This month marks the end of an era for long-running Australian teen magazine Dolly, which will cease publication after 46 years. For many teenage girls, Dolly has been an institution, offering monthly instruction in all things ‘cool’ (fashion, celebrities, pop culture) as well as providing insights into the often-troubling world of sex and relationships. Particularly for those whose teenage years pre-dated the wide-spread availability of the internet, Dolly was a place to find out about things not taught in schools, things one wouldn’t dare ask their parents. Many women today no doubt have fond memories of spending high school lunchtimes huddled with friends around the latest edition, gasping over the questions and conundrums posed to ‘Dolly Doctor’ (the column dedicated to addressing readers’ questions on sex, health, and relationships), taking quizzes to find out if that boy in maths really is keen, or oohing and ahhing over dresses for the school formal.
Magazines like Dolly defined what it meant to be a teenage girl. They were powerful conduits of social norms and a dominant source of ideologies of gender and sexuality – they didn’t simply report on topics of interest but actively constructed a reality for their readers. They presented a particular view of the world; the language they chose to use being imbued with subtle meanings and connotations that orient the reader toward a particular way of understanding their own lives. Digging into the nuances of sex and relationships as presented in Dolly, a strictly delineated and often contradictory world emerges for readers, lurking under the overtly positive messages regarding body love and building self-esteem.
Over four years, I examined Dolly and other lifestyle magazines, exploring their linguistic choices and how these shaped a particular way of being for their readers – particularly in regard to their sexual relationships. A key finding was that Dolly tended to segment sexuality into two discrete domains (relationships and health), each with different language norms. In the relationship domain, there was a prolific use of euphemistic and metaphorical language, creating distance between the reader and the topic of sexuality. Sex was referred to euphemistically, in vague, evasive terms which provided no clue to the reader as to what acts actually took place. There was an unwritten assumption that the reader knew what to do and that sex should occur naturally when the two participants are ready and ‘in love’.
In the health domain, on the other hand, clinical and direct language was used. A ‘danger’ discourse was frequently employed here, warning readers of potential risks of sexual activity and thus encouraging a rationalisation of sexuality, urging readers to overcome any romantic feelings in order to make the ‘right’ choices. This is at odds with the idealisation of relationships in the ‘romance’ discourse that made up the relationship domain – one which emphasised the non-sexual components of male-female relationships and was vague in regards to the role of sexual activity within these relationships.
Sexuality was thus simultaneously problematised and romanticised in Dolly. The adolescent girls reading Dolly were presented with the tricky proposition of managing competing demands when it came to relationships and sex: the pressure to gain (and keep) a committed boyfriend, to regulate any sexual activity which may occur, and to balance the divide between promiscuous and prudish.
While wider sociocultural norms influence the ways in which individuals perceive sex and sexuality, as well as the ways in which they may be spoken about, the media both produce and reproduce these norms. In this way, a magazine like Dolly can be viewed as socialising their readers, informing them of accepted behaviours and ways of being. The decline of magazines like Dolly is largely a result of readers seeking content online – while this may be a little sad for those of us who grew up with print media, the online world gives space to a wider array of voices and perspectives, and perhaps here teenage girls can find additional, less restrictive, less contradictory ways of understanding their relationships and sexualities.
Melanie Burns teaches linguistics at Monash University. She researched the language of Australian lifestyle magazines for her PhD and as a result has an enviable collection of boy band posters and personality quizzes.