Magazine Close Study Product Notes: Men’s Health and Oh Comely.

identity

There are some new notes about Identity theories as summerised by Gauntlett and the magazine excerpts here.


 

We all like to scare ourselves. For some people it’s bungy jumping, for others it’s a Japanese horror film marathon (for me It’s a quick look at the small print on my teacher’s pension documentation – chilling!).

To give you a frisson of fear here’s a heavily redacted look at one of the AQA exam questions.

Question Formulation:
Media Two, Question 2.

  • According to theory, ‘XXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXX XXXXX XXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXX XXXXX XXXXXXXXXX ’.
  • How valid are XXXXXXX theory’s claims about XXXXXXXXXXX XXXX? You should refer to the CSPs Oh Comely and Men’s Health in your answer.
  • [25 marks]

This should take around 30 minutes of writing time. Approx 500-600 words. Approx two pages A4.

Wow! So you have up to 30 minutes, 600 words and access to a couple of filleted magazines to come to some important conclusions about a major academic framework for understanding human communication.

The theorists whose work you have been studying have multiple degrees, years of research, delivered lectures and readings to their students, peers or betters and a lifetime of academic reading and teaching but – just for kicks – you get to give your carefully considered, I had a couple of lessons in this and I wrote down a few notes, but I wasn’t really paying attention, opinion!

For your next trick you get to give your view on the Irish border question armed only with an understanding of Guinness commercials and a memory of some people shouting on a news segment that you weren’t really listening to.

OK . . .  I can see you’re hyperventilating. If you need to grab a paper bag to breathe into, go do it and I’ll just wait here shuffling metaphorical papers or something.

Better?

I’m here to help.

First up we must get some kind of handle on the two magazines you have been given and why the board might have selected them. I think they have been mad-sneaky in their choice of examples and flipped gender representation in some interesting ways.

Men’s Health is really an attempt by Hearst Communications Inc. (yes that Hearst) to do to men what media conglomerations have been doing to women for decades. For those of you a little in the dark on Hearst let me enlighten you (btw this understanding is MEDIA INDUSTRIES stuff).

Hearst Communications gets its name from William Randolph Hearst,

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the newspaper magnate who bought up most of the newspapers in America back in the late 19th century. He’s the original modern media mogul and Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane is basically an attack on Hearst and his power (if you want to know how close the film got to the truth just consider that Hearst threw all his media, political and legal might at the movie and suppressed it quite effectively – it was a flop until the French got a hold of it after the war and voila, the concept of the auteur was born).

citizen-kane-v3-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000

Citizen Kane. It’s 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Go watch it.

Hearst Communications Inc. is one of the six big media conglomerates that control 90% of American media output. In the magazine sphere it owns Cosmopolitan, Elle, Good Housekeeping and Esquire. It owns 20 titles in the USA and over 300 titles internationally. On a side-note – If you want to know why Deadpool did a special cover for Good Housekeeping you just need to know that Hearst and Disney (who own Marvel comics and films) are co-owners of a number of media properties. The film might belong to Fox but the Deadpool brand belongs to Disney. One media property here has three parents spanning half of the Big Six media conglomerates.

To find out more about Hearst look here https://www.hearst.com and here http://www.hearst.co.uk

As you can see Hearst has cornered the market in glossy, lifestyle publications and, if we are wearing our cynical hats (as we should be doing at all times because they are just so fetching and good for a wide range of climatic conditions) Hearst’s magazines are designed to promote an aspirational, consumerist lifestyle whilst making the reader feel inadequate. It’s often worth thinking about the kind of personality that a media product, or institution, has (if they were a person, what sort of person would they be). In a Hearst publication they are the gently superior friend who constantly negs you (undermines your self-belief in regular-speak) to manipulate you for their own ends (in a high-school movie they would be the evil popular girl who makes the vulnerable kid bulimic).

