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Sexual Messages in Black and White: A case study of Essence and Cosmo
Unformatted Document Text:  circulated piece and other polemical statements of women’s sexual liberation of the period were advocated by women’s groups as varied as Boston’s Cell 16, New York’s Redstockings, and Washington, DC’s The Furies (Gerhard, 2000). Women’s magazines, both general and specialized, according to Ferguson (1983), have historically played a socializing role for women in the United States. Their continued relevance today can be seen not only in their abundance and in the wide array of topics they cover (e.g., health, sports, fashion, beauty), but also in the multi-million-dollar industries they represent. Roy (2004) observed that “women’s magazines are designed and produced to speak to women’s needs and desires. . and to create, reflect and reinforce important message on a wide range of subjects” (p. 10). Roy insists that among the successes women’s magazines today can claim is the “presentation of expert and lay knowledge” which creates its own “unique discourse about health and women which is important to examine” (p. 13). Review of Literature The present study is situated in literatures on women’s magazines, women’s history (particularly second wave feminism), and women and popular culture. We were particularly motivated by the recent work of (Matsau, 2007), who examined sexual discourse in Essence and Cosmo magazines utilizing a Black feminist theoretical framework and a critical discourse methodology. Selecting articles and editorials in magazines for the year 2006, the author used Machin and Thornborrow’s (2003) four sexual discourse themes which had arisen from their study of Cosmo. These themes include: • addressing the naïve reader, i.e., a narrative that positions the reader as needing help or instruction to navigate her sexuality; 4

Authors: Byerly, Carolyn. and Reviere, Rebecca.
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circulated piece and other polemical statements of women’s sexual liberation of the period were 
advocated by women’s groups as varied as Boston’s Cell 16, New York’s Redstockings, and 
Washington, DC’s The Furies (Gerhard, 2000).  
Women’s magazines, both general and specialized, according to Ferguson (1983), have 
historically played a socializing role for women in the United States.  Their continued relevance 
today can be seen not only in their abundance and in the wide array of topics they cover (e.g., 
health, sports, fashion, beauty), but also in the multi-million-dollar industries they represent. 
Roy (2004) observed that “women’s magazines are designed and produced to speak to women’s 
needs and desires. . and to create, reflect and reinforce important message on a wide range of 
subjects” (p. 10).  Roy insists that among the successes women’s magazines today can claim  is 
the “presentation of expert and lay knowledge” which creates its own “unique discourse about 
health and women which is important to examine” (p. 13).  
Review of Literature
The present study is situated in literatures on women’s magazines, women’s history 
(particularly second wave feminism), and women and popular culture.  We were particularly 
motivated by the recent work of (Matsau, 2007), who examined sexual discourse in Essence and 
Cosmo magazines utilizing a Black feminist theoretical framework and a critical discourse 
methodology.  Selecting articles and editorials in magazines for the year 2006, the author used 
Machin and Thornborrow’s (2003) four sexual discourse themes which had arisen from their 
study of Cosmo.  These themes include:  
addressing the naïve reader, i.e., a narrative that positions the reader as needing help or 
instruction to navigate her sexuality;
4


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