From the modest “18th century coffee house” to the ‘intuitive’ media realm, the public sphere has come along way since the theory was evolved by Jurgen Habermas in his journal Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, in 1962. His theory saw the public sphere as a virtual ‘theatre’ for debating and deliberating in an egalitarian space that was separate from the state and official economy, that being inclusive of people of all backgrounds, disregarding status, and of all areas of common concerns. (Turnbull 2015)
Equality as an aspect of Habermas’s theory, was not always reached, with most participants of public spheres being of certain demographics, namely the elite and later the middle class. Minorities especially that of women (note the history of Western feminism, specifically the lack of political rights), were commonly excluded from the public sphere.
However times have changed…
The public sphere has become a highly mediated arena, using media as a platform to portray the traditional debating of issues and provoke debate regarding these, has allowed a more diverse selection of participation within the sphere. Despite this, subtle bias can be formed and portrayed throughout media texts, creating a controlled and limited public sphere, some arguing it has become degraded through commercialisation, and the reliance of spectacle. Whereas other see the effect of mediation having enhanced the public sphere through the emergence of different publics, an example being, women’s role within the public sphere.
Marie Claire is a lifestyle magazine (‘mediated public sphere’) which discusses fashion, food, beauty, health and fitness, travel, celebrity gossip, careers, love and sex and politics, on a monthly basis, with its predominantly female readership. The complexity and variety of the magazine’s topics, allows it to have a ‘marginal or an important role in the public domain’, according to how the ‘functions of popular media in democracy are understood.’ Ytre-Arne (2011, p.247) believes the political relevance of women’s magazines as opinion leaders of ideology about class, family structures and women’s role in society deserves an emphasis within the general public. Also noting magazines as an outlet of expression for cultures, that is crucial to democracy.
In the European Journal of Communication, Ytre-Arne discusses the issue of magazines being considered a private sphere rather then part of the public sphere in Norway. Newspapers and book sales (as opposed to magazines) are exempt from paying the Value Added Tax (much like the Australian GST, except instead of 10%, it is 25% – can you imagine?), due to their importance as ‘democratic functions of media’ and functions as ‘primary sources of general information’ (Ytre-Arne, 2011, p.248).
With the aim of proving the Norweigian authorites wrong, I quickly flipped through a magazine on my desk, to see if I could find any examples of ‘debating and deliberating’. Here is some of what I found…
- Changing family demographics, due to better access to technology and changes in attitudes, as well as snippets of “individual’s stories” (Marie Claire April 2015, pp. 49-52)
- The achievements of women who have defied the odds in; hospitality, entertainment and film making, sports, corporate entrepreneurship, politics, writing, among others (Marie Claire April 2015, pp.56-64)
- The kidnapping of several journalists by ‘pro-Gaddafi troops during Libya’s rebellion’ in 2011 (Marie Claire April 2015, pp.68-72)
- #HeforShe, the global campaign supporting the idea that feminism is not just for women (Marie Claire April 2015, p.91)
The distinction between what counts as being ‘public’ rather then ‘private’ changes as matters of common concern do, and so in labeling a women’s magazine as ‘ private’, the values and ideas expressed within become delegitimised. Habermas is in no way a misogynist, his scope of the public sphere may be broader then his critics have discussed, however the distinction between the public and private sphere needs to be adapted to reflect societal attitudes.
Marie Claire Australia has established many controversial campaigns striving for change within society, see example #DemandBetter (women’s rights) above, others including Election07 (political debates), #IDo (marriage equality), #wearethe51 (celebrating women). Marie Claire focuses on issues of inequality that still exist, and creates controversial debate and questioning about harsh realities within society, as well as current events and their effect on the Australian public.
To conclude, Marie Claire as well as many other women’s magazines have become a part of the many public spheres, possibly exploring the views in a female perspective, which may or may not create bias, but will definitely help encourage the agenda of females and their beliefs to be heard within society. Media platforms like this are helping develop societal attitudes and beliefs and are introducing a broader range of voices into the spectrum. Some may still see women’s magazines as a private sphere,due to the belief that it focus on ‘trivial’ or ‘unimportant’ aspects of the current world, and in that they may be true. However I see many women’s magazines, specifically Marie Claire to be paving a path for women to express their views and hear other views in a comfortable “coffee house”.
Soules, M 2007, Jürgen Habermas and the Public Sphere, Media Studies, Blogpost, 18 April, viewed April 2015, < http://www.media-studies.ca/articles/habermas.htm >
Turnball, S 2015, ‘Week 5: Media Mythbusting: Big Brother is Watching You’, lecture, BCM110, University of Wollongong, viewed 24 March 2015
Ytre-Arne, B 2011, ‘Women’s magazines and the public sphere’, European Journal of Communication, vol. 26, no. 3, pp.247-261