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March 3, 2004


Women's magazines exposed

A recent Times article examines a new book by the former editor of Ladies' Home Journal, who retired after over 20 years at the magazine, called Spin Sisters. In it, Myrna Blyth implicates herself along with all the other women's magazines who use "female fear" to sell magazines. "Ms. Blyth contends that women's magazines use over-the-top cover headlines to compete on the newsstand and to create insecurity that makes women the willing consumers that advertisers crave. Articles about stress, a hardy perennial, are mostly conjured, she argues." Women's magazines, she says, portray women as scared victims, out of control and in danger. She makes a funny comment on Vogue's Anna Wintour, who "responded to the war in Afghanistan by financing beauty parlors for the newly liberated women there. 'Saving the world, one roller at a time,' Ms. Blyth said."

That women's magazines are harmful to one's self-esteem is hardly a new concept. Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth was an in-depth, arguably academic study of the way women's magazines use advertising, writing, and advertorial pieces that attack women's insecurities about their bodies, age, sexual prowess, and devotion to their families to sell products that promise salvation and successful femininity. As if the omnipresent dinosaurs of the man-trap and lip-gloss genre (Cosmo, InStyle, Glamour, Mademoiselle) and the be-a-good-mother-or-else genre (Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies' Home Journal) weren't enough, in recent years we've had some redundant newcomers like More and the needlessly subtitled Lucky: The Magazine About Shopping.

Of course, there have always been objectors. Ms. Magazine has had a rocky financial course, but has provided a true alternative for women of all ages, races, and sexualities for 33 years. The main difference between Ms. Magazine and others, such as Cosmopolitan, that claim to have a strong, pro-woman orientation is that Ms. has always been published without advertisements. By not having to make the difficult decision about whether to run ads for cellulite cream, Ms. has maintained true independence from the enormously powerful beauty industry that has largely funded women's magazines for all eternity.

Women about my age probably remember another forerunner in the girls' magazine section, that pre-dated CosmoGirl and Teen People: Sassy. Sassy was much loved by altera-types for most of the 1990's. Sure, there were some pieces about glittery mascara and fashion spreads, but the editorial ran more toward indie punk bands and pictures of hot boys than How To Tell If He Likes You guides. When Sassy folded and the editor, Jane Pratt, started up her new magazine Jane [warning: flash site. won't let you hit 'back' to return to this page] it had abandoned most of the, well, sass that had made Sassy such a good read. The current issue has a lot of "articles" on fashion and make up and how to "get money and a man--in one fell swoop!"

So what's a girl to do if she wants the feminist ideals of Ms., but might want to read about rock shows, hair gloss, lady-produced porn, and organic cleaning products as well? The clear forerunner is BUST, which features great editorial, lots of ads from independent, women-owned and operated businesses, and a blend of the personal-is-political first-person narratives that make Ms. stand out and cool fashion spreads with regular looking models. It also features a regular column by Lynn Peril, who wrote a fantastic book on magazines, books, and advertizing targeted at women in the 1950's and '60's called Pink Think. For now, it's the best we've got.

Thanks to ADM for his input. And for pointing out that Errol Morris' recent movie Fog of War features Robet McNamara, former Secretary of Defense, offering a similar indictment of himself and his industry.

categories: Gender, Media
posted by amy at 12:13 PM | #