Saya Happy: Re-Reading the Promotion of Female Identity in Local and International Women's Magazines - a Semiotic Study

Article excerpt

Abstract

Purpose: This paper examines the ways in which popular women's magazines construct the notions of female beauty and identity and the extent to which the representation reflects the 'real' woman in (sub) cultural locations such as Sabah, Malaysia. Given advertising's ubiquity and omnipresence, it is of concern in the developing world that it has become a powerful social force capable of constructing consumer identities and influencing purchasing decisions on a regular basis.

Method: This study is underpinned by semiology and constructivism and deploys semiotics (de Saussure, 1983) to deconstruct signs and discover the deeper ideological function of advertising and promotion. International and local Malaysian magazine front covers and product advertisements were selected for a semiotic reading.

Findings/Results: Both international and local magazines portray women in sexualized ways and despite attempts made by locally distributed international magazines such as Cosmopolitan to localize images, models continue to represent mainstream global-national values of beauty, filling locally distributed women's magazine pages with images of the perfect woman. Likewise, despite the desire of locally produced magazines to represent local values and ideals of beauty, mainstream global values appear to be determining factors even in family-oriented Islamic-value based magazines such as Keluarga Harmoni.

Implications: Thus in local and international magazines distributed in Malaysia the notions of beauty remain almost the same, the single difference being the promotion of local products associated with local celebrities in the former and international products associated with Western celebrities in the latter.

Keywords: Deconstruction, semiotics, constructing female identity.

Introduction

Marketers and business strategists have tended to mainly focus on the virtues of promotional culture (Wernick, 1999) and on how advertising supports the economy and enhances consumer spending and revenue (Pollay, 1986:19). While marketers and business strategists may be reluctant to criticize the effects of advertising, there is a great need to bring to public knowledge the fact that advertising does have adverse effects on certain groups of people, in particular, young women and children. Advertisers, in the main, target those who are seen to have purchasing and credit power as well as those who have the power to influence purchasing decisions. Women's magazines are a particularly lucrative market for advertisers as, by and large, women are the primary consumers of goods and services. Women in Malaysia aged between 15-64 make up 46.4 percent of the workforce (http://www.undp.org.my/files/editor_files/files/Prodocs%20with%20UNDP%20logo/Women_Par ticipation_in_Labour_Workforce.pdf). In many cases, women are the rice-bowl winners and are increasingly financially independent. They make household purchasing decisions, shop for the family and have a major influence in the domestic sphere. Studies (e.g. McCracken, 1993: 6) point out that 95 percent of space in women's magazines is taken up by advertising. This is of grave concern because the level of media literacy among young Malaysian women may be much lower than that of their counterparts in the developed world despite high mobile (121 phones per 100 females) and Internet use (55 users per 100 females) as reflected in the 2010 UNICEF report (http://www.unicef.or/infobycountry/malaysia_statistics.html).

The Malaysian school curriculum does not yet offer media and internet studies as a subject for young Malaysians and the impact of advertising on the lives of Malaysian women does not seem to be debated and rationalized widely enough in the public sphere despite the prevalence of consumer protection bodies such as the Federation of Malaysian Consumer Association (FOMCA), Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), self-regulatory agencies such as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and codes of practice such as the Malaysian Code of Advertising Practice and the presence of women activist organisations such as Sisters in Islam (SII), and All Women's Action Society Malaysia (AWAM). …