Mixed Messages

cosmo-april-0822

First, apologies for my unannounced holiday hiatus. I’m back in the saddle now and resolve that in 2009 I won’t leave my loyal readership (hi, mom) hanging like that, at least without warning. That said, onward and upward.

I found this article, published December 30, 2008 on the Huffington Post, to be an interesting perspective on so-called “women’s magazines”. I’d been thinking in vague terms recently about writing something about my conflicted relationship to celebrity/fashion/”women’s” magazines–the guilty pleasure I take in them and how I just can’t seem to quit them, no matter how much I disapprove of some (much) of their content, how stupid I feel when I let an hour or two slip by in which I’ve done nothing but flip through pictures of celebrities sunbathing and read about diet tips or the hot styles for fall.

This article, however, explores a different side of the genre of women’s magazines. Writer Sheila Weller makes a pretty compelling argument about the unfairness of the negative connotations embedded in the term “women’s magazine”, the way in which the term has become one of derision and “mild ridicule”. Weller provides a number of examples of  groundbreaking, socially conscious and socially relevant journalism published not only by magazines like Ms. but some perceived as more trivial and fluff-filled, like Glamour, Marie Claire, Self, Good Housekeeping, and others. She argues that often these kinds of publications are among the only ones taking on issues that are of concern to women in an in-depth way, citing examples such as domestic violence, women’s health issues like breast cancer, and other less widely known examples like the disproportionate health risks for women represented by the military’s mandatory Anthrax vaccine.

I’m interested in Weller’s argument, especially since in all of my years of trying to justify my reading of these magazines to myself, it never occurred to me that a part of the dismissive public perception of “women’s magazines” and their content might be based on the position women and our concerns occupy within the broader culture. After all, this kind of dismissiveness of women’s interests, tastes, and particular issues of concern, this marginalization, is reflected at so many levels–social, political, and economic–in our society. I discussed one example a while ago in my post, Mamma Mia, Here I Go Again, when I looked at the attitudes of major movie studios toward “chick flicks” and women-geared films in general, their reluctance to accept women as a substantial consumer power whose tastes and interests were deserving of attention, despite ever-greater evidence to the contrary.

That said, I do think the picture is more complicated than Weller is maybe willing to concede. Women’s magazines may have some great articles, ones that are well-researched, insightful, and serve the valuable purpose of providing women with information that is relevant to them and their interests and concerns, whether about health risks, social injustice, inequality in the workplace, women in politics, or any number of topics. But they also have a lot of fluff, not to mention some articles and content which go beyond fluff, perpetuating sexist assumptions, expectations, and stereotypes. I don’t even have a real problem with most of the copious content that deals with makeup and fashion, though I think more and more these sections are just glorified examples of product placement in which I’m quite sure at least some of the products praised and highlighted have paid for the privilege. I also think this content is pretty vaccuous–the new issue of Glamour features a full page article, for example, entitled “Side Parts are Sexier” and another called “I Want Bling on My Bag”. But what I hate most are the blatantly sexist articles–like those that instructing women how to get and keep a man (“21 Ways to Turn Him On”, etc., etc.), as if this were the be-all-end-all of a woman’s very existence. These also sometimes take the insidious form of content that purports female empowerment, like fashion spreads that claim to feature more than just size 2s by throwing in a few token size 4 models. To tell the truth, even content that on its own might have passed muster as empowering or non-essentializing toward women feels less so when placed side by side with much of the less empowering content I’ve just discussed. For instance, the same recent issue of Glamour (December 2008) features a cover story about  2008’s Women of the Year, featuring the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jane Goodall and Kara Walker. It also includes an article about British soul singer, Adele, entitled “I Don’t Care About Being a Size 2” in which the singer gives such body confidence advice as “quit trying to be perfect” and “love your body as is”. Yet, wedged between content like “Get to Your Great-Sex Weight” and “10 Things Every Woman Really, Really Wants for The Holidays”, not to mention the extended fashion spreads, every one of which feature  a rail-thin model, these articles seem a little hypocritical or disingenuous somehow.  I somehow doubt Jane Goodall got to be a Woman of the Year by putting a single ounce of energy into trying to achieve her “great-sex weight”.

Perhaps if so-called “women’s magazines” were a little less schizophrenic and hypocritical in their content, it would be easier for me to appreciate the kind of genuinely good content Weller discusses. That doesn’t mean there can’t be articles that discuss makeup or that skinny girls should never be featured in fashion spreads. It means that along with the many makeup and hair articles, maybe there could be a few more that give women the kinds of resources and inspiration they would need to become not just a pretty face, but a future face of women’s empowerment like Hillary Clinton. And maybe it would be easier to believe that women should love their bodies, size 2 or not, if high fashion spreads (and high fashion designers) were designed for all women, of all sizes, short and tall, large and small, curvy and straight, black and white, instead of relegating diverse women to special “diverse” articles like the occasional fashion spread which features all plus-sized models or Italian Vogue’s all-black issue from last year. These marginalized displays come off more like gimmicks than true diversity.

So, while I agree with Weller that we should be careful in judging a Redbook by it’s cover and take a closer look at some of the truly good articles that can appear in such magazines, I think the story is more complicated than that. If these magazines want to be taken more seriously, their empowering or groundbreaking content recognized more broadly, they need to start correcting some of the core hypocrisies represented within their pages. They can’t have their sexist cake and eat it too. By sending such mixed messages, with their content, these magazines in large part negate, or at least obscure, the power of the kinds of content Weller speaks about.

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About Katie Heimer

I'm a graduate student of media studies at the New School. My main academic interests in the field center around issues of women in the media (both in terms of representations of and access to) and the overlapping issues of media reform and education. This website will serve as a chronicle of my progress and growth, both intellectually and personally, as I navigate my master's of media studies.
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2 Responses to Mixed Messages

  1. Kristi says:

    That’s why I like Lucky, in which there are no articles at all since it is essentially a clothing catalog. I can stroke my consumerism with no conflicting messages about social conscience at all, other than the occasional nod to vegan shoes or organic cotton. (Also, I read your blog 🙂

  2. Christopher says:

    It kind of reminds me of the old argument guys give for reading Playboy: “It had a fascinating interview of Kissinger!”

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