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

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

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

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


From the Gibson Girl to the flapper, from the vamp to the New Woman, Carolyn Kitch traces mass media images of women to their historical roots on magazine covers, unveiling the origins of gender stereotypes in early-twentieth-century American culture.

Kitch examines the years from 1895 to 1930 as a time when the first wave of feminism intersected with the rise of new technologies and media for the reproduction and dissemination of visual images. Access to suffrage, higher education, the professions, and contraception broadened women's opportunities, but the images found on magazine covers emphasized the role of women as consumers: suffrage was reduced to spending, sexuality to sexiness, and a collective women's movement to individual choices of personal style. In the 1920s, Kitch argues, the political prominence of the New Woman dissipated, but her visual image pervaded print media.

With seventy-five photographs of cover art by the era's most popular illustrators, The Girl on the Magazine Cover shows how these images created a visual vocabulary for understanding femininity and masculinity, as well as class status. Through this iconic process, magazines helped set cultural norms for women, for men, and for what it meant to be an American, Kitch contends.


In the summer of 1998, Time magazine asked on its cover, “Is Feminism Dead?” The question stood out against a black background under the disembodied heads of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinern, and … the television sitcom character Ally McBeal. The cover story nostalgically remembered the 1970s as an era when “feminists made big, unambiguous demands of the world. They sought absolute equal rights and opportunities for women, a constitutional amendment to make it so, a chance to be compensated equally and to share the task of raising a family. But if feminism of the 60s and 70s was steeped in research and obsessed with social change, feminism today is wed to the culture of celebrity and self-obsession.” The article proclaimed that “[tjoday’s feminists want to talk sex, not cents” and concluded that “much of feminism has devolved into the silly… a popular culture insistent on offering images of grown single women as frazzled, self-absorbed girls.”

In the “unambiguous” decade it recalled, Time itself had published a 1972 special issue that introduced “The New Woman” and devoted more than 100 pages to the movement, covering the day-to-day realities of ordinary women’s lives as well as women’s entry into the professions. It named women’s rights activists its “Women of the Year” for 1975, spotlighting working women. Just seven years later, however, a cover story announced “The New Baby Bloom,” a trend in which “Career women are opting for pregnancy.” As proof of this trend, its cover showed a beamingly pregnant actress Jaclyn Smith, whom the magazine called “Charlie’s Angel turned Madonna.”

By the late 1980s, the magazine reported that “some look back wistfully at the simpler times before women’s liberation” and proclaimed, “[f jeminine clothing is back; breasts are back; motherhood is in again.” In 1990, it published a special issue about young women who hoped “to achieve their goals without sacrificing their natures.” This message was reinforced by ads from the issue’s single sponsor, Sears. Displaying her bracelets, one young ad model said, “Sparkle comes from within. But a little outside help couldn’t hurt.” Another, cuddling her toddler at . . .

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