UPDATE: The research that this article is based on has since been updated to included data for 2017 and has been published by the Irish Communication Review. Download here: https://arrow.tudublin.ie/icr/vol17/iss1/5/
CITATION: Kiely, Yvonne (2020) “Music Magazines and Gendered Space: The Representation of Artists on the Covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone,” Irish Communication Review: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 5.
*NOTE*: An updated and summarised version of this research, with data up to year end 2017, can be read here.
In August 2017 I completed the research I had undertaken for my MA dissertation, entitled Why are there so few female Music Producers? I spent that summer interviewing women in the music industry who occupy roles where women are a minority. Coupled with this was a piece of research into the depiction of gender on the covers of Rolling Stone and Hot Press. While the interviews were the focal point of the research, the content analysis of the magazine covers stood out in its own right, revealing a long, shared and sustained history of objectification that has never been explored before. This is the second article adapted from the research, and it describes the results of a large set of data that was collected over these three months. During the past nine months these results have been written and rewritten for online publication. The first article laid the groundwork for a discussion about gender visibility in the established, widely known music industry – if you haven’t already I recommend that you read it. We continue that discussion here.
Nick Cave wearing a blue latex sailor crop top and hot pants, saluting with his mouth open. Bono lying on a bed, naked with a pair of boots on, straddling a guitar. Snow Patrol standing in a row, wearing leather hot pants, mini-skirts and low-cut tops. Morrissey wearing nothing but a black blazer and red lipstick. Mick Jagger naked, only for jewels covering his nipples and crotch, standing with his arms behind his head. Bruce Springsteen wearing a mini dress, leaning against a wall with his legs open.
Have you seen these magazine covers?
Discussions and research about the objectification of people in the media, by the media, often focus on the image of women. For reasons that are at this stage as obvious as the enduring relationship between visual media and women’s objectification. They also often focus on sexualisation and body exposure as the ways in which women are objectified, i.e. sexual objectification. In this article I speak about the sexual objectification of women on music magazine covers – a space where this kind of objectification is rife.
This article also speaks about the objectification of men on music magazine covers, and in doing so seeks to broaden the scope of the dominant use of the word ‘objectification’ in our culture. We need to start talking about men’s experiences in music media if we are ever going to have a healthy and diverse industry.
I also take the conversation about women’s and men’s objectification a step further and reveal the inner workings of objectification by music media – specifically music magazine covers – so that we might know more, to be able to do more.
“The conflation of gender studies with women’s studies is not only true for academia in the West, but also for other parts of the world.”
In Gender and the Media: Representing, Producing, Consuming (2015), by Tonny Krijnen & Sofie Van Bauwel.
The results of this research – the figures, graphs, and findings – don’t exist anywhere else. These facts are challenging us to rethink our conversations about identity, about gender and objectification in the media, to think critically about media accountability, to be more inclusive and to broaden our understanding of what it is to be objectified.
When someone is objectified, they are made to be seen or perceived as an object. Their humanity is not part of the conversation because they are purely a body, with no self-determined identity or subjectivity. Objectification in mass media is not always obvious, or easy to pick out at first glance. Especially when it has become embedded in industry practice and is observed regularly in our day-to-day lives. The film industry is a great environment to look into if you’re interested in objectification. Take for example, the infamous headless woman who has occupied more film posters than Matt Damon’s face and Jason Statham’s frown combined. An example of sexual objectification in action is that ‘Legs-it’ newspaper article by the Daily Mail, where Nicola Sturgeon’s and Theresa May’s legs are put to a reader’s vote. The headless woman in Hollywood tends to fall under this category, though not always.
We’ve been hearing about men in Hollywood being exposed by allegations from both women and men, accusing them of misconduct, sexual assault and rape. Members of staff at Westminster have come under scrutiny for similar allegations made against them by their colleagues. MEPs in the European Parliament are facing allegations of sexual harassment. The Irish theatre industry has also seen women speaking out about a culture of sexism and misogyny. Recently, the verdict of the rape trial in Northern Ireland concerning four rugby players and one woman, has been described as symbolic of a socially accepted and legitimised rape culture in society. Each individual story tells us something about the conditions of the society we live in. And they are not indicative of an issue that has only existed for the past fifty, or one hundred years. There is a thread that connects the attitudes and actions of people and the media. I’ll keep this discussion within the confines of the music media realm, although it does have a relationship to us and the wider world.
