Introduction: Defining Discourse and Ideology
There exists no universal definition of ‘ideology’ for theorists interested in the analysis of cultural texts. Eagleton’s summation of current definitions demonstrates the multiplicities of meaning that can be attributed to ‘ideology’, and the subsequent problem of undertaking any kind of textual analysis without sufficient consideration of its significance to that particular study. I am primarily interested in how Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) as a model for examining cultural texts might interpret ‘ideology’ as a ‘structure’ or ‘system’ of semantic associations woven by “social conventions, norms, histories” (Fairclough, 1995, p. 71). This is very close to Foucault’s definition of discourse as “historically contingent cultural systems of knowledge, belief and power” (1972). This broad, non-linguistic, definition can be incorporated into analyses of linguistic ‘discourse’, thus amalgamating cultural, historically specific and contextually specific ways of using language. This definition of ‘discourse’ can be used alongside non-linguistic feminist approaches to textual analysis. ‘Discourse’ and ‘ideology’ can therefore be used interchangeably in critical analyses of cultural texts.
Critical Discourse Analysis thus describes the way ideologies (or the Foucauldian sense of ‘discourse’) are disseminated and redressed in a range of cultural texts, and seeks to highlight the linguistic strategies whereby texts locate readers within these discourses. It perceives language as a primary force for the creation and reproduction of ideologies, and is most concerned with texts that promote unequal systems of power as inevitable or natural. One of the most powerful tools for creating ideologies, and therefore the main subject for CDA is the mainstream media (comprising TV, newspapers, magazines and radio). In this model, these constructed discourses have a direct, as opposed to symbolic affect on the individual (Bucholtz, 2003, p. 45).
One of the greatest ideological subjects for such study is gender, because gender is by definition a societal or external construct. According to Yanasakio & Collier, where ‘sex’ denotes “biological differences between males and females”, ‘gender’ denotes: “social, cultural, psychological constructs that are imposed upon these biological differences” (1990, p. 139). It is therefore gender – the construction of masculinity and femininity – that is most subject to manipulation by mainstream (or ‘glossy’) lifestyle magazines. Talbot claims that individuals perform their own gender identities and that we are not passively “put together” by discourse (1998, p. 156). However, I believe we are all affected by the media we consume; our gendered selves are, to a certain extent, created for us. Women’s magazines both reflect and construct these identities. They have a two-way relationship with the reader who is both influenced by, and contributes to, the textual content of the magazine. And, as Litosseliti notes, “if we accept that magazines play a role in processes of social and cultural change, then we need to question both the representations and their effects”. (2006, p. 102)
1 Women’s Magazines as Ideological Creators
If we accept Butler’s argument that gender is performative, what women’s magazines ultimately do is relay an idea of what femininity is: they are ‘performing’ gender for us (Butler, 1999, p. 173). This performance of femininity involves defining the female gender as encompassing a number of different identities. As Talbot acknowledges, “femininity takes different forms” (1998, p. 188). By categorising the editorial content of women’s magazines More and Cosmopolitan in terms of core subject matter, these identities may manifest themselves:
Table 1 illustrates that articles relating to sexuality and consumerism take up more editorial space than anything else in Cosmopolitan. Although this data suggests More readers are more interested in celebrity lifestyles than their own sexualities, the subject of features on celebrities is often focused on the sexual identity of that particular icon. Thus we can infer that consumerism and sexuality are presented as the most important aspects of feminine identity in More and Cosmopolitan. This summation also complies with McRobbie’s rather sarcastic observation that woman’s magazines:
try to convince their readers that nothing is more important than sex and having a boyfriend and that alongside this only the world of shopping and consumption offers opportunities for leisure and enjoyment.
These identities, or ‘ideologies’, are linguistically constructed to have a direct impact on women’s lives. I will analyse an article from women’s magazines More and Cosmopolitan,concentrating on how lexical choices, use of modal systems and transitive processes contribute to the creation of gender as an ideological statement, to reveal how magazines exemplify authorial attitudes and attempt to engage with, and are internalised by the reader. Of course I appreciate the academic implications of assigning ‘femininity’ to ‘woman’ and ‘masculinity’ to ‘man’, and using ‘gender’ as a biological label. However, I shall not dichotomise ‘feminine’ from ‘female’ or ‘masculine’ from ‘male’ in my argument, because neither of the magazines do, nor would doing so be useful to my discussion. Women’s magazines have automatically decided that females are ‘feminine’; what is interesting is how this femininity is represented and imposed on the reader.
