The Inequalities of Love: Portraying Romantic Relationships in Women’s and Men’s Magazines

Cláudia Álvares – ULHT/CICANT

Daniel Cardoso – ULHT/CICANT

 

A short overview

            It comes as a surprise to no one, by now, even just following common sense, that women's and men's magazines are aimed at a very homogenous, heterosexual, wannabe-monogamous and white audience, be it male or female. So it comes as no surprise, as well, that heterosexual monogamous relationships dominate the agenda of such publications.

            But to leave it at that would be overly simplistic. It would imply  assuming that knowing what orientation, what kind of relationship model or what race is being depicted suffices for a critical reading of these magazines. And if indeed it is true that this article intends to demonstrate the prevalence of such models, it is also true that there is a whole slew of other questions to be asked, questions that deal with the how. More than that, one needs to interrogate the discursive silences that are found (what isn't said, what topics aren't covered) within women’s magazines and to characterize what is said about what isn't heterosexual monogamy.

            But love isn't all there is to it. In our attempt to see if liberal feminism or post-feminism dominate these publications, we will also have to look at sex. Not sex as a function, nor sex as an end in itself, but sex as a component of what is deemed a more stable relationship. That, at least, will be our point of departure.

            Liberal feminism has traditionally emerged as a concrete application of liberal political philosophy to the political and economic inequalities experienced by women, placing emphasis on ideals such as emancipation and individual autonomy as aiding in the promotion of the socio-economic rights of women. Liberal feminism has privileged a discourse on ‘rights and rules’ that regulates interaction through criteria of justice within the public sphere. On the other hand, post-feminism deals with the appropriation of female sexuality’s stereotypes and their subversion in order to empower women. One of the criticisms often received is that post-feminism doesn’t seem to be well suited to analyze the tensions between the public and private spheres, taking for granted that the public display of personal experience turns it automatically into a political act. 

 

Relationships as part of the discursive representation of women

            Why is this subject chosen as being worthy of a lengthier analysis? According to our data collection, relationships – be it romantic or of friendship – are a very relevant part of what these magazines choose as cover topic, addressing the concerns they believe torment their readership and thus earning more revenue.

            In the context of all of the women’s magazines, relationships represent about 42% of the whole of the text coded, making it one of the most relevant sub-categories used in the analysis.

            But as the title of the paper suggests, even in magazines there are blatant inequalities – thematic ones, first and foremost. And while we analyze the corpus collected in search of how women are represented, we will soon see that we end up finding a lot more than just the representation of women, and that even this representation binds itself to several other factors. Namely – as this preponderance of heterosexual relations undoubtedly gives away – men.

 

Methodology

            In the main project, we used the blurbs on the covers of the magazines to decide which articles to analyze quantitatively, using NVivo8 as a data treatment programme. After identifying these articles, we collected specific samples in a first stage: the name of the article, the pre-lead section, the lead and the final paragraph (it was slightly different in the case of an interview).

            Because we presupposed that this methodology would be imprecise in yielding a general result, we decided to fully categorize the articles selected in a second stage. So, to collect the sample for this paper, we chose all articles where the cover references had to do with relationships, love and the kind. Notice, however, that in order to weed out some of the results that might have cropped up, we decided to exclude any references that had only to do with sex. To sum it up – relationships, love, and sex, within the context of any sort of relationship, were taken into consideration, leaving aside articles where the only focus was sex.

            After identifying which articles were to be transcribed into the programme, we proceeded to code them. The typology used for the coding of these articles consisted in a subset of themes that were divided into liberal feminism and post-feminism. Along with the node structure in which such categories were arranged, some free nodes were also created, having nothing to do with post-feminism or liberal feminism, or to account for more masculine perspectives on those subjects.

            So that important cross-codings could be identified, the coding was done at the paragraph level, rather than at the sentence level. That way, it's also easier to see the intertwining of ideas and the way these are organized in the magazine articles as part of broader theme, which is contained in each paragraph.

            But the category analysis gives us only part of the notion about how relationships are viewed and construed. Using Teun van Dijk's idea of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), we hoped to access not just the themes, but the way they are woven together to form a stream of meaning, and a rationale that is invested with an ideology. This ideology, poured into the text at the moment of its inception, is both cause and effect.

            It is ‘cause’ as the vehicle that divulges modes of thought, social and cultural frames of interpretation. But it is also a ‘consequence’, since those who wrote it, and the editorial machine behind journalistic production, are not the sole producers of ideology, nor do they control it. Ideology manifests itself through such cultural productions, and to map the discursive rationale is to engage, in a way, in a mapping of the current prevailing notions on this subject. Certainly it would be an exaggeration to say one thing is the same as the other. Rather, these magazines give pointers as to what ideas are shaping ever-shifting societal behaviors.

 

Nodes and numbers

            The sample

            First, we here intend to give a broad idea of how, using the grid of categories that frames this project, we can obtain meaningful results. But before discussing such numbers, let us look at the size of the sample used here.

