stack of magazine covers

The Representation of Women on Magazine Covers


There is no doubt women were underrepresented by mass media, reduced to stereotypes, such as the wife and homemaker, or objectified for the pleasure of the male gaze. When a strong female was depicted in the narrative, the character did not hold a position of serious authority and was often defined by her relationship with a man. Gaye Tuchman (1978) called this repression the “symbolic annihilation” of women.

Of course, this narrow representation reflected the dominant values and ideologies of the institutions behind the media texts which were profiting from the reinforcement of traditional gender identities. By limiting their roles to marriage and children, the media was refusing to raise the aspirations of young women to attain positions of power and independence. In fact, George Gerbner argued television was “undercutting” women through excessive victimisation which served as a “counterattack” against the feminist agenda.

How can we free women from the tyranny of media messages limiting their lives to hearth and home?

Gaye Tuchman

Majorie Ferguson’s analysis of the representation of women on magazine covers remains an incredibly useful insight into how readers are taught a false set of ideals regarding their appearance, behavior and self-perception. Let’s get started.

Majorie Ferguson’s Four Looks

In the second section of Tuchman’s (1978) “Hearth and Home: Images of Women in the Mass Media”, Majorie Ferguson summarised her analysis of the representation of women on the front covers of three popular British magazines published from 1949 to 1974. These publications were produced commercially for a female audience and, Ferguson argued, offered tremendous insight into women’s social roles and relationships because “producers emphasise cover photographs as potential sources of reader identification”.

Ferguson noted magazines were a complex mechanism of social control because they reinforced the traditional ideology of women as “the smiling pleaser our culture defines”. This is very similar to Naomi Wolf’s concept of the beauty myth.

Her content analysis revealed the dominant visual image was that of the “big head” which resembled the close-up shot of film and television presentations and decontextualised the subject. You can try your own analysis of magazine covers by searching for images online. Perhaps three-quarters and full-length poses are more popular now.

However, Ferguson concluded there were four main looks which appealed to the male gaze: chocolate box, invitational, super smiler, and romantic or sexual.

Chocolate Box

The data showed the “Chocolate Box” was the dominant cover image. This is a look where a female model shows a “half or full smile” with her teeth “barely visible”. Her “uniformity of feature” and “smooth perfection” are “devoid of uniqueness or of individuality”. Ferguson described the projected mood as a “warm bath kind of warmth” and “blandly pleasing”, positioning women to be “pleasant and unproblematic”.

The “Chocolate Box” pose was given the label by George Watts, the Art Editor of Woman, 1937 to 1966 who was referring to the sugar-sweet images of femininity which were used to decorate boxes of candy in Britain.


The “Invitational” look placed “emphasis on the eyes” with “only a hint of a smile”. The model normally had her head to one side or was gazing back at the lens. Ferguson suggested the pose projected “mystery or mischief” and was the “cover equivalent of advertising’s soft sell”.

Super Smiler

Equivalent to the hard sell, the “Super Smiler” pose encoded an “aggressive” and “look-at-me” message to the audience. The model would have “wind-blown” hair and show her “full-face” with a “wide-open, toothy smile”. Her head would be “thrust forward” or her “chin” was “thrown back”.

Romantic or Sexual

This “more general classification” was popular in the 1950s. The models would have “dreamy, heavy-lidded, unsmiling big heads”. These images often included a female and a male in the picture.

Magazine Cover Task

Scroll through the following magazine covers to see if you can apply Marjorie Ferguson’s classifications to contemporary examples:

Other Findings

Although the average reader was over thirty-five years old, Ferguson noted the magazines seemed to “stress the desirability of youth” and “the identification of beauty with youth” because the majority of covers featured women in their twenties. Some covers encoded a “fantasy-like invitation to eternal youth”. Other covers took a “marginally more realistic approach to demography” and offered representations of a “non-youthful (but never old) female population”.

Age Distribution of Cover Models (1949-74)
Age Distribution of Cover Models (1949-74)

Ferguson also noticed there was an absence of background or situational clues which would help identify social class. She argued women’s magazines were “consciously classless” and offered no obvious representations of upper and middle class lifestyles, so they constructed the ambiguous “world of women as middle class”. Did that suggest a woman’s status was still dependent on that of her husband or father? Or that women formed their own separate social class?

Final Thoughts

Ferguson believed magazine covers were socialising agents which transmitted prescriptions of “culturally agreed-upon roles, goals, and values”. This is especially true when you considered their immense popularity and influence.

Editors would try to find an image which they believed represented the ideal form readers would use to help construct their identity. The model’s “importance is stressed by her symbolic dualism in representing both a magazine’s identity and its reader idealizations”. By implication, the magazines also prescribed the male role in society.

In our introduction to Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze, we looked at how sexist images in classical Hollywood films positioned women to accept a subservient role in society. The psychologist was concerned the long-term effects of continued exposure to these narratives would have a detrimental impact on how women behaved and viewed themselves. The same could also be said for the representation of women on the cover of magazines.

The next time you are looking at images in magazines, the title cards for programmes on television, or promoted posts on Instagram, try to find the common poses which the producers believe represent women’s contemporary “roles, goals and values”.

If you would like to know more about the codes and conventions of the form, you should read our analysis of magazine covers.

Ferguson, Marjorie (1978): “Imagery and Ideology: the Cover Photographs of Traditional Women’s Magazines” in Hearth and home : images of women in the mass media.
Ferguson, Marjorie (1981): “The Woman’s Magazine Cover Photograph” in The Sociological Review. 198.
Tuchman, G., Daniels, A. K., & Benét, J. (1978): “Hearth and home : images of women in the mass media”.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!