2 More and Cosmopolitan as Cultural Texts
I chose More and Cosmopolitan for the focus of my analysis because although they are both consumerist women’s magazines, they are marketed for different female audiences, which I thought would prove more fruitful for examining discourse and identity. More describe their core reader to be “passionate about fashion, beauty, celebrities and men” (Emap Advertising 2006). As this and Table 1 reveals, the post-feminist career woman does not feature as a represented identity. Cosmopolitan, on the other hand, perceives their reader to be “determined to succeed – in her career, her social life and her relationships […] Sex, men and shopping are an essential part of her life” (The National Magazine 2006). More readers can therefore be described as more celebrity conscious than readers of Cosmopolitan, who are more assertive and career-driven. Both magazines place a strong emphasis on sexuality and consumerism as defining qualities of their female readership. My discussion will concentrate on gender and sexuality as a constructed ideological statement, although we shall see how discourses of sexuality and consumerism overlap in these magazines’ representations of the feminine identity.
3 Lexical Constructions of Gender and Sexuality
Mainstream women’s magazines are hetero-social discourses, and do not voice a non-heterosocial discourse (Coates, 1998, p. 305). This establishes heterosexuality as a “naturalized norm” (Talbot, 2003, p. 468), and marginalizes homosexual women. Both the articles I have chosen from More and Cosmopolitan use pronouns ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’ to refer to the object of verbs, where pronoun ‘your’ clearly refers to the female reader as the subject or agent of actions, thus linguistically constructing a heterosexual discourse that the reader is implicitly drawn into.
The use of personal pronouns can also have a significant affect on how the reader is positioned within a particular discourse and in relation to the author. For example, the use of inclusive ‘we’ assumes the reader and author share the same values. Fairclough calls this simulated solidarity between author and reader “synthetic personalization” (1989). Talbot, in her specifically feminist critical perspective, calls it ‘synthetic sisterhood’ (1995). This type of direct address is inherent in both More’s ‘Sex Tips’ and Cosmopolitan’s ‘Cosmo Sex’ articles.
The use of euphemism to express sexual acts or parts of the female body in women’s magazines is a phenomenon widely acknowledged by feminist linguists (see Jeffries, 2007), and is rife in More’s ‘Sex Tips’ article (see appendix A.1). The vocabulary (or rather the lack of it) available for lexicalising female genitalia is an interesting area for consideration in relation to woman’s magazines. For example, generic nouns like bits and undercarriage are used for the ‘vagina’ in lines 3 and 11 of the ‘Sex Tips’ article (see appendix A.1 for more examples). These euphemisms are used in favour of more ‘technical’ vocabulary, representing a kind of sexual censorship, propagating an ideological statement of women as (paradoxically) sexually innocent, yet experienced. This discourse of censorship can be extended to include the text’s ideological construction of ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox’ sexual practices. Lines 13-15 imply that this sexual position does no operate within ‘conventional’ codes of sexual practice: adverb scuppered has connotations of embarrassment for the reader here, which sits paradoxically alongside the establishment of social norms in lines 21-22, where “a bed, a sofa, the floor” are represented as ‘boring’ because they are ‘normal’ locations for sex (see appendix A.1).
The ‘Sex Tips’ article represents women as sexually knowledgeable, assertive and in control of sexual relationships, and reflects the reader’s adventurous attitude to sex. The verb phrase “hold a vibrator” immediately assumes the reader is sexually independent and confident enough to own a vibrator, where noun phrase “my place” constructs the implied reader as financially independent (appendix A.1 2-3).