So lets look at how they do it by taking a squiz (yes it’s a real word) at the front cover.

mag 1

This cover is arranged, like many other impulse-purchase covers, to be attractive on the news-stand. It throws the contents of the magazine onto the cover in order to attract potential purchasers. In MEDIA LANGUAGE terms (SEMIOTICS if you will) The colour palette is a mixture of white, black and slightly muted blue (with only a couple of red accents) which has connotations of the medical world. The typography is interesting as the title is a serif typeface (which has an authoritative feel) whereas the majority of the text is sans-serif (which gives it a more contemporary, youthful styling). There are also a couple of stencil-style sub-titles; which have a military aesthetic, and the use of a hashtag which is obviously designed to have connotations of new technology despite the fact that print is over 600 years old. The overall effect is designed to reduce any element of the feminine or decorative.

And now to the image! The intention of the ENCODING of the central image is twofold. Firstly the image is designed to, literally, embody the men’s health aesthetic. In this case it is Hollywood action star Vin Diesel. Being Vin Diesel it also has the role of linking the concept of aesthetics to other markers of success; in this case film-star, and celebrity, status. Vin is looking rather fetching in a grey V-necked t-shirt and jeans. This has the added bonus of making Vin Diesel look like his Fast and Furious alter-ego Dominic Toretto. The NARRATIVE (or NARRATOLOGY – we’ll look at this, especially Tzvetan Todorov’s ideas in the future) here is that Mr Diesel is the hero, the protagonist of the exciting adventure that having really, really big arms can take you on. Put all this together and the there is a clear link to VAN ZOONEN’S description of gender and discourse. The patriarchal discourse places images of hyper-masculinity as the masculine ideal. You can also see that this is an example of INTERTEXTUALITY where the magazine cover language, narrative and messages are dependent on the audience knowing another media product. Without that knowledge the cover loses its power of signification. With respect to ENCODING the cover is clearly anchored (and so is more closed) by audience recognition and by labels.

There is another NARRATIVE element to the cover. The title of the issue is “The get back in shape special.” The buyer is not a muscular individual but one who is worried about his physical condition. This means that in a Todorov style reading of NARRATIVE the equilibrium state is that of decline and loss of masculinity. Buying the magazine promises the start of a disruption which will lead to a new equilibrium of hyper-masculinity. This is also emphasised by the violent language choices (“slay”, “demolish” and “blast”) along with technical and pseudo-scientific language (“metabolism”, “core” “8kgs”). This pseudo-science is firmly linked to the title of the magazine – it is “Men’s Health” not “Big Arms and a Six-Pack Monthly” for a reason.

It is important for you to recognise that there is a class dimension to this (AUDIENCE). Middle and upper-class men are not compelled (by patriarchy) to see power as being directly linked to physical strength. Members of Parliament, high court judges and captains of business and industry are not noted for their bicep size and washboard abs. If you check out the Guardian’s recent film –https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2017/nov/29/steroids-six-packs-and-stigma-video and note the accents you will see that the voices are working-class. The same can also be seen in the American equivalent film; Chris Bell’s “Bigger, Faster, Stronger.” Both films link working class (or blue-collar) aspiration to hyper-masculine body shapes.

Later in the course you will be looking at STRUCTURALIST concepts, especially those of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Put simply in this case there are a set binary oppositions created: masculine/feminine, weak/strong, successful/unsuccessful, happy/unhappy (check out the editorial excerpt). Men’s Health comes firmly down on the side of masculine, strong and therefore by association, successful and happy.

By the way, have you tried standing like Vincent on the front cover? I tried it. It’s a bit weird. It’s also something you can’t explain easily (Mrs G: “Why are you standing like that? Have you eaten too quickly again? Are you trying to hold in a fart?”). The picture is attempting to show both his biceps and his triceps to the viewer at the same time. This is a bit tricky (as the image shows). In many ways this reminds the astute media student of the T and A shot of Lara Croft on the front of the Tomb Raider Anniversary packaging. The image aims to present a hyper-genderised ideal to the viewer, through body language, but in order to do it the person has to be contorted into a rather unnatural position.

Now we can compare it to Oh Comely.

mag 2

INDUSTRY-wise this is a very different proposition. This magazine is produced by a small, independent company, Iceberg Press. They only produce one other magazine and target their, niche, audience online. This is a magazine which is not designed to be bought from a rack, along with lots of other, competing, magazines but is promoted online and sold by subscription. This is reflected in the cover design.

