The following post is excerpted from my recently published book Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age with permission from the University of Illinois Press. Drawing upon in-depth interviews with leading magazine editors, publishers, and digital strategists, this book shows how magazine workers are adapting to the rhetoric and realities of digitization, audience interactivity, branded content, and the individualization of creative labor.
In what follows, I contend that despite renewed academic interest in the cultures and practices of media work, much of this scholarship overlooks the significance of gendered relations and subjectivities. By studying the production culture of the women’s magazine industry amidst sweeping transformations in the technologies, economies, and logics of media, I hope to make a critical intervention into debates about social hierarchies of gender within digital creative environments.
Professional and Gender Identities of Media Workers
Over the last few years, a great deal of ink has been spilled by researchers seeking to understand the implications of transformed circuits of production and consumption for professional media creators. In addressing the so-called blurring of roles between producers and audiences, many of these studies engage with questions of professionalization and expertise…
In many creative sectors, the contours of professional identity began to shift in the last decades of the twentieth century, shaped by policies and ideologies associated with globalization, neoliberalism, and post-Fordism. Since then, creative work in the so-called “new economy” has been characterized as deskilled, flexible, temporary, and underpaid.[i] With the rise of digital media, these trends have become more firmly ingrained in the cultures and conditions of media work as content creators are expected to channel their energies into a variety of digital technologies and platforms. Ethnographies of convergent newsrooms, for example, reveal how production routines increasingly demand flexible laborers who are able to create content for print, online, and mobile simultaneously. This emergent logic necessitates a reconfiguration of news workers’ professional identities […including] technological training and formalized attempts to indoctrinate professionals in the content strategies and styles of other platforms.[ii]
The ostensible intrusion of audiences into media production processes is an additional challenge to professional identity constructs. As noted earlier, one of the central tropes in discourses of convergence is the blurred boundary between media producers and audiences, and scholars continue to debate whether user-generated content has empowered audiences or, alternatively, whether these initiatives are thinly veiled efforts to offload productive labor activities onto unwitting consumers.[iii]
In either case, producers qua producers must compete for eyeballs in the aptly named attention economy. Examples abound of nonprofessional content creators whose audience base rivals that of the leading media voices. Of course, some media producers face a more substantial danger than the loss of audiences, namely the potential for unemployment as work gets outsourced to these (mostly) unpaid laborers. Why buy the cow when you can get the content for free?
Although professional identity is a construct deeply entangled with social identity markers—gender, race, class, age, and more—scholars of media convergence have tended to sidestep these categories. [iv] Gender, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the organization, processes, and products of media industries—in much the same way that it serves as “a mechanism that structures material and symbolic worlds and our experiences of them.” [v]
Conversations about the role of women in media organizations have been taking place for more than a century, but the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s crystallized concerns about gender inequity. [vi] In fact, feminist critiques of organizational forms of male power were considered integral to women’s liberation, and consequently, feminists sought out non-bureaucratic forms of assemblage for their own social movements. [vii] Their concerns stemmed from a general sense of apprehension about the patriarchal structure of the labor market as well as from the narrower construction of media production as a “masculine” enterprise.
This is not to say that women were fully excluded from the circuit of production; as I discuss more in a later chapter, women have historically been granted access to those media and cultural industries that considered it necessary to understand womanhood and femininity for commercial purposes. Cultural historian Kathy Peiss makes the case that throughout the twentieth century, women were employed by—and at times held a significant degree of power in—the women’s press, advertising, cosmetics, and fashion industries. Yet in describing women’s employment in these sectors as “a state of being, not a will to action,” Peiss makes it clear that female admittance into these field was not politically motivated, but instead substantiated the economic exploitation of femininity. [viii] Put simply, the mentality was that women were the best ones to sell products and services to other women.