“The media do not just produce content; they produce content with symbolic value. The media is therefore widely acknowledged as an important contributor to the shaping of knowledge, values and beliefs of people and institutions in modern society.”
In Gender and the Media: Representing, Producing, Consuming (2015), by Tonny Krijnen & Sofie Van Bauwel.
Gender matters in the music industry
Before the details of the research are presented, something needs to be said about gender and music. First, gender matters in the music industry. This formed the basis for my inquiry in the first place, and it is a fact that presented itself time and time again during my research. Second, women and men have very different experiences in the music industry. You need only compare the covers of music magazines to see this. Look at the difference in appearance, and in the kind of language used on these covers to describe their featured artist. It’s clear from looking at the music industry that men and women face different realities in the media, some of which are being investigated here. And it became obvious to me from listening to women that these differences can have a profound impact not just on their careers, but on their personal lives.
Finally, the findings that presented themselves to me in this research represent just one fragment of a much larger picture put under a microscope – just one microscopic look at the structures of what we have come to know as the music industry. Picking up one music magazine cover might give you a snapshot of a moment in time of that magazine’s relationship to gender, but it won’t tell you how this relationship developed and how it came to be. This is the history that I’ve tracked in these magazines, and it describes how over several decades, a culture of gendered objectification rooted in defined feminine and masculine identities emerged and came to shape artist identity in this space.
“The representations of men and women, of masculinity and femininity in the media has been an important topic of feminist inquiries and academic research into the media for over five decades”.
In Gender and the Media: Representing, Producing, Consuming (2015), by Tonny Krijnen & Sofie Van Bauwel.
The objectification of people’s bodies is endemic in our media, and it feeds into the lived experiences of people of all genders, not just in separate industries, but in every part of society. Something that was a strong motivator for me in this research was the desire for music publications to become self-conscious and to take notice of how their practices relate to society, and in particular how they can inform our attitudes about people, and gender.
Since their beginnings, both Hot Press and Rolling Stone have shown a consistent preference for the differential treatment of men and women on their magazine covers. It also tells us that the sexual objectification of women’s bodies has increased in intensity over several decades in very specific ways, while men’s bodies have undergone a different kind of objectification which also follows a clear pattern. This research also uncovered that there are very strong links between both Hot Press and Rolling Stone in how they represent gender, sexuality and identity across their magazine’s history. These findings are important, because they demonstrate that these trends are not mere coincidence or random chance. They follow a culture, and a much broader socially embedded agenda. Certain spaces in the music industry are gendered spaces, and this concept was discussed in part one. This article describes the ways in which the covers of music magazines are gendered spaces.
“Gendered space is a concept and area of study that examines the physical separation of men and women, or different genders, and significantly for this research, the spatial relations that inhabit different areas in society. It also describes the appropriate — or socially accepted — organisation and expression of gender in spaces of society.”
From Researching Gender in Music, Part One, ‘Gendered space, female visibility, and redesigning environments’, by Lazer Guided Reporter.
Throughout the history of both magazines, women’s bodies are systematically more exposed and more sexualised than their male counterparts. Across the same decades in the same publications, men’s bodies are also subjected to gendered norms of appearance, which objectify them and apply a value to a certain expression of masculine identity – a certain male presence – on music magazines. It’s important to note that there is a very clear difference in how women and men are objectified on music magazine covers. The woman artist and the image of women tend to be sexually objectified to a high degree, portrayed as an object of sexual desire defined by a limited vision of femininity and emphasised sexuality. At the same time the man artist and the image of men tend to be objectified, as a body on which to model an equally limited vision of masculinity and controlled male sexual identity.
“Very often in visual music media, the terms of visibility are set out, which create a narrow space for the expression of gender and identity.”
from Researching Gender in Music, Part One, ‘Gendered space, female visibility, and redesigning environments’, by Lazer Guided Reporter.
Over the past forty plus years, gender and sexuality have become part of how music magazines engage with artists and their audience. During this time there has been a deliberate narrowing process occurring in how these identities relate to each other within the magazine-artist relationship. The trend that has taken shape over these four decades is problematic for the music industry, for artists, for music magazines, and for social life beyond music media. Both women and men are objectified on music magazine covers, and to a far greater degree than we give credit or legitimacy to. I’m saying that the control of identity on music magazines goes further than the arguments we currently share. Gender, expressions of gender, and sexuality are part and parcel of how music magazines communicate identity on their covers. This is the essential point that I will unroll in the remainder of the article.
