“A friend of mine recently said, ‘Dude, I didn’t know you’re a TV presenter! I thought you were some rich b**** whose dad paid for her to stay here.’ I really I hope I don’t appear stupid…” She raises a perfect eyebrow. “Model hang-ups.”
“I feel like I’m blagging it, even now. On stage at the Fashion Awards, standing with the other winners who worked really hard to achieve their success, it was like I’d been given a prize for having a pretty face.”
Andrea writes for a newspaper. ‘This is for the Living section,’ she says. I know what that means, it used to be the Women’s Pages. It’s funny that they now call it Living, as if only women are alive and other things, such as the Sports, are for the dead. ‘Living, eh?’ I say. ‘I’m the mother of two. I bake cookies.’ All true. Andrea gives me a dirty look and flicks on her machine.
So writes Margaret Atwood in Cat’s Eye. And my thought upon reading it? “Shit, that’s what I do.”
I write for the “women’s pages”. Sure, I write for other venues too – political rags and literary rags among them. But the bulk of my work comes from publications (whether online, in newspapers, of women’s lifestyle magazines) that are explicitly targeted at women.
Mostly, this is because I write a lot about gender and sociology (“social affairs” if you will), and as I’ve written about here before, women’s lifestyle magazines especially are explicitly “about” gender. I think this is a good thing. I wish we had similar ongoing, analytical* dialogues on race, class, and disability.
But I will concede that it does coincide with – if not cause – a certain marginalising of those issues. We’ll put the stuff for the ladies over here, and the important stuff somewhere else.
Today the Fairfax newspapers in Australia launched Daily Life, a new opinion website targeted at women, to which I will be a contributor. It made a lot of the Twittersphere pretty angry – see the hashtag #dailywife for a sample of the commentary.
Criticisms included: “Why do women need their own website? Why can’t we just read the regular news?” “Why is the ‘news’ on this website all about fashion and celebrities?” “If you really appreciate the work these writers do, why don‘t you just put them on the main website?”
Like Mudge, I’ve wondered why everything pertaining to women is classified under “Life and Style”, and I’ve wondered why “lifestyle journalism” is so often boiled down to advertorial for fashion and beauty products (answer: probably because the associated advertising is what pays for writers like me). I’ve wondered if the fact that writing related to gender politics is usually published in “Life and Style” or colour magazine supplements contributes to the perception that, as one commenter recently wrote on one of Laurie Penny’s articles, female journalists write pointless “pap”.
But I also think that the visceral negative response such content receives is grounded in sexism in itself. Why are discussions of political horse races, war and even sport (all of which I enjoy - the discussions of, that is, not the practices) considered more “worthy” than discussions of why we think and feel the way we do, or the more subtle (and I think, interesting) political machinations shaping human life that don’t take place in parliament or congress? It’s not just newspaper websites that lump in discussions of feminism or sociology with beauty tips and celebrity gossip: our collective cultural psyche does too.
Over the weekend, I wrote an article for a teen magazine in which I suggested (in teen-friendly language) that rather than focusing our often well-justified anger on individual micro-political actors – that is to say, you and me – we would be better off focusing our criticisms on the systems that create those actions.
The structural criticisms of Daily Life and websites like it are perfectly valid. But that doesn’t mean that the sites themselves don’t have any redeeming features – Daily Life’s rotation of contributors includes many of my favourite Australian writers, and those women don’t write stupid, inane fluff. The fact that the site is heavily populated with those contributors shows that “stupid, inane fluff” isn’t what they’re going for.
And for me as a contributor, there’s a clear appeal in a regular gig writing about the issues that interest me, for an editor who has never asked me (directly or otherwise) to dumb myself down.
* Okay, this may be a bit utopian as a holistic analysis of some of these magazines, but it’s what I’m going for when I write for them.
Related: Ask Rachel: Why do you write for women’s magazines?
Mentoring week: Mentoring and the media industry
Are women’s magazines really that bad?
Elsewhere: Where are all the women? In Life and Style, apparently. (We Mixed Our Drinks)
Why Washington Post’s new ladyblog is wrong for women (Jessica Valenti)
The Daily Wife (The News With Nipples)
Criticism of the “women’s pages” (Women’s Page History)
Discuss. And does it matter what kinds of social media we’re consuming? (Well, obviously it does. But are there certain types of social media that are more likely to foster comparisons and insecurity than others?)
That is the subject of next week’s mag article.
It’s not just Alexa, though. It’s Olivia Palermo, Daisy Lowe, Lauren Conrad, Whitney Port, Kate and Pippa Middleton, Kim Kardashian, Miranda Kerr, Lara Bingle, Edie Sedgwick and all those women have pushed down on our throats on a daily basis as interesting, aspirational, sparky and fabulous… all by virtue of the fact that they are beautiful and wear clothes well.
Don’t get me wrong - I love me some Alexa (and Olivia and Daisy…) as much as the next ladymag reader. When I first saw her photos floating around the internet back in 2008 or so, I was entranced. There’s just something about her that draws the eye. The woman oozes “cool”. Yet it is a coolness that is not consequence of what she does but of how she looks.
It’s like Caitlin Moran writes in my favourite chapter of How To Be A Woman, about her teen desire to be first a princess, then a muse:
I wanted to be a muse. I wanted to be a muse quite badly. To be so incredible that some band wrote a song about me, or some writer based a character on me, or a painter produced canvas after canvas of me, in every mood, that hung in galleries around the world. Or even a handbag. Jane Birkin inspired a handbag. By way of contrast I would happily have settled for my name on a plastic Superdrug bag.
Because that’s what most of the famous-for-being-famous women we admire are - or at least the reason they’re sold to us as being worthy of admiration. Muses, elevated for their faultless embodiment of different personas of femininity. And it makes me profoundly uncomfortable, in the same way that the businesswomen who are so often promoted to us are promoted on the basis that they produce products that will help us look, dress and smell like these women (here in the UK, you will often read about how “fragrant” the Middletons are).
And yet, I also feel somewhat conflicted about my discomfort. I’m not against aesthetics, after all - I once moved into a house based primarily on the fact that I liked my future housemates’ decor (which turned out to be a fairly decent indicator of broader compatability), and I recoil every time I have dress in a manner that doesn’t feel “like me”.
I’m open to the idea that the ability to put together a “look” is a form of self-expression worth celebrating, like music, literature, or fashion design. And I’m also conscious that - in some of the above cases, at least - the problem isn’t that the women themselves aren’t worth celebrating, so much as it is the things we celebrate about them.
And yet, it still makes me uncomfortable. I’m going to chat to a whole bunch of folks about this next week to get my thoughts in better order (and hopefully to a place of greater insight), but to help me along that journey, I’d like to first throw it out to you.
Does “it girl lust” make you uncomfortable? Do you wish we had more substantial role models, or that we celebrated more substantial things about our role models? What do you think is the appeal of these ladymag staples?