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1The republication of this essay on women’s magazines, 45 years later, highlights both its great continuing relevance and progress in research since it first appeared. A new preface by Mona Chollet accompanies this new edition of a book that had already changed substantially between its first version in 1974 and the second in 1978, both published by François Maspero. It adds an article originally published in a Communist Party newspaper, France nouvelle.

2What are its main theses? The thread that runs through it is a critique of the ‘ideological function’ of women’s magazines, in the service of patriarchy. Generally speaking, Lugan Dardigna argues, they promote a conservative ideology, even though in certain respects they cultivate an image of modernity. Patriarchy organizes women’s lives around, and as a function of, those of men. This is the first point of the book: the role that these magazines prepare women to take is that of wife and mother. Women, they suggest, must look for a spouse, a husband. Then they are to sacrifice their own career for the man’s and for the needs of their offspring. These publications also prepare women to tolerate their spouse’s flaws. Reducing fundamental conflicts to details, they minimize their importance and obfuscate the breadth of their implications. They describe women’s sexuality as passive, entirely dependent on the man they live with. They prepare women to live with men’s ‘natural’ polygamy and to sacrifice their careers to devote themselves to children—no involvement is expected of fathers.

3As women’s magazines place men at the centre of women’s lives, they teach women that they must learn to put themselves in the background, forgetting their own needs and aspirations. In doing so, these magazines promote unattainable standards. For women, reading these publications is thus a learning process for permanent failure and endless guilt. One method used is to belittle women, implicitly telling them that they are bound to fail. Another is depoliticization, which involves an extreme focus on details as well as neglect of the world of work. These magazines pretend to talk about work, through clothing for example, but never in terms of content or the resulting economic benefits. The function of this masquerade is to dissuade women from challenging supposed male superiority. Such distraction has been made necessary by the rise of feminist movements and of emancipatory discourse more broadly.

4These publications use two other strategies. The first employs virile values, notably the male model of capitalist success, to push women to compete amongst themselves while supporting the existing model of society. The second is to send different messages to women depending on their social background. Lugan Dardigna emphasizes the profound differences between publications aimed at wealthy, educated women and the popular press.

5In the ‘high-end’ press, she particularly targets Elle and Marie-Claire. She argues that their displays of modernity are only a concession. They tell women that they can have active sex lives but only in a transitional phase leading to marriage. Women may grant themselves an adulterous thrill but must always put male sexual pleasure first in doing so. Indeed, these magazines accuse feminists of having launched the exhausting, frustrating race for orgasm. They use sexual fantasies as a pretext to promote the logic of male domination. Women, they suggest, may want to work, all while affirming that ‘a feminine woman today must realize how difficult it is to be a man’ (p. 146). They thus evoke freedom, even highlighting it through skilfully written personal stories, but transform it into grounds for guilt. Women’s magazines present wealthy women with ‘the illusion of a feminine counterpower’. If women have won, then there is no need to fight, and they can focus on capitalist consumption.

6Discourse directed at women from working-class backgrounds, however, is very different. It differs in form, with less beautiful images and many more ‘sentimental’ fictions. Its content differs in many ways as well. First, sexuality is devalued. Second, stories of upward mobility and romance with men from more privileged backgrounds are always described as failures, Lugan Dardigna says. Contrary to the discourses of competition and fantasy offered to bourgeois women, the lives of working-class women are presented as a fate from which they must not seek to escape. But the matrimonial ideal and the central place given to men are common to both types of publications.

7In what respects was this book a precursor of what was to come? Activist memory—in this case, both Marxist and feminist—is often subject to narrative hegemony and concealment. Marion Charpenel’s doctorate highlights the complexity of the stakes in the making of these narratives. And indeed, while Lugan Dardigna’s work is a precursor, it is not exactly the first in its line. We will cite four omissions. First, a reference to Betty Friedan, whose landmark 1963 work The Feminine Mystique was translated the following year into French, could have been expected. Friedan examines the media in general, the stereotypes about femininity that they convey, and their normative discourse, aimed at convincing women that happiness lies in total devotion to their husband and home. The second missing reference is the collective survey on images of women led by Chombart de Lauwe in 1962 for UNESCO. Using different words than Lugan Dardigna, this dossier outlines what she calls the ‘ideological function’ of the feminine press: ‘Models play an important part in education and propaganda, but their influence extends beyond these two spheres of culture. … To this category belong models popularized through literature, the press, and other mass communication media.’ The third omission is L’idéologie raciste [The racist ideology] by Colette Guillaumin, sociologist and co-founder of the ‘materialist’ current in feminism. Published in 1972, this book is in many ways the (more methodical) model for Lugan Dardigna’s book. Guillaumin analyses the social processes of domination and exploitation as well as the rhetoric that builds the racist ideology and contributes to its implementation. At times, this is what Lugan Dardigna outlines. The fourth and final omission is the work of Evelyne Sullerot, co-founder of Planning familial and a sociologist at the CNRS, who in 1964 successively published an analysis and a history of the feminine press. Rather than use this source, even to set herself apart from it, quotes Sullerot from an interview in Marie-Claire, which she sharply criticizes. Lugan Dardigna’s harshest criticism is directed at reformist feminism, which, for her, diverts the readers from revolution by appearing in the pages of such magazines. It is almost as though the author felt that (almost) only communist authors deserved to be cited, Engels and Marcuse foremost among them. [1],[2]

