February 11, 2005

Advertising Images of Females in Seventeen: Positions of Power or Powerless Positions?

The teen population is projected to reach 34 million by 2010, and magazine publishers are fighting to be relevant, fresh and advertising rich in the age of the Internet and interactive media consumption (Merrill, 1999). Teens are particularly vulnerable to the powerful cultural influence of advertising because they're at the identity-forming stage in life. According to Berger (2000), "the momentous changes that occur during the teen years-growth spurt, sexual awakening, less personal schools, more intimate friendships and risk taking-all challenge the adolescent to find his or her identity, his or her unique and consistent self definition" (p. 501).

Teen girls are especially vulnerable to the influence of magazine ads in terms of their place in society (Baldwin, 1999; Kilbourne, 1987; Wiseman, 2002). Recent trends in both feminism and pop culture have encouraged young women to equate beauty and sexuality with power (Drake, 2002; Kilbourne, 1999; Wolf, 1992). Young women view sexualized images as role models and their own sexuality as their primary tool for self-efficacy (Baldwin, 1999). It is necessary to understand what messages teen girls are consuming and how these messages impact their societal roles. This study seeks to determine whether women are portrayed more often as independent or subordinate and whether female sexuality is represented as symbolizing power.

A semiotic analysis of one year, 12 issues, of Seventeen magazine will provide the framework for discovering what messages are sent to young girls through magazine ads. This study analyzes the subtle visual signs used in advertising imagery that cue the reader into the expected roles and meanings associated with the women portrayed. The literature, coupled with feminist theory, allows for a discussion of what these images really mean to the self-images of teens, their femininity and place in society.

Literature Review

Teens and Magazines

Handelman (2001) describes teens as needing a magazine more than anyone because adolescents seek out magazines for answers and guidance during the confusing teen years. The identity-forming influence is especially salient for teen girls because they seem to bond with their magazines, thinking of them as a sister or friend (Merrill, 1999).

Teen girls use magazine images to construct their definitions of femininity by comparing the images to themselves, others and the ideals of their peers. They choose those images or stories of femininity they can most relate to and find desirable (McRobbie, 1989). The following sections review concepts of feminist theory and literature on women's representation in advertising, leading to the analysis of images contained in Seventeen magazine.

Feminist Approaches to the Media

Feminist theory is a useful tool for analyzing advertising images because women still do not have control over the meanings of their images (Rakow, 1992). One element of third-wave feminism is "power feminism." As second-wave feminism de-emphasized women's appearance as a marker of their worth, power feminism told women it is OK to be sexy and beautiful. Critics question this concept by asking who defines the concepts of "sexy" and "beautiful" for women.

Wolf (1992) finds that the media's preoccupation with idealized, sexual females distracts third-wave feminists from true personal empowerment and steers them toward a false sense of power gained only by following the sexualized ideal. Overall, feminists agree that changes in advertising are connected to changes in women's social position (Rakow, 1992). As third-wave feminism divides itself on the issue of embracing or shunning beauty, women's positions in advertising need to be analyzed to understand women's inequality in society.

Female Depictions in Advertising

Women are often stereotyped to fit certain myths or combinations of qualities that depict a traditional stereotype of femininity, such as brains or beauty. Countless cultural examples have told women they can either have a mind or a body, but not both (Wolf, 1991). Female models are more likely than males to be portrayed in submissive, stereotypical sex roles, to be sexually displayed and the subjects of violent imagery (Kilbourne, 1987; Rudman & Verdi, 1993). The following sections will review myths of femininity portrayed by women in magazine ads, specifically their depiction as subordinate vs. independent and as possessing sexual power.

Female as subordinate vs. independent. A classic female advertising image is one of subordination, when a woman physically lowers herself, averts her eyes, or holds her body or head in an insecure fashion, rather than posing in an erect and superior fashion (Goffman, 1976). Childlike depictions of women also signify subordination. Children hold subordinate positions in society, and positioning women as childlike encourages valuing them with the same status (Goffman, 1976).

Sexuality as power. Teen magazines' message of gaining self worth through emphasized femininity has been shown to resonate with teen girls regardless of class and race (Kaplan & Cole, 2003). Baldwin (1999) found teen girls to define this sexualized power as self- efficacy, or the ability to control one's own life. According to McRobbie and Garber (1975), teen girls often use exaggerated sexuality to resist outside control of their lives. Teen girls take what they have been shown by magazine ads as an empowering characteristic, their sexuality, and exaggerate it (Baldwin, 1999). As teens struggle to gain power in their lives, sexualized female depictions perpetuate the idea that all women are powerless to control their lives without relying on their sexuality.