The MEDIA LANGUAGE of the design here has a different set of SEMIOTIC aims and so choices. There is not the same binary oppositional drive here. Let’s work from the image out. There are androgynous elements to the choice of model and her clothing and body language are not either hyper-feminine or overtly sexualised. What can be read from the image is the combination of jewellery and clothing (especially the combination of the British country clothing-green and cream palette) which connote middle and upper-class identity. The model is also not a celebrity, nor is she a recognisable character. In this way the cover is an example of an open text (ENCODING) as the images and writing leave much up to the decoder.

The typography is a combination of a hand-written title with sans-serif subtitles. This has the effect of making the magazine feel slightly home-spun, more personal and craft-like. The sub-titles are far more ambiguous than the Men’s Health cover because they do not have to sell the magazine to an impulse purchaser.

On the cover of Oh Comely magazine there are clear echoes of FEMINIST theorist bell hooks’ concepts. For hooks it is important that women tell their own stories, which is reflected in the sub-title “Words of hard-won wisdom”. The language choices here are reminiscent of poetry and other forms of creative writing which reflect the creative focus in the magazine. On the subject of language choices the title of the magazine is deliberately archaic (old fashioned). The word “comely” means attractive but not in a sexualised way and the exclamation “Oh” makes it both more poetic and more archaic.

If you put all of these things together it is possible to make the argument that Iceberg are here actively trying to subvert the usual tropes of women’s lifestyle and fashion magazines (GENRE THEORY). Usually women’s magazines (along with Men’s Health magazine) subscribe to the patriarchal discourse which places emphasis on sexual desirability above other concerns.

Now let us take a nosey inside . . .

mag 3

The contents page of Men’s Health is like the cover in that it uses layout to promise a particular AUDIENCE experience. In many ways this form of traditional magazine publishing is a way of replicating the experience of watching television on the printed page. Many magazines, especially women’s fashion and lifestyle titles, include a wide variety of subjects and reader experiences which is rather like flicking through multi-channel television. In this case though the experience is like watching a single-issue television programme (think Top Gear or Countryfile). The layout of the contents page is designed to make what could seem quite homogenous (samey), a more varied and entertaining read.

This emphasis on entertainment is also developed by the editor’s letter.

mag 4

The mode of address is quite informal but there are some interesting choices here. References to the philosopher “Betrand Russell”, the prophet “Nostradamus” and the mythological king “Sisyphus” are more erudite than you might expect in a Fast and Furious cover-starred mag but they place the magazine’s voice as one of authority (in many ways this is literally the sociologist Vygotsky’s More Knowledgeable Other – MKO – which the reader is prepared to defer to in order to learn).

Whilst the writing contains the synthetic personalisation (direct address which constructs an imagined a conversation with the reader and therefore an imagined reader-personality) you would expect with lots of rhetorical questions it also links itself to the idea that Vin Diesel, the magazine’s big draw, is the ideal. The word “aspire” in the anchoring note and the phrase “true prosperity” help to create the ideology of the magazine; which is that physicality creates a particular form of wellbeing. This is reinforced by the assertion that Vin Diesel is never “unhappy”.

The editor’s letter also links the page to other pages in the magazine with page numbers. In this way the printed page mimics online hyper-text giving the reader shortcuts to content. This builds on the mode of address and creates a personality for the magazine; guiding, teaching and generally acting like a big brother or personal trainer.

The page from within the magazine comes from the “True Grit” section and concerns Phillip Howells, dubbed “The Marathon Man.” Both the section title and the page title are INTERTEXTUAL references to famous films. It is interesting that the exam board have chosen this page from the magazine as it comes from a section late in the product (from page 96) and concerns itself with a group of people who, in age, are not representative of the rest of the magazine, or even the aesthetic represented by the cover star. In this way you might want to argue that Phillip Howells is closer in age, and physical type, to many of the readers of the magazine.

