Semiotic Analysis of Teenage Magazine Front Covers

Siân Davies

In this essay I will hope to analyse the semiotic codes of the front covers of teenage magazines to demonstrate how the media constructs the image and behavioural ideology of the teenage girl. I will analyse issue 359 of More! (December 27 th 2001 - January 8th 2002) and compare it with the January 2002 edition of 19. I have chosen these specific texts as they are popular mainstream magazines that are available in most newsagents, and therefore arguably represent to the reader what constitutes the modern teenage girl. These are also the most recent issues available for analysis and therefore demonstrate an up-to-date representation of constructed femininity in our media and society.

Jonathan Bignell (1997) argues that the magazine is "just a collection a signs" (Bignell 1997: 78). These signs may include paradigmatic and syntagmatic elements such as the title of the magazine, the fonts used, the layout, the colours, the texture of the paper, the language adopted, the content of the articles and so on, and each of these signs have been chosen to generate a meaning. The magazine is therefore a complex collection of signs that can be extensively decoded and analysed by its reader - "women's magazines communicate their mythic meaning by means of signs, thus their representations of the imaginary are dependent on the symbolic, the signs which do the communicating" (Bignell 1997: 78). Signs however, consisting (according to Saussure) of two elements, a signifier and a signified, only gain meaning when "it has someone to mean to" (Williamson 1978: 40). The reader is therefore very important and will bring his/her own interpretations to the texts by drawing on their own cultural values and perceptual codes. As Daniel Chandler argues, "'decoding' involves not simply basic recognition and comprehension of what a text 'says' but also the interpretation and evaluation of its meaning with reference to relevant codes" (Chandler, web source: Semiotics for Beginners). As the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and meaning is rooted in cultural values, we can argue that the potential interpretations of any given magazine are therefore endless.

As well as being a collection of signs, the magazine is a sign in itself, which "connects together the mythic meanings of femininity and pleasure" (Bignell 1997: 66). Through reading the pages a reader will gain an insight into the world of the woman and will be taught what are the expectations made of them as women (they learn what it is to be a woman).  McRobbie (1996) argues that magazines seek to "further consolidate and fix an otherwise more unstable sense of both self and gender" (in Curran 1996: 193), and so magazines seem to be central to society as they create a culture, a culture of femininity where a common experience of girlhood is shared.

Bignell argues that the function of magazines is "to provide readers with a sense of community, comfort, and pride in this mythic feminine identity" (Bignell 1997: 61). As the magazine promotes a "feminine culture" and "(defines) and (shapes) the woman's world" (McRobbie 2000: 69), we can see that it becomes a familiar friend for the female - it advises her, and provides entertainment, amusement and escapism for the reader and speaks to her in a language she understands - the lingo of teenagers is used in 19 and More!, for example "Top Totty". Bignell sees that "magazines are glossy and colourful, connoting pleasure and relaxation rather than seriousness… the smell and feel of the glossy paper connotes luxury… femininity and its pleasures of self-adornment" (1997: 66). The magazine therefore symbolises a lifestyle, a life of luxury and pleasure. The magazine claims to be simultaneously a luxury item and a familiar friend to its reader. It attempts to convince us that it is not a fictive document, that it is a true reflection of reality, a window into the real world of the woman.

It is argued that the average teenage reader will be a heterosexual girl seeking a boyfriend (or seeking a way to gratify the needs of her boyfriend), enjoying shopping, fashion, and popular culture and needing plenty of advice on sex and love. These assumptions pervade the contents of mainstream teenage magazines, with features such as "Position of the Fortnight" and "Celebrity Hair Special" frequently appearing within the pages. This is the reader to whom most teenage magazines cater - they broadcast to a stereotypical mass (which is arguably an artificial representation and does not reflect the identities and lives of all teenage girls). In order to analyse the image and behavioural ideology of the teenage girl offered within teenage magazines, I will attempt to investigate some semiotic codes within More! and 19.

The front cover is an important aspect of the magazine as it initially attracts the reader and is a taster of what can be seen within the contents of the magazine. It is an "important advertisement" and "serves to label its possessor" (McLoughlin 2000: 5). This is certainly a factor that influences the purchasing behaviours of young teenage girls who attempt to appear more mature and more sexually knowledgeable by buying a magazine aimed at girls 4 or 5 years their senior. The front cover will also promise that "the contents of the magazine… will fulfil the needs of the individual and her group" and sells a "future image" of the reader as "happier, more desirable" (Bignell 1997: 67). By merely looking at the front cover of a magazine therefore, a potential reader will be able to determine how far it will fulfil their needs. There are many similar defining paradigmatic and syntagmatic elements on the covers of More! and 19 that would attract a teenage girl to purchase the magazines. These demonstrate effectively the dominant ideology of teenage femininity in the media.  

