I have this memory of being in my late teens, sitting under the foliage at university reading an article in the then latest edition of Cosmo. It was about how to pick up guys at parties, and I planned to put it to use that Friday night.
I don’t remember much of what it said - something about circulating around the room to spot and catch the eye of your target? - but that’s not the point. In the confusing gender minefield that was my early adulthood, women’s magazines were my trusty guide.
These days, I find that laughable. Because, those articles? They’re not written by experts. They’re written by writers, like me, who at best weave together their intuition, some basic human psychology and some interviews, and at worst just bang out some reiteration of what’s been said in thousands of “relationship” articles before them. They make for good entertainment, and I still can’t resist reading them, but they’re not something anyone should be basing their dating strategies on.
Still, as I wrote on Twitter yesterday, if there’s one thing worse than a vapid women’s magazine article, it’s a self-righteous former women’s magazine staffer lamenting how terrible the things are. The ladies at Jezebel and Girl With A Satchel may have been pleased, but I found it hard to get excited about former UK Marie Claire editor, Liz Jones, who wrote in the Daily Mail earlier this week about why she’s “given up on the glossy”.
That’s not to say mags aren’t worth criticising. Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common critiques:
Women’s mags promote unrealistic beauty ideals. Guilty as charged, and particularly damaging for teenagers, who are just coming into their sense of who they are, how they look, and what is and isn’t attractive.
Women’s magazines promote a shallow, consumerist lifestyle. It’s true that, as Jones argues, the clothes mags feature are almost always out of the price range of their target audience, but fashion diffuses sufficiently these days that you can always pick up a cheap knock off at Supre, Asos or Forever 21. And I see plenty of articles about nourishing the inner aspect as well. I’ll cede this one though, too: essentially, magazines are part of the consumer machine.
Women’s magazines treat their readers like they are stupid. Also true in the case of some articles, but I think this is less a function of mags actually thinking their readers are stupid, and more about the quite underrated fourth criticism that most people fail to note…
Magazines, with some exceptions, are largely uncritical. Rather than exploring new angles and questioning received wisdom, a lot of magazine articles just repackage the same old ideas in the most obvious possible ways (headlines excepted - those are usually pretty clever). And that goes whether they’re playing that smart/ethical end of the market or the, er, traditional end.
The thing is, these critcisms have been circulating for a good 20 (maybe even 30?) years. The sudden rush to adopt them reminds me of a 15-year-old girl abandoning pop music upon discovering Triple J, Zach Braff and Frankie magazine - or as @barrysaunders wittily put it on Twitter, “like a new ex-smoker bitching at her old, still-smoking friends”.
Not to mention that, to some extent, the industry has responded to them. Since Mia Freedman launched Cosmo's “Body Love” campaign in 1997, it's been a rare Australian women's magazine that's dared to publish a diet (although, yes, they do appear sometimes in veiled form). Freedman also launched a campaign on the censorship of women's genitals (leading to airbrushing and unrealistic expectations) during her tenure. Teen magazines now let their readers know when images are airbrushed. Then there's YEN, and Frankie, and New!CLEO, and Bust, and Bitch, and Jane (now deceased, but succeeded online by Jezebel) and Peppermint. In Australia, at least, Marie Claire serves you a slice of news alongside your fashion (I seem to recall the US version being somewhat thinner). Vogue, meanwhile, publishes some beautifully written and thought-provoking features and essays that surpass most of what you’ll find in a “serious” newspaper.
None of these magazines are perfect, and if you’re after something really meaty, you’re probably better off buying The Economist or The New Yorker. But hating on them for being light entertainment is like hating on Britney Spears for not being Regina Spektor. And we all know we can’t have that.
Really though, what bugs most about Jones’s critique is that it comes from someone who has - or at least had - the power to do something about what she’s complaining about. Sure, magazines are at the behest of advertisers, and it’s true that the most interesting ones often fold for lack of advertiser support, but if you hate women’s mags so much, do something about it. Start something of your own, whether it’s a mag, a blog, or something else (and I know a lot of people are). If you’re a journalist, write the kinds of articles you wish you could read - that ethos sums up pretty much my entire collected submissions to Girlfriend over 2006-8.
Just don’t sit on your ass and complain about it. It doesn’t make you look cool or insightful. It just makes you look tired.
See also: Editrix turns on Lady Mags (Salon)