The issue began that hungover day at the petrol station. Absent-mindedly munching on my lettuce sandwich (bought in a hungover moment of bewilderment), I was stopped dead in my tracks.
‘What?’ Grunted my male flatmate.
In a state of outrage, all I could allow myself to do was point and squawk indignantly.
‘What?’ He repeated.
‘That!’ I spat. ‘That stain on all that is good and holy in feminism!’
The target of my panda-gloved finger was not, alas, gender inequality itself (such as my reaction may have suggested.) It was not some testosterone-fuelled misogynist, nor the wage gap, nor any of the other defects which feminists so seek to eliminate. Instead, quivering only an inch beneath my fingertip was the glossy, glamorous, achingly attractive cover of Cosmopolitan.
I never used to hate women’s magazines. For a long time I thought there was something positively chic about sitting on the bus with a copy of Heat or Glamour or whatever it was. For my adolescent mind-set, knowing ‘how to get the natural look’ using ONLY 17 products or understanding how to ‘seduce’ the beautiful boy on the rugby team were doctrines which I followed religiously. Indeed, for an industry which boasts a readership of almost 50 per cent of adults over the age of 15, it seems that it was not simply I who appreciated the worldly teachings of women’s magazines. In spite of flattering ourselves that we’ve broken stereotypical gender boundaries, the sales figures would suggest that perhaps beauty, weight and sex are the only topics which women really care about after all.
In the cold, financial light of day, the stats are impressive; however, this does little to conceal the far darker reality. 75 per cent of women claimed to feel “depressed, guilty and shameful” after reading a woman’s magazine for only 3 minutes; likewise an American study found that 47 per cent of teenage girls cited magazine pictures as a reason for wanting to lose weight. Indeed, with escalating rates of depression and eating disorders amongst women in the UK, it would certainly not be impertinent to associate a growing women’s media market with these mental health trends. The scandal surrounding magazines’ use of airbrushing is almost as old as the concept itself, as is the labelling of ‘plus size’ models including Robyn Lawley who – despite only being a size 12 – is patronisingly praised for her “feminine curves”.
it would certainly not be impertinent to associate a growing women’s media market with these mental health trends
More than this however, is the insidious relationship between women’s magazines and advertising; a 2013 study found that U.S. magazines presented more women in their print advertisements than their French counterparts. In some ways, this female targeting could stem from their growing economic independence, enabling women to become autonomous consumers. However, more often than not, such advertising merely intends to exploit female insecurities. A 2013 ‘study’ by PHD offered advice to advertising agencies based on the times of the week when women felt most insecure, claiming that “Monday [as the day at which women feel most unattractive] becomes the day to encourage the beauty product consumer to get going and feel beautiful again.” As an industry which relies heavily on advertising therefore, women’s magazines are denied a sense of journalistic independence, being forced to promote content which panders to their funders’ consumerist aims.
This exploitation does not only enable financial gain, however, but also – somewhat ironically – acts to objectify women, defining their value merely in relation to men. The landmark sex tips features of Cosmopolitan and Glamour – although cosmetically an attempt to break female sexual taboos – merely serve to reinforce the heteronormative idea of female subservience to their male partners. Such titles as “13 Little Things That Can Make a Man Fall Hard for You” (Glamour, July 2015) far from empowering women, merely consolidate the antiquated ideals in which male desires are prioritised and catered to by females. Likewise, women are all too often depicted with connotations of a more sexualised, objectified nature. A recent Cosmopolitan feature about female bankers, entitled “Dirty, Sexy Money” might as well have been written by an adolescent boy, devoting more attention to their “elite sex parties” and glamorised dating rules rather than offering a productive insight into how women can gain access to the banking sector.
Women’s magazines – as we know them – seem to have become the grotesque product of a consumerist, male-oriented society. Even more promising publications such as Cosmopolitan and Glamour appear to have lost themselves along the way, merely reinforcing the idea of women’s subservient, sexualised position. With this in mind, it seems that women’s magazines appear to be dying a slow and agonising death, merely manifesting the antiquated system feminists have tried with such difficulty to undermine. Yet, riddled by such criticisms, so begins the flourishment of a new women’s media market.
it seems that women’s magazines appear to be dying a slow and agonising death
The majority of national newspapers now contain a ‘Women’s’ section, focusing more on political and intellectual issues rather than the vapid ideas of traditional women’s magazines. The Guardian Women in particular boasts such writers as Laura Bates (founder of The Everyday Sexism Project) and Rihannon Lucy Coslett and Holly Baxter who founded The Vagenda as an antithesis to traditional women’s media. Indeed, the growing success of such magazines as Shameless and Bitch aims to encompass all women within its target market including lesbians and transgender women who are all too often neglected in the mainstream market. Certainly, the growth of online publications and blogs allow their writers more of a sense of journalistic autonomy, permitting slightly more freedom from the constraints of advertisers.
Although perhaps only baby steps in the development of the women’s media market, political awareness – particularly surrounding feminism – has resonated greatly with many female readers. Women’s magazines are perched on the brink of one of the greatest media revolutions of recent decades. The calls for a market which understands genuine women are finally being answered. Contrary to popular belief, we are intellectual beings too; it’s time for a media which finally reflects our intelligence, not our insecurities.