Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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Ask Rachel: Why do you write for women’s magazines?

Wyn writes: I would love for you to just bite the bullet and write a post about how troubling it is for you to be both a) a feminist and b) a regular writer for potentially anti-woman magazines like Cosmo, and how you deal with that dichotomy… since it keeps on slithering around under the surface of so many of your posts.

I’m guessing you wouldn’t believe me if I told you I genuinely don’t find it troubling? The basic reason being that, as I hinted in yesterday’s post, I view it as a form of activism. And if you’re interested in talking about women’s social issues, women’s lifestyle magazines seem a natural place to do it.

I started reading Dolly when I was 10 years old. I didn’t “graduate” to Cosmo and Cleo until I was 17, but magazines have being part of my life for a long time, and have always been something I loved. Not always in a healthy way, as I’ll get to in a moment, but I’ve never felt the kind of anger or total rejection of them that I’m guessing many people who read this blog feel.

That’s not to say I didn’t recognise that they could be kind of crappy. I loved reading magazines as a teenager, but I also think that they (and Sweet Valley, and Home & Away) were in large part responsible for my belief that there was something terribly wrong with me because I a) didn’t have a boyfriend, b) didn’t get invited to “cool parties”, c) had thighs that touched. The vision of teenage life that they proferred not only didn’t reflect my experiences - they didn’t reflect the experiences of so many of the girls and women I’ve spoken to since.

So, in my early 20s, I began to fantasise about starting my own teen magazine - filled with funny, knowing treatise on all the bullshit we feed teenage girls about beauty, boys and “being a woman”. I never got any further than the bare bones of a business plan, but it probably did contribute to my decision to apply for a job at Girlfriend, which Sarah Oakes was editing at the time, with pretty much the same pitch.

I didn’t get the job - not because Sarah hated feminism, but because Erica Bartle was a better candidate - but I did start to write for the magazine. Which was around the time that people started to ask me the question you’ve asked here: “How can you be a feminist and write for Girlfriend? Isn’t that a massive and uncomfortable contradiction?”

But it wasn’t a contradiction for me. In writing for Girlfriend, I got to write about sexual double standards, why you don’t need a boyfriend, the unrealistic notions teen TV dramas give us about relationships, raunch culture, purity pledges, women in politics, princess culture and body image - and I got to do it in a way that 13-year-old girls could read and relate to. I’m not saying they were the best articles in the world, but they were exactly what I wanted to be saying to that audience.

When Sarah moved to Cleo, I went with her, taking down labiaplasty, He’s Just Not That Into YouSTIs and slut shaming, and was the only journalist in Australia who seemed note that the Matthew Johns scandal wasn’t just a case of alleged non-consensual group sex - it was a case of non-consensual sex full stop. Again, I think we can comfortably call all this feminism. Writing for Cosmo over the past year, I’ve written about same-sex marriage, SlutWalk, abusive relationships, rape myths and (in this month’s issue) why we’re sold as role models women who don’t actually do anything.

Does it involve compromise and negotiation? I suppose so, yes, but probably not in the ways that you think.

The main challenge is not avoiding writing something offensive - that’s easy enough - but succeeding in writing something intelligent, critical and hopefully insightful while still sticking within the format. Or to take an academic or “radical”/political idea and coat it in honey so that it’s just as appealing to the person reading the magazine as the next article on how to catch that man. Or how to dress like Alexa Chung. But I wouldn’t say it “troubles” me. If anything, I enjoy the challenge. It’s fun.

Besides, as writers, we have the power to shape the narratives we produce. I don’t always get to choose the topics I write about, but I do get to choose who I interview, what line of questioning I pursue, which aspects of the issue I pull out and which I don’t. That might sound “evil” or untoward, but it’s a process everyone goes through when they tell a story in any media. I also get to apply my own analysis to the issue. On the rare occasions that I’ve been asked to write a story I worry might be “anti-woman” (or offensive/inaccurate in some other way), I tell my editors and ask to reframe it. Usually, we reframe it as I suggested. Occasionally, the editor sends the brief to someone else.

Writing for women’s lifestyle magazines isn’t just something I grapple with as an intellectual challenge, though; it’s something I actively chose to pursue.

I chose it because I think there is a certain magic to combining political ideas with candy coating. There are a lot of people who know their feminist theory, and there are a lot of people who can adapt their writing voice to sound like a Cosmo article. There aren’t as many, I dare say, who can do both. I chose it because writing for women’s lifestyle magazines means writing articles that are ”for” women rather than just “about” them. As I said at the beginning of this post, I chose it because I wanted to write about women’s social issues, and women’s lifestyle magazines are a logical place to do that.

And finally, I chose it because it gels with my view of the way power and discourse operates: millions of tiny, marginally different iterations of the same story, creating, challenging and reinforcing our perceptions of what the world looks like.

Slotting a different “story” in there? That’s valuable to me. Which is not to say I don’t also enjoy writing in other genres (essays, think pieces, my book, this blog), or that everything I write for a women’s mag is some intellectual masterpiece, just that I think ladymags are valuable genre. And as I suggested in this post, my attitude is that if you don’t like what a magazine is publishing, don’t complain about how shit it is: get them to publish something else.

Provided they’ll take your pitches, of course. Which is a whole other ball game!

Related: Does a feminist by any other name smell as sweet?
Welcome to the Institute for Sweet Valley High-related cultural studies
Mentoring week: Mentoring and the media industry
Are women’s magazines really that bad?