Why women’s mags might not be the great Satan on glossy pages

ImageHold onto your hoohahs because I am about to shock the liberal ladypants right off you: I like women’s magazines. Yes, I know that feminist blogs are existentially bound to be the mortal enemies of anything glossy that sits on a news stand. Yes, I know that there’s some egregious bullshittery within the editorial gospel of these shiny-papered organs. I know it’s easy to hate on women’s magazines.

And yet women’s magazines are the only publications where female writers aren’t massively outnumbered by male ones. They’re one of the few sectors in any industry where female authority is the norm, rather than a freakishly dickless aberration. And they’re almost the only media where things in which women are interested – fashion and beauty, but also friendship and family and sex – are treated as things a normally intelligent person might be interested in, rather than the brainfluff of vacant-headed boob carriers consigned to a section called “Lifestyle”.

Let’s take a look at Elle, because it’s the one I read most (and the one I’ve written for). Yes, actually read, not just look at the pictures: every issue, Elle carries at least four good quality features, the kind of thing you can start in an idle moment while the kettle’s boiling and find yourself still reading as your tea goes cold.

Over the last few years, they’ve run a fantastic essay about feminism by Sarah Churchwell; a series of outstanding pieces by “beauty extremist” Avril Mair, going into the kind of genuine hard work it takes to develop and maintain a fashion-class body; and wonderful discursive articles about careers, relationships and the meaning of style. Seriously, you haven’t even inflicted consensual superficial bruising on the subject of fetishwear as fashion unless you’ve read UK Elle’s article from 2011. (They also have the inevitable occasional Ultimate Celebrity Interview, but you can’t get everything right.)

When it comes to the actual fashion – the photo shoots – I think even the most passionate defender of the glossy has to acknowledge some capital-I-issues. It’s obscene that teenage models are routinely presented as avatars for an audience twice their age. It’s obscene that a starvation level body mass index is presented as a normal, desirable female look. It’s obscene that short, black, fat (and I’m talking fashion-fat here, as in size 10 or above) and disabled women are either non-existent to fashion or fetishised half to death if they do appear.

All that sucks. But get this: it sucks the same in almost every branch of the media. Wailing on women’s magazines as if they’re the only place this happens is so self-defeatingly dumb, I almost can’t bear to think about it. I mean, take one of the main purveyors of the j’accuse approach to women’s magazines: the Mail’s Liz Jones. A woman whose entire journalistic career is founded on niggling and picking at other women, and who when she’s not writing about how disgusting fat poor people are is whining about the privations of being an anorexic living in a massive barn. (CONFIDENTIAL TO LIZ: YOUR EMPLOYERS MAY NOT BE AS CONCERNED FOR YOUR WELFARE AS THEY SAY IF THEY’RE PAYING YOU TO INDULGE YOUR POTENTIALLY FATAL NEUROSES,)

Women’s magazines could be better. They could adopt a saner approach to diet and exercise. (Seriously, if you have six weeks to get a bikini body, you need to either have one to start with or think about buying a bigger bikini.) They could act like consumption isn’t a sacred rite (and maybe they will, when the advertisers finally all walk into the online sunset and readers are actually paying the paper and production costs rather than being a bought audience). They could let go of the crack-brained arguments about “having it all” or “keeping him happy”.

You know when that’s going to happen? When smart, funny women recognise that smart, funny women make women’s magazines. When readers demand better and writers push to provide it – we know they can, because of how many great women writers already work (or have worked) for women’s magazines. And please, tell me where else I get to see female performers and creators lauded on the cover just for being rocking. (Well, beautiful and rocking.) When Wired magazine – with the notionally gender neutral remit of “tech and shit” – puts a woman on the cover, she’s posed to mark her token nature in a male dominated industry, or she’s naked, or she’s just tits. WT everliving F is up with that, Wired?

