Women’s magazines “Still stigmatized”

Female reader
Female reader | Photo (detail): © Antonioguillem - Fotolia.com

“Brigitte” is now officially an old lady – having turned 60. In recent decades, women’s magazines like “Brigitte” have gone with the times and have kept pace with the emancipation of women. All the same, to this day they are often not taken seriously by society, says Dr. Kathrin Friederike Müller from the University of Münster.

Ms Müller, what characterizes women’s magazines these days and how do they reflect society?

First, it is important to clarify which subcategory of women’s magazines one is talking about. Conventional magazines for women like Brigitte, Für Sie and Freundin cannot necessarily be compared with glamour mags like Bunte and Gala or feminist publications such as Emma. More widely speaking, however, women’s magazines are among the few media which address issues relevant to women’s lives that are not to be found in other media, and provides them with a platform. Naturally, they are concerned – in a rather clichéd manner – with what constitutes femininity and how women are defined. After all, women’s magazines boil down time and time again to the fact that gender is the key focus, which is why they also deal with issues such as beauty, slimming, make-up and cookery – in short, traditional women’s issues.

Do modern women still actually feel that these specifically women’s issues are relevant to them?

Definitely, though it always depends on the way they are presented, journalistically speaking. For my dissertation, I surveyed 19 Brigitte readers, asking them why they read the magazine. These women choose Brigitte specifically because they believe it is of higher quality, more emancipated and more politically challenging than other women’s magazines. At the same time, however, they also want to experience themselves as women and engage with issues relating to this traditional form of the role of women or with everyday female experiences that often do not feature in other media.

Reading women’s magazines is not the done thing

Why are many women reluctant to admit that they read women’s magazines?

Kathrin Friederike Müller Kathrin Friederike Müller | © Kathrin Friederike Müller This is a typical phenomenon that is known in science as “social desirability”. This means that one is reluctant to admit to things which one knows will be viewed unfavourably by others. And women’s magazines are still a medium that is stigmatized. This is more extreme in Germany than in other countries – anything that has to do with entertainment is always scorned here to some extent. What is more, there is the gender-specific component, namely that women’s magazines have always been viewed as less serious, irrelevant and not to be taken seriously. Readers know this and therefore do not like to admit to it.

Essentially, it is a fact that the media interests of women have always been devaluated, irrespective of any particular era. This can be clearly seen when they are compared with sport, a classic male interest domain. Sport enjoys social recognition and is also treated entirely differently in journalistic terms. There is simply no debate about whether one will watch the Football World Cup, for example, and whether it is acceptable to leave work early or rearrange other events because of it. That would be completely inconceivable with gender-based content that is primarily of interest to women. Everything that men perceive as relevant is still regarded by society as being more important.

In May 2014, “Brigitte” reached the grand old age of 60. What sets the mother of all women’s magazines apart from the crowd?

Brigitte has at least a different aim and a different concept as regards the integration of politics, social criticism or interviews with people relevant to contemporary history. Even back in the 1970s, Brigitte had a distinct image because it fought for women’s rights: for instance, it adopted a very clear stance opposing Paragraph 218, and spoke out in favour of women going out to work and of the need to reconcile work and the family.

Feminism – a controversial subject

Did “Brigitte” readers back then also like the feminist magazine “Emma”?

In my study, I found that women often read both at the time, but that a point then came where a decision had to be taken. Emma proved too radical for Brigitte readers after all. They felt that Emma did not adequately reflect the way they experienced their lives and their relationships with their partners.

Why did “Brigitte” abandon its dally with feminism again?

Above all, women’s magazines want to appeal to as wide a readership as possible. This is particularly true of Brigitte because it targets the broad middle classes and tries to ensure that as few readers as possible are put off by its content. That is why the more specific, political and feminist issues were taken out of the magazine again.

Which image of women do women’s magazines reflect?

Looking at women’s magazines, it is possible to tell what the common view among the target group is as regards normality, the ideal woman or a successful female lifestyle.

How will women’s magazines develop in future, also in the context of new media and the surfeit of content spawned by the Internet?

I believe that the conventional media – magazines and other publications – will always have a chance. In certain situations they are also practical: a magazine is less sensitive than a tablet and can be taken anywhere. It also gives a sense of comfort, as readers enjoy holding something in their hand. This is also associated with relaxation; taking time out to read a magazine feels like giving oneself a reward. The Internet naturally poses considerable competition, however, especially in the case of younger women, because it offers so much content free of charge.