Gendered mouths, exposure norms and shared trends of objectification
For forty years of Hot Press covers*, and forty-seven years of Rolling Stone covers*, I tracked and categorised their representation of gender for men and women. Using a sampling technique to select 753 covers, nineteen categories of appearance that were applied to 461 people across 276 of these covers, and statistical analysis to determine the presence of bias between these categories in each publication, two separate – but in many ways very similar – gendered music media histories began to take shape. Rolling Stone is an American publication that began circulating in 1967. A decade later, in 1977, Hot Press released its first issue in Ireland. Though these publications have evolved on either side of the Atlantic a decade apart, their histories share some common features, at least regarding how they portray women’s, and men’s bodies.
* The analysis of this research is is limited to the years 1977-2016 for Hot Press, and 1967-2013 for Rolling Stone.
An area that this research focuses very closely on is how people’s mouths are portrayed. You’ll very often see women’s mouths being sexualised, not just in commercial media or pornographic films, but in other areas such as artificial intelligence where female sex dolls emphasise certain features of women’s bodies. Women’s lips and mouths have historically been the subject of erotic fantasy in art, film, and literature. And this history of oral eroticisation is also present on music magazine covers.
Of the 153 covers of Hot Press analysed in this study from the late 1970s to 2016, women are more likely than men to be photographed with their mouths open and men are more likely to be photographed with their mouths closed. These likelihoods drastically increase from the 1980s onward for both genders. The same is true for Rolling Stone, across 123 covers from the years 1967 to 2013, only the disparity between genders is far greater in this publication.
The gen(d)eric symbols for men and women used here are for illustrative purposes only.
It wasn’t enough to just look at how many mouths were open and closed, because a mouth can be open because it is smiling, performing, or it could be open and at rest. I wanted to see if there were any noticeable trends in the variations of mouths open and closed. There are. In both Hot Press and Rolling Stone, women’s mouths are more likely to be photographed open and at rest while men are more likely to be photographed with their mouths closed and at rest. Again, these likelihoods increase sharply in the 1980s, and the disparity between genders is far more pronounced in Rolling Stone.
The graph below illustrates the trends that developed over time between women and men in Hot Press and Rolling Stone. At the top of the graph we can see women’s open mouths on the rise from the 1960s onward, and in contrast to this men’s open mouths steadily decrease. Notice how trends in Hot Press and Rolling Stone mimic each other a decade apart – this is something that occurs throughout the research.
In 2011, Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner conducted research into the covers of Rolling Stone from the years 1967 to 2009 (‘Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualisation of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone’). They found that the sexualisation of men and women has increased, but with women more frequently, and the intensity of female sexualisation has also increased dramatically. Non-sexualised images of women have decreased since the start of the publication – as have sexualised images over time – however a different, more intense kind of ‘hyper sexualisation’ (little room to interpret beyond a sex object) of women has increased since the 1960s, with this hyper sexualisation reaching 61 percent of all female images in the 1990s and 2000s*. In their research, they also used the mouth as a category of appearance, and as a measure of sexualisation.
* Findings from ‘Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualisation of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone’ by Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner (2011).
In my research I found that the number of women with their mouths open on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone increased steadily over several decades, while the number of men with their mouths open consistently remained much lower. Over time, photographs of women were most commonly associated with having their mouth open and at rest, while men were primarily photographed with their mouth closed and at rest.
This data is significant. It shows us that between genders and across several decades, there are two different norms active within these music publications in relation to how mouths are portrayed – one for men, and one for women. There is a gap that separates genders – a physical gap that can be seen on these graphs, and a conceptual gap that defines the terms of engagement for men and women – and on either side, the rules of appearance are different. While women and men are treated separately within each publication, the women of Rolling Stone and the women of Hot Press have very similar experiences, as do the men of both publications. It seems that the norms that are active within these publications are shared across continents and are closely tied to each other.