The vaginal areas are labelled territories in line 4, which carries connotations of conquered lands. This is an interesting image to be attributed to a female subject, as the idea of sexual invasion is stereotypically attributed to men. The verb phrase “instruct him” is an almost militant command, drawing again on a semantic field of conquering (appendix A.1 9). This reveals the ‘unequal systems of power’, referred to in my introduction, presented in such cultural texts that are, to a certain extent, attempting to subvert established power relations between men and women. As Litosseliti observes, while the ‘male sexual drive’ is never questioned in women’s magazines, women’s sexual identity is constructed contradictorily: on the one hand women are encouraged to accept and accommodate male sex drive; where they are positioned as sexually confident – evident in the above examples from More’s ‘Sex Tips’ article – on the other hand women may be simultaneously represented as sexually aggressive or manipulative (2006, p. 101). This type of sexual assertion is apparent in the ‘Sex Tips’ piece, where the female reader is encouraged to ‘tease’ her partner in order to dominate (see appendix A.1 lines 2, 7-8, 16-17, 23-24). This immediately places the reader in a position of power, where sex is a space in which power struggles prevail.
The ‘Cosmo Sex’ article, on the other hand, constructs women as possessing different sexual needs to men, placing a strong emphasis on the mental, as opposed to physical, aspects of sex that More’s ‘Sex Tips’ article concentrates on. There is an observable lexical field of the psychological effects of sex: words like mood, conjuring, and fantasies focuses on mental processes (see appendix B.1 for more examples). As with the More article, the reader is immediately implicated into a heterosexual discourse, being assigned a male partner in line 5 (see appendix B.1). Although the text’s focus seems to be on sex as an emotional experience, it does not attempt to eradicate the physical experience for women. The word play on idiomatic phrase ‘love life’, which Cosmopolitan replaces with “lust life”, dichotomises the emotional and physical elements of sex. The author is setting up the focus of the article on sex, not relationships. The purpose of the piece is to suggest how the reader may improve her sex life, as though her current sexual identity is in need of improvement. Women’s sexual identities are therefore linguistically constructed in women’s magazines as in need of “fixing” (Smith, 1987, p. 47).
The opening of the piece suggests that men have previously been ignorant about women’s sexual needs, but verb phrase “if you’re lucky” constructs the opinion that men are not as aware of women’s sexuality as they perhaps should be (see appendix B.1 3-4). This of course also polarises men and women’s sexual identities, and differences between men and women’s sexual needs are implied. For example, repeated noun phrase “the more you” in lines 31-32 present women’s appetite for sex as diminutive in comparison to men’s (appendix B.1).
As with the ‘Sex Tips’ article, the ‘Cosmo Sex’ piece also reveals societal attitudes towards ‘conventional’ sexual practices. Verb phrase “we felt silly” in a discourse of ‘testimonials’ reveals the ‘orthodox’ opinion that role-play or vocalising sexual desire is subversive or taboo (see appendix B.1 23). This contributes to the perpetuation of these ideological statements, and thus implicates the reader in them.
4 Grammatical Constructions of Gender and Sexuality
In order to observe the affects of a text’s ideological constructions, we need a theory of language that will reveal the multifunctionality of language use. Halliday’s functional grammar states that language simultaneously performs what he calls the ‘ideational’, ‘interpersonal’ and ‘textual’ metafunctions of language. To surmise: the ‘ideational’ metafunction refers to grammar for representing the world, ‘interpersonal’ refers to grammar for enacting social relationships, and ‘textual’ refers to grammar the binds linguistic elements together into broader texts (Halliday, 1985). This is useful for critical discourse analytic accounts of language use like Fairclough’s, as it substantiates his view that language is “constitutive in both conventional, socially reproductive ways, and creative, socially transformative ways” (1995, p. 131). In the context of this study, this means that language both reaffirms and creates ideological statements or conventions for society.
Analysing the grammatical make-up of texts thus contributes to our understanding of them. The attitudes and ideologies expressed concerning female sexuality in ‘Sex Tips’ and ‘Cosmo Sex’ should be evident through a consideration of what Halliday calls modes of ‘modality’ and ‘transitivity’. Modality belongs to Halliday’s ‘interpersonal’ metafunction of language, which here establishes the relationships between reader and author, and between men and women that these magazines seek to create.