            Six were the magazines used in this study – three men's magazines, and three women's magazines. By applying the principles stated above, we gathered 15 articles. Those 15 articles came from the following magazines: 2 from Activa magazine; 9 from Cosmopolitan magazine; 4 from Máxima magazine. One very obvious conclusion is that 3 of the six magazines are absent from the sample. Coincidentally – or not – all 3 magazines are men's magazines. This fact will be addressed further below.

            A second obvious fact is that even amongst women's magazines, Cosmopolitan clearly stands out as the most represented magazine in the sample. Given the fact that the word count will be a good indicator for our data later on, enabling us to draw some comparisons between magazines, the word count for each magazine is as follows:

  • Activa: 3437 words
  • Cosmopolitan: 13064 words
  • Máxima: 6422 words
  • Total: 22923 words

 

            The first results

            Looking at the overall results – and bearing in mind that such percentages represent the coverage of each coding by the number of words coded – and still without the grid of free nodes included, it seems clear that there isn't much differentiation between the attention given to Liberal Feminist themes (79,38%) and Post-feminist ones (77,44%). Although Liberal Feminism leads the way, thanks to issues regarding relationships, the focus on mind and mentality changes – potentially connected with the above – is the main driving force behind the relevance of Post-Feminism in these articles. However, this doesn’t imply that these magazines have a post-feminist stance in their articles, or that they are written according to the post-feminist tenets. What it does mean is that the mentality of the readers is something these magazines clearly wish to influence.

 

 

 Activa

Cosmopolitan 

 Máxima

TOTAL 

1 : Liberal Feminism

97,93

72,66

83,12

79,38

1.1 : Private Sphere

92,96

63,19

58,47

66,33

1.1.1 : Biological Body

6,46

1,62

17,63

6,83

1.1.2 : Relationships

92,96

63,19

50,34

64,05

1.2 : Public Sphere

85,02

25,61

67,58

46,28

1.2.1 : Autonomy

24,27

6,63

20,20

13,07

1.2.2 : Non-Autonomy

0,20

0,00

1,56

0,47

1.2.3 : Reconcile of the Private and Public Sphere

6,40

1,67

15,34

6,21

1.2.4 : Criticism to the objectification of the female body

0,00

0,00

0,00

0,00

1.2.5 : Public Space intervention

2,53

0,00

0,00

0,38

1.2.6 : Parity

0,00

6,26

23,11

10,04

1.2.7 : Non-parity

1,69

0,00

6,10

1,96

1.2.8 : Visibility

83,39

18,02

56,37

38,56

2 : Post-feminism

57,90

81,32

80,02

77,44

2.1 : Public or private sphere

57,90

81,32

80,02

77,44

2.1.1 : Artificial body

0,00

22,35

12,74

16,31

2.1.2 : Transformation of Mind and Mentality

28,51

66,88

66,19

60,93

2.1.3 : Sex

34,24

37,16

26,78

33,82

Table 1 – Aggregated nodes by magazine for the total text coverage, in percentage.

 

            Within Liberal Feminism, issues regarding the public sphere might at first sight seem highly relevant (at 46,28%); however a closer look indicates that what matters the most is visibility (38,56%), which can be interpreted both in terms of its existence or nonexistence. In fact, when looking at a more detailed account of how coding has been performed, one sees that 27,28% of the total contents of the articles relate to the anonymous woman, that woman that appears as a symbol of any regular woman, as an example that could be exchanged for any other.

            Matters related with appearance and beauty, often a hot topic in such magazines, have close to no expression here. Same with the biological body. But let us keep in mind that these articles were chosen specifically for their focus on relationships. So, in a way, any other topics here represented are already a cross between that very same topic and the subject of interpersonal relationships, namely romantic/emotional/sexual ones. That leads us to one other very frequently represented category: that of sex. Almost 34% of the extension of the articles was coded under Sex in one way or another.

            Looking more closely at the results, one can see if there is any difference between magazines. Although we're working with relatively small samples here, and bearing in mind that there is a great deal of unbalance between the sizes of the samples, if we break them up by magazine the data still seems to point to some significant differences.

            Activa is the one where post-feminist issues are less represented (57,9% of the articles' extension is coded under it) and where the specific topic of relationships is the most focused on (92,96%). This magazine also draws heavily on the examples provided by anonymous women (65%) but doesn't fail to mention famous women as well (26,83%), much more so than Cosmopolitan or Máxima (who talk about celebrities in only 7,84% and 17,18% of the sample, respectively). Changes in mind and mentality, encompassing models of behavior to be followed as well as the pedagogical and self-help aspects of these magazines, are much less represented in Activa than in the other magazines, despite still being relatively present – 28,51% of the articles' extension was coded under that node. It also seems that the affirmation of autonomy is quite important to this magazine: 24,27% of the content is coded under it. Artificial beauty or body changes appear to be absent from the coding here.

            Cosmopolitan, the magazine that has the most number of articles, has a somewhat different configuration compared to the overall results. This is the only magazine where matters related to post-feminist topics are more represented than liberal feminist ones – 81,32% versus 72,66%. Changes in mind and mentality and sex are quite relevant here (22,35% and 66,88%), more so than in the other magazines. One other thing that is worth mentioning is the low appearance of women whose voice can be heard, for better or worse. The visibility node, which in its totality can be taken as a measure of how much women are heard, has only 18,02% of the texts collected from Cosmopolitan coded under it. On the other hand, appearances count to Cosmopolitan – 22,35% of the text has been coded under Artificial Body, indicating the representation of a body that is adorned, that is artificially changed or that needs to be specially clothed to earn relevance.

