A space of one’s own: Women’s consumption within family life

This is a study of women’s consumption in the home. It explores issues of time
and space, and addresses the importance the women who took part in the study place on
consumption in their lives, given the ‘juggling’ lifestyle experienced by most of them.

The study reveals family life to be a landscape within which these women carve out
what they perceive as valuable and rare time and space for themselves. The authors argue
that in contemporary family life women’s play a key part in the quest for
me-time and time away from others, in both a tangible and experiential sense

Women’s genres and
women’s lives
Women’s genres such as soap opera, romance
fiction and women’s magazines can best be
understood when viewed through the lens of
‘women’s culture’ (Showalter in Abel, 1982).


This perspective positions women’s genres
within a ‘muted’ communality of women based
on equality and sisterhood, and as such
women’s culture can be perceived as an
empowering one that often serves to mock
the dominant (male) discourse and culture
(Radner, 1995). Women’s genres have been
traditionally associated with low culture as
opposed to high culture, and consequently
have been trivialised and denigrated (Lury,
1996). Indeed mass culture in all its forms has
been traditionally perceived as ‘feminine and
inferior’ (Huyssen, 1986, p. 196, in Hollows,
2000). This perspective has been challenged
and indeed overturned, with cultural studies
critics now celebrating popular culture as
important cultural practices that privilege
consumption and ‘the beliefs and practices
of ordinary people’ ( Schudson, 1998, p. 495).
The shift in focus is symptomatic of the
breakdown of high culture and low culture,
and indeed many other binary oppositions in
contemporary Western consumer culture
( Nowell-Smith, 1987; Frith, 1998). It is typically attributed to postmodernism, and McRobbie (1994) argues that one of the major effects
of postmodernism in cultural studies has been
to take ‘popular pleasures seriously’ (p. 26).
The new Zeitgeist manifests itself as a postmodern interest in readers and consumers
rather than a modernist interest in producers
and texts, in how texts are received and
interpreted by readers, rather than in how they
are constructed and made.
There has been considerable debate in the
past 10 years or so about the relationship
between feminism and postmodernism (see,
e.g. Nava, 1991; Ang and Hermes, 1997;
Shildrick, 1997; Creed, 1998; Morris, 1998),
and the issue of whether women’s genres
should be understood within a modernist
discourse of concern and displeasure, or
within a postmodernist discourse of celebration and pleasure is one that continues to rage
in feminist media studies (Van Zoonen, 1994).
The literature on women’s magazines reflects
these two conflicting discourses. The modernist concern discourse predominated in the
1970s and 1980s during Second wave feminism, and resulted in some powerful critiques of
women’s magazines (see, e.g. Ferguson, 1983;
winship, 1987), all of which critiqued
women’s magazines for creating and perpetuating false consciousness in women. More
recently, reader-focused studies have adopted
a postmodern, nojudgement and celebratory perspective (see e.g. Radner, 1995; Ang,
1996). Nava (1991) writes that the paradigm
shift from production to consumption in these
so-called postmodern times has led to an
orientation towards ‘fantasy, identity, meaning
and protest’, and ultimately to ‘a new consumer activism’ in relation to which women
are ideally placed (p. 167). This postmodern
feminist stance focuses less on the oppressive
and exploitative power of women’s magazines,
and more on their liberatory potential: media
that offer women multiple pleasures, multiple
choices and indeed acknowledge multiple
identities (McCracken, 1993).

The focus for researchers and commentators is thus on respect rather than concern for readers, on not moralising, and on letting readers speak and judge for themselves. Above all, a postmodern emphasis stresses pleasure, creativity and reader resistance (Hermes, 1995). In keeping with this perspective, Ang (1996) suggests that rather than seeing women’s genres as either a cause for concern or something to celebrate, it is perhaps more constructive for us to adopt a flexible and pragmatic approach. Our work is positioned within this postmodern feminist perspective.

Women’s genres are usually cyclical and fluid in form and they tend to comprise women-centred narratives and have a relational and private sphere focus.

They are also primarily written by and consumed by women and construct and address a feminine subject (Modleski, 1982; Ballaster et al., 1991; Geraghty, 1991). Modleski (1982) has argued that women’s genres reflect the deferrals, incompleteness, repetitions and lack of focus so often experienced by women in terms of their work in the home. More recently, Moores (1997) writes that they typically appeal to fantasy, but offer ‘emotional realism’. Escapism and fantasy are key characteristics of women’s genres, enabling women to enter ideal worlds which often bear little or no resemblance to their everyday lives (Geraghty, 1997, 1998). In their utopian appeal, however, these genres may also serve as resistance to the current social order and challenge masculine cultural norms (Modleski, 1982; Light, 1984; Ballaster & al., 1991; Beetham, 1996).

With regard to women’s magazines as a genre, different magazines are read in different ways. Weekly magazines tend to be read in a shallow way as befits their format, content and purpose ( Winship, 1987). However, monthly magazines (namely those that are bought regularly and are often subscribed to) are read in an entirely different manner that is in some respects more comparable to reading books.


These magazines are read in a sustained, concentrated, time-intensive and attentionintensive way. This form of magazine consumption was given high status and high significance by the women who took part in this research study. Monthly magazines are typically consumed in a ritualistic manner that involves planning and anticipation, as well as scene setting and privacy. As such they facilitate a consumer ritual that is highly charged with symbolic, expressive activity (Rook, 1985). In a sense women become stage managers, materially manipulating time and space in order to set the scene for magazine consumption.


The overall purpose of this current study has been to explore and gain a deeper understanding of the values and meanings attached to women reader’s rituals surrounding magazine consumption, and how magazines assist them in configuring time and space within the confines of family life.

As such, its primary focus is on women consumers, and what they make of magazines in the context of their day-to-day lives.

By appsstones