The Making Of The ‘Feminine’: Looking At Popular Magazines Inside Out

Dr. Babitha Justin

Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology

Do women’s magazines and their consumption have a close nexus with their living reality or are ‘realties’ constructed through print cultures? To fathom this paradox of the print culture in the Kerala context, I would like to take a look at two popular magazines in Kerala. My paper deals with the Malayala Manorama Weekly and Vanita, which according to the latest ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) statistics, indicate the staggering indices of the largest circulated weekly and second largest selling women’s magazine in India. Malayala Manorama Weekly is the largest selling weekly in India with 7.3 lakhs copies circulated every week and Vanitha, bimonthly is India's largest selling women's magazine with 4.7 lakh copies. This paper is about two magazines on women, at a time when women increasingly participate as contributors, reading subjects and as represented objects in print culture.

This is a working paper and any creative suggestions at the end of this are welcome. My paper draws heavily on the source magazines, internet sources homepages, Wikipedia and personal blogs, a couple of researches made on print media in Kerala, some interesting documents, Ph D dissertations, on the impact of print culture in Kerala and also on the interviews and discussions with my own peer group in Hyderabad Central University and Trivandrum.

To begin with, it is necessary to take a look at the history of print and the emergence of magazines in print culture in the context of Kerala. The story of printed letters in Kerala began with some early Portuguese ventures in the Kerala Coast in 1500s. But full-fledged printing as an enterprise began with Charles Mead, “a printer turned missionary, who established the first printing press in 1820 under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. He was soon followed by Benjamin Bailey; founder of the Missionary society in Kerala. He was also the founder of the Church Missionary Society Press in Kottayam in 1821.

Robin Jeffrey, an eminent critic who has worked immensely on Kerala, says that a polemic entrepreneurial shift in growing valuable cash crops in Travancore, brought in a “modern colonial bureaucracy” that led the way to many social and institutional changes that occurred in Kerala. He says that, along with the establishment of printing press in Kerala, there was a widespread literary movement, fostered by the state, which also established a non-missionary printing presses in 1853, “which emphasized on local-level primary education”. This movement is an interesting phenomenon in the sense it negotiated the quodlibet of coalescing two parallel yet opposing streams, of Christian religious as well as State-sponsored printing enterprise in Kerala.

According to Jeffrey, the print history in Kerala underwent three major phases. The first phase was that of printing as a rare stage, which began in 1820 and lasted till 1880s. This was the time when printing existed as a rare enterprise, which catered only to exclusive needs as in the case of publishing for religious purposes, printing text books for state use and other documents for select use. The second phase, which is the Elite phase, started Kerala in 1880s and lasted for a fairly long time for about a century, till the 1970s. Printing at the time of the elite phase was also scarce, mysterious as well as relatively expensive. Print in Elite phase moulded the environment for Kerala’s socio political scenario. Though the circulation of print was relatively small, it has in fact influenced and revolutionised the socio-political ambience of Kerala for a relatively long period of time. Though there were a few newspapers of note those days, it was Shri Kandathil Varghese Mappila who revolutionized print with a long standing newspaper which is available to date. Jeffrey, in his article calls this phase in the annals of print history in Kerala, as the stage of print as an elite medium. The third phase of mass medium emerged with the force of mass-market capitalism which entered Kerala towards the end of 1960s. Circulation of printed matter boomed by 18 per cent. This is that seminal departure where media became vehicles to entertainment rather than polemic education.

Here, in this paper I shall be looking at the phenomenon of femininity created and marketed by two popular magazines of the Malayala Manorama group of Publications.

Malayala Manorama Weekly was established in 1937 to cater to men and women alike in Kerala. But unfortunately, after a year of its publication, the Travancore Govt closed down Malayala Manorama for inciting sedition, and also inciting them “to disobedience of the law” After the state prohibition, the newspaper started its re print only in 1947, and the weekly has to wait for another decade for its reprint and circulation. On 18th February 1956, Malayala Manorama Weekly started reprinting and after that it didn’t have to turn back in its popularity and circulation.