            The last magazine, Máxima, has the particularity of having relatively few contents coded under Relationships (50,34%), which might seem odd, considering the focus of this paper. . The component of self-help, role models and related aspects of mind and mentality change are more relevant here than relationships – 66,19%. Although sex is also a relatively frequently mentioned topic, it is less present in Máxima than in other magazines (26,78%). But, on the other hand, difficulties in reconciling the public and private spheres are given more relevance here – 15,34%. The affirmation of parity among genders, or the addressing of professional, economical and political topics emphasizing disregard for gender is quite common, when compared to the other magazines (23,11%, compared to the 10,04% when all articles from all magazines are combined). And Máxima seems to give anonymous women quite some space too: about 56% of the text is coded under Visibility, and 41,89% is more specifically coded under Anonymity.

 

            Delving deeper into analysis

            So far, the focus has been on those categories where the feminist agenda was the most important aspect. But let us now look at aspects related with more masculine – or at least less feminine – topics.

 

 

Activa 

Cosmopolitan 

Máxima 

Total 

1 : Masculine Self-Help

0,00

0,00

0,00

0,00

2 : Masculine Career

0,00

0,00

0,00

0,00

3 : Male Celebrity

0,00

6,39

0,00

3,64

4 : Competition

0,00

6,91

9,17

6,51

5 : Male consumption

0,00

0,95

0,00

0,54

6 : Against tradition

5,24

4,59

14,14

7,36

7 : Masculine body

0,00

7,18

5,42

5,61

8 : Sport

0,00

3,62

2,51

2,77

9 : Emotional States

19,38

15,43

19,62

17,20

10 : Masculine style/beauty

0,00

6,26

0,00

3,57

11 : Irracionality

16,44

1,54

6,60

5,19

12 : Leasure

0,00

15,79

14,26

13,00

13 : Masculinity

9,43

45,95

36,42

37,80

14 : Nature metaphors to allude to women

0,00

2,29

4,95

2,69

15 : Nationalism

0,00

0,00

3,39

0,95

16 : Need for Stability

11,96

12,24

30,29

17,25

17 : Other cultures

10,56

0,00

17,78

6,57

18 : Pedagogy

0,00

0,95

0,00

0,54

19 : Politics

0,00

0,00

0,67

0,19

20 : Rarionality

31,10

8,10

31,16

18,01

21 : Racism

0,00

0,00

0,00

0,00

22 : Masculine Relationships

3,40

25,96

12,74

18,88

23 : Health

0,00

0,00

0,00

0,00

24 : Sex

0,00

24,45

3,52

14,92

25 : Time

2,09

5,76

12,15

7,00

26 : Tradition

25,52

9,98

8,74

11,96

27 : Transformation of the male behavior

1,25

7,23

1,34

4,69

28 : Violence

5,53

0,80

4,28

2,49

Table 2 - Free nodes by magazine regarding total text coverage, in percentage

 

            What seems more relevant here is, starting from the top of the table, how little of what's written sets itself as being against tradition (7,36%, overall; tradition itself got over 11%). And while we're dealing here with relationships, love and whatnot, emotional states seem to have little to do with that, if we're to judge by what these magazines write about – only 17,2% of the content was coded under it. In contrast, rationality ended up scoring higher, at over 18% – here, rationality has to do not only with appeals to being rational, but also with academic or analytic speech being given voice in the articles.

            Another important aspect that can be derived from this table is just how important masculinity is here. Let us once again remember that the articles selected came only from women's magazines, and yet masculinity reaches 37,8% in the coding of all articles – this has to do with what it is to be a man, what characterizes a man, how men act, and so on. 18,88% of the coding also encompasses masculine relationships and 14,92% deals with sex as seen from the male's point of view, or relates to men’s sexual experiences and stances (here, Cosmopolitan plays a big part, since almost 25% of its articles is coded under sex as seen from the masculine perspective). Interestingly enough, transformation in masculine behavior doesn't even reach the 5% mark, overall.

            But such details aren't equally distributed amongst the magazines. Masculinity, for instance, is especially present in Cosmopolitan (45,95%) and less so in Máxima (36,42%) - in comparison, it is mostly absent from Activa in any shape and form (9,43% for masculinity, 3,4% for masculine relationships, 0% for sex from the male's point of view). On the other hand, however, tradition is a strong part of Activa's coding (25,52%) whereas none of the other magazines reach the 10%  mark. Let us keep in mind that such numbers have nothing to do with a judgment from the coder regarding whether or not something is traditional, but rather have to do with the way the subjects themselves are presented by the magazine.

            There is also a component of need involved. In this case, the need for stability, at 17,25% overall, and with a special importance in Máxima (30,29%). This resonates very strongly with the fact that leisure is coded at about 13%.

