Carolyn Kitch. The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xii + 238 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4978-1; $55.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-2653-9.
Reviewed by Miriam Jones (Department of Humanities and Languages, University of New Brunswick--Saint John)
Published on H-Women (August, 2003)
The "New Woman" Gets a Makeover: Strategies of Containment in Magazine Illustrations
The "New Woman" Gets a Makeover: Strategies of Containment in Magazine Illustrations
Carolyn Kitch is uniquely positioned to write about representations of femininity in mass culture, as she worked for a decade on the staff of McCall's and Good Housekeeping, two successful and long-lived magazines marketed to women. She opens her discussion here by describing the cover of a recent issue of Time which asks "Is Feminism Dead?" The graphics include an image of actress Callista Flockhart as sit-com character Ally McBeal, in a conflation of mass culture images and women's realities whereby the media images themselves become the news. According to Kitch, the first wave of feminism went through a similar cycle. Her study categorizes media stereotypes in the first three decades of the twentieth century--between 1895 and 1930--by focusing on magazines, which Kitch argues were the first truly mass medium in the United States. One might question this claim and point further back to newspapers, and one might also query the implication of the title that such images of women actually originated as late as the early twentieth century. But as a study of representations of women in selected American mass media in a particular period, this text is most useful.
Kitch's stated purpose is to demystify "how media imagery works to create, transform, and perpetuate certain cultural ideals rather than others," specifically how it offers a naturalized "visual vocabulary of women" (p. 3). She positions her study as an interdisciplinary project which speaks to the fields of communications, history, literature, sociology, American culture, and gender studies. Her aim is to produce not a content analysis but a "content assessment": "a process of reading, sifting, weighing, comparing and analyzing the evidence in order to tell the story" (p. 13). Her "iconology" is grounded in visual and rhetorical theory as well as cultural studies, and her chosen images are studied within their institutional settings and historical moments (p. 13).
The introduction provides an overview of the history of mass-market magazines, a description of her approach, considerable historical and cultural context, and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. She makes the interesting claim, following Michael Kimmel, that cultural definitions of masculinity are "reactive" to those of femininity (p. 6), that in this instance it is males who are the "other," since idealized representations of "woman" are tied to broader questions of national identity (p. 7). Because they aimed to "elevate" their consumers, mass-market magazines blurred "high" and "low" culture as part of an "aesthetic of imitation" and upward mobility (p. 7). The "New Woman," that turn-of-the-century symbol of suffrage and emancipation, is simultaneously assimilated within and reproduced by this system of symbolism (p. 8). Following Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Kitch traces the roots of the "feminine mystique" back to the 1920s, not to the 1950s of Betty Friedan's landmark study (p. 11), and follows the evolution (or deterioration) of the "New Woman" into the flapper (p. 12). She notes a concurrent national anxiety about immigration and falling birthrates among white middle-class women, and identifies a corresponding "crisis of white masculinity" (p. 14). The repositioning of women that she describes could, however, be read as part of a larger strategy of containment and one wishes she had said more about such interconnections. As is, Kitch finds "striking representational parallels" between both waves of feminism (p. 16) and it is this idea of historical cycles that enables her to extend the implications of her analysis beyond its historical boundaries. One of the questions that arises from reading this study is whether or not such claims are justified, or are in fact too schematic.
The first chapter focuses on the "American woman" and introduces the idea of the symbolism of "women" as an outgrowth of the nineteenth-century "cult of true womanhood." Kitch rehearses the narrative of the growth of the middle class and the roles of consumption and advertisers in that growth. Intriguingly, much of the art used in such advertising was produced by women; thus Kitch explores the idea of a female gaze and art by women, for women (p. 26). These images, however, were not the products of individual artistic vision. Both department stores and mass-circulation magazines addressed themselves to a range of classes (p. 28) and both were active sites of "identity formation" (p. 35). Moving from the "True" to the "New" woman, Kitch postulates a series of tableaux to illustrate that roles for American women were not static (p. 36).
Chapter 2 examines the commercial phenomenon of the Gibson girl and her imitators (p. 41). Here we see the beginning of the process of domestication. "The hand that swings the tennis racket is the hand that rocks the cradle" (p. 48). Kitch introduces the notion of culture in dialogue, when she speculates on the effects of the anticipated female audience on the images (p. 54). The next chapter examines negative representations of women--the vamp, the gold-digger, and the coquette--and the dangers of urban space, offering some welcome tie-ins with other forms of culture, for example films (p. 60). It also provides interesting details of the working lives of many of these artists (p. 69). In the fourth chapter Kitch makes the fascinating argument that alternative publications also used women in the same symbolic ways as did mainstream capitalist culture; to a large extent politically progressive publications seem to have uncritically reproduced the same inherited images of women as mass-market magazines and advertisements. She also offers the persuasive possibility that such images were used self-consciously, as political instruments (p. 99).
With its focus on patriotic images, chapter 5 offers a reinterpretation of frequently discussed World War I posters by reading them in the wider context of magazine art. Next, Kitch turns to the flapper in the post-war period and reads her as the "New Woman" trivialized as part of the backlash after suffrage (p. 132). The seventh chapter traces the consolidation of this process in changing roles for wives, the growing expectation of personal satisfaction in marriage, and increased domestic consumption. It was this period that saw the construction of the white, middle-class suburban family as a national ideal (p. 148). Kitch then turns to advertising, as most of the artists she discusses illustrated advertisements in much the same style as their editorial work, while readers did not necessarily distinguish between editorial and advertising matter. She examines the connections between Ivory Soap and concerns about "racial purity" (p. 172) as an example of the "symbiotic representational process" (p. 181) between the commercial context and media imagery. In the epilogue, she reiterates her thesis about the diffusion of the power of the "New Woman" (p. 182), and argues for the necessity of finding lessons in the past (p. 183).
This study draws on an impressively broad array of theory and history. Both the language and the ideas expressed are clear and accessible. At times, the bones of the earlier dissertation show through, as when Kitch rehearses others' research about television (p. 186). She herself identifies, in the conclusion, a possible flaw in her methodology, when she admits that she was selective in her choices of examples. Indeed, this study presents a strong narrative of shifts in the representation of an idealized American woman, within a larger context of cyclical shifts which are only roughly indicated. Is the pattern Kitch identifies appreciably different from other instances of the co-option and containment of threatening social movements? For example, one could imagine a comparison between mass-media images of African Americans after Emancipation and after the Civil Rights period. This study would have perhaps been stronger had it not claimed so much; a comphrehensive analysis of thirty-five years of popular magazines, particularly during the watershed decades at the beginning of the twentieth century, is surely purpose enough. As such, Kitch's text is to be warmly recommended.
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Miriam Jones. Review of Kitch, Carolyn, The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media.
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