Women’s mouths, shown as open and at rest, exposed and lifeless, attributes a passive nature to these artists, which adds a sense of gratuity to their presence on these covers. This depiction sexualises their bodies and their identities while turning them into an object of desire and the subject of a gendered gaze. Being exposed is a characteristic that is most often associated with women on these magazine covers, and the eroticisation and sexualisation of women’s mouths is often coupled with the further sexual objectification of their bodies. On the other side of the coin, men’s bodies are consistently far less exposed, and follow the norms of a different kind of objectification.
Since the 1960s, it became increasingly common to see certain parts of women’s bodies exposed and uncovered by clothing on these magazine covers. Specifically, in terms of chest and arm exposure, these two body parts underwent the same increases and the same decreases, in the same decades in each publication.
Look first at Rolling Stone. Through the last half of the 1960s, women’s chest and arm exposure increased. It peaked in the 70s, decreased slightly leading into the 80s, reached a higher peak in the 90s, and then underwent a decline into the 2000s. A decade behind, Hot Press falls in line with the changes occurring in Rolling Stone, and from the 70s right into the 90s, women’s chest and arm exposure rose steadily, both increasing into the 00s, with chest exposure peaking at a slightly lower point than arm exposure during this time. Again, notice how Hot Press peaks a decade later. Like Rolling Stone, female bodily exposure decreased into the 2010s (though my data is limited to 2016 and 2013).
There is a trend in this data that shows an increasing preference for female bodily exposure over time, and it is a trend that reflects the establishment of gendered exposure norms in the music media industry that took place over the course of several decades. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with nudity and sexual expression on magazines, and I would love for sex and sexuality to be a much more common part of our daily conversations. The problem is the dominance of select expressions of gendered sexual identity in the history of these magazines, and over time the creation of a culture which legitimises these identities as the visible industry norm, and thus objectifies artists with a limited choice.
Through embedding these exposure norms into the practices of music journalism, social and professional legitimacy is more easily given to the sexual objectification of women on magazine covers, and this has far reaching effects on societal perceptions of women, their bodies, and what is the norm regarding female representation in the music industry and in the media.
The men’s data in the same body categories of chest and arm exposure paints a much different picture.
The biggest difference between genders in this data was the number of women and men in each category. Men drastically outnumber women in the ‘closed mouth’ category, and the opposite is true for the ‘open mouth’ category. When it comes to body coverage and exposure, there are again vast differences between these two genders. And while there are distinct trends shared between Hot Press and Rolling Stone, the difference between these trends is that they are consistently more pronounced in Rolling Stone.
In the above graph, we can see that men’s arm and chest exposure peaks at seven – less than half of women’s nineteen. We can see the increase of male sexualised images in certain decades, a trends which was also found by Hatton and Trautner in their research. But beyond that it’s random and sporadic.
If we reverse the data and focus on male arm and chest coverage, we can observe how the cultures of Hot Press and Rolling Stone set an agenda on their covers for male body exposure, and the maintenance of a controlled model of masculine sexuality and identity over time. Within Hot Press and within Rolling Stone, the histories of arm and chest coverage are intertwined. While there is obviously a difference between the words ‘exposure’ and ‘coverage’, I call the results associated with both of these words exposure norms.
This is one of the ways in which the male image and men’s bodies are objectified on music magazine covers. Over these decades, both Hot Press and Rolling Stone have been consistently, and increasingly portraying a certain genre of maleness on their magazine covers. It is a male identity that favours body coverage and a closed mouth. It is a male identity that embeds the association between masculinity and a less exposed, less gratuitous and more in control male presence in our media consumption. The men that occupy these music media spaces are a body on which this male experience is modeled, and are objectified as such. It may not be as obvious to the naked eye as the sexual objectification that women experience on music magazine covers, but it is a process that can be just as damaging to societal perceptions of men, masculinity, and representations of male identity in the media and the music industry.
Men are much less represented by gender-media research, as is masculinity. In this article I’m making an effort to challenge this and to take gender-media research out of a mind frame which uses a male representation as the accepted standard by which other results measured against. Because our culturally dominant, Western, white, heterosexual male representation in the media isn’t ‘normal’, and it isn’t the healthy bottom line.
“In other words, most studies on men and masculinities focus on masculinity that is not “normal”, leaving the “standard masculinity”, called hegemonic masculinity, unquestioned and unchallenged”.
