The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media

By Bernt, Joseph | Journalism History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media


Bernt, Joseph, Journalism History


Kitch, Carolyn. The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 252 pp. $18.95.

In The Girl an the Magazine Cover, Carolyn Kitch surveys turn-of-the-twentieth-century origins of stereotypes of women found in magazines of the 1990s, which were evidencing the pattern of backlash to the women's movement described by Susan Faludi. What she finds is not surprising. Like the editorial and business formulae underlying today's magazines, according to Kitch, current stereotypes of women developed when the modem magazine emerged between 1890 and 1930. These were years of dynamic industrial, technological, financial, and geographical growth and consolidation; of threatening immigration, unionization, and radicalism; and of U.S. transformation into a world military, colonial, and industrial power. Traditional Anglophile definitions of an "American" man or woman and gender roles were under siege. Magazine illustrators offered new standards-especially for the "New Woman," who was emerging from the rigidity of the Victorian "True Woman."

Kitch's iconographic analyses of illustrations from the first mass-circulation magazines are this study's strength. She identifies the transition from True Woman to New Woman in six 1897 illustrations by Alice Barber Stephens in Ladies'Home Journal. In these illustrations, women were placed in the home; but they also appeared, especially younger women, in the world of commerce, both as consumers and workingwomen. In either setting, her women appeared realistic. This contrasts with the New Woman created by Charles Dana Gibson, an idealized type who appeared repeatedly on the covers of the largest circulation magazines during the first decade of the twentieth century. The Gibson Girl-young, genteel, Anglo-Saxon, self-assured, coifed, and statuesque-dominated American culture, moving from magazine covers to wallpaper, china, and framed illustrations. Gibson also presented his New Woman as dominating and tormenting little men caught in a bureaucratized society.

As the second decade arrived, Harrison Fisher and Howard Chandler Christy drew their New Woman as upper-class as had Gibson, but their feminine ideal now incorporated college attendance and outdoor recreations; they were more approachable, more sexually open, and more like pals on outings with their college-educated beaus. At the same time, a New Woman, more dangerous to the American males' character than the Gibson Girl, appeared in the illustrations of James Montgomery Flagg and Coles Phillips in Life and Judge, humor magazines aimed at upwardly mobile males. …

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