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Citizen Media Critic: Violet's 'Modern Family Living'

Finally, a magazine for families that look like yours

By Rachel Kramer Bussel - November 18, 2005

I first heard of Violet through a blog entry singing the praises of this new magazine about "modern family living." With sex advice from porn star Juli Ashton and fiction from Jill Soloway, it sounded intriguing. At the newsstand, Violet was on the ground, next to magazines like Pink (for working women) and below a whole rack of glossy, gleaming, screaming magazines with names like Parents, Child, and American Baby. In contrast, Violet's understated cover features celebs Donovan Leitch and Kirsty Hume along with their daughter, named, appropriately enough, Violet Jean, looking decidedly casual in a forested background. Had I not been searching for Violet, I likely would've passed right by it. I'm glad I didn't.

I opened up the magazine on the train, thrilled to see articles that even I, as a single city dweller at least several years away from raising children, could relate to. Some were even written by people I knew, like Soloway or my friend Kemp Powers' article about racism within the video game world. The overall effect left me wondering why I hadn't hopped on the Violet bandwagon earlier, because Violet is offering something truly new—new ideas, new twists, new ways of looking at life and parenting, all wrapped up in a pretty (but never too pretty) package. When Violet profiles working parents, whether it's former pro-football player Ricky Waters (interviewed by Lisa Carver, herself a writer and mother), artist William Wegman, or designer Daryl K about their work and how they incorporate parenting into their lives, it doesn't treat them as superhuman forces able to be in 10 places at once. Instead, it probes the intersections—the ways being a parent has changed them and their craft, but never panders to clichés or burdens parents with the futile push to be perfect.

To really get a feel for why Violet is different, hold it up next to any other magazine targeted at parents (meaning: moms). Whereas the others blare with brightly colored, intended-to-shock headlines, recipes, and a June Cleaver vibe, Violet is chilled out, mellow, not caring that it doesn't play by the usual rules with its oversize format, fuzzy photographs and sometimes kitschy, offbeat manner that appeals to both men and women. Yes, there's several recipes involving pumpkins, but Violet knows that being a parent is about more than being able to cook. The articles turn typical parenting queries on their heads, from a first-person account of parenting kids with asthma; an interview with a Munchausen Syndrome sufferer; a doctor renowned for his books on lying (who admits to telling a fib or two); or the writer who's horrified when a two-year-old is encouraged to pee on the author's carpet by her carefree mom. Violet parents are funny, concerned, self-aware and able to see nuances beyond simplistic binaries. For instance, in the video game article, instead of concluding that the video game world is a worthless white world of racism and quitting, Powers continues in his play, asking gamers their opinions and surveying his gaming surroundings. He separates his own adult ability to discern what's acceptable from his 6-year-old daughter's (she'll have to wait until she's 15).

The layout is textured, nuanced—the magazine equivalent of shabby chic. There's something comfortable and worn about Violet, even though it's just over a year old. I asked Violet founder and editor Keki Mingus (daughter of Charles) about her impetus for starting the magazine (though there's a pretty decent manifesto on their website), which launched in September 2004. "Violet was conceived after my marriage and the birth of my daughter. I realized in an instant that my reality, and the reality of millions of women like me, was apparently no longer relevant or sexy or interesting enough to be represented in the print world. That reality being the imperfect family, where white picket fences are falling apart or simply a non-entity. Where life is hectic and unfair at times. Where families are blended, healing, surviving or thriving, all in a constant state of flux." For her, "modern family living" means "that there's just isn't the idealized perfect family. It's a myth. So instead of trying to live up to this unrealistic and cruel portrait that sets the bar so high where 99.9 percent of the entire human race won't make the cut, why not embrace the imperfections?"

If anything, Violet is about painting parents as people, in all their complexity and creativity.

I may not be a parent (yet), but Violet's got me in its grips. Why? Because there's no agenda, no push, no sense that they are trying to get me to "be" a certain way or cater to corporate anything. Whereas Hip Mama has a certain political bent (that I admire), Violet's much more laid-back. It has a hippie, laissez-faire parents-are-people-too attitude that makes perfect sense but is quite an anomaly on the newsstand. Even though its emphasis is on the modern, I could see my mom writing to them back in the day as she tried to feed me puffed wheat and millet rather than the usual sugar cereals. If anything, Violet is about painting parents as people, in all their complexity and creativity. Ashton's piece turned out to be less sex advice than personal essay as she contemplates what it means, as she prepares to get married, to be a "good wife," not by society's standards, but her own. When was the last time you heard a porn star wonder about that?

The "warts-and-all baggage of imperfect living" Mingus writes of on Violet's website is one I get, completely. We're all often asked to compartmentalize ourselves and live up to some idealized vision of any one aspect of ourselves, whether our gender, our job, or in this case, parental status, and that's impossible. Because it embraces a diverse array of parenting styles and artistic endeavors, I feel part of Violet; its inclusiveness is widespread, and I could see men or even kids and teens reading it. It's self-aware but never, ever ironic, high-strung, snarky or clichéd. That's not to say every sentence is about peace and love, but the overall tone is one of striving—to be good people, good parents, and productive members of society, while treating kids as autonomous creatures, and being able to laugh about it all.

This attitude is best summarized by the closing photo of two little boys in the backseat of a pink toy Jeep, with a little girl sitting on top. Mingus writes of the photo shoot, "I couldn't keep my mind from going to a dark place: Whitesnake's 'Here I Go Again' video with Tawny Kitaen doing those ridiculous poses on the hood of a Jaguar while David Coverdale and his hair watched." That, combined with the back cover ad for Pony featuring a baby with a pacifier in its mouth and "Mom" tattooed across his or her stomach, shows just how far Violet is and always will be from the seeming perfection offered by the typical parenting magazines. Life isn't perfect, and we shouldn't expect parenting to be, and those who accept that maxim should embrace Violet.

Rachel Kramer Bussel is a writer, editor, and blogger.

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