Discussions about gender representations in visual media predominately use the word ‘objectification’ in a way that describes women’s, and the female gender’s experience. It’s time to also acknowledge the narrow representation of men’s experience in the music industry, and to broaden our understanding of objectification. Because as long as we fail to acknowledge all of the realities of the gender-media relationship, our transition to a healthy and diverse media environment will always be stunted and undermined by our own incomplete philosophy.
As I mentioned earlier, the trends that have been made visible by this data are not the product of pure coincidence or chance. Something took shape within the professional practices of Hot Press and Rolling Stone, and it never left. Call it a culture, an agenda, an invisible, intangible mindset that had already existed before these magazines and which took the director’s chair at the very beginning – call it what you will. The beginning of this article might seem like a long time ago, but I said that this research represents just one fragment of a much bigger picture put under a microscope. We need to look at the wider culture of the music industry, and the media industry. Right here and now, we look at the data.
Exposure norms also apply to the lower half of men’s and women’s bodies. The number of women on the cover of Hot Press with their legs and midriff exposed increases sharply during the 1980s. Rolling Stone peaks a decade earlier for the number of women shown with their legs exposed, however from the 1980s through to the 2000s, midriff exposure increases uninterrupted.
What’s important here is that we can see how women’s body parts relate to each other between magazines over several decades. The blue and orange lines represent midriff exposure in Rolling Stone and Hot Press respectively. They run parallel to each other, undergoing almost the exact same changes a decade apart, as do the pink and green lines (leg exposure for Hot Press and Rolling Stone). And again, the 1980s sees some big changes in terms of women’s body exposure. These are trends that we have seen before; women’s bodies becoming part of an agenda of sexualisation and exposure, and occupying media space as a select model of femininity.
In the graph below we can see how male body exposure remains almost consistently low in almost every decade.
If we reverse our focus on men’s midriff and leg coverage we can see the evolution of men’s exposure norms in both publications over time.
The trends of men’s body coverage tell us something about the evolution of a culture of male objectification and the attachment of professional value to male exposure norms within the music magazine industry. Within Hot Press and Rolling Stone this model of male identity became the norm, and it sent a message reading ‘This is the male artist, and this is his expression of self and sexuality’.
Up to this point we have only been looking at the data in terms of numbers and trends. It was important that we began this way, because it is the numerical data that gives this research its validity and significance. Everything is contained in them – people, faces, bodies and biases. Viewing media representation of gender in a numerical sense may allow us to mitigate some of the inherent biases that we might inadvertently apply as observers. And the distinct trends contained within this data needed to be demonstrated. In the next section I discuss the exact same data we’ve been looking at, but in terms of the actual published covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone.
Defining the relationship between gender, expressions of gender, and objectification
“To be female, feminine and on the cover of a music magazine means to be exposed, sexualised and objectified in a way that separates music from the self and turns the self into a body, to be handed from person to person, to be probed cover to cover. A “decisive narrowing or homogenisation of media representations of women’’ (Hatton & Trautner, 2011), increasingly since the birth of MTV in the 1980s, has limited the options available for women artists in the industry.’’
From Why are there so few female Music Producers?
When categorising the samples, I noticed that in a small number of cases in both magazines there were hardly any differences between men and women’s covers, in that both genders were experiencing the same exposure norms. This led me to turn my attention towards why some women and men were part of the trends in these magazines and why a minority were not. First, the relationship between genre and objectification was put under the microscope, and certainly when looking at pop music it seems to suggest that genre has something to do with objectification and sexualisation. But it wasn’t enough to explain why some female pop artists in the research were outliers to the status quo.
Here is a selection of similarly shot male and female artists selected from the research samples. They were randomly selected from the first decades where variations on the mouth (open, at rest, smiling) were at their highest for both genders.
All of the following cover images are credited to Hot Press and Rolling Stone respectively.
In these examples of head shots, shoulder, arm and chest exposure is associated with women. The exposure norms present on the male cover, where the body is covered, dominates male occupied covers of Hot Press across all decades. These norms of appearance, where women’s bodies are exposed and their mouths are open, and men’s bodies are covered while their mouths are closed, over time became an intrinsic feature of artists featured on this publication.
The first image demonstrates how being a female and feminine band member carries with it certain norms of exposure. The two men’s covers of Hot Press present the same gendered exposure norms that in almost always apply to men across these decades – their arms, shoulders, and chests are covered.