 

Reading the results

            It is easy now to infer that different magazines have different stances on this subject, that they give relevance and space in their pages to different aspects concerning what it means to talk about romantic relationships. Also, it can be said that there might be a difference between what is referred to in the cover, that first part of the magazine that the (prospective) reader interacts with,  and the magazine’s content.

            This last statement seems clear in Máxima's case. Much more interested in a rationality-based stance, with masculinity, with presenting set models or being a guide to something, Máxima uses relationships as a topic to draw the reader’s attention only to end up as an undelivered promise. This is because Máxima speaks only every so often about relationships. So, as we've seen, this magazine seems to convey more of a sense of a woman that is an equal, and to supply such women as models of behavior, but at the same time, a need arises to have a male figure, or presence, close by and to interpret it.

            In Cosmopolitan, the dynamic isn't altogether very different, from the standpoint of the statistical data. This magazine emphasizes the male aspect of the theme, making it an important part of what women need to know, since another of the aspects that is so important to Cosmopolitan is the self-help and pedagogical aspect of its articles. Also, sex becomes an important part of what needs to be said when interpersonal relationships are the topic. And it's not just sex as part of the women's experience, but sex as part of the feminine experience of being experienced by men. Likewise, men's relationships come as a part of what women should know – what it's like to be on the other side, in a dualistic approach.

            Activa's stance must be approached from a finer perspective. First of all, we see only two articles in the whole corpus. Also, as can be seen on Table 2, irrationality and violence seem to have some presence – small though it may be, it nevertheless differs from the two other magazines. This is anchored to another very relevant free node – that of tradition. So irrationality and aggression of some sort seem to be justified on the basis of maintaining the stability of tradition. But how can we understand this position? Should it just be said that Activa has a more conservative stance? Still, it would seem that something would be missing. When the coding is broken down into its subcategories, which won't be fully presented here for lack of space and the need for simplicity, one sees that inside the Relationships category, the one which stands out is the (heterosexual) non-conjugal one, at 79,63% of text coverage. So, the threat or the origin for the necessity of bringing forth tradition is clearer now. However, references to ‘non-conjugal relationships’ are vague enough to warrant further explanation.

            Let us then move on to more qualitative analysis.

 

Reading meanings

            Activa's case is one where but a few lines of non-quantitative data provide a lot of explanation. Looking at the titles of the articles themselves answers our newly formed questions. They are as follows: “Confessions of an unfaithful woman” and “«I was the other one»”. So betrayal is the main topic here. And this treason is served up as cathartic, the articles themselves are the medium of redemption. Some lack of creativity is at work here, from an editorial point of view: if the first title talks about confessions, that is, someone who will want to confess to their sins so as to receive atonement – and the religious metaphor here is inescapable, and quite in line with Foucault's reasoning on the sexuality device (Foucault, 1994) – the other one is but the confession already underway. Of a different sin, that is true, but a confession nonetheless – both titles are about confession.

            The first article starts off with a statistical study according to which only 7% of Portuguese women have been unfaithful – but one that notes that men “cheat more”. According to the article, women simply “hide it better”. A (female) psychologist is then brought onto the scene to paint a different reality, based on what she and her colleagues see in their clinical practice – again, another space of confession is used and trespassed to give the readers access to what is being confessed.

            And it seems, according to the voice of this psychologist, which the article seems to take as its own by complementing her sentences with words from the journalist, that part of the problem lies in the “desacralization of the act of surrender”, one that causes new relationships to break down quickly, making them as intimidating as the “married for life” of before.

            Then, another study quoted informs the reader that betrayal in women is found to be “40% genetic-based”, information which appears in a text box. Nonetheless, the main body of the article focuses on the lack of time and the countless pressures that women are subject to – namely, the difficulty in the reconciliation between private and public spheres – as the main reason for this state of affairs. And then, a perfect complement comes to light, when we are presented with a comparison between men who seek sexual gratification and women who are fond of the idea of seduction and romanticism – not the other way around, as the article is, once again, based on the psychologist's words, quite definitive in separating the different stances by gender.

            Guilt, of course, ensues. And women have an extra burden. As they are trained to be good at “household chores”, to be good “professionals” and “good mothers”, it follows that women also “have to be good when it comes to infidelity”. Still, in their favor lies the fact that women usually don't want to cause a rupture in the relationship – given the dualistic tone of the article, one is left to wonder if men do want to break up with the person they're with when they cheat on that person.

            The conclusion is that there is “an availability” for both genders to cheat, since everyone has a huge need of “feeling loved and having more attention”. Thus infidelity can be avoided by assuring us that the other person allots us the time we want. Self-esteem and one's actions seem then to be dictated by how much attention a particular person pays us.

            The second article comes from the other side of the barricade, it seems – two women confess to what it is like to be ‘the mistress’. Again, the issue is commented on by a (female) writer of a book, although why she should be especially suited to comment on the issue is never made clear. The stories of these two women have different endings: the woman that is first referred to has a long history of suffering and dependency, which spans quite a sizable portion of the article; The second woman is the mistress but also a traitor within her own relationship, ending up together with the man of whom she was the mistress and two children. This second woman points out that, in a way, his marriage was over before she arrived.

