Limited Shelf Life: How Newsagents’ Displays Of Magazines Reinforce Gender Stereotypes

Direct action on our mag racks could play a small part in our slow moving cultural revolution
The shelf where photography magazines live
Tracey Welch
The shelf where photography magazines live

On my way back from a shoot in London the other day, I was in the Kings Cross branch of WHSmith, looking for photography magazines. I eventually found them in ‘Men’s Lifestyle & General Interest’, along with music magazines, my other ‘go to’ journal choice and the place I’m most likely to find my work. It felt slightly strange to have to encroach on the male domain of FHM and Angling Times to read about cameras and music. Maybe it was just a question of space, and General Interest was meant as a separate category altogether but the positioning was odd.

I’ve always struggled with stereotypical perceptions of what’s boys’ stuff and girls’ stuff. As a child I would generally opt for a nice, practical pair of dungarees but didn’t object to the occasional party frock. I was always out on my bike and loved my Lego but I also happily went to dance class.

So, I find it surprising that today, the nature/nurture debate continues to plod on, with differing opinions on whether the pink aisle in the toy shop, inhabited by Barbie, Cinderella tea sets and mini kitchens, should simply be assimilated into a general offering for boys and girls, along with the tool sets and Transformers.

There is clearly a level of awareness, and a willingness to see and do things differently. Still, it feels like the route towards equality for boys, girls, women and men is less a freeway and more of a matrix of slow going b-roads, distractingly comfortable byways, no go zones and Stepford style drive-ins, directed by a sat nav that can’t quite make up its mind where it wants to go.

Lya_Cattel via Getty Images

Now working in creative industries, where comfortable shoes (albeit stylish Camper or Fly) are perfectly acceptable and there are women designers, writers and programmers, you’d think we’d have long since sorted ourselves out and decided that it’s more about the talent and the work ethic than it is about Ruth versus Rufus. And to an extent I think we have. But in the world of music photography, there remains a prevailing, sometimes unpleasantly smelling wind of male domination (and yes I do know how that sounds). A number of more enlightened men have given me a fair shout in the industry, without the kind of power-plays we’ve been hearing about in the #MeToo campaign and I now shoot regularly for Q Magazine. But it has taken a lot of hard work and tenacity. And when it comes down to pit level, male photographers still outnumber women roughly four to one.

Which brings us back to WHSmith’s and a display that, like the world in general, is still struggling to represent the shared interests and equal opportunities to which we should all be aspiring. Standing back it’s not difficult to find the ‘women’s’ magazines, an overwhelming assortment of largely fashion and beauty titles with some food and crafting thrown in. Clearly there must be a market there but you can see why that’s likely to send your traditional man down the other end of the aisle, seeking refuge in the real ‘men’s stuff’ of hunting, shooting and fishing (and apparently rock music and photography) plus the added attraction of traditional top shelf material.

I Instagram the display inviting comments and don’t have to wait long for a response. Interestingly, comments are mainly from men and largely along the lines of “We like fashion, why is it all in the women’s section?” I have noticed one or two publications which do cross the divide, featuring obscure titles, beautifully androgynous covers and contents that totally blur the traditional lines of men and women. This does feel like positive progress but I wonder about the appeal of these to your average person on the street.

For the most part though I’m wondering if direct action on our mag racks could play a small part in our slow-moving cultural revolution. Friends who are mums used to loudly protest or quietly remove the likes of Nuts and Zoo, all too often displayed at small person level next to the checkout. And where are they now?

So, I challenge you to mix it up. Stick a Marie Claire in the men’s section. Re-label Woman and Home as simply Home. And stick a Total Carp or Beer Advocate at the pink end of the aisle. Give us all a chance to see and do something different. Waders could be so this season.

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