Firstly, the titles anchor the texts to the genre of teenage magazines. 19 seems to be directed at a person who is 19, or at least who thinks she is as mature as a 19year old. As the title stands boldly in the top left-hand corner of the page, this is the image that the eye is initially drawn towards. If we are to adopt Kress and Leeuwen's theory of layout, this will also give the magazine a sense of idealism, suggesting that the reader should aspire to attain the life and image referred to within the pages (in Bell 1997: 193). The title More! also acquires this quality of idealism, but as the word stretches across the width of the page it could be suggested that the More! reader is more sassy and larger than life in comparison to the more mature or sophisticated reader of 19  (this is further substantiated by the exclamation mark -More! - and by the girlish pink colour of the 19 logo). 

The taglines reinforce these ideas as they are placed directly underneath the titles in a contrasting black font. 19 states that the magazine is "Barefaced Cheek!" which implies that all is bared in the magazine, the reader is given extensive coverage of the issues of sex, love and fashion. However this tagline could also be interpreted (perhaps to a non-teenager reader) as implying that the reader of 19 is cheeky and impertinent. It is only the exclamation mark after the words and the positioning underneath the well-known and recognisable logo of 19 that anchor the preferred reading for the reader - as the reader will presumably be familiar with the content of the magazine, the polysemic nature of the tagline will not be apparent to them. This familiarity with content is also needed to fully appreciate the tagline on the cover of More! - "Smart girls Get More!". On the one hand, it is suggested that smart girls buy the magazine as they know it will provide pleasure and information for them, and on the other hand it is suggested that smart girls (the attractive More! reader) get more out of life, love, and, most importantly, sex. Reading More! will improve your life on many levels, if you listen to the advice offered within the magazine. The tagline adopted by More! is therefore effective as the modern British teenage girl will construe an appropriate interpretation that will give them the urge to buy the product.

Both 19 and More! also attempt to attract their readers by placing a female character in the centre of the cover. This is a particularly interesting characteristic if we are to consider that corresponding male magazines similarly adopt central female models, either posing seductively or like the typical 'girl-next-door', on their covers. It could indeed be argued that one could successfully (and with minimal disruption) take the models from the covers of More! and 19 and place them on a magazine such as FHM that adheres to its own set of generic codes and conventions and encourages very different interpretations from its reader. According to Bignell, the images of beautiful women on the covers of female magazines are "iconic signs which represent the better self which every woman desires to become" (Bignell 1997: 69). The figure thus represents the self for the reader, a future image that is attainable for her if she continues reading and learning from the magazine. On a male magazine however the same figure would represent a sexual image, an object to be attained by the male reader. It becomes evident therefore that "men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at … Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly, and object of vision: a sight" (Berger in Vestergaard & Schrøder 1992: 81). This is a somewhat negative interpretation of the centrality of women on the covers of magazines. However, Bignell sees that "while the cover image is for a woman to look at, it is constructed with reference to a wider social code in which being feminine means taking pleasure in looking at oneself, and taking pleasure in being looked at by men" (my italics, Bignell 1997: 71). Bignell therefore seems to empower the woman in his analysis of cover models, noting that women simultaneously enjoy looking and being looked at. The genre (or textual code) in which the image appears is therefore a fundamental contributor to the construed interpretations made by the reader.

As stated above, the model on the cover of a female teenage magazine represents the self for the reader. The models seen on the given issues of 19 and More! therefore seem to illustrate the characteristics of their targeted readers. The model seen on the cover of 19 is the typicalblonde haired, tanned, tall and slim girl with perfect complexion and perfect features. But the reader is not led to feel envious of the model - on the contrary, she is encouraged to believe that this is an ordinary 19 reader (on the inside cover she is identified simply as "Emily"), and is the beautiful woman inside each of us, waiting to be unleashed (and reading 19 willunleash this beauty from within the reader). The diamante necklace connotes luxury and sophistication, and the sequined boob tube connotes a fun, bubbly nature and draws attention to her slim body (her sex appeal). With her long blond hair flowing gently away from her face to reveal dazzling green eyes (ironically in this context, green traditionally being associated with the colour of envy), she can be seen as iconic for the reader (in the non-semiotic sense), and as seductive for the male reader. She embodies the message that 19 habitually transcribe to the reader - look innocent and beautiful and yet be in control of your own sexuality and your relationships.