            The commentary offered points out that although keeping a mistress once made sense, now it does not, since women are financially independent and don't need men to support them anymore. Still, cheating persists even after women's emancipation – leading one to believe that women's emancipation would end up eradicating treason, even though the other article points to the lack of attention as what leads (women) to cheating. Also, this book-writer posits that “the Christian principle of sharing” connects with the demographic fact that “there aren't enough men for all these women”. This seemingly senseless connection creates, yet again, and as could already be seen in the other article, an obligation, a forceful necessity that women have of men, or of being loved, or of receiving enough time.

            But the responsibility for this cheating doesn't fall upon the mistresses – identified as “the great haunting in the mind of a woman in a relationship” - but upon the husband. Again we cannot fail to be reminded of how, in the other article, the explanation for cheating came from the other person not giving the cheater enough of their time. Here, the wife isn't to blame. And it is “the greatest injustice on the face of the Earth, but the woman is the person who has to fight the hardest for the marriage”, since she has to be “the best professional, the good house-wife, a perfect mother, a dedicated partner and a lioness in bed”.

            Seemingly, it is not possible for a woman to try and escape such a fate and remain a woman, or at least a fulfilled woman. Fortunately, the article includes a list of pros and cons of being a mistress – one of the cons is that the mistress has no right to refuse sex, since she doesn't have as many chances as would a normal couple – and the book-writer offers a few tips on how to identify men who aren't single, so that the readers don't fall victim to these men, since it's “hard to control emotions completely”. Does this not assume – and induce, up to a point – the fact that the magazine readers are precisely those who would never take part in such actions? Therefore women need to read the article, and see the confessions – even though one such confession is at bottom line a confession of happiness – so that they are informed on how to never have the need to confess to anything.

 

Relationships in women's magazines in broad strokes

            Such an analysis would be unwieldy to perform on all 15 articles at once, and could become rather repetitive after the first few. So it seems now more relevant to point out the major tendencies that seem to permeate, in a more or less obvious way, nearly most of the articles. We will be doing this by focusing on three main aspects: the need for masculinity, the need for relationship and the need for silence.

            In a way, these three needs are configured differently than the need for time or the need for stability. For these needs are not the ones that the articles themselves mention, but the ones that end up constituting the conceptual framework of the articles, giving the background for their interpretation.

 

            The need for masculinity

            It might seem obvious enough by the name of this title what is being mentioned here, but we must not confuse the need for masculinity with the need for men. What we come across here is the need that the articles deem their readers to have concerning knowledge on the true essence of what it is to be a man, to think like a man, to act like a man.

            Because, fundamentally, if advice is being passed out to women on matters dealing with relationships, then first and foremost, that advice comes in the shape of a translation of sorts, a parting of veils that brings to the reader what is on the other side – not the other person, no, but the other sex-gender. And in these pages, the sex-gender connection is so encompassing that there seems to be a fusing of both elements. There are a number of opinions, thoughts and behaviors that are particular to that bodily configuration, apparently. And these magazines have the capacity for truth-telling, for canceling deception and showing men as they truly are. Or so we are led to believe, when we read titles such as “Win over his friends”, “50 things he'd like you to know”,  “Sex the way he loooooves it!”, “8 truths about love” and “They [the men] cheat more during the summer”. All of these titles come from Cosmopolitan. In fact, as we've seen previously, this magazine is especially concerned with pointing out how men are and think, and here is the proof required.

            All in all, women are ignorant of how men think and act, and so an undetermined number of unknown men are supposed to provide valuable insight. The starting point seems to be that “men are uncomplicated […] except when it comes to relationships”. Or we can always consult the “Horoscope of love” (the name of one of the articles collected) so as to immediately ascertain each man's personality. With that information comes short advice on how best to seduce or attract men of each zodiacal sig.

            This masculinity is two-fold: on one hand, it is essentialist and immutable (men will never be able to take the lead in starting a conversation about feelings or relationships, men will always have a behavior that's primarily linked to sex for its own sake); on the other hand, such a clear image makes it easy for anyone to make comparisons with that image, leading the magazines to instruct their readers on how to best maintain that image. The female readership, we stress. And why is it important that readers know how to maintain that image? Because alongside this essentialist and immutable stance on masculinity, we see that it is always in peril of being overrun with elements of too feminine a nature. Naturally, this idea that a man should talk about his relationship or that he would start such a conversation is one of those perils.

            And no matter how independent and professionally stable the woman is, she has to let him take care of her, to a point, as proof of how much she loves the man.

            It is true that even though this is the portrait given of men, this portrait is one that is bemoaned as threatening one's “patience”, threatening the relationship's stability by being too foreign to fully comprehend. But things are as they are, and it is up to the woman to adapt and adjust her behavior by reflecting on this male essence, rather than her own, or rather than having men do any self-reflection. And men seem to have little interest in having “serious relationships”, or being able to commit to them, which makes women's work even more difficult, as they seem to need coaxing, and lots of good reasons to back away from a life of traveling, entertainment and independence – examples offered through the voice of men or of women as to what can be endangered in a relationship.