So every time some chippy blogger rips into the great Satan of the glossies, as if they’re the only papery barrier between us and total emancipation, I like to take a moment to count all the other brilliant venues for women’s interest journalism. And then, after I’ve blinked, I take a chilly satisfaction in thinking of how happy that blogger would be to get – if she’s one of the very, very fortunate and talented ones – a single page of Grazia to spread her thoughts on.

Image taken from jaimelondonboy‘s Flickr stream, used under Creative Commons

An earlier version of this post appeared on The Flick

[Guest post] The ultimate celebrity interview!

Mhairi McFarlane is a kirby-grip strewing angel of vengeance and you should follow her on Twitter if you’ve got any smarts at all.

I am so sick of reading this interview. You read it all the time, constantly, year in, year out, in every glossy magazine and Sunday supplement. It’s founded on the twin principles that A) people who act are the most fascinating beings on the planet, and B) that we, the readers are totally credulous, awed plebians. The dumbstruck interviewer acts only as a conduit to divinity, drinking in their shuddering magnificence and recording their sub-adolescent witterings as if it’s brainy gold. We’re now at the stage where an actor or actress would have to take a shit on the reporter’s notebook to get a less-than-howlingly-sycophantic write-up. (Or maybe not. HE’S WHERE IT’S SCAT!) I’m convinced by now there’s a template. It goes like this.

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The pink reconciliation

In a moment I’m going to say something that could be taken as critical of the Pink Stinks campaign, and that would be a shame because I both support Pink Stinks’ assault on the gender segregation of childhood and have huge admiration for how much they’ve achieved. So: Pink Stinks is brilliant, except for the name, which I hate.

The tag line for the campaign is “there’s more than one way to be a girl”. Perfect, if the name of the campaign didn’t make it clear that one of those ways completely sucks. Ending the remorseless pinkification of girlhood? Excellent. I am down with that like you wouldn’t believe. Telling girls who have already given their tiny souls over to pink that the things they like are horrible? That’s just mean. Like, make-a-child-weep mean.

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Editions of you: Roxy and magazines

For Your PleasureBefore home video made it possible to possess film, print was the only was the only to claim ownership of visuals. Roxy Music made records, but they made a world too – a freakish outgrowth of the style mags, and one built on print.

In the More Than This documentary, designer Anthony Price talks up the prestige of being a “Roxy girl”: “It was quite a benchmark of success. It was second only to a Vogue cover.” And Bryan Ferry reckons that print culture was part of the reason for Roxy’s success: “I think in Europe, people’s taste was more informed by magazines, by music newspapers, and music was analysed and talked about. In America, it was all about what was on the radio.”

12″ sleeves and the glossy magazines can’t define dreams and desire in the same way anymore. The music press has ground down to the NME, which seems to be more taste-chasing than taste-making, and retro-looking monthlies. With Roxy, magazines mattered.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Full review will appear in DVD And Blu-Ray Review.

Death Ray and Filmstar fold

Blackfish logoDeath Ray and Filmstar magazines have closed, as Blackfish Publishing splits from their parent company Rebellion. According to a press release issued by managing director Matt Bielby, the current issues of both magazines (Death Ray issue 21, and Filmstar issue 5) will be their last.

I liked Blackfish’s magazines, and I wrote for Filmstar: even among strong competition, I felt that Filmstar was an impressive title, and it’s more than self-interest that makes me sad to see it go. The editors I worked with were great, and I’m proud of the pieces I wrote for them (I’ll be adding all my film reviews to the Paperhouse archive over the next few weeks).  There are plenty of reasons why a publishing venture might not work out, but for Blackfish, it definitely wasn’t a failure of quality. Over the fold, the press release in full: Continue reading

Filmstar issue 3

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a friend about whether there was space for another film mag on the market. Something with a left-field approach that would differentiate it from the the blockbuster coverage offered by Empire and Total Film. Something with a passionate, knowledgeable approach – but falling to the populist side of Sight And Sound or Little White Lies. I would (and do) buy all of those titles, but it still felt like there was a gap in there for some smart publisher to get established.