The difference between full body pop and full body rock is shown here. While on the men’s cover their mouths are open and at rest, their presence here is not sexually objectified. But their experience falls in line with the trends of objectified masculinity. The usual exposure norms apply, and our gaze is drawn towards the centre of action on their faces where they look as if they are in conversation. There is a sense of agency here; they may be looking away yet they are not passive objects of another gaze, but active participants in this moment.
On the left, Sheryl Crow’s mouth is closed and at rest – not the usual sexually objectifying feature of women’s covers. However, female exposure norms are still present and they bring her presence back into a sexualised space. She is leaning against a wall, her legs spread, and looking away as if disengaged. Her presence is portrayed in line with that stereotypical depiction of a female sex worker waiting to be approached. There is a lack of agency here compared to Status Quo’s cover.
The relationship between femininity and sexual objectification within the female gender is better illustrated here. Chapman is a folk pop/rock artist, whose image does not embody the typical feminine characteristics of pop artist Aguilera, such as long hair and make up. Exposure norms of arms, legs, chest, and midriff are present in Aguilera’s cover, but do not apply to the same degree on Chapman’s.
There are no differences between these covers in terms of body exposure. Sinéad O’Connor does not have a traditionally feminine appearance. She has an androgynous look and is not photographed with the attachment of women’s exposure norms. Her mouth is closed, her body is covered, and she is looking straight at the camera. Her presence is in the moment and she is engaged with her audience. Likewise, the two men’s covers carry the same exposure norms. In each of these moments the trends that we saw in the previous graphs are present, and describe a narrow expression of masculine identity.
Every member of the Spice Girls carries at least two female exposure norms, with emphasis on leg, chest, and arm exposure. The similarities between their appearance and Def Leppard’s is striking; they are standing in similar poses with similar parts of their bodies exposed. On U2’s cover, male exposure norms are in effect. They are men in rock music with a typically masculine appearance, implying a different kind of relationship to exposure norms. Def Leppard fall under the genre of glam metal, and have a more feminine appearance (per how the norms of femininity have traditionally been defined) than U2 in terms of their appearance. With the adoption of a more feminine presence, a stronger relationship with female exposure norms is established.
However, there is one important difference – the presence of a guitar, serving as a reminder that they are a band with musical ability. In both Hot Press and Rolling Stone, men are far more likely than women to be photographed either holding an instrument or performing. In Hot Press, zero percent of women were photographed performing, compared to seventeen percent of men. In Rolling Stone, one percent of women were photographed performing, compared to six percent of men. The hyper sexualisation of female bands sets women apart from largely non-sexualised male bands, and it frames their expression of a narrow feminine sexuality as their forefront asset. In the vast majority of the covers analysed in this research, men are not sexualised to this degree. Men are also far more likely than women, in both publications, to appear on a cover as a group rather than as a solo artist.
The limiting of identity on music magazine covers
There is a common pattern within Hot Press and Rolling Stone that this research observed; it is not just gender, but also expressions of gender (i.e. femininity and masculinity) and sexuality that are being shaped by music media practices.
This research makes the claim that there is a relationship between gender, femininity, and sexual objectification on music magazine covers. Similarly, there is a relationship between gender, masculinity, and objectification on music magazine covers. Increasingly, since MTV came onto our screens in the 1980s the depiction of a female and feminine member of the music industry underwent a limiting process, where a certain image of these artists became the dominant model. A relationship was established between sexuality, femininity, and gender, and it expressed a preference for a certain expression of women’s sexuality. At the same time a second relationship was established between masculinity, sexuality and gender, and over time a model of male presence on music magazine covers became the industry norm.
For both men and women artists there has been, and still is a limiting process mediating their relationship to music magazines. It is this limiting process, sustained and legitimised by music magazines that objectifies the identities of those who are affected by it, and ultimately presents these artists with an objectified choice.
“The apparent impregnability of “freedom of expression” discourse in the domain of media and social justice gives rise to an inevitable question: whose freedom, defined by whom? Clearly, rights and freedom are not gender-neutral”.
From the essay ‘Feminism and Social Justice: Challenging the Media Rhetoric’, by Margaret Gallagher, in the book Media and Social Justice, editors Sue Curry Jansen, Jefferson Pooley, and Lora Taub-Pervizpour (2011).