8What has changed since the publication of this book? There was considerable development in the tools available for use in analysing women’s magazines through a gender relations lens: first between the two editions of this essay and most importantly in the subsequent period. Starting with the period 1974–1978, within feminism, a generation of researchers (Delphy, Guillaumin, Mathieu, their colleagues in the co-founding of Questions Féministes) began to develop a body of theoretical and empirical work that gives a very important place to the social question of class. Activists also wrote about women’s magazines, as seen in the collection Les femmes s’entêtent [Women persist], published in 1975. In English, Angela Davis had already begun to publish Marxist feminist analyses incorporating race (which is absent from Lugan Dardigna’s book, as it was from the positions of the French Communist Party at the time). Two other noteworthy contributions from this period come to mind. One is the work of the Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman: his 1976 book Gender Advertisements, whose advertising material was taken from magazines, as well as his 1977 book The Arrangement Between the Sexes. The second, collective contribution is that of cultural studies and particularly that of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, founded in 1964, whose emblematic figure was Stuart Hall. Despite some connections to French sociology (Bourdieu published a translation of Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy in 1970), the work of the English New Left and the contributions of cultural studies had made little impression in France in 1978, even until the end of the 20th century. It is thus not surprising that Lugan Dardigna does not refer to them. At the time of the second edition of Femmes-femmes sur papier glossée, convergent reflections thus appeared in France and in other countries, more or less closely linked to Marxism. The mass media criticism of Hall and his colleagues was based on a reinterpretation of the work of the Frankfurt School and the Gramscian idea of cultural hegemony. A number of Marxist critics crossed paths while deliberately avoiding each other, for reasons analysed by historians, and missed the opportunity to nourish each other’s work.

9Since the end of the 20th century, work in gender studies on women’s magazines has continued to develop. From Sylvette Giet to Claire Blandin, or more recently Auréline Cardoso and especially Alexie Geers, this body of work continues to grow. Much of this work has been carried out in information and communication sciences, particularly the semiological analysis of images, which is the weak point of Lugan Dardigna’s book. Sociology has also made methodological contributions: Goffman for the press, Brugeilles and Cromer for gendered quantitative analyses on the iconography of children’s books and textbooks. [3]

10The questions that arise when choosing to reissue a book are its pioneering nature and the topicality of its arguments. The journalist Mona Chollet, author of the landmark book Beauté fatale [Fatal beauty] (La Découverte, 2012), has no doubts on either of these scores. Where high-end magazines incite women to appropriate the competitive codes of male success, Lugan Dardigna sees it as a trap. Instead, the author encourages them to turn toward more ‘feminine’ values (without really saying whether she thinks they are socially constructed or natural). From the viewpoint of the year 2020, connections can be seen to the work of Carole Pateman in the same period (but only recently translated into French) or the slightly later work of Carol Gilligan on ethic of care (her In a Different Voice was published in 1982). One final point highlights this book’s topicality: the rise of a so-called ‘post-feminist’ current in English-speaking countries. This tendency offers a very good illustration of what Lugan Dardigna was already critically observing in 1974: the use of the claim that equality has already been won to better head off challenges to the order of gender.


  • [1]
    Charpenel M., 2014, Le privé est politique! Sociologie des mémoires féministes en France [The personal is political! Sociology of feminist memories in France] (Doctoral dissertation), Sciences-Po, Paris.
  • [2]
    Images of women in society, 1962, International Social Science Journal, UNESCO, 14(1), p. 77.
  • [3]
    Brugeilles C., Cromer I., Cromer S., 2002, ‘Male and female characters in illustrated children’s books or how children’s literature contributes to the construction of gender, Population, English Edition, 57(2), 237–267; Brugeilles C., Cromer S., 2005, Analyser les représentations du masculin et du féminin dans les manuels scolaires, Paris, CEPED.
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