Phillip Howells is surrounded by imagery and language which CODIFY him as a role model. The use of a black and white portrait shot along with the slightly low angled main picture help to create an impression of iconic status (as does the first word – “crowned”). The main image also contains a super-imposed quotation which is usually seen applied to iconic figures. The text and statistics are quite single-mindedly masculinist in the way they approach the subject matter. Phillip Howells is not given any Haruki Murakami (who wrote the very spiritual book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”) musings. The death of his wife is very quickly dealt with and then it is on to descriptions of his regime.

What you might want to say is that Phillip Howells has been represented here in a similar way to Vin Diesel. It is very unlikely that the buyer of the magazine will be able to replicate Vin Diesel’s physique; even with the help of anabolic steroids. (BTW steroids have to be Men’s Health’s little, shhhh, secret. Many of the cover stars are celebrities who must have juiced to achieve their desired physique but, just like Mix-Mag was always quiet over the illegal party-drug fuelled nature of the dance music boom – “the crowd went wild all night, they were just so up for it. I don’t know how they do it” – so Men’s Health is built on a set of images and desires fuelled by illegal steroids and human-growth hormone). Just like possession of Vin Diesel’s arms It is very unlikely that many men will be running 233 marathons between the ages of 50 and 69. If you are feeling charitable you could say that the magazine represents these people as aspirational figures (which could link to the psychographic profile of the AUDIENCE; who are aspirers rather than mainstreamers, succeeders or reformers) or you could say that the magazine holds up individuals as role models to create unrealistic personal expectations; which, I must make clear, is a problem for all mass consumed media products.

mag 5

The Phillip Howells page of Men’s Health is similar in some ways to the “Speaking out” section of Oh Comely Magazine. The board have chosen to give you all five individuals for this product so there must be something that they wish you to say in comparison. The first thing you might want to write about is the variety of REPRESENTATIONS in the magazine. In the first magazine there are only white people but the second has Fahma Mohamed (Black and Muslim), Deanna Roger (Black), Meltem Avcil (Kurdish) and Ameli de Alwis (Black). Wider representation issues are also demonstrated by the inclusion of Megan Jayne Crabbe who does not conform to either the body conventions of traditional magazine publishing.

These individuals are used differently by the magazine from Phillip Howells. The subtitle “admire, follow and inspire” sets out a wide range of potential AUDIENCE responses. The NARRATIVE indicated by the words “your own revolution” do, as mentioned before, seem to follow Todorov’s equilibrium – disruption – realisation – re-equilibrium model but that is because this is the pattern most narratives follow. The inclusion of website addresses and the SEMIOTIC signification (lots of white space and centrally justified text) both promote the reader to follow the individuals concerned, replicating online social media, and elevate them artistically into iconic figures. Again quotations help to elevate the status of the featured people.

I would look carefully at the individual pictures to see how each one has been ENCODED. The jazz imagery present in Deanna Roger’s picture, for example, links her to icons such as Billie Holliday despite the fact that she is a poet, not a singer. Poetry doesn’t have the same dramatic iconography as music so the magazine intertextually borrows to give a sense of performance and personality.

The second article from Oh Comely is one of the most interesting of all the close-study products on the course. If we wanted to get STRUCTURALIST on it then this one breaks binary oppositions into lots of little pieces with not a hint of black and white anywhere to be seen. If traditional binary oppositions hold a male/female and masculine/feminine pair of, um, pairs (sometimes I do run out of words). Then transgender stories have a disruptive effect on that structure. Over the past few years there have been lots of trans stories; the real (Caitlyn Jenner, Jack Monroe), the fictional (Transparent) and the fictionalised reality (Tangerine). What this article does differently is present Ash Allan as a person who is still gender-fluid. This is very unusual, and daring, as there are many reactionary voices which would seek to deny trans identity at all and fluidity is interpreted as a lack of sincerity.

mag 6

This article is prefaced by the strong binary oppositions ENCODED in the images. The toy racing car and photograph represent a world of clear gender identity but also a world of the past. The SEMIOTIC signifiers (faded colours and bright plastic) carry connotations that this is yesterday’s binary opposition and the modern world is different.

