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Wednesday, August 17, 2022
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Buying Beauty On Both Sides of the Ocean

In a compelling lecture titled "Purchasing Pleasure: Images of Women in French and American Magazines" in the Center for the Arts Monday evening, French professor Jeanette Ludwig evaluated differences in the portrayal of the feminine experience in magazine advertisements in the United States and abroad.

Ludwig, an associate professor in the modern languages and literature department, recalled looking through a magazine with her daughter, Sarah, who was enchanted by an ad featuring a couple dressed in formal wear and engaged in a romantic balcony scene.

"She turned the page and said, 'I want that, I want to be there,'" said Ludwig. "I thought to myself, 'this is really powerful stuff.'"

Ludwig examined content elements in the advertising messages such as meta-messages and the male gaze.

She defined meta-messages as "symbolic cultural codes of what it means to be a woman." Women on both sides of the Atlantic are sent the message that to be adequate, they must be "skinny, beautiful, competent, a good mom and a good cook." Ludwig described meta-messages as "sneaky" because they imply the marketed image is "natural" and "eternal."

The "male gaze," a force prevalent in all women's magazines, is based on the notion that the woman is split in two - she is a "surveyor" but is always examining herself from the outside, as "an object to be worked on."

"The implication in women's magazines is that we are preparing ourselves for the male gaze ... we are preparing ourselves to be consumed by the guy looking at us," said Ludwig.

Aided by a slide show featuring ads in American magazines such as Seventeen, Marie Claire and Ladies' Home Journal and their French counterparts, Jenne Jolie, Marie Claire (France) and Femme Activ, Ludwig compared how these messages are delivered.

In one American advertisement, a teenage girl in short-shorts and a baby-T talked on a cellular phone while a young boy in a karate school stared at her. Ludwig said the photo showed the girl posing to be viewed by others, while the males in the background were engaged in sport.

"We are preparing the girl to be looked at already," Ludwig said.

Similarly, in a French advertisement for Levis, which boasted an ability to "conform to your curves," a solitary topless girl posed in a pair of jeans that hung low enough to reveal slightly less than half of her buttocks.

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Ludwig said the main difference in advertising techniques between the United States and France is that Americans seek to imitate fashion trends set by models and celebrities and usually feature large-group photo shoots, while the French photograph individual models displaying looks that can be adapted to suit the French woman's own unique sense of style.

A Seventeen prom edition, for example, featuring groups of girls in similar gowns contrasted with a French teen magazine that posed individual models in outfits inspired by different regions of the globe.

"The French concept of beauty comes from creating yourself," said Ludwig. "French women seem to think of themselves as unique, fashionable because of their presentation, but also because of the artistry that comes into creating themselves."

Both French and American magazines, particularly those aimed at a teenage audience, emphasize the importance of being in relationships with males. The approach, however, differs. American magazines emphasize grooming oneself for the relationship and dealing with issues such as stalking, harassment and cheating, while the French are more concerned with how to have the upper-hand in a relationship.

"Running the relationship is important on the French side, whereas what does Seventeen focus on ... preparing our sweet tender girls for the big, bad world," said Ludwig.

The messages of how best to prepare teenage girls for womanhood, however, are often conflicting.

Ludwig noted a Seventeen article on teenage mothers juxtaposed with an advertisement for Candies perfume which featured a half-naked model sitting on a sink with her legs wrapped around Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath, who is wearing only a towel.

"America has not yet come to grips with how it should be talking about sex with teenagers," she said.

The study on which Ludwig's lecture was based is a follow-up to research performed 20 years ago on the same subject. Ludwig wanted to see if the results had changed after two decades and was surprised to note that the messages delivered to women via the media have changed little since 1980.



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