Are they a feminist friend or foe?
In one way or another, we’re all familiar with fashion magazines. I’m talking about Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar – the kind of brand-focused print media typically marketed towards young middle class women in the Western world. While not all of us regularly consume print versions of these magazines, they certainly play a role in creating the identities of women in the contemporary period. With the print industry rapidly declining, as seen in Bauer Media’s closure of magazines such as Cleo, Madison and Grazia (Meade 2020), the future of fashion magazines is looking shaky.
While magazines are notorious for controversies around photo retouching, body shaming and racial bias, the fashion industry itself is inherently exploitative. Clothes are produced by sweatshop labourers, then worn by thin, body-conscious models, sold in-store by a casual and largely female labor force, while profits go towards multi-million and billion dollar companies. Given that these magazines are centred on such an unethical industry, it is unsurprising that fashion magazines pose a range of barriers to inclusive forms of female empowerment. This article explores how fashion magazines created a new kind of hyper-individualistic, pro-consumer, ‘girl power’ identity, and asks whether the industry should be revived.
A New Kind of Feminism
Fashion magazines promote a brand of neoliberal (a.k.a ‘girl power’) feminism that is inherently racist, classist and discriminatory based on body size and appearance. Neoliberalism is an economic and political model focused on freedom for markets and individuals. Common features include privatisation, deregulation, low taxation and minimal government intervention in markets (Pusey, 2018). Since rapidly expanding in the 1980s, neoliberalism is the dominant socio-political framework that shapes the millennial experience.
Individuality, a key neoliberalist concept, has significantly impacted mainstream feminist discourse in the Western world. In the mainstream media having a high salary, running a successful business and being recognised by formal awards are three feats increasingly promoted as evidence of gender ‘equality’ and ‘empowerment’, despite being attainable by a small minority of women.
Magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar emanate a hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) form of hyper-individualism that encourages women to ‘stand out from the crowd’ via the purchase of commodities. Placement of terms like ‘self-care’ next to clothing or beauty products works to associate consumption with feelings of self-actualisation and empowerment. The inclusion of high-agency, hyper-individualistic slogans, directly contradict the anti-ageing products, luxury fashion items and cosmetic procedures that are prominently and unabashedly featured throughout a magazine’s glossy pages.
To be empowered, you must consume. To consume, you must be empowered – financially, at least.
For the majority of the population the financial ability to buy high self-esteem in the form of Calvin Klein jeans is entirely unfeasible. Neoliberal feminism, being individualist and pro-consumption in nature, is built upon the structural exclusion of women who lie outside of the white, middle class and able-bodied ideal of fashion magazines. The atomisation of the collective, in this case young women, contributes not only to a sense of alienation, but also obfuscates structural inequalities by shifting the focus from macro-level politics to the individual.
The Future of Fashion Magazines
Magazines are dependent on the textile, beauty and wellness industries which are founded upon the exploitation of female labourers, animals and the natural environment. In acknowledging these connections, it’s clear that any magazine dependent on these industries will cause bodily and ideological harm to people who don’t fit the narrow ideal that magazines propose.
Critical theory can help to illuminate some of these connections, which are often so well hidden in the bright and colourful pages of the magazines. One of these is Marxist feminism, which recognizes “capitalism as a set of structures, practices, institutions, incentives, and sensibilities that promote the exploitation of labor, the alienation of human beings, and the debasement of freedom” (Stefano, Marxist Feminism). Looking at magazines from a Marxist-Feminist perspective, it’s clear that class, race and able-bodied privilege, topics well-neglected by fashion columnists, determine how women are treated by the artificial world of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Gender equality isn’t something you can sell
While this leads to the conclusion to dismiss fashion magazines, for some of us it’s not so easy. Magazines represent a medium for women’s voices, even if they are only the most privileged members of society. Historically they have been used to share stories, insights and support. With bright imagery and a distinctive style of collage, fashion magazines are also a unique form of creative expression. For some of us, old copies of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar may be a source of nostalgia, identity and connection to ideas, trends and movements beyond our small social sphere.
For every middle class woman enjoying the latest issue, there are scores of women who are excluded on the basis of their body size, age, race, class and disability. Fashion magazines’ danger lies in their obfuscated connections to the creation of a pro-consumption, hyper-individualistic ‘girl power’ which hurts the majority of women. This ideological paradox is an example of what Marx calls ‘false consciousness’, or in other words, a kind of ‘error’ or ‘illusion’ of perception (Finlayson, An Introduction to Feminism, p.16).
Considering the exploitative nature of the fashion industry, it’s hard to imagine what an emancipatory fashion magazine might look like, primarily because a resolution would depend upon a dramatic subversion of class, gender, and psychosomatic norms. If successful, this societal transformation would revolutionise our concepts of ‘fashion’ and ‘beauty’. We also have to acknowledge that historically speaking, aesthetic ideals have long been the domain of the elite and ruling classes, making it difficult to foresee what clothing would look like beyond the accepted fashion trends, which originate from a social, political and economic system built upon exploitation of labour and women’s bodies.
There’s something particularly cruel about selling, quite literally, what ought to be an emancipatory ideology to impressionable young women. Gender equality isn’t something you can sell for $29.95. It’s the product of ongoing collective organisation, equal representation and dedication to creating a more livable and equitable world for humans and the natural environment.