            So if their essentialism is never questioned but often the target of complaints, and always referred to in interaction with what women do that they don't, stressing the differences between both, one can ask if the provocation that Virginie Despentes (2009) threw at men in “The King Kong Theory” - if men seem to constantly seek an always-eager and always-willing woman for sex, then aren't they looking for counterparts whose behavior is masculine as well? - isn't liable to be applied here, but in an inverted form. These women that the articles construe: are they trying to find their own gender in masculine bodies? After all, in the article titled “Where are the men?”, there is a list supplied of where men can be found – and virtually all the locations are connected to a traditionally feminine task, such as taking care of children or doing the laundry.

 

            The need for relationship

            This is one of the strongest tendencies expressed here. Over and over again, in one form or another, there is the allusion to the fact that a relationship is vital for a woman. To the position that she must attain. She is pressured, it is said – as pointed out before – in an inexorable way, to be a good wife, or partner, and a good mother as well. There is no escaping it, and any woman who isn't partnered is reason for amazement, and maybe even a hint of pity. In an article called “Where are the men?”, Máxima magazine presents examples of ordinary – but successful and good-looking – women, wondering how it is possible that they are single and with “little hope” of finding someone to be with.

            But the woman these magazines describe is also under attack. Not only from the social environment that makes women have to excel in every field – but they are under attack from women. These women are ‘Other’, these women are not the readers of the magazine. They are those who do not receive the wisdom imparted in those pages, the ones that are out there in an undefined space, or those that grow bolder due to the summer influence on good moods and spirits, and they are also – there's a whole article dedicated to them – the older women.

            These older women are a paragon of stability and utter balance, who seem to have achieved an almost untenable position in life - “They don't do drama”; “They make it clear that they have no hidden motivations” (towards men, we might add, and those motivations would be pregnancy or seeking financial support); “They stay in shape”; “They are outgoing in bed”. Cosmopolitan’s readership is then, supposedly, none of these things. And if these are the elements that make older women – a different class of women altogether, not a “we”, but a “they” – so dangerous, it is nonetheless true that younger women are encouraged to learn from them, to profit from these selling points by mimicking them. Then again, as we've seen above, the mistresses are also dangerous, as are the men who have an occasion to be outgoing too.

            It is interesting to see that when talking about winning over the boyfriend's friends, these friends are always male friends too. Whereas the readers' friends are women. No debate, and no mention of what to do in any other situation.

            All of these are enemies. All of these are in direct competition. And competition, along with the notions and reading frames that accompany it, is what relationships seem to be about in these magazines. The metaphors are those of predation – the women that (unlawfully or lawfully) hunt for men. To do this, they have to overcome societal pressure (by playing along) that leads them into having to excel at everything and then seek to ‘one-up’ the other contestants we've talked about.

            Thus, relationships become part of that very same burden that falls upon women. But a burden that is wished for, that is necessary to the utmost degree. Just like egalitarian employment and political rights of yesterday – and of today, even – women have to “sharpen their claws” so as to protect their prize – the monogamous heterosexual relationship – from the oncoming attacks of other women-predators, and from their own lack of time and commitment due to their professional life.

            This makes even more internal sense if we look at the relationship as an asset. As with any asset, relationships seem to be driven by an economy of feelings, relationships and worthy men – the scarce raw materials that have to be defended.

 

            The need for silence

            This need for silence can be split into two smaller units of analysis, or two subjects that need silencing. The first one consists in alternative models of relationships. Although maybe real silence isn't the most appropriate term, there is indeed a silence as to such alternative models in their own right – they are mentioned through the filter of hetero and mononormative relationships.

            The second theme that is virtually muted in these articles is the existence and influence of different sexual orientations. This is of the utmost importance, considering the latest developments in several fields of research regarding human sexuality, especially women's sexuality. Lisa Diamond, in her book “Sexual Fluidity” (Diamond, 2009) addresses female's sexuality as being highly context-dependent, very situational, rather than fundamentally established by biology or early-childhood upbringing. She even goes on to talk about a fourth orientation, past the idea of heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual (all of which operate within a binary system, as it stands today), that would be called a “person-base attraction” (Diamond, 2009). Any element of this is absolutely absent from these magazine pages. And if indeed Lisa Diamond is right and this is a fundamental part of the nature of female sexuality – which of course doesn't necessarily imply any behavior or desire of a homosexual nature– then it is all the more confusing that no expression of such ambiguities is ever to be found within the magazines analyzed.

            On the other hand, exactly the same situation is projected onto men. Never does a man lust for anyone else other than another woman, nor is he lusted for by any other person. Sexual desires are always straight(forward), uncomplicated. The only thing that is troublesome is the performance, and how to best please him, to be in his good grace and be remembered as a “sex goddess”, as Cosmopolitan’s “Fan the flames of your relationship” article puts it – the desire of any woman, or so we're assured.

            These magazine articles are addressed to a female who is always absolutely certain about her sexuality, who never questions it. Her object of desire is always a man, and even in the cases where reference is made to the increasingly active role of women in sexual relationships – especially those not linked to a lengthy commitment, since in others the active role of women is more akin to the active role of pleasing men and their needs – no sexual experimentation even comes as a shadow of a possibility.

