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

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

Newspaper classifieds: don’t blame the internet (but it’s still not good)

The Media Business classifieds graphThe Media Business online classifieds bar chart

Graphs taken from The Media Business

Newspapers might be having trouble retaining their classified advertising, but Robert G Pickard on The Media Business blog reckons that’s not solely down to internet competition, and nor is it certainly fatal. He offers two graphs (above, using data from Newspaper Association of America and the Internet Advertising Bureau) to prove his point:

The Internet certainly is taking some money from newspapers, but it isn’t the worst culprit. The real competitor is direct mail and home delivery advertising that have taken much preprint and display advertising from newspapers in recent decades by delivering better household reach. That was compounded by the significant reduction in the number of large retailers in the late 1990s and 2000s. The development of the recession in 2007 and 2008 is currently playing a major role because newspaper advertising—especially classifieds—is more strongly affected by recessions than other types of advertising. But recessions come and go and there is no reason to believe that an advertising recovery will not accompany an improvement in the economy. […]

The end for newspapers is not in sight and those who think that the $50 billion industry is going to collapse and disappear within a year or two because of Internet advertising are just not paying attention close enough attention to what is really happening across media industries.

Robert G Pickard, The Media Business, “The poor connection between internet advertising and newspaper woes”

Measuring the market value isn’t an especially good way to judge the effect of online competition on print ad spending: an online listing is cheaper than one in a newspaper, so every customer who deserts print for the internet will only take a small portion of their advertising spend with them. And while Pickard is correct when he says it’s not just the internet squeezing advertising away from print, it still seems to take a mighty squint to get these figures looking good for newspapers.

Classified advertising revenue for newspapers continues to plummet dramatically according to both graphs – whether or not that revenue is being diverted to online services, newspapers still aren’t getting it, and publications who have formerly relied on their small ads can’t depend on getting them back when the recession is through.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

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.

Avast ye, Google

Pirate Bay trial ends in a guilty verdict, after the prosecution dropped half the original charges and rephrased the remainder to fit in with an understanding of how the site actually worked. It’s a qualified victory for the music industry, and the comment from the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry (“It would have been very difficult to put on a brave face if we had lost, but this verdict sends a strong educational and deterrent message”) is wringing with relief. Guardian blogger Jack Schofield wonders if Google will be next, and is quite keen that it is: “Still, it would be interesting to see Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt jailed as well.”

There’s quite a high-powered crowd of media people who seem to share Schofield’s interest:

Rupert Murdoch accused Google in a speech of “stealing copyrights.” Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson called Google and other aggregators “parasites or tapeworms,” charging Google and other unnamed aggregators with the crime of “encouraging promiscuity” (managing to combine fear of Google and fear of sex, in what could be a model platform for the Republican Party in 2010).

The Big Money, Death a la carte

For people who publish the news, Murdoch and Thomson don’t seem to read an awful lot of it: the track record of efforts to prosecute the sharing of copyrighted information is supremely lousy. Taking down file-sharing individuals and facilitating websites hasn’t stopped other individuals and new websites from using the same technology (and more ferociously), and since text is even easier to copy and transmit than music and movies, it’s even less likely that squeezing a search engine will have any permanent effect.

And what about that “educational message” the IFPI was so pleased with? The hope of copyright holders is to teach their potential audience that everything they read, see or hear has to be paid for: it’s an incredibly mean message and one that’s totally opposed to the nature of culture and information. Like almost everyone, I’ve exchanged CDs and mixtapes, loaned books and DVDs, shared newspapers – because when something is exciting or important, you want to share it. There’s an obvious quantitative difference in digital reproduction, but qualitatively, it feels like sharing and not stealing. By trying to stick a price on everything, copyright holders risk sucking the value out of their own product.