Whereas Vanita, as we all know, is not the first women’s magazine in Malayalam. It began its publication as an exclusive magazine for women in March 1975. The first women’s magazine in Kerala was Kerala Sugunabodhini that came out in 1886. After that in 40 years as the elite phase in print persisted, there were at least eight magazines of notable mention.

When I went through the articles, interviews and advertisements in articles in Vanita in 2008 and 1976 issues of a whole year, I could see certain patterns in thirty two years of its publication. I began with the Cover pages of Vanita over three decades as well as the recent issues of Malayala Manorama Weekly. The cover pages in themselves were tell tale of the obvious class differences that the magazines were catering to, which in fact delineated the differences which bordered on the subtle distinction of the ‘popular’ from ‘popular elite’.

In Manorama weekly, women in traditional roles, exuding “Malayalithwam” , are chosen as cover models. Till recently we could even see girls who generally dress up in dawani and saree with a basil leaf on their hair, feature as hot favorites in the cover model arena. The same way the two piece traditional saree clad model could also be seen as a recurring figure. In the cover, occasionally we can see male models and they would be rare exceptions, like our superstars, or someone very popular among the masses. Otherwise, we can see Malayalee models, who uphold the ‘essence’ of Malayalee womanhood.

In Vanita, the ethos of a metropolitan womanhood is fore-grounded. We have models, Malayalee and non Malayalee, wearing Western clothes, home makers of importance, successful professionals, sports women, and successful, ‘feel good’, ‘happy looking’ families also feature in the cover picture. In deep contrast to each other, these magazines project different models, in order to cater to the interest of different classes/castes in Kerala. This may sound rather a simplistic deduction of the general phenomenon, but the recurring patterns of choosing and projecting cover models are indicative of the indices of “femininity” handed down in a platter to women/men consumers of the print. The class/caste implications of the images are also well defined here in the models of desirability projected on cover pictures.

It is at this juncture; TP Sabitha’s path-breaking study on the construction of ‘femininity’ in Kerala in early women’s magazines becomes relevant. In her study, she finds three discursive broad categories in early women’s magazines which were “related to the project of educating women to become ideals of urbane femininity. These are: sexuality, health and hygiene and physical appearance”. In all these debates, a woman is posited in the realm of the corporeal. Her mental faculties are channelized to groom her physicality. These parameters which bestowed education and enlightenment to women also set aside certain projected models of functionality for women’s bodies which were restricted well within their domestic boundaries and gendered roles.

Ratheesh Radhakrishnan takes this argument one step further by exploring constructed “masculinities” in Kerala by stating that the “women’s question’ of the late twentieth century, was floated and debated extensively by early Malayalam magazines in Kerala. He says, “In the process of negotiating the “women’s question”, these movements and public debates that emerged in those times in the many journals that were in circulation reorganized notions of gender in such a way that it discursively produced notions of ‘sexual difference’ for years to come. Women’s journals that were circulated in early twentieth century Kerala, addressed women , who had not, in their vision , integrated themselves into the newly constituted modern forms of life, and attempted to indulge in a pedagogic discourse vis-a-vis ‘ideal forms of femininity’’ . He adds that within this logic, women “were seen as embodying inherent qualities like nurturing, patience and kindness. They are qualified to look after home and also take on vocations like teaching and nursing which were seen as an extension of their domestic duties”

With this information in the background, if we look at the 1976 edition of Vanitha we can see concurring patterns in these books which take on this sequence

  1. Discussion of marital problems
  2. Autobiographies of wives of eminent personalities and women professionals like writers, doctors, etc
  3. Tackling sexual frigidity , related diseases and sexual tips to satisfy a man
  4. Cooking, art and craft
  5. Shopping and frugality in shopping (never spend husband’s money too much)
  6. Mothering and housekeeping
  7. Cosmetics and yogic work out series to remain a slim beauty
  8. Rasa bindukkal (which usually harp quite a lot on sexist jokes)
  9. Comic strip to wind it up

Here, the woman’s domesticity and physicality are stressed with a slight variation by applauding and projecting the achievements of professional women, who invariably do the balancing act of carrying out professional as well as domestic duties with the ‘dutiful’ pace, gusto, efficiency and enthusiasm. While according women their most “rightful” space of the domestic privates, the Magazine in ate 70s goes one step forward to include women professionals into its domain. As and when they do it, the domesticity and the familial duties of the professional women, and the right balance she keeps in upholding them, are also emphasized and deliberated in so many words.