The other interesting thing is that Andrea’s depression, and the walks and car journeys that allowed the two siblings to talk are as important as Ash’s gender. The photographs frame the conversation and open the text to different interpretations (the images of the countryside, one a full page in size, pull the focus in one direction but then the photo-strip pulls it back to their relationship). Unlike the Phillip Howells article this does not have a clear focus and the reader is left much more in control of making meaning.

The article follows hook’s maxim and allows the two people to speak for themselves (as opposed to Men’s Health which asks questions which close down the direction of the interview). In this way the GENRE of the piece is less like a magazine article and more like a podcast or radio show (The BBCs Listening Project) follows the same rules.

The mode of address for Oh Comely varies depending on the article and the writer. It seems to have less of a house-style.

To finish for now:

If you want to write about REPRESENTATION you might want to write about how the two magazines either use or avoid stereotype. PERKINS concept that stereotypes might not always be negative or the idea of generic type (the action-hero) might be used for Men’s Health.

You might also want to consider HALL’S concept of the preferred audience for each product or the negotiated audience. How does each product manipulate the reader into accepting their ideologies and values (even if it is just for the few minutes that they are reading)? All media AUDIENCES change the way they respond as long as the media text does not push them to far (in which case they become an oppositional audience).

You could consider how FEMINIST, POST-COLONIAL and MARXIST theories hold some texts to be progressive and some regressive. There are many regressive elements to Men’s Health (both in ideology and representation) and progressive elements in Oh Comely (in both spheres as well).

Below are some notes directly from the board to help you:

Men’s Health:

What do I need to study? Key Questions and Issues

This product relates to the theoretical framework by providing a focus for the study of:

Media Language

The magazine front cover and specified content should be analysed in terms of the composition of the images, positioning, layout, typography, language and mode of address etc. this will then provide detailed evidence for application of the other theoretical frameworks

  • Semiotics: how images signify cultural meanings

Narrative and Genre

The genre conventions of the magazine cover will need to be studied. While narrative may be more familiar to students as an approach to apply to moving image forms, it can also be very productively applied to print media as a way of examining audience targeting, positioning and interpretation.

  • Consider the way the front cover creates a narrative about character and lifestyle in order to attract an audience
  • The way in which the cover stories create enigma and anticipation for the reader – to be fulfilled by reading on.
  • Structuralism including Lévi-Strauss
  • Narratology including Todorov

The cover and specified content can be analysed in the context of genre in terms of conventions of layout and composition – which will overlap with analysis of visual language – but also as part of the genre of men’s health and lifestyle magazines.

  • Genre study would include an analysis of the conventions of magazine front covers – a study which would overlap with visual analysis and audience positioning.
  • Students should extend their genre approach by analysing the conventions of content of the magazine.
  • Genre theory including Neale

Media Representations

Clearly the key areas of representation suggested by the magazine are to do with gender, primarily masculinity but also how this affects the representation of women.

  • The emphasis on male beauty and grooming challenges some conventions of traditional stereotypes of masculinity.
  • The types of images selected refer to concepts of hyper masculinity and gender as performance
  • Men as object of a homosexual and heterosexual gaze
  • Theories of representation including Hall
  • Feminist theories including bell hooks and Van Zoonen
  • Theories of gender performativity including Butler

Media Industries

The main focus for industry for this close study product is Hearst publishing, the multinational conglomerate which publishes Men’s Health and a range of other fashion and lifestyle magazines. This will provide a case study of a commercial media institution where the primary – though not sole – focus is print.

  • Case study of Hearst as a conglomerate.
  • Developments in new technology mean that many of their brands are now online as well as in print – including the Men’s Health website.
  • Institutional strategies for keeping print popular and relevant in the contexts of developing technology and competition from other brands.
  • Cultural industries including Hesmondhalgh.

Media Audiences

As ever the theoretical framework of audience intersects with the study of visual codes and genre crucial to analysing mode of address and techniques of persuasion with the front cover functioning as a form of advertising.