Despite this, numerous feminist scholars have sought to benchmark the role of women in media organizations by quantifying their contributions to the production of news, television, magazines, films, and more. The consensus is that there are far more male than female executives in almost every mass media industry. And while recent years have seen an upsurge in women entering print and broadcast media organizations, men continue to hold the lion’s share of power. Several recent studies have gone beyond workplace gender composition to draw out the correlation between the diversity of media professionals and the diversity of media content. Reflecting upon this critical turn, Marjan de Bruin writes:
“Counting men and women, identifying positions and mapping employment patterns is regarded as necessary and useful baseline data but it is also seen as only scratching the surface of the realities of media organizations. In order to learn more about what is actually taking place on the workfloor, it is necessary to go beyond the ‘body count’ and to start looking at specific social practices, embodied in conventions and rules, formally and informally, based on history and tradition, sustained by people working in the media organizations.”[ix]
Going “beyond the body count,” then, makes clear how female media workers also confront masculine work cultures (the so-called “boys club”), the potential for sexual harassment, and the normalization of gendered work practices.[x]
Meanwhile, the rise of computing and the movement to post-Fordist working practices in the early 2000s seemed to coincide with new assumptions about gender relations in the media sector. [xi] Yet the role of female producers was often addressed through blanket assertions about “flexible work practices,” which failed to make significant inroads into gender inequality. Moreover, a number of analyses have problematized this assumption with data about continuing gender imbalances in the new media sector. [xii] These conclusions urge a critical reexamination of the interrelationships between gender, professional identities, and cultural production in the contemporary media moment.
As a project in media industry studies, Remake/Remodel draws upon political economy, cultural studies, sociology, and feminist studies of the media to explore the changing nature of production within the women’s magazine industry. Like other scholars who work within the broadly conceived framework of cultural production, I take a mezzo-level approach that foregrounds the processes of media production rather than macro-level structures and regulations or micro-level issues of reception. However, I also depart from contemporary perspectives on media industries in two significant ways. First, I do not agree that we should abandon traditional assumptions about distinctive media industries in favor of an all-encompassing view of media production. Secondly, and as I make clear throughout the book, I do not believe that new tools and technologies for audience communication are as revolutionary as techno-utopian discourses suggest.
The decision to enter into these theoretical and methodological conversations from the context of the magazine industry is in no way inadvertent. In part, this decision is based on the tendency of convergence scholars to overlook the consumer magazine industry as a rich site for analysis. [xiii] Such neglect is indicative of a larger gap in the media field where academics tend to make normative distinctions that privilege the production of hard news within a public-service orientation. Magazine historian David Abrahamson made the woeful claim at the 2008 State of Magazine Research conference, “Magazines remain second-class citizens in the journalism academy.” [xiv] The alleged dismissiveness toward magazines is quite unfortunate, especially given the role of the industry in laying a solid groundwork for the mass media that emerged over the course of the twentieth century. Described by journalism scholar Carolyn Kitch as “the first truly mass medium in the United States,” magazines provided guidelines for creating entertainment and informational content, appealing to advertisers, and commodifying niche audiences—trends that were later copied or expanded upon by other media organizations. [xv]
A caveat of sorts must be added to clarify the positioning of women’s magazines within the academy. Although this genre, too, tends to reside on the margins of “journalism studies,” teens’ and women’s glossies have occupied a central place in feminist media thought and empiricism since the 1970s. I trace the simultaneous and intertwined evolutions of feminism and magazine studies in a subsequent chapter; however, it is important to acknowledge at the outset that the women of women’s magazines are critical to the arguments and findings of this book. After all, women’s magazines constitute a genre that is gendered in content and context—embedding both producers and audiences within a feminized space. As identity politics lay at the heart of recent transformations in media technology and culture, this project aims to advance our understanding of media production and gender in an unfolding digital economy.
More broadly, this book aims to spark conversation and propel forward debates about the shape-shifting nature of creative labor and media power. It seems too convenient to merely assert that “boundaries are collapsing” in an era of convergent media systems and practices. Instead, I show how producers are both allowing some boundaries to crumble and establishing new ones to preserve certain aspects of their identities. I use these findings to push back against the claims of collapsed hierarchies, consumer empowerment, and democratic participation that tend to configure convergence discourse. I also suggest some aspects of the creative industries that have been curiously overlooked and should be critically analyzed before the dust settles. Indeed, I believe there is much to be gained by bringing feminist media studies into dialogue with production-oriented research on digital cultural industries. This could entail interventions into male-dominated work cultures and grounded studies of creative labor that take seriously issues of identity politics. Again, let me be clear: I do not mean to suggest that the demographic composition of a workplace is akin to female empowerment. Rather, female production roles are merely the most visible benchmark of women’s social positioning within a rapidly evolving media landscape.