            A fleeting reference made is in connection with an actress who starred in the movie “Vickie Cristina Barcelona”. Scarlett Johansson allegedly kissed Penélope Cruz during the shooting of the movie – and that's it. But so as not to trouble the reader too much with any possible real-life connections between Scarlett and the character she plays in the movie, we are constantly reminded that she has found her “other half”, and that “Never in life could [she] be in an 'open relationship'. It would be awful!”

            And open relationships are indeed mentioned. Scarlett says that monogamy is not a “natural instinct for human beings” - but she quickly emphasizes that she believes in monogamy, in “true love” and a “soul mate”. We see here how monogamy is much more than the description of sexual behavior: it is an ethos that requires belief, as if it were a divinity or religion. And so it requires adherence, too. In another article, a woman complains that the word “cheating” is almost devoid of sense, since relationships are “so open” that it's almost impossible to cheat. This brings us to a major argument of this paper: Monogamy brings with it the institution of infidelity; monogamy creates infidelity. And in order to long for a mononormative relationship, one must also long for the institution of cheating as its counterpart. The very same counterpart that several articles seek to quell by giving all sorts of pointers on how to defend the relationship.

            There is a very clear correlation, often represented, between a serious and committed relationship and fidelity. Not just any kind of fidelity – sexual fidelity is a conditio sine qua non which measures whether or not the relationship is indeed a relationship. One very clear example of this is again to be found in the article titled “Where are the men?” (Máxima magazine),  in which an anonymous woman talks about having an open relationship lasting about four years. At the time of the interview, she was in a year-and-four-months-old monogamous relationship – the longest she'd had, as she said. So the four years she'd spent with the other man were non-existent, part of an event that was to be disregarded as if it didn’t count.

            Treason, cheating, is indeed a concern widely expressed in several articles, something we've been discussing along this paper, and which in the context of this analysis is the only real alternative to monogamous behavior. Real, because it is monogamy that institutes it, and because it is instituted as a violation of the norm, as condemnable and hence capable of being rebuffed by a normalizing discourse. Open relationships, on the other hand, are especially dangerous precisely because they are, by definition, consenting and of mutual agreement, where the notion of sexual infidelity isn't altered but destroyed within the terms of the relationship itself. The blame game finds little footing here.

            So what are we left with? What is the model? It seems we're left with a heteronormative and mononormative view of relationships, the only model ‘tried and true’, the only realistic model – no matter how troublesome, demanding, difficult or inaccessible, it is the focal point of yearning for company. Any other vision of a loving interpersonal relationship becomes nothing but an illusion. There is one other thing that also stays out of this world-vision – the figure of the woman in her own right. Women are viewed constantly in relation to an ‘other’, and hardly ever in absolute terms. A woman that is alone is an unlucky woman, one that can't believe her own fate, one that has all the potential traits to attract a man but who fails to do so.

            And why this need? We can posit with quite some ease that the role of women as mothers – about 10% of the text was coded under motherhood – bears a central role. And to support this role, there is the heterosexual monogamous family. Reproduction remains linked to relational models of old, and contraceptives serve mainly as a way to determine when reproduction is to take place – the idea is that women fulfill themselves especially through reproduction, and that that reproduction entails heterosexuality and monogamy.

 

And yet another silence...

            There is yet another silence if we look at the results, one to which we've alluded to before. There are absolutely no articles coming from this methodology of selecting articles that originated from men's magazines. Is that to say that men's magazines make absolutely no mention of anything to do with relationships? Most certainly not, as far as we've gathered from analyzing the magazines we've collected. But the relevant fact here is that none of those articles reach the cover. They do not constitute a topic that can pass as a selling point. Pointers on sex, on improving pleasure (one's pleasure and the partners' too) quite often do make the cover. But it is only sex without any implicit further connection. And certainly we do not mean to imply that sex for sex's sake doesn't constitute a relationship – a perfectly valid one – only that any article with further reaching implications (temporally speaking) has no place in the covers of a men's magazine. Again, we see the repetition of the stereotype that men have no business with matters emotional and relational. Or, if we're to delve into a deeper level of analysis, the fact is that men's emotional contents must be hidden from sight, cannot be exposed to a public at the newsstand that searches for something of interest.

 

Understanding where relationships are

            It would be unfair to assume that there is a simplistic agenda that seeks to subsume women to the functioning of the traditional and unchanged heterosexual and patriarchal family. In fact, there are several references to how relationships are changing, coming especially from the testimonies presented by professionals in the field of psychology and writers.

            In Máxima's article “The new conquerors”, we see plenty of this, the reference to the “anti-Cinderellas”, the “21st century women”, who “deconstruct myths and assume themselves as being equals to [the men]”, who “don't wait for the fairy tale to come knocking at their doors”. Another psychologist talks about how behaviors have become more uniform, and women behave more like men, especially when it comes to sexuality. They, too, seek sex for the sake of sex, now, and where there is no “affection”. Ana Zanatti, a well-known Portuguese actress, lesbian and writer, comes forward to talk about the masculine fear that independent women provoke, about men who can't deal with the change of women's role in society. Marta Crawford, another renowned popular author and sexologist, complements this with the fact that women are indeed caught in a duality between being more successful and conquering, but at the same time wanting the same old roles and models.