In the same magazine, after thirty odd years, (the tumble of thirty odd years is important here, because 70s, according to Jeffrey’s mark the beginning of the ‘mass medium’ phase in Kerala,

which continues to persist even in the present era), these concerns are aired again, with a very subtle difference. It is here that we have to take into account the historical changes that ‘woman’ as a category has undergone in three decades. It is poignant to take up Radhakrishnan’s argument where he says, “The status of ‘women’ as a positive index of development in statistics remained unchallenged till the late 1980s when various women’s groups and feminist groups questioned its salience. It was also around the same time that women became a category of political organization in Kerala. A number of organizations began to use the language of gender. In this context a clear-cut hierarchy between women and men-both identified as ontologically coherent singular entities-was also being imagined. Such a position created a victim predator relationship-one that was seen as ahistorical, unchanging and universal. This move could be understood as an attempt to politicize the binary of man and woman that had been put in place in the early twentieth century by arguing that there are power relations inherent to the notions of gender difference accepted for about a century.”

In contemporary publications, we can also see the way in which the present day concerns of education and profession are taken care of well. The indices of women achievers and their inclusion in the project of women’s magazines are also high compared to the late seventies. But surprisingly, the same concerns of health, hygiene, manners recur with more sophisticated researches put into it.

In this context, I would like to bring attention to one of the articles which brought considerable debate in the cyber space. In Vanita’s April 2008 issue, an article about the ensnaring propensities of technology was highlighted by the article titled “Mobile Phones and the Blue Truth” which narrated case studies of various women who were exploited and trapped by the misuse of technology. The article reads thus:.

Another story goes thus:

The moral of the story of the ensnaring web of technology is encapsulated thus towards the end:

Though this particular article elicited a lot of outbursts from the tech-savvy young generation in Kerala, it is enough to say that these protests were confined to the virtual world.

Another story that has been of relevance is an appalling account the story of missing women in Kerala. The article “Where have 9404 women and children disappeared?” was the cover story of September 15-30 2008 issue and it discussed the alarming rate in which women and children disappear from Kerala, and some return after being exploited sexually, while some end up in brothels and some even end up as unidentified corpses. The root cause of this disappearance, the magazine points out, is elopement which is triggered by mobile phones and other gadgets of modern technology.

Another, interesting story that featured in one of the issues is about Ms. Reba Daniel, who gave birth to a child without medical assistance. Vanitha hailed this as the different choices a woman had in an alternative to medical assistance in child birth, and how natural ways of child birth are healthier and more beneficial to the emotional bondage that the mother and baby shared. These stories cannot be treated as isolated instances, because clearly there is a message that is disseminated in the moral rubric of these ‘real’ tales and case studies, that is technology can be really detrimental and harmful to women and children if not used in a proper fashion. The rhetoric of this sparing, vigilant and cautious use of technology can be deduced as:

  1. Technology is friendly and savvy yet sophisticated and can be frankensteinian
  2. Sophisticated technology needs careful and cautious handling
  3. Women can especially be exploited if unaware of the technological dangers prying in the dark
  4. Exploitation can be detrimental physically, sexually and emotionally
  5. As women are almost always the victims of the ‘male’s’ smart use of technology, they should be vigilant and sparing in its use and never get ensnared by its nefarious web which can even lead them to prostitution or even death as an unidentified body in a mortuary.