Pop culture's obsession with teen celebrities such as Britney Spears reinforces the concept of powerful sexuality. Spears is the only female artist to have four albums debut at No. 1 and the search engine Google named her the most-researched person on their site in 2003 (Peterson, 2004). As Spears' cultural power increases, so does her sexual exhibitionism. Despite this, she would like people to "focus on her music, not her midriff," (Hall, 2003). Pop culture values Spears' body and actions more than her voice, reinforcing the idea in young girls' minds that beauty and overt sexuality are primary sources of power in their lives.

The sexual objectification of the bare female midriff by pop culture was developed as a marketing tool to target teen girls and encourage their preoccupation with appearance and sex. Young women are taught to flaunt their sexuality even if they do not understand it, and they are told that their body is their best asset (Goodman, 2001).

Women and teens are vulnerable to the influence of advertising because their images are used as primary tools for selling everything from cars to clothing. Teen girls are particularly susceptible to this influence due to their identity-forming stage in life and reliance on magazines for both recreation and role models. Third-wave feminism and its issues of beauty and power have led to the association of self-efficacy with sexuality. The images of teen magazines and their myths of femininity are important to decode in order to understand the future roles and values these girls will hold as women in society.

Based on these previous findings, I propose to answer the following research questions using a semiotic visual analysis of Seventeen magazine:

RQ1: Are females represented more often as subordinate or independent?

RQ2: Is female sexuality represented as symbolizing power?


Semiotic Analysis and Advertisements

A basic step of feminist analysis is isolating specific examples from their context, and viewing separate images as subjects worth individual study (Lazarus, 2001). This is accomplished through semiotic analyses of individual images that deconstruct their signifying structures. Semiotics allows the researcher to identify the meaning of magazine content behind the images, gaining an understanding of the signifying structures as a whole (McRobbie, 1989).

Semiotic analysis is a more prominent method for questioning visual images than either compositional interpretation or content analysis (Rose, 2001). It is especially relevant for studying visual images because, unlike speech, visual images are always pre- meditated and their symbolic significance is often planned with a particular message in mind (Rose, 2001). Photographic visuals are successful tools for manipulation in ads because photography is often thought of as picturing reality, instead of presenting premeditated messages.


I use semiotics in this study to analyze the visual imagery of ads from 12 issues of Seventeen magazine from 2003. All commercial ads containing photographic imagery of females, in color or black and white, with or without males and covering at least one page were analyzed. Ads containing photographs taken for a primary purpose other than the ad and duplicate ads were not included. The sample included 495 total ads featuring photographic imagery, 331 of which were unique and were analyzed according to my coding matrix.

Seventeen magazine was chosen because of its position as the leading magazine for teen readers, reaching 14.45 million read\ers every month, serving as an important force in defining, socializing and empowering teen girls. One in every two American female teens reads Seventeen magazine (Seventeen editorial statement, 2003). Seventeen magazine is tailoring its message to the current prototype of the empowered, consumer-minded modern teen reader (Carr, 2003).

Categories of Analysis

The signs and their components for this study are largely based on Goffman's categories of frame analysis (1979). Researchers have successfully used his analysis to decipher the subtler content of visual ad imagery (Goffman, 1979; Klassen et. al, 1993; Kang, 1997). As explained by Gornick (1979), "Instead of looking at clutched detergents and half-naked bodies, Goffman concentrates on hands, eyes, knees; facial expressions, head postures...head-eye aversion, finger biting and sucking" (p. viii). These subtle visual clues give much information about the position and role of women in advertising and society.

Signifieds and Signifiers. The following three concepts were established as signifieds for this study: subordination, independence/self-assurance and body display. Corresponding physical images, or signifiers, operationalize the eight concepts or signifieds of this study. Subordination is operationalized by physical postures of females identified by Goffman as projecting subordination, including female lowering herself, bashful knee bend, head/body cant, lying/sitting on a bed or floor, childlike behavior or dress and childlike posture. Depictions of females as independent signify independence/self assurance. Complete or partial nudity signifies body display.

Signs/Myths. Women are often stereotyped to fit certain myths, or combinations of qualities that depict a traditional stereotype of femininity. Myths are created using second-level semiotics to attach signs to the ideologies or stories they represent in our culture. Three categories of myths of femininity or signs were developed for this study based on the relationship between the signifiers and signifieds. They include: Female as Subordinate, Female as Independent and Sexuality as Power. Combining signifiers and signifieds, as well as referencing literature on issues of teens and magazine ads formed these categories.