According to objectification theory, women tend to be objectified – and experience self-objectification – in relation to thinness, age or youth, make-up, sexuality, and other culturally dominant ideas about female beauty. For all of the cases in this research where male and female artists are given significant differential treatment from each other in relation to bodily exposure and mouth orientation, the treatment is in line with these culturally dominant ideas about gender and beauty. The traditional gender roles that define ‘the feminine female’, and ‘the masculine male’.
There is a lot to take in from this research, and beyond the figures, the numbers, and the data, there is a central message; gender matters on music magazine covers.
Both men and women are portrayed in ways that either expose their bodies, cover their bodies, or determine whether their mouth is open or closed. This research called them exposure norms, and they apply to both men and women. The difference between them is the relationship that has been established between expressions of gender and objectification, and the fact that female artists are disproportionately affected by structural inequalities within the music industry which create and sustain the concept of a sexualised artist. These structural inequalities are present within the two magazines in this research.
During the 1970s and the 1980s, an agenda began to take shape within Hot Press and Rolling Stone which created a line of difference between genders (men and women) on magazine covers. The problem is not that for several decades expressions of identity have been illustrated on magazine covers – it’s the fact that these identities did not naturally cultivate themselves, and that a difference in terms of how women and men engage with the music industry has become part of professional practice within music magazines. It’s is also a problem for the fact that this agenda systematically sexualises female artists, which can have far reaching effects on the perception of women in the music industry, women in society, and how we as a people discuss gender and sexuality. The male gender and it’s relationship to masculinity has also been systematically objectified on music magazine covers, and that’s something we need to start discussing.
A conclusion to the ongoing problem
“The objectifying categories of Hot Press and Rolling Stone serve to take ownership of the moment away from women, separating their sexuality from their musical career and framing judgement of their presence around that quality’’ (from Why are there so few female Music Producers?)
The kind of woman that is modeled by the industry is portrayed by music magazines as a certain style of sexualised and objectified femininity. Women artists that can challenge this image are much less visible in these spaces. As I discussed in the previous article, male artists are more than four times more likely than female artists to appear on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stone. The dominance of men on music magazine covers is coupled with the dominance of a certain male presence. The entire body of research I conducted ended up investigating gender visibility in the music industry. The first article laid the groundwork for a discussion about gender visibility in music magazines, and what we’ve been discussing here are the terms of visibility.
What music magazines need to begin to acknowledge and take notice of is how they relate to the society they communicate to. This relationship needs to be an audible part of the conversation, and this means having an open, multi-directional discussion about ethics, accountability and responsibility. An acknowledgement of the gendered music media histories that have been cultivated over several decades could be the beginning of a positive change in practice. And it might also help regain some of what has been lost in the consumer-magazine relationship. I believe that part of the reason why the music magazine industry is in decline is because their audience don’t see them as relevant to their own lives. They don’t see themselves represented in that space and they don’t see value in engaging. If music magazines made an effort to truly reflect the diversity of their audience and allowed identity freedom of expression, this might change.
While it might be true that within the professional culture of some music publications there is a commitment to equality, it just isn’t materialising in practice. This article is not a finger pointing exercise. Both Hot Press and Rolling Stone are two very tiny parts of this discussion. This is a much broader, more collective problem which is sustained by editorial practices of music magazines. It is a problem that people within publications do have the power to challenge. And it is something that all of us certainly have the language and the power to address right now.
How we express our individual sexuality is a choice. Or it should be. It is not truly a choice for women or men when the culture of the industry spends decades cultivating the preferred model of a successful artist on music magazine covers, and presents this time and time again as the ideal. It was not by sheer coincidence that certain body parts for certain genders, underwent certain changes during the same decades, in two publications on either side of the Atlantic. The trend that took shape during these years acts as an objectifying force on artists.
When the music industry ascribes commercial value and professional value to certain criterion of individual sexuality, it punches itself in the face. It also deals a blow to sexual freedom and freedom of expression. For people everywhere that look towards music as a touchstone for comfort, identity and expression, the music industry owes this possibly unwelcome call for introspection and self-conscious discussion. Not only for them, but out of respect for the artists who dedicate their lives to music, without whom music magazines would not have a purpose.