May be this moral fabric of the whole story can actually put women and parents on guard, which is good enough, but what is uneasy about these articles is that there is little or no study on the factors of disappearance, except than in the blame game of ‘brainless’, ‘naïve’ women who use/misuse technology. The sociological, psychological and other significant factors which contribute to this alarming factor are not at all looked into at all. Another aspect is that women and children are considered as contiguous, mutually inclusive categories and not separate entities. Another very important message spun into the narrative is the playing up of the ‘victim-predator’ aspect thus building up the binaries of the notions of female/male. Complementary to this, the resistance to situate women as consumers at ease with technology is also implicated here. This disturbingly locates technology as a cerebral commodity, very male in its production, consumption and implications, which does not become handy to ‘women’ who are located in the realm of the ‘corporeal’. The disturbing and uneasy trajectory of the binaries of male/female, predator/victim and cerebral/corporeal, etc are insidiously couched within these stories.

Malayala Manorama Weekly, one of the most popular weeklies in India fortunately or unfortunately has the title of being a ‘Ma’ weekly. Ma publications, as you know, are a series of publications that are supposed to ‘harp on the emotional sentiments of people with its novellas, serialized novels, and other articles which touch upon the gory, sentimental and impulsive aspects of human behavior’. This particular aspect of dealing with the raw emotions makes it popular and marketable to a lower middle class and middle class populace of Kerala. It is especially aimed at the house wives, college students, etc especially from sub-urban to rural back grounds. It is this factor which has actually invited the ire of many intellectual organizations in Kerala. The derision and contempt which were peripheral and unspoken, took a decisive turn in the years from 1987-90s, when young DYFI activists started a campaign against Ma publications in all university campuses in Kerala. Their way of protest was in making bonfires of these weeklies, Malayala Manorama included, which according to them incited young and immature minds to unnecessary sentimentalities which triggered high suicide rates among women and youngsters. The main problem here was the fact, intellectual organizations found the content too physically and emotionally titillating rather than intellectual.

There aren’t many a literature about this onslaught and antagonism, but I found a very interesting piece of writing during this time by Anil Kumar A V called “ The Saffron Colored Plague” (Kaavi Niramulla Plague). In this book, Anil Kumar tells us the way in which Fascism is nurtured by the mass media. He says that the onslaught of mass media in middle class homes has dragged them into the realms of material benefits alone that in fact have nurtured capitalistic fascism among the middle class consumers of the mass media. This was again the kind of the rhetoric of the leftist intellectuals upheld which argued that the main stream print as well as the electronic media capitalized on the democratic spirit as well as the naiveté of the society to disseminate seeds of print capitalism and fascism. This movement was This movement died a natural death with the passage of time, and Ma magazine, especially Manorama Weekly has boosted its distribution more than it was expected. But, despite this the same issues of upholding an essentialistic notion of femininity is inherent in a more militant fashion in Manorama Weekly.

At the end of my analysis, however, when we look at the various thematic permutations and combinations of the two magazines I have taken for study, we can see the following features. The magazines tend to

  1. Systematically enwrap women within the private sphere of home, by connecting them to the institution of marriage, domesticity, familial values, etc.
  2. On the surface, in these magazines, women seem to have the agential position as editors, writers, reading objects as well as the represented objects
  3. How a model of femininity is constructed over certain parameters which are based on gender, class and caste
  4. How women’s ‘concerns’ are aired through these magazines
  5. How these magazines redefine the concept of the popular as “popular” vs “popular elite”
  6. How these magazines are implicated within a fairly long tradition of constructing different veneers of femininity over the ages
  7. How they have also withstood, negotiated and won over the intellectual tirades over ages.

At the outset, these magazines make claims on the social positioning and capabilities of women which posit them as nowhere inferior to men; nevertheless, we can also see that associate women with love, matrimony and motherhood, house-making, housekeeping, etc. Somewhere they also become the nodal point where they connect the public and private spheres where they also give attention to earning (at home and office), women’s psychological and sexual problems, behaviour and attitudes which basically constitute femininity, etc. Domesticity, as lived experience and an ideology, also features as a major concern in these magazines. Here, through analyses of these magazines, we can see the construction of the constituent components of the ‘feminine’, which is based on the Schwerpunkt of models and ideals which have been drawn from history as well as imagination.



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