            It seems that one of women's greatest gains is the possibility of “being demanding when it comes to choosing Mister Right” – but there is no other path other than choosing a Mister Right. Women, then, to these magazines, don't wait for fairytales to come knocking: they chase after them, which doesn't make them any less in tune with fairytales. They are now the predators, but the hunting game's representation seems mostly untouched. And being choosy can be a risk in and of itself, for if women are too demanding, they will frustrate their own attempt at happiness, as is pointed out elsewhere.

            Following this, a model of moderation and success is presented. How is success defined, then? A hard-working, entrepreneurial mom, in her second long-lasting relationship, with three children, capable of juggling roles with enough time to spare. Clearly, the socio-economical status she has enables this woman to do all of this – does it then follow that moderation presupposes, as a prerequisite, belonging to the higher echelons of middle-class bourgeoisie? Be that as it may, she is clear to point out that part of her happiness comes from her “being the man in the relationship”, that is, the rational party. And moderation then unravels to become an approximation to male standards, where feelings are subsumed by rationality.

            “«Happily ever after» is for as long as it lasts”, but the need for the feeling of “ever after” and the rationale behind it is certainly left there, even if to support ephemeral circumstances.

 

            Although the main objective of this paper is to present the results of the analysis undertaken, one cannot escape the necessity of quickly framing such societal changes and manifestations within a broader context. To this avail, Anthony Giddens' and Ulrich Beck's work is indeed relevant.

            The first author enables us to trace a summary of the history of romanticism along the last two centuries, that has its roots in the Middle Ages. Also, it enables us to understand two basic models of interpersonal relationships – those of a co-dependent nature, and those he calls the pure relationship, one that stands only for itself. The second crosses feminine emancipation with individualism and subsequent changes to the models of relationship.

            So, from Giddens we can see how the models of relational rationale inscribed in these magazines still bear the brand of the co-dependent relationship, typical of classic Middle-Age and 18th century romanticism (Giddens, 1993). In co-dependent relationships, two halves form a whole – the notion of soul-mate and “other half of me” often repeated, or the “Mister Right” example from above. This entails that the woman (and the man too, but let us focus here on what we're working with) is incomplete, only half of herself, until she can be given full meaning and identity by a man in a romantic and sexual relationship that can potentially conduce to bearing children.

            Drawing from Ulrich Beck, it is possible to see how the different societal pressures go beyond the need to be successful as a career woman or as a mother and house-wife. It goes to the core of identity production – we are all, men and women, summoned to be ourselves. In many ways, women's and men's magazines play a big role in this, as they help build and define what is masculine and feminine. But this is in conflict with the assumed idealization of a heterosexual monogamous relationship that can be deemed as normal and a source of stability (no matter how heavy the toil to secure it, it seems), and where concessions to the Other must take place. And as he points out (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2003), the more impossible it seems to build an everlasting relationship – as women are indeed more demanding and men aren't keeping up with that – the more that notion seems to connote a nirvana-like state which someday will be achieved, so that completeness can ensue.

 

            Bottom line: by addressing all of these issues, we've come to realize that magazines construe their readers as being oblivious to how to maintain healthy relationships or in need of such advice. These women are treated – and thus are supposed to be – as ignorant and in dire need of counseling for every part of their relationship, so they can have a measuring stick with which to gauge their own success. This prototypical woman, portrayed by her negation (that is to say, the woman who reads is the opposite or the reverse of is the one who appears in the articles, and that's why she needs them), is a woman who needs, longs and struggles, and has no other choice but to continue doing so, only more efficiently. And this prototypical woman needs help when it comes to understanding and adapting herself to the prototypical man who is unable to change, the unerring object of desire, the objective of life and target of care.

            Somehow, the care of the self ends up being lost, and is only referred to as a necessity to maintain the relationship's health, so that two people spending too much time together don't grow tired of each other. Not an end in itself, but an instrument to the deity of sexual and romantic relationship.

 

Bibliography and Sources

Beck, U., & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2003). La individualización: El individualismo institucionalizado y sus consecuencias sociales y políticas. Barcelona: Paidós.  

Despentes, V. (2009). King Kong Theory. Serpent's Tail.  

Diamond, L. M. (2009). Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire. Harvard University Press.  

van Dijk, T. (2005). Discurso, Notícia e Ideologia: Estudos na Análise Crítica do Discurso. Porto: Campo de Letras.  

Foucault, M. (1994). História da sexualidade I - A Vontade de Saber. Lisboa: Relógio d'Água.  

Giddens, A. (1993). The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies (1.º ed., p. 216). Stanford University Press.  

 

 

Activa – March, 2008

Activa – September, 2008

Cosmopolitan – March, 2008

Cosmopolitan – June, 2008

Cosmopolitan – September, 2008

Cosmopolitan – December, 2008

Cosmopolitan – March, 2009

Máxima – June, 2008

Máxima – September, 2008

Máxima – March, 2009