Teenage Girls and their magazines by Pat Pinset and Bridget Knight with an introduction by Nicholas Turner (1998)

As you may already be aware, in late 2016 we received a wonderful donation from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) which included 380 pamphlet boxes containing material published by the NUT itself and many other organisations operating in the areas of education, children and families.

We have checked and sorted these publications, discovering many interesting items during the process. You may recall that in February this year we created a LibGuide and published a series of blog posts looking in more detail at a selection of these NUT resources.

Our focus has now moved to the over 400 other organisations included in the donation. Some of these were and still are well known, others are special interest groups that offer a unique perspective on the key educational issues of the day. This week we thought we would share some of the ‘gems’ that we’ve discovered so far…

Teenage Girls & their Magazines by Pat Pinset and Bridget Knight with an introduction by Nicholas Turner (1998) was the first volume of the Papers from the Roehampton Institute’s National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature.

In today’s world of mobile phones, the internet, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and other forms of social media it seems hard to remember the attraction and importance of magazines to teenagers.

In his introduction ‘Girls, Comics and Magazines’ Nicholas Tucker discusses the criticism faced by girls’ teenage comics and magazines. The word bovarism came into use after so many complaints were received about the type of literary escapism in their contents. Bovarism was taken from Flaubert’s tragic heroine Madame Bovary and meant ‘the domination of the personality by romantic or unreal concepts’. Criticism spread from the fictional elements to almost all the contents until the printed readers’ letters were about the only element to gain any favour.

One of the main ideas behind the criticism was that the comics and magazines presented an unreal picture of the world. Girls and young women would only strive to better themselves if they first accepted the harsh realities of their everyday lives. However others argued that escapist fiction provided a welcome relief from what might be a mundane existence.

General changes in girls’ magazines have led to a more positive attitude towards them and the two main articles are generally in their favour.

Pat Pinset gained much of the information about the range and appeal of the magazines she examined for her article ‘Lessons in Love’: Girls’ magazines in the 1990s from Young People’s Reading at the End of the Century (1996). This is a survey of the reading habits of nearly 9,000 school pupils aged between four and sixteen carried out by the Children’s Literature Research Centre (now the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature) at the Roehampton Institute London. It included several questions about magazines and it clearly indicated that most boys choose magazines about their hobbies whilst girls prefer magazines with a more ‘social’ element.

Pinset examined the contents of a single issue of a range of fourteen popular magazines. (Barbie, Big, Bliss, Bunty,Catch,Chatterbox,Girl Talk, Just Seventeen,Kerrang, Looks, Miss, More, 19, Rosie and Jim, Shout, Smash Hits,Sugar, totstv, TV Hits). Those aimed at younger girls (Barbie, Bunty, Chatterbox and Girl Talk) included articles on animals, making things and competitions and plugs for confectionary or fashion but did not include articles on pop stars, information about sex and /or boys’ sex lives, ‘True’ stories and readers’ letters which were to be found in most of the magazines aimed at older girls.

For an in depth examination of magazines and their contents Pinset concentrated on two issues of Just Seventeen, a fortnightly journal which began publishing in 1983 and which was named as their favourite by twice as many eleven to sixteen year olds as its nearest rival in the NCRCL survey which was Big. The aspects Pinset looked at were Covers: The Problem Page and other sources of advice: ‘True’ Stories; Group Cohesiveness and Language and The roles of the magazine.

In conclusion, Pinsent writes that these periodicals help adolescents realise that their reactions to the complexities of physical and psychological change and to the difficulties in relationships are normal, and advice given may well help them to know how to respond to parents, friends and boyfriends, and to build up their own self-confidence.

Although there are good qualities that can be associated with magazines Pinset acknowledges that there are still areas of concern. Not surprisingly magazines see their readers as consumers and moreover as consumers of fashion, makeup and other beauty products with an aim to attract the opposite sex. Whilst progress has been made there is still room for improvement in including young people from a range of ethnic backgrounds.

In’ Teenage Magazines: Education or Titillation’, Bridget Knight once again discusses the worries parents and other adults have about magazines and their perceived use of sex to increase sales. Indeed Peter Luff, Conservative MP for Worcester, described their contents as squalid titillation, salaciousness and smut and he, in 1996, introduced his Periodical(Protection of Children) Bill in the House of Commons.

Also of concern to many parents was that Britain, with 31.8 live births per thousand girls age 15-19 (Figures from 1991/92) had the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe. However this rate had changed little over the past decades and so it is too simplistic to suggest that there is a straightforward correlation between the increasingly explicit sex-related content of girls’ magazines and the number of girls who become pregnant each year.

Knight notes some of the differences in publishing practices and assumptions and those in France which is frequently associated, rightly or wrongly, with relatively open attitudes to sex but where only 9.3 live births per thousand were recorded in 1991/92. French magazines tend to target a readership of upwards of fifteen and categorised slightly differently from their British counterparts as the emphasis falls on perceptions of quality. The two main categories into which teenage magazines are divided are ‘feminins haut de gamme’ (high quality) and feminins ados’ (cheap and cheerful). Articles cover wide range of issues intended to appeal to older teenagers and readers in their early twenties.

One result of Peter Luff’s activities was that the magazine publishers set up the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel (TMAP) which produced guidelines for acceptable contents in the magazines and is intended to monitor their output. Interestingly the guidelines were formulated by publishers, retailers and editors but teenage girls were not asked for their input.

Letters from teenage girls to local and national papers complained about the assumption that all they were interested in was sex. As one said’ …. we are perfectly sane, intelligent young people. Please stop treating us like separate life forms with only one thing on our minds.  Another girl commented that teenagers would not seek information between the pages of magazines if they were provided with facts about drugs, depression, anorexia and other worrying problems at school.

Today many of the teenage comics and magazines mentioned in the two articles have ceased publication or have moved to an on-line only format. The current debate about what the new sex-education curriculum should contain, the rise in mental health issues amongst school children and continuing high numbers of teenage pregnancies seem to indicate that teenagers are still seeking answers to questions which they do not feel able to get from their parents. The rise in speedy dissemination of information via electronic media has brought a new set of problems such as ‘trolling’ and ‘cyber-bullying’. Perhaps Just Seventeen and other teenage magazines were not so bad after all.

The scale of the donation means that these items have not yet been catalogued – and that is the next stage in this exciting project. In the meantime, please visit our LibGuide which includes information on the access arrangements that we have put in place for these fascinating items.


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