It now seems almost obligatory for self-styled postmodern feminists to begin accounts of their own research by deriding the so-called "concern"-laden approach of "older feminist criticism". This is how Joke Hermes introduces what she sees as her radically different, more respectful approach to the reading of women's magazines. What is radical is her decision to focus exclusively on readers' perceptions of magazines. Her argument is that text based studies perpetuate the "fallacy of meaningfulness" by abstracting media texts from everyday contexts and by giving undue weight to the views of fans or other knowledgeable readers. Apart from the fact that this assessment fails to do justice to the complex and varied work that has been done in the field of text-based media analysis, the danger is that by deliberately excluding "exceptionally knowledgeable readers" from her own study, she may be substituting an equally unrepresentative fallacy of meaninglessness.
Certainly much of what is said by her 80 respondents on the subject of magazine reading is banal in the extreme. However, Hermes would no doubt argue that this is the whole point. What readers value is not so much the content of magazines, but their adaptability, their ability to fill the gaps in everyday routines. She uses "repertoire analysis", which involves reconstructing from interview data "the cultural resources that speakers fall back on and refer to", to examine the way meaning is produced for media users in everyday contexts. She identifies one repertoire that she claims "underlines the value of traditional women's magazines as a unique genre", the repertoire of "connected knowing" or emotional learning. Controversially, she suggests that empathy with people in magazine articles serves to "inoculate" readers against events they are likely to encounter in their own lives, while readers of gossip magazines are said to forge "imagined communities" with one another.
One of Hermes's central theses is that readers of women's magazines are "neither cultural dupes nor silly housewives". They are a more heterogeneous audience than we might imagine, including some heterosexual and gay men, and magazine reading affords them a symbolic space within which to cultivate imagined selves. By emphasising the agency and unpredictability of magazine readers, Hermes seeks to challenge the commonly held view that such magazines are constitutive of normalising gendered identities. This challenge is considerably weakened by her disregard of text analysis and/or text production.
The study covers a wide range of texts under the umbrella of the blurred genre of "women's magazines". As well as a Dutch feminist magazine, it includes Dutch and English versions of domestic dailies, glossies and gossip magazines, and a brief excursion into the related genre of self-help literature. In addition to numerous short excerpts from individual and group interviews with readers, one chapter focuses on in-depth profiles of the reading habits of two informants. The audience orientation of the book is likely to make it of particular interest to students studying the sociology of the media, rather than to those interested in text-based media analysis.
Clare Walsh is lecturer in English and cultural studies, De Montfort University.
Reading Women's Magazines: An Analysis of Everyday Media Use
Author - Joke Hermes
ISBN - 0 7456 10 9 and 11 7
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £12.95