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

Article excerpt

The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media. Carolyn Kitch. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 252 pp. $45 hbk. $18.95 pbk.

As the cliche goes, you can't judge a book by its cover. Readable, scholarly, and refreshingly interdisciplinary, Kitch's book focuses on images of women, as its title and cover image (a profile of the Gibson Girl) suggests. But it also accomplishes a much broader task, offering a historically grounded, theoretically informed, and nuanced analysis of the origins of visual stereotypes of gender (female and male) in the early part of the twentieth century. Kitch demonstrates that familiar visual stereotypes-such a defining element of the twentieth century's visual language of consumerism-have their roots in magazine cover art of the late nineteenth century.

Kitch traces female stereotypes such as the all-American girl and the sexy girl to their predecessors the Gibson Girl and the Flapper. By locating the origins of these images and analyzing the historical context that gave rise to them, she demonstrates how they not only sold magazines, but also powerful and persistent ideologies of gender, race, class, and national identity.

Through her insightful readings of cover art from magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, The Ladies' Home Journal, The Masses, and The Crisis, Kitch illuminates a fascinating and important moment in American cultural history, when national advertising combined with national magazines to articulate and commercialize a new and uniquely American sense of identity. As Kitch persuasively argues, "Cover imagery of this era expressed-for the first time in media that were truly national-ideas about gender and about class, gradually diffusing those identity tensions by blending them into a larger notion about what it meant to be a 'typical American in the modern era. The broader editorial ideal in turn sold products through which middle-class American lifestyle could be pursued and attained. This symbiotic representational process would characterize the cultural work of mass media imagery into the twenty-first century."

Among the strengths of The Girl on the Magazine Cover is the author's combination of historical methodology and cultural theory. Kitch has seamlessly integrated her historical analysis of visual stereotypes with a wide range of relevant theoretical perspectives, including feminist theory, gender studies, art history, and the cultural history of advertising. Moreover, she presents sometimes dense theoretical concepts (such as Laura Mulvey's frequently cited notion of the male gaze) in language that is accessible without being overly facile. …


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