  • The mode of address can be analysed through the visual and written codes
  • Study of target audiences in terms of demographics and psychographics for magazines – publishing companies provide a great deal of data online in relation to their audience research for specific publications.
  • The way in which different audience interpretations over time reflect social, cultural and historical contexts.
  • Reception theory including Hall

Social and cultural contexts

Men’s Health magazine represents a notable social and cultural shift in expectations of contemporary masculinity (a shift which could be usefully compared with the advert for Score Hair cream). The study of Men’s Health can be linked to social and cultural contexts through reference to body image and changes in what society deems acceptable and unacceptable representations.

Oh Comely

What do I need to study? Key Questions and Issues

This product relates to the theoretical framework by providing a focus for the study of:

Media Language

The magazine front cover and specified content should be analysed in terms of the composition of the images, positioning, layout, typography, language and mode of address etc. this will then provide detailed evidence for application of the other theoretical frameworks. Oh Comely uses a deliberately alternative design to other magazines aimed at young women and this is evident from the front cover and throughout the magazine.

  • Semiotics: how images signify cultural meanings

Narrative and Genre

The genre conventions of the magazine cover will need to be studied. While narrative may be more familiar to students as an approach to apply to moving image forms, it can also be very productively applied to print media as a way of examining audience targeting, positioning and interpretation.

  • Consider the way the front cover creates a narrative about character and lifestyle in order to attract an audience
  • Oh Comely uses a minimal aesthetic for its cover design. It clearly values design as part of its identity.
  • The way in which the cover stories create enigma and anticipation for the reader – to be fulfilled by reading on.
  • Structuralism including Lévi-Strauss
  • Narratology including Todorov

The cover and specified content can be analysed in the context of genre in terms of conventions of layout and composition – which will overlap with analysis of visual language – but also as part of the genre of women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines.

  • Genre study would include an analysis of the conventions of magazine front covers – a study which would overlap with visual analysis and audience positioning.
  • Students should extend their genre approach by analysing the conventions of content of the magazine.
  • Genre theory including Neale

Media Representations

Clearly the key areas of representation suggested by the magazine are to do with gender, primarily femininity but also how this affects the representation of men.

  • Oh Comely constructs a representation of femininity with its focus on creativity and quirkiness.
  • The focus is on women as artists, entrepreneurs, athletes and musicians and female empowerment is a major theme.
  • The absence of men as part of the representation of masculinity in Oh Comely magazine.
  • Representation of social groups: Oh Comely constructs a lifestyle through its focus on culture and the environment. This analysis would offer the opportunity to question some of the messages and values constructed by the magazine.
  • Theories of representation including Hall
  • Feminist theories including bell hooks and Van Zoonen
  • Theories of gender performativity including Butler

Media Industries

In contrast to Men’s Health magazine, Oh Comely is an independent magazine published by Iceberg Press, a small London publisher which publishes only one other title.

  • Case study of Iceberg as an independent media company.
  • Developments in new technology mean that small companies can also use the internet to communicate and target audiences.
  • Institutional strategies for keeping print popular and relevant – Iceberg’s branding includes a commitment to print over other media forms.
  • Cultural industries including Hesmondhalgh

Media Audiences

As ever the theoretical framework of audience intersects with the study of visual codes and genre crucial to analysing mode of address and techniques of persuasion with the front cover functioning as a form of advertising.

  • The mode of address can be analysed through the visual and written codes.
  • Study of target audiences in terms of demographics and psychographics for magazines – publishing companies provide a great deal of data online in relation to their audience research for specific publications.
  • Oh Comely has a niche target audience of young women (average age 27) with high disposable incomes, who are not addressed by other magazines. The publisher defines the magazine as ‘a genuinely alternative read for creative young women.’
  • The way in which different audience interpretations over time reflect social, cultural and historical contexts.
  • Reception theory including Hall

Social and cultural contexts

Oh Comely is part of a development in lifestyle and environmental movements of the early twenty first century which rebrand consumerism as an ethical movement. Its representation of femininity reflects an aspect of the feminist movement which celebrates authenticity and empowerment.


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2 thoughts on “Magazine Close Study Product Notes: Men’s Health and Oh Comely.

  1. Pingback: MED: PAPER TWO – the archives

  2. Pingback: MED: OH COMELY – the archives

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