UNFPA-Laadli Media Awards (Eastern region), was bestowed with the Kalyan Kumar Mitra Award for 'excellence in film scholarship and contribution as a film critic' in 2010 and the Lifetime Achievement SAMMAN by the Rotary Club of Calcutta-Metro City in 2012.

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