Deconstruction involves the process of acknowledging and dismantling suppressed hierarchical binary oppositions that can be found within a text (Barker, 2008: 87). Through the deconstruction of a magazine double-page spread (Figure One) taken from Elle, the July 2018 South African issue, this essay will demonstrate my understanding of the relationship between issues relating to structuralism, poststructuralism and a deconstructive reading of texts. Drawing mainly from the theories of de Saussure and Derrida, this essay will discuss the role and analyse binary oppositions within the text, determine if the text is as stable and cogent as it appears, as well as explain how the text undermines its ‘primary’ and ‘stable’ meaning. Finally, the relation between texts in production of meaning found within the spread will be examined and discussed.
Structuralism is concerned with the idea of an underlying fixed structure that forms the grammar that allows meaning to be attained (Barker, 2012: 76). Saussure, the founding figure of structuralism, argued that meaning cannot be generated through reflection of a pre-existent reality of autonomous objects, but rather meaning is formulated through fixed binary pairs (Barker, 2012: 18). Poststructuralism however, rejects this understanding and proposes that meanings are unstable, unfixed and intermittent, as they are constantly deferred and in process (Malpas & Wake, 2013: 51). Meaning itself cannot be confronted as a free standing idea, as what we encounter is the signifier, which Derrida argues, ‘defers’ the meaning (Barker, 2008: 89).
Media has significant, influential power and is able to contribute to people’s understanding of the world and social identities through its discursive formations and representations. Throughout the years, women’s magazines have paraded images of women and their lives which take the connotative form of promoting patriarchy and capitalism, as well as being distorted, ’untruthful’ and are misrepresentations of the ‘real’ (Gough-Yates 2003: Online). Women’s femininity and worth is undermined when exposed to the naturalised content of these magazines (Gough-Yates 2003: Online), as well as their identity being constructed for them through the myths that are created from naturalising the texts and images (Gough-Yates 2003: Online).
Elle, the world’s largest fashion magazine, focuses on fashion, beauty, health, entertainment and provides the idea that perfection can be obtained through the purchasing of the products advertised. Due to the magazine being made up of specious content such as fashion trends, celebrity gossip, make up tips etc., it can be said that women have limited access to information, resulting in limitations of women’s power, further maintaining patriarchy within the media (Gough-Yates 2003:Online). Elle magazine consists mainly of women who appear to be flawless, creating a sense of exclusion and stereotypes which tends to separate women from each other and themselves (Gough-Yates 2003:Online), as the readers of this magazine most likely do not live up to the beauty ‘standards’ of the models.
Supermodel Kendall Jenner, seemingly perfect and unblemished, appears on the cover of the Elle’s July 2018 South African issue (Figure Two), however the rest of the magazine fails to show representation of a typical women’s title (Gough-Yates 2003:Online). These photographs taken of beautiful models are used to lure women in, creating the unrealistic desire to look and feel like the girl on the front cover of the magazine. Through a deconstruction of the magazine spread to be discussed (Figure One), it is noticeable how the relationship between language and imagery have been used to shape the interpretation of the spread. The spread evidently comments on the racial binary opposition of black and white, with white being superior in the binary hierarchy, and when examined it is clear that the article showcases the underlining racial inequality that still exists in South African media of today.
Binary opposition, a key concept in structuralism, refers to cultural classification of two theoretical opposites that are defined and set off against one another (Smith, 1993: 383). It is said that one cannot understand the world around them without understanding all elements of human culture in relation to one another and how they function within the larger environment (Marinaro s.a.: Online). The exploration of relationships between different groups often leads to the encounter of binary oppositions, which seem like common identifying labels on the surface, however it is because they cannot coexist which makes them binary oppositions (Marinaro s.a.: Online). There is always a clear hierarchy present in each binary opposition, as one part of the binary is always seen as superior compared to the other part (Hall 2006: 106). Derrida argues that one side of the binary opposition is determined by what is absent within the other (Barker 2012: 88).
The double-page spread (Figure One) consists of the first page of an article in the Beauty section of Elle, titled The Brightest & Best and an advertisement for Tresemmé, titled Care for your hair, with style. The spread consists of images of five beautiful women, two of which are black women, two white women and one coloured woman. At first glance this spread appears to be harmless, however through the process of deconstruction we can determine the instability of the spread. Four of the five women are shown to have very light skin compared to the dark complexion of one of the black women. When focusing on the second page of the spread, four of the five women are shown laying down exhibiting their perfectly moisturised skin. However, one of the two black women has much lighter skin and a condition called Vitiligo, a disorder characterised by growing patches of skin losing their colour. This shows the racial hierarchy of white women being seen as superior to black women, as one of two black models has patched of skin that posses no pigmentation, emphasising that she is more beautiful because of the large white patch she obtains on her face.
