Selling an Illusion: why ‘women’s magazine feminism’ is a tool for neoliberalism

Originally published as an iteration of my MA thesis by Artefact in 2018 for its Stack Award-nominated issue. View digitally here (page 22).


Women’s magazine headlines are shouting one thing loud and clear. Female empowerment is in. A feminism phenomenon is sweeping the mainstream like never before with gender discrimination and women’s issues gaining attention on the world stage. Women’s magazines are brimming with content on this empowerment wave. Looking at their coverage of feminism more deeply, we can question just how empowering it actually is.

Traditionally identifiable by flurries of headings fighting for your attention (usually the promise of the secret to your bikini body or the toolkit to catch your dream man) and always with a perfectly unblemished cover model, this is a radical leap from the contradictory, self-esteem-shredding tactics that women’s magazines are synonymous with.

Glamour Cover

Scanning copies of Glamour, Cosmo or Grazia through history, beauty-centric self-improvement and an all-white cast of suspiciously perfect-looking women have defined their pages.

Their success – entangled with advertising ties to keep them afloat – relies on constructing unrealistic body image and lifestyle ideals for women. This is achieved by conforming to a patriarchal and capitalist formula that implicitly lowers women’s self-esteem with perpetual messages of perfectionism.

An illusion of imperfection is constructed, and consumption is deceivingly packaged as its remedy. The formula appeases the inevitable ‘not good enough-ness’ internalised by women with the likes of a new ultra-flattering ‘it’ dress (because the body underneath always requires improving), or a repackaged and overpriced face cream promising you immaculate skin (just like the impossibly flawless face on the cover).

The churning out of these idealistic representations have been linked to low self-esteem, negative self-perception and eating disorders amongst the girls and women who read them.

Yet, the guise is that it’s all delivered in a seemingly harmless, light-hearted and pleasurable lunchtime read.

As a result, feminists have scrutinised women’s magazines for decades… which makes their newfound championing of gender equality an obvious contradiction. Uncovering how women’s magazines define feminism raises questions over how empowering these messages actually are.


Women’s Magazine Feminism

Three characteristics define the nature of the feminist representations found in recent women’s magazines; individualism, economic success and being a role model.

In recent copies of Glamour and Grazia, Hollywood actresses, self-declared feminists and women-of-colour Zendaya and Lupita Nyong’o star as faces of the issues. Messages and symbols of activism, social change and women’s independence also occupy the covers. This is a huge leap from the passively portrayed standard of white models and beauty-centric themes that framed these publications in the recent past.

Glamour’s issue is themed on closing the wage gap and cover star Zendaya talks of becoming empowered through her entrepreneurial and career success. Throughout both Glamour and Grazia, economic empowerment, entrepreneurialism and climbing the career ladder are implicitly and explicitly encouraged. The qualities of assertiveness and economic tenacity are also celebrated.

In addition, individual accomplishment, being your own boss and breaking boundaries is promoted too. In Grazia’s recent issue, Lupita Nyong’o says “my success has brought me freedom” as a woman of colour gaining exposure in Hollywood.


Progression or a Neoliberal Tool?

Is this a progressive friendship helping to deliver genuinely pro-woman, empowering messages to feminism’s key target demographic?

The diversity of representation is a cause for celebration. Increased and positive coverage of power differentials and women’s issues on a mass scale opens the conversation to a new audience who may have never otherwise come to question gender politics.

However, the championing of individualism, economic success and boundary breaking alone offers an isolated understanding of empowerment. It contributes to a glossy image of the feminist movement making it popular and universally sellable.

A focal emphasis on women earning money and becoming their own bosses accommodates and reflects free-market capitalist conditioning. Grazia advises how women can ‘take down’ Hollywood’s abusers by using their consumer power to boycott particular films. This is a blinkered portrayal of liberation and social change suggesting that money is integral to one’s power to enact positive change or make a difference.

Not only is this exclusive to those with disposable financial capital, but it contributes to a blurring of personal value with economic value. It leads individuals to relate to their personal value in economic and market terms – based on dehumanising and commodifying autonomy into a transaction mindset.

When promoted in isolation, these economic representations encourage the bypassing of self-realisation as liberation, confusing empowerment with an external means. It risks capitalism becoming less visible and more deeply internalised and embedded under the guise of positive action.

In a similar vein, representations of role models and their individual accomplishments creates yet another new ideal for women. Celebrated success in the magazines is measured in ways such as breaking boundaries or being the first to accomplish a great feat against the odds of systemic disadvantage.

Grazia champions black actress Lupita Nyong’o’s break into Hollywood’s film industry which historically privileges white actors. Such portrayals frame an idealised image of success, and the means to freedom, by means of exceptional talent or extraordinary achievement.

Throughout history, the feminist movement has tackled the long-standing macro-level issues of economic liberation and industry change on a collective scale. These large-scale global matters require the efforts of an entire political movement to raise awareness and create change. However, by addressing women in individualistic terms, women’s magazine feminism burdens women with the weight of this great responsibility.

Women’s magazines define feminism in popular, isolated terms based on individualist and economic success. This new feminist entrepreneurial ideal contributes to growing pressures on women. It adds to the already existing ideals of femininity and body image, yet, under the guise of liberation and positive change.

In context, feminist portrayals in women’s magazines may initially seem a cause for celebration. However, as the publications are dependent on revenue from advertisers, they are limited in the representations and conversations they can have. This means that, by their nature, their ideology cannot depart from the patriarchal and capitalist formula that ensures the reader’s ‘not good enough-ness’ that consumption is positioned as the remedy for.

Keeping up with popular culture’s feminist celebration, women’s magazines have transformed their formula to sustain a neoliberal illusion.


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