Each unique ad served as one unit of analysis, with a total of 331 ads analyzed. Ads were analyzed separately according to a coding matrix containing signifier, signified and sign categories and key questions to ask when analyzing ads for myths of femininity. First, each ad was labeled according to date of issue, page number and sponsor. Next, each ad was analyzed according to the identified signifier and signified variables and then evaluated according to the identified signs/myths. All observations were recorded as notes on the coding matrix, including comments about the ad that did not fit into any of the pre-determined categories. Observations are discussed using selected ads from the sample as examples. Finally, I will discuss the meanings behind the images contained in Seventeen advertising, as well as their effect on the present and future lives of teen girls.


The vast majority of the ads in the sample depicted at least one of the signs and accompanying signifiers of this analysis. The visual sign or myth of femininity most displayed in this sample was "female as subordinate."

The most frequently observed signifier variables were female depicted as confident (60%), head/body cant (51%) and complete/ partial nudity (37%) (see Table A). Females were depicted as fitting the visual signs "female as subordinate" (56%), "sexuality as power" (22%) and "female as independent" (22%) (see Table A). Percentage totals for the sample across signifier and sign categories exceeded 100% because one ad typically displayed more than one category.

Table A. Results of Semiotic Substance Variables


RQ1, "Are females represented more often as subordinate or independent?" was analyzed according to signs of subordination and independence/selfassurance. Signifiers of subordination included: female lowering herself, bashful knee bend, head/body cant, lying/ sitting on bed/floor and childlike behavior, dress or posture. Independence/self-assurance was assessed according to whether the female model signified confidence by directly looking into the camera lens.

Subordination was depicted in 56% of the ads and 22% depicted independent/self-confident women. The following sections outline the signifiers of each variable.

Signifiers and examples of subordination. Models displayed subordination by physically lowering themselves in relation to the camera or others in the ad. Females were pictured lying across the ground or furniture or with their head on the lap of a seated male in 16% of the ads. Seventeen percent of the ads featured a woman bent at the waist or crouched down on the floor.

The bashful knee bend was signified by models who bent one knee, balancing their weight in a flirtatious, insecure posture. The bashful knee bend was displayed in 18% of all ads.

Models in my sample displayed the head cant signifier by lowering their chin or angling their head to one side and giving the camera a position of authority. Body cants included models shifting their weight to one side and angling their body in an insecure rather than natural posture. Head and/or body cant was the second most prevalent signifier in this analysis, with 51% of the ads including at least one female who displayed a head or body cant.

Women were pictured in Seventeen biting their finger, sticking out their tongue, jumping on beds and dressing in "school girl" socks, skirts and pony tails. Of the total ads, 4% depicted models displaying childlike behaviors and 7% depicted women in childlike dress or postures.

Signifiers and examples of independence. The second part of RQ1 required analyzing whether female models displayed signifiers of independence/self-assurance. Models in Seventeen looked directly into the camera with confidence, holding their heads and bodies in a strong and erect position. This was the most common signifier category found in this study. A models' direct gaze was often presented alongside signifiers of subordination in her pose or posture, associating their confident gaze with their submissiveness. Sixty percent of the ads featured a female who signified independence/self-assurance, and only 22% of the ads featured a model whose overall image symbolized "female as independent," free of any signifiers of subordination or childlike behaviors.

When analyzing the overall meaning of my sample, more ads were found to feature subordination rather than independence and self- assurance of the model. This finding addresses RQ1 in that models in Seventeen ads are pictured more often as subordinate than independent.

Sexuality as Power

To answer RQ2, "Is female sexuality represented as symbolizing power?" ads were analyzed according to the signifiers of body display coupled with independence/self-assurance. Ads in Seventeen sometimes featured models who confidently confront the viewer with their gaze while displaying themselves in an overtly sexual manner or dress, representing their sexuality as powerful. Of the sample, 22% included a female signifying powerful sexuality.

Complete or partial nudity of the female signifies body display. Models in Seventeen are pictured wearing bathing suits, scantily clad or appearing to be nude. Women were photographed from the shoulders up wearing no visible sign of clothing. Females pictured in a group wore bathing suits while other male and female models were fully dressed. Thirtyseven percent of the ads in my study included images of the female as completely or partially nude.

Signifiers of body display and independence combined to create images of "sexuality as power." Models displayed their sexuality as power through their bare shoulders, noticeable nipples, seductive poses and confronting gazes. Twenty-two percent of the ads displayed confidence through the model's sexuality, confirming RQ2, that female sexuality is represented as symbolizing power in Seventeen..


The literature has found ads to sell the concept of femininity and its underlying ideology, that of a passive female and active male. Studies have indicated that magazine ads typically portray women as subordinate and/or as sexual objects. My results confirm that traditional displays of femininity continue to be produced in magazine ads targeted at teen girls. The current emphasis on the images of females over their substance has created a toxic cultural environment for teens.