The caption of this article, ‘The Brightest and Best’ further emphasises the racial inequality within this spread. It can be said that the underlying meaning of this caption is that the brighter your skin is, i.e. the whiter, the better. The woman who has Vitiligo is presented in the spotlight, showing off her white patch on the one side of her face, compared to the dark black woman in the upper righthand corner, who’s skin tone blends into the shadows of the corner and is not shown to be as present as the other women. The photographer did not make necessary arrangements to create a lighting environment that is suitable for all skin tones, instead focusing on the women with ‘brighter’ skin in order to emphasise the beauty and glow of women with light or white skin. The black woman with darker skin tone, blends into the shadows of the corner of the image and fades away due to the superiority of the three other women. It is crucial through deconstruction to notice the instability of the text when a binary opposition is detected, as meanings are unstable and unreliable (Hutcheon 2006: 116). We can see a direct link between the caption and the image, as the way the women have been photographed and positioned, a structural hierarchy is present, promoting white women as superior.
This article is included in Elle’s Beauty section and the caption, featuring white text that reads ‘The Brightest and Best’ emphasises that Elle believes that the brighter, or whiter, a woman’s skin is, the better and more beautiful she is. The first page of the spread consists of an advert for Tresemmé hair products and features a coloured woman with light skin. The woman wears a light blue, almost white shirt and the lighting creates a angelic scene where the women appears to be glowing. This links to the caption of the article on the opposite page, ‘The Brightest and Best’, as this women is shown to be bright and beautiful, further emphasising white superiority as those who are not white want to have their skin as light as possible. We can further deconstruct the advertisement when focusing on intertextuality, a concept dealing with the understanding that text is always influenced by content which surrounds it thus changing and influencing the meaning of the text (Malpas and Wake 2006: 207).
The advertisement pushes the fact that women need to have healthy, beautiful hair in order to feel confident and capable, as the caption reads, ‘…nothing better than getting a boost of confidence from great hair…” The models that appear in this spread are positioned in a way in which the reader is encouraged to objectify them, as we admire and praise these beautiful women whose personalities and lives are unknown to us (O’shaughnessy & Stadler 2008: 275). They have been used as objects of visual pleasure whose structural role is to sell themselves, thus selling the product at hand. For years women have been taught to dress, act and appear in a certain way in order to gain male attention. If one were to look at this spread through Žižek’s critique-of-ideology glasses, words would appear that could potentially say “You have to look like this in order to attract a man.”
The binary opposition of male vs female can be extracted from the deconstruction of the spread and Laura Mulvey discusses viewing pleasure, noting that “…in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive /female.” Women are seen as an image and men as the bearer of the look (O’shaughnessy & Stadler 2008: 282). Although Elle is a magazine aimed at women, female readers are requested to look at other women through a male perspective and to see things as men do. The models in the spread become the object of the gaze for us, the reader and when women look at other women they see what a man would like to see and aim to achieve that look. Berger states, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” which is evident through the spread as out of the five women, only one makes direct eye contact with the reader.
The model is of Caucasian decent and appears to be desirable to any man. She looks at the reader, not to intimidate, but rather to let the reader know that she understand she is being looked at and gives permission for her objectification. She wants the female readers to see themselves through her eyes, thus seeing what a man would want to see. This makes the reader feel the urge to try their hardest to look like this woman in the magazine. This determines the relations not only of men and women but of women to themselves. “The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female.” and so the woman objectifies herself, and most particularly an object of vision (O’shaughnessy & Stadler 2008: 282).
The instability of the spread is evident through the notable binary opposition and the variable meaning of the spread as a whole. There is not one meaning that can be confirmed through the deconstruction of the spread and without a fixed, stable meaning the magazine spread cannot be stable (Barker 2008: 83). The spread seems to consist of ‘innocent’ content, out there to help women however instead of helping, this spread makes the female reader feel as if she need to look like on of the models in the images in order to feel a connection. With the underlying structures that allows the spread to be interpreted in numerous amount of ways with different meanings, the spread cannot possible be stable (Barker 2008: 83).
In conclusion, after a deconstruction of the double-page spread taken from Elle, the July 2018 South African edition, this essay has shown that the spread and meaning itself is unstable. It is evident that meaning is influenced by surrounding content, binary oppositions, intertextuality, power relations and hierarchy, of which are all inconsistent and unsteady. This essay has shown the role of binary oppositions and proved that the spread is not as cogent as it appears to be.