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Citizen Media Critic: If You're Thinking of Starting a Women's Mag...

An open letter to would-be women's mag editors

- August 8, 2005

An acquaintance of mine once told me that he went drinking with Christopher Hitchens and in the middle of a conversation, and apropos of nothing—or nothing worth mentioning—Hitchens declared, "Four most overrated things: Picnics, lobster, champagne and anal sex!" Assuming the story wasn't completely apocryphal, I'm not sure what Hitchens has against picnics, but I sort of liked the sentiment behind the statement—here are four things every normal red-blooded American is supposed to like, and let's face it, they're not that great. I feel that way about scuba diving (conceptually absurd), Harry Potter books (should never be read by adults unless they have children under the age of 10), parades (loud, annoying traffic-blockers) and women's magazines—but mostly the women's magazines.

Women's magazines make the overrated list because I am, by all objective accounts, a woman and these publications are ostensibly targeting me—but they're not, apparently, or I'd buy them and I'd read them. As it happens, I'm exponentially more likely to buy Esquire off the newsstand than Vogue. I realize that Vogue's circulation numbers would seem to indicate that I am in the minority, but enough of my female friends feel the same way that I'm inclined to think there's a market that isn't being served.

In an attempt to be open-minded, I routinely try these things again, just to see if they're any better than the last time I tried them. (Most recently: parades. Still annoying.) In that spirit I went out and bought the most recent issue of every major large-circulation women's mag I could find on the newsstand and read them all to see if I felt any differently.

Here's an exercise: Below is a sample list of the titles I bought, which issue I read, the cover story subject and the various coverlines:

Elle: September (Jennifer Lopez on the cover)
10 Days to a New Body: It Won't Be Easy---But It Can Be Done!
Jennifer Lopez: Answers the Questions You've Been Dying to Ask
Fall Fashion Extravaganza!
Single and Loving It: Is Now the Best Time to Be On Your Own?
Plastic Surgery Update: Why Some Celebs Look So Scary (And How to Avoid the Same Fate!)
540 Pages of Great Style!: Your Biggest Shopping Guide Ever!
The New Supersexy Jeans You'll Want Today
Plus: The Best Boots to Buy Now
What Does Your Hair Say About You?
Fertility Wars: Is Egg Donation The New Dirty Little Secret?

Marie Claire: September (Reese Witherspoon)
Fall Beauty: 73 Best Hair and Makeup Looks for You!
What Gets You Noticed First?
Reese [Witherspoon] On Loving Her "Imperfect" Body & the Fight She's Taking Public
Save Big $$$ on Fashion: 803 Sexy Looks: All Shapes * All Sizes * All Prices
The Wine Chocolate & Cheese Diet (It Really Works!)
Break Your Worry Habit
Hot Sex: 4 Facts You'll Love
Will You Get Rich? A Revealing Test
Busted! Men Who Take Sex Tours
Free! Designer Makeup

Vogue: August (Madonna)
Living With Cancer: A Model's Will to Survive
The Age Issue: Stylish and Inspiring Lives From 8 to 81
Fashion Star at 20
Rocket Scientist at 30
TV Dynamo at 40
Life of the Party at 50
Queen of Vegas at 60
Eco Heroine at 70
Working Girl at 80
Madonna: Reinvented for the Very Last Time: Marvelous Mom and English Lady of the Manor
The Secret to Tight, Toned Arms (It's Not Just Exercise)
The Second Sexual Revolution: Heating Up the Bedroom at Any Age

Harper's Bazaar: August (Cate Blanchett)
New Season: 525 Ideas
Quick & Easy Beauty Tips
Fall Preview Issue
Fashion Buys You'll Never Regret
Fabulous at Every Age

Glamour: Supersize Anniversary Issue! (September 2005)
Your Best Sex at 20, 30, 40: What Works & Doesn't for You…and for Him
How to Outsmart Stress (In One Minute or Less)
Must Read Bonus!: 800 Sexy Looks for Every Size…
Free Diamonds! Massive Giveaway
30 Things Every Woman Should Know by Age 30
Pick Jennifer Connelly's Best Fall Look: Open Here!

Cosmopolitan: The Hot Issue (August), Kate Hudson
Sex Survey: 5,000 Men Took It: The Position They Crave, Their Biggest Turn-off, The Female Flex They Love
How to Read His Feelings Instantly
Love Being Naked! 17 Body Confidence Boosters
Guys Uncensored: You Won't Believe The Dirty Thoughts Dudes Have
4 Gyno Mistakes You Must Learn About
Sizzling Sex Tips: End Your Summer with a Bang!
Kate Hudson: A Very Revealing Interview
The Best Jeans for Your Shape

I'd feel guilty about judging a magazine by its cover, except that everyone does—ask the cover testing experts. Newsstand sales are inherently cover-sensitive.

So here's my central issue: if gender-neutral aliens from another planet were to land on earth and could only learn about women from the covers of women's mags, they would probably make the following assumptions:

1. Women tend to be disproportionately enthusiastic about banal things, thus the astronomical number of exclamation marks.