Of the visual signs studied, "female as subordinate" was the most prevalent visual sign displayed. Although 60 percent of the ads pictured a woman looking directly into the camera lens, signifiers of body display or subordination usually negated this confidence.

Female subordination was most commonly signified by the model's head and/or body cant, appearing in over 50% of the ads. My results show that the advertising industry is still relying on this technique to subordinate the women in their ads. Photographers typically take dozens of shots in preparation for print ads. The frequent selection of ad images depicting females in subordinate postures further propagates the underlying message that women are subordinate objects rather than active human beings.

The visual dismemberment and/or highly sexualized depiction of the female body sends the message to teens that their developing bodies are sexual objects. Complete or partial nudity was found in 37% of the ads. Females continue to be represented as sexual objects in modern advertising because these images have become naturally accepted by our culture.

The popular culture phenomenon of "the midriff" was widely observed in the ads of my sample. Such sexual objectification of the female body and midriff conveys the messa\ge to teens that they should flaunt their sexuality even if they do not yet understand it.

Popular culture's emphasis on the bodies and beauty of young girls and women has led teens to associate their sexuality with power and a sense of self- efficacy. The results of my study show that women are slightly more likely to display their sexuality as power than to convey a sense of independence (see Table B). The most notable finding, however, is that 56% of the ads display subordinate females and only 22% depict independent females. Women's sexuality is still being portrayed in a passive rather than active or independent way. Teens are consuming the message that women should be beautiful sex objects, not necessarily beautiful and empowered.

The results of this study show that ads in Seventeen continue to promote the stereotypical definitions of femininity that have been observed in adult women's magazines for years. The ads in Seventeen display women as subordinate and sexualized. Many ads contained mixed messages, with a model signifying confidence through her direct gaze and subordination through her body posture. Women's bodies continue to be displayed and emphasized as objects, either through photographic cropping or subordinate postures paired with body display. Teens are consuming the same messages as their mothers, with a variety of new trends mixed in, which serve as nothing more than updated versions of the same gender-stereotyped myths of femininity.

Table B. Results of Semiotic Signs/Myths of Femininity

While most ads in my sample featured women depicted as subordinate, some ads depicted confident females free of the male gaze. In addition, about 10% of the ads featuring a woman looking directly at the camera included only one signifier of subordination or body display, making the image one step closer to portraying an active and self-assured human being. Magazine ads have the potential to evolve if audiences value images of independent and confident models rather than the traditional myths of female subordination and objectification.

The quantity and variety of advertising messages provide teens today with opportunities for media literacy and education leading to choice. Teens have the capability to choose how they would like to be represented through their purchasing behaviors. Advertisers want to create ads that will make teens buy their products, and if teens become media literate, they are less vulnerable to the insecurities promoted by ads. If teen girls reinforce the most empowering images of women in ads with their purchase decisions, advertisers may stop relying on traditional stereotypes to sell their products. Ads are not the only influence on consumerism, but their multi-media presence makes them ubiquitous in society. If our purchase decisions reflect our values gained through media literacy, the images and content of ads will follow this change.

While every effort was made to consistently analyze the ads according to the matrix developed for this study, my results represent the qualitative work of one person. Future studies should analyze the ad imagery across teen titles and over the course of a few years to provide a wider range of applicability for the results.

A semiotic study such as this concerns itself with separating visual images into a series of signifiers, signifieds and signs. Through the process of dissecting images rather than analyzing them as a whole, they may lose some of the context of the original intention. While this separation of images for analysis is done to be as consistent and thorough as possible, images are left open to a certain degree of interpretation by the researcher. Future studies could increase the range and number of categories of signifiers to better describe and detail the components of the signs and myths of femininity analyzed.

Semiotics assumes that revealing the ideologies behind images sheds light on the social effects of meaning. In order to truly study how these images are being interpreted by teens, future research would have to directly observe these girls through ethnographic studies, interviews, focus groups and empirical research. The relationship between teens and their magazines is a worthy topic of future exploration and research. Women's appearance in advertising targeted at the teen audience is important to analyze to better understand women's inequality in society, because the hope for social change lies with the younger generation.


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This paper was presented to the Commission on the Status of Women of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, August 4, 2004, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Frances Gorman received her M.S. in journalism, specializing in strategic communications, from the University of Kansas in May 2004. She currently serves as the communications director for the Kansas Democratic Party, where she is responsible for the state web site, voter file and membership communications.

Copyright Communication Research Associates, Inc. Winter 2005