Filmstar cover

And now, that gap has been filled by Filmstar – and I’m writing for them. So are lots of other people: Filmstar is heavingly stuffed with words about films. Everything gets a review. There are seven or eight in-depth features, the recurring features are similarly detailed, and it all comes over in the style of a conversation with a friend who knows (and loves) everything about movies.

But just because it’s text-heavy doesn’t mean the look has been neglected. Art editor Karl Jaques has given it a super-sharp design that balances all the content brilliantly, with smart little touches that hold everything together. In the main features, for example, each one gets a slightly different font for the page furniture. Lars von Trier is a cheery-sinister grunge typeface; Inglourious Basterds is an uncompromising sans-serif on searing red; and (my favourite) a feature on serious-comedy movies gets a big-top treatment. You also can see in the thumbnails the way that colour is used to set the tone of every feature (obviously, the Antichrist spreads are as black as the pit of von Trier’s soul).

Lars von Trier FS3 Basterds FS3 Kinds Of Comedy FS3

In Filmstar 3, I review Norwegian zomcom Dead Snow (and interview the director), art-house recreation of 70s skinflicks Viva, Michael Moore polemic Slacker Uprising, noodle romance The Ramen Girl, bleak and witty Turkish morality tale Three Monkeys, and (yes!) Robert Pattinson gay-off Little Ashes.

How to make a magazine: The September Issue

Everyone knows that Anna Wintour is imperious, dictatorial and impeccable. The trailer for this behind-the-scenes-at-Vogue documentary promises to reinforce that image. Good news for us, because the scene of her telling Oscar de la Renta what’s in and out of his catwalk show looks mighty entertaining; good news for Wintour too, because I imagine that her ferocious reputation is the most valuable thing she’s got.

But what looks most interesting – for people infatuated with journalism and publishing, anyway – is the way this film follows in detail the process of putting together an issue of a magazine. September is the big month in Vogue’s year, and Anna critiques everything in hand-stitched detail: the fonts, the message, and above all the looks.

Drowning in a sea of tits and anal tears

Maxim has shut down, less than a month after the closure of Arena. Back in early March, Brian Schofield (Arena contributing editor) made this analysis of the problems for men’s magazines, putting the slump down to the frantic imitation of the tits-and-goals mens’ weeklies: “joining the younger lads’ titles in a suicide charge into grubby oblivion, to be munched up by the new weekly grot-mags Nuts and Zoo – and, of course, by the simple fact that exposed breasts are quite easy to find for free on the internet.” (My newsagent keeps Nuts and Zoo on the top shelf with the authentic stroke mags, and everyone knows how well they’re doing.)

On the Media Show this week, Condé Nast’s UK managing director Nicholas Coleridge kicked the weak content of the mens’ glossies into tiny little bits:

In the end there were six articles that appeared in the lads’ magazines. This was the formula. You had softporn pictures. You had ‘Highstreet Honeys’, which was when people sent in pictures of their girlfriends, and in fact it was rather early user-generated copy that appeared in the magazines. And what I always think of as ‘Sharks And Nazis’, which were articles about deep-sea fishing – there were an incredible number of them – and articles that had a Nazi connection. A little bit of sport, and medical abnormalities – a tremendous number of pictures of medical abnormalities appeared in the lads’ magazines. And I think people simply felt, ‘god, I’ve seen this, I’ve seen this.’ […] I think in the end, they were rather bad magazines.

It’s worth remembering that Condé Nast has just invested in the UK launch of Wired – which, while not exactly a mens’ mag, is a magazine with a largely male readership (I’d guess) and, importantly, a heavy commitment to original features – so Coleridge’s faith in content is all over his business strategy. In the same segment of the Media Show, James Brown claimed that lack of diversity had murderered the mens’ market, but a lot of the homgeneity was self-inflicted: publishers assumed that whatever was popular was the same as what their readers wanted, without preserving the qualities that originally made people love the magazine (at one time, I used to read FHM mostly because they had a killer caption writer who hid something funny on every page). Just because it’s what the people want doesn’t mean it’s what your audience wants.