On the cover of More! the character again embodies the self for the reader. She represents the more! "ethos of youthful, cheeky impertinence" (in Curran 1996: 189) Her red, low-cut dress suggests that she is sassy; a vixen that has sexual needs and is not afraid to fulfil them. Again, the clear skin and perfect features encourage the reader to believe that there is an inner-beauty within everyone that will shine through. However, the More! model does not appear as innocent as the 19 model. Her hair is swept more vigorously from her face and therefore creates a more disrupted, chaotic image than the previous. The innocence depicted by the clear complexion of the 19 model is challenged here as the More! model raises her eyebrow into an arch; she has a glint in her eye and pouts her lips proudly. As we notice the presence of a man in the left hand side of the front cover, we therefore interpret this facial expression as sexual prowess - this girl knows what she wants and she knows exactly how to get it. The male figure is not personalised; indeed we only see a leg, an arm and a crotch and yet we are fully aware of the masculinity of the character. This could suggest that, in subversion to the representation offered within male magazines, the man is the sexual object here. It is also significant that the male is wearing a kilt as it could suggest that the female is metaphorically wearing the trousers in the relationship. This interpretation would only become apparent if the reader was accustomed with the relevant social codes and textual codes of gendered magazines. If the reader is familiar with popular culture however, they could assume the man in the kilt to be the actor James Redmond who portrays Finn in Hollyoaks (a half-Scottish Lord) and therefore presume that there is an in-depth interview with him in the magazine - this is suggested by the text at the top of the magazine cover - "Finn-tastic! We Check out James Redmond's Morning Glory".

By analysing the title, tagline, and central images of the magazine cover, we have therefore deduced the readership and content of the magazines effectively.  As McRobbie notes, sex now fills the space of the magazines' pages. It "provides the frame for women's magazines in the 1990's" and "marks a new moment in the construction of female sexual identities" (in Curran 1996: 177). It is worrying to think that the explicit sexual representations within the magazines (such as More!'s "Raunchy resolutions to spice up your sex life") are being read by underage teenagers; sex has been packaged as a "commodity" (McLaughlin 200: 13) by these magazines in recent years and the young readers have eagerly jumped at the chance to buy such (what was previously) censored material.

Indeed, fifty years ago the teenage magazine industry differed greatly to that of today. According to Vestergaard we have seen a shift from "motherhood and childcare to the maintenance of physical appearance" (Vestergaard & Schrøder 1992: 81) (in the discussed examples, we see "Be your own stylist - steal insider know-how from the women who dress the stars" on the cover of 19, and on More! "Happy New Gear - what every glam girl will be wearing this season"). Dr Nancy Signiorelli of the University of Delaware undertook a study on "A Focus on Appearance" in the media in November 1996, and she found that one in three (37%) articles in leading teen girl magazines included a focus on appearance, one in three (35%) focused on dating and less than 2% discussed either school or careers (websources Kellner and ChildrenNow). This is certainly reflected on the front covers analysed above - every feature on the covers refer to beauty, fashion, dating, sex and celebrities. Kimberley Phillips argues that these magazines therefore "reinforce the cultural expectations that an adolescent woman should be more concerned with her appearance, her relations with other people, and her ability to win approval from men than with her own ideas or expectations for herself (websource Hermes). It can also be argued however that young women are encouraged to develop independence by these magazines. 

In recent years the magazine industry has therefore successfully extended the notion of what it is to be a woman. A teenage girl will see hunting boyfriends and beautifying as a norm; it is argued indeed that these are transcribed as their sole purposes in life. The magazines do not seem to cater for minority interests such as politics, environmental issues, or any kind of music that ventures beyond Westlife or Britney Spears. The teenage girl has therefore been heavily stereotyped by the teenage magazine industry, and her interpretation of the codes and conventions used in the magazine will depend on her personal knowledge of this culture and society. Indeed, some of the readers of these magazines are male (e.g. the brothers or boyfriends of the female readers - Bignell refers to these as "non-ideal readers" (Bignell 1997: 58)), and they will interpret the codes differently to their female counterparts as they arguably do not share their interests in beauty products and fashion. Their interpretations of the sex issues may also differ, as they will gaze at the images of women as sex objects as opposed to icons and role models. Chandler sees that "social semiotics alerts us to how the same text may generate different meanings for different readers" (web source, Semiotics for Beginners), and this is certainly true of the gendered readings of teenage magazines. Chandler further notes that the signs (or codes) within the text "do not just 'convey' meanings, but constitute a medium in which meanings are constructed" (ibid). Through reading a magazine aimed at her demographic group, a teenage girl will therefore come to learn that society expects her to be interested in boys, sex, fashion, beauty and fame. The magazine is therefore a "powerful ideological force" in society (McRobbie 2000: 69); the image and behavioural ideologies presented within the magazine covers become the stereotypical norm for the teenage girl.

Applying semiotic analysis to the magazine text therefore allows us to identify social ideologies of the teenage girl. One could analyse the front covers of magazine extensively, decoding the codes of colour, font, layout and spatial arrangements as well as the titles, taglines, language and central images to show the construction of the teenage girl in the media. Teenage magazines may not provide an altogether accurate representation of all teenage girls today, but it is certainly a medium that provides escapism and enjoyment for the reader whilst subliminally educating and informing at the same time.

Bibliography

Web Sources

Magazines analysed

January 2002