2. Women care mostly and overwhelmingly about clothes and makeup application.

3. In order to cognitively process how the aforementioned clothes and makeup are to be worn, women need a specific number of options—say, 803. Or 540. (On the upside, this would perhaps refute the stereotype that women are not quantitatively oriented.)

4. In fact, we really can't process any of this information without seeing it in the same format every single time: numbered lists about fashion and beauty lining a photo of a heavily airbrushed celebrity, usually in eveningwear, against a solid-colored background. And if there's room in the lower right or upper left corner, the occasional heartwrenching "one-woman's story" about overcoming some problem not of her own making or oppression in a third world country. Any deviations from this format will cause space and time to collapse, and the executive editors will be held responsible. And if you're Harper's Bazaar, you can make the headlines so generic and interchangeable that the reader can't tell from reading the cover what year it is or even tell the difference between this month's issue and last month's.

5. We're perfectly comfortable with taking one particular anecdotal situation and overgeneralizing wildly from it. (On the downside, this would perhaps reinforce the stereotype that women are not empirically-oriented.)

6. We like free stuff and stuff at low cost. We're cheap, in other words. (To be fair, sometimes we are.)

7. We hate our bodies the way they are, and we love them the way they are. Simultaneously.

8. We're interested in learning about sex, but primarily so that we can provide more pleasure to our husbands, boyfriends and not-entirely-condoned casual lovers.

These things are problematic because sort of woman who fits the criteria above is alien to me. (If this piece were a women's mag, they'd be some of my "483 Biggest Turn-Offs About Women's Magazines!") I hate shopping; I use cosmetics but don't pay attention to the brands; and given that my favorite book title is from a collection of Robert Crumb letters called Your Vigor for Life Appalls Me [period], it's probably safe to say that I'm not the sort of person who overuses exclamatory sentences. I don't know who this hypothetical target woman is, but she's not me.

That's not so say that I think women's magazines are terrible. I don't. They've done a number of good things including raising awareness about women's health issues, addressing gender in the workplace and providing a forum for both genders to talk more openly about sex. And if you're into shopping, beauty products, etc., they're perfect. But they also (perhaps unwittingly) reinforce a very limited notion of what it means to be a woman.

I sat next to the editor in chief of one women's mag at a dinner last year and got pulled into a conversation in which another women's mag colleague lamented that women's weren't taken seriously enough by the rest of the media industry. I mentioned that I tend to read men's mags more often than women's mags, which they seemed to find offensive, as if I had betrayed my gender. "I'm interested in politics and business," I said, "and I want to read pieces that have a sense of humor." "Well!" snapped the editor in chief, "I don't see why women have to act like men to be considered worth reading!" As far as she was concerned, politics and finance were exclusively male realms of interest and I suppose men had a monopoly on funny as well. I also suggested that men's mags were more willing and likely to do features that were controversial, which prompted the editor to point out that she got over 20 pieces of hate mail for a feature her magazine ran about women whose kids were eligible for a military draft, should such a thing return. Not wanting to start a fight, I declined to suggest that twenty pieces of hate mail for seven-figure circulation base struck me as an incredibly low ratio for a controversial piece. (I probably get more hate mail daily for typos alone.)

I'm not going to suggest, however, that Anna Wintour revamp her cash-cow formula for putting out a successful mass market magazine. I'm going to suggest instead—selfishly, no less—that if you're planning to start one of the hundreds of new publications that will inevitably launch in the near future, and that publication happens to be a women's magazine, that you think about the portion of the audience that's less obsessed with fashion and gynecological issues. Some specific recommendations:

1. Include more hard reportage. Women's books are universally service-oriented, and that's not surprising, but a deeper feature well would attract people like me who don't buy self-help books and won't take advice from our own mothers, much less glossy magazines.

2. Make sure that the reportage is not exclusively about self-conscious problem solving with regard to gender. When Esquire (to use the aforementioned example) sends Tucker Carlson to Africa with Al Sharpton it's difficult to make an argument that it's a gender-targeted feature. It's certainly not the sort of thing that forces men to earnestly navel-gaze and think, "how does this make me feel as a man?"

3. Take more risks. Maxim UK's Greg Gutfeld sent a terminally ill patient to Vegas a few months ago with a bunch of strippers (or were they hookers? I don't remember.) It was the Maxim version of the Make-a-Wish foundation and it was horribly, irredeemably tasteless. And I can't stop talking about it. It was, if nothing else, memorable. (And I don't think it exactly hurt circulation, either.) I can't remember a single women's mag story I can say that about—and I feel obligated to read enough of them solely because I'm the editor of a media site.

4. Be funny. This is fuzzier, but funny and sarcastic are not the same thing. Writing that something is soooooo last year is funny the first 572 times—then it's clichéd. And reader confessions about embarrassing moments can be funny, but most of the time, they're just cringe-inducing. Credit where credit's due: Jane magazine attempts funny, and occasionally nails it. (From the August issue: "Why That New Wave of Faux Empowering Dating Advice Blows", wherein the writer follows women's mag dating advice literally and to the letter.)

Please, someone, start this magazine, on behalf of fashion-agnostic, cosmetic-apathetic women everywhere. (I'm almost inclined to end that sentence with a gratuitous exclamation point.)

If you do, I'll be reading.

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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