Halliday’s systems of modality are concerned with the expression of attitudes in language and relate to the ‘ideational’ metafunction of language:
The strongest statements are epistemically non-modal, an observation which accounts for much of the ideational functions of language that the magazine articles reveal.
As Table 3 denotes, most of the text is epistemically non-modal, expressing the certainty of the events described. This serves to construct an assertive attitude towards sex, thus creating the ideological statement that women are self-confident sexual beings, and consequently places women in a position of power. The instances of deontic modality demonstrate an obligation on the part of the male partner to perform a sex act for the woman, thus once again placing women in the driving seat of sexual prowess and creating a discourse of female domination.
The second element of Halliday’s functional grammar useful for a critical analysis such as this is a consideration of transitive processes. Where the traditional conception of transitivity alludes to whether or not a verb takes a direct object, Halliday asserts that this should not be the central concern for observing transitivity. He delineates three essential components for transitive processes:
(1) the process itself (realised by a verbal group)
(2) participants in the process (realised by a nominal group)
(3) circumstances associated with the process (realised by an adverbial group or prepositional phrase) (Modified from Halliday’s Table 5(1) 1985)
If we look at the percentage of clauses expressing material actions and relational processes in Table 5, the commanding tone of the ‘Sex Tips’ article is again substantiated:
The ‘Sex Tips’ article can also be described as an ‘instructional’ discourse, where the imperative clause structures dictate to the reader what she should do to improve her sex life. This of course immediately assumes that the reader’s sex life is in need of improvement. It also places the female reader in a position of power: it is woman who becomes the agent of actions, to become the invader and not the invaded.
The high percentage of non-modal clauses expressing a system of certainty is even more striking in the ‘Cosmo Sex’ piece:
This article also propagates the inevitability of events (usually an orgasm) if the reader complies with the text’s suggestions. In this sense, female sexuality seems to also become a mode of consumption, blurring the boundaries between editorial and advertising discourse: it becomes an “advertorial” text (McLoughlin 2000: 101).
An explication of transitive processes will reveal the discourse of ‘testimonials’ referred to in section 3 that prevails in this article, evident in the use of verbal processes, and the emotional construction of sex as observed above, through the mode of mental processes:
Observing the grammatical construction of these texts has demonstrated how attitudes towards female sexuality are linguistically perpetrated. As we have seen, epistemically non-modal statements and material actions are often used to represent sexual assertiveness in both texts, though this is perhaps more generic of the ‘Sex Tips’ article. These differing portrayals of femininity demonstrate how media discourses can present the reader with multiple definitions of gender.
This essay has examined how women’s magazines More and Cosmopolitan linguistically construct and represent femininity as an ideological statement for the reader, with a particular focus on female sexuality. More’s ‘Sex Tips’ article and Cosmopolitan’s ‘Cosmo Sex’ piece offers the reader two different ideological constructions of women’s sexual identity, although both immediately create the ‘naturalized norm’ of heterosexual discourse. More portrays women as sexually assertive, even aggressive, and focuses on the physical, as opposed to emotional aspects of sex. This is portrayed lexically through euphemisms for parts of the female body and sexual acts, and ideological assumptions such as the ownership of a vibrator. Vocabulary that places women in a dominating position subverts male power, and reveals a discourse of ‘teasing’, or sexual manipulation, in order to achieve this power. Halliday’s theories of language use are shown to operate within critical analyses such as these, where epistemic modality conveys the certainty of events detailed in the ‘Sex Tips’ article, and a combination of material actions and relational processes reveals an assertive tenor. Conversely, the ‘Cosmo Sex’ article places a notably strong emphasis on female sexuality as a psychological experience. This is presented through a semantic field of the psyche, and the use of mental transitive processes. The surprisingly high percentage of epistemically non-modal clauses in this article suggests that consumerism also operates within the realms of female heterosexual discourse. The primary discourses identified in both magazines: hetero-social, advertorial, testimonial, and instructional, demonstrate the multiplicity of ideological statements, thus the multifunctionality of language. What my discussion has demonstrated is how the reader is linguistically positioned within these ideologies or discourses.