Semiotic Analysis of Teenage Magazine Front Covers

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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...
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