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February 25, 2004

Women's Magazine Editors

Dear Friedrich --

The latest NYC media-world tempest in a teapot is gathering now and should break in the next week or so. Myrna Blyth, who was editor in chief at Ladies' Home Journal for 10 years, has written a book, Spin Sisters, in which she ...

Well, why not just quote the books' p-r material instead?

Blowing the whistle on a job she herself did for over ten years at Ladies Home Journal as editor-in-chief, Blyth reveals the almost institutionalized selling of a liberal/do-gooders message to women through chararacterizing women themselves as victims. Playing on women's compassion and ability to be hooked into "uplifting" stories with a moral or happy ending, American media has convinced the most well-educated, rich and healthy audience in history that they are miserable.

Here's a quote from the book itself:

Many [of these high-up media women] are talented, and ambitious, and smart; and, I must admit, some are friends of mine. But ... I also know they are elitist, liberal, parochial, and pampered, and all of them believe that if you're a woman, you should think like them.
Blyth evidently hopes to be the Bernard Goldberg of the women's-magazine universe, calling attention to biases, sloppiness, egos and betrayals.

Is it true that the women who run women's magazines are Hillary-esque, unhappy, and bossy? Are they really narcissistic lefty wrecks who insist on being taken as role models? My meek, worm's eye view is: Hell, yeah! That destructive loon played by Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction"? Let's just say that while the stereotype of the terrifying, crazy career media bitch no doubt does an injustice to some women, there are good reasons why it's attained stereotype-hood. And though the Close character worked in book publishing, many of the gals I've met from the women's-mag world have been kindred spirits.

But, really, I'm pleased that the subject's being talked about. I'm pleased, in fact, just about any time people examine the media industry and its products more closely and more openly than they usually do. I look forward to the catfights. May the fur fly.

A brief pause for some perspective: it seems to me that the people who criticize these media products need to wrestle the fact that these products work. They sell. I mean, the media biz is a going concern; if it weren't onto something -- even if that something is merely how to exploit the fantasy lives and anxieties of American women -- it wouldn't be long for this world. Millions of women buy these magazines, and advertisers pay good money to buy space in them. Why? Is the formula of pushing anxieties (weight, men, careers, biological clocks, medical scares) while selling solutions (plastic surgery, diets, clothes, doctor visits) simply irresistable? And if these magazines are repulsive products, why don't women en masse stop buying them?

I'd be the last person to defend the puffed-up, vain madwomen who run women's magazines. But it doesn't hurt to remember that they're working under the same pressures everyone else in the job world is. Grab attention; sell product; make targets. Compete compete compete. Larger question: does success of the sort women's magazines have mean that they're what women want? In other words, why not wonder for a sec about the old "what does success in the marketplace really mean" question: What's the difference (if any) between what people want and what a business is able to sell to them?

That said, and IMHO of course: let's also have the fun of holding these women's feet to the fire. I've always found these Spin Sister-type gals to be among the most untrustworthy and deranged people I've ever run into ... well, this side of Hollywood, anyway. Why not put them in the hot seat for a few minutes?

Ever eager to do the hard work of research for our readers, I picked up a copy of the current Glamor magazine to see what an up-to-date gal-mag consists of. Once past my disappointment at the absence of lengthy lingerie layouts, I noted down some of the issue's contents.

  • Patti Davis writes about having had 5 nose jobs!
  • Women feel good about their sex lives!
  • Alanis Morissette is over her anger at men!
  • What's His Body Like at 20, 30, and 40?
  • A bunch of fashion layouts and features: "You'd look better in flowers!"; "Ooh-laa-la hair" ("Who says a French twist has to be tidy?"); "Bye Bye Black, Hello Color!" ("This blue makes me feel like I'm going to do the cha-cha!" says Karina Lombard of "The L Word").
  • A number of food, exercise and weight features, including: "Your Big Fat Questions about Fat."
  • A q&a between Drew Barrymore and her "close friend and business partner" Nancy Juvonen.
  • Make a Brunch That'll Impress Anyone!
  • A handful of social-activism pieces: Women are Dying in Juarez! Women Want Peace! Women are Speaking Out!
  • Tons and tons of scrapbooky bits and pieces: book, movie and makeup recommendations; how to get your feet into sandal shape; have you ever cheated? Britney on roller skates!
  • And of course, lots of skinny models, twirly graphics, and girly colors.

I'm not sure what this list proves, although I plan to pull it out the next time a woman complains about how stupid men are. Looking at it, what strikes me most is this question: why do women use so many exclamation points? I've noticed this in email too -- many of my gal friends make free use of exclamation points, while few of my male friends ever use them. Is this because women tend to be more expressive?

But back to my posting's topic. Looking at the contents of Glamor, I understand the emphasis on stars 'n' food 'n' exercise 'n' clothes. But where do the big-issue pieces come from? I recognize a Tina Brown move here: scatter a few weighty, socially-aware-type things in among the fluff. But I wonder if readers enjoy these pieces. Any hunch? Do women like imagining they're on the side of the angels even as they tweeze their eyebrows and plot out new romance strategies? Or is an editor somewhere doing her best to put over some leftish "news"?

Hey, I notice that Myrna Blyth has her own website, here. The book's intro is on the site, so I'll copy and paste a few paragraphs from it.

Welcome, Professor, to the world of women’s magazines, a nearly seven billion- dollar-a-year business which nowadays is primarily based on telling women that their lives, the lives of contemporary American women, are, often, too tough for them to handle and that they should feel very sorry for themselves.

The story told on television, which, if you are like most women you probably watch almost five hours a day, is just as downbeat. On cable, you can find frantic heroine-in-jeopardy movies playing almost any hour of the day or night. The networks’ nightly newsmagazines are just as bleak with hyped up stories of murder and mayhem, usually at the hands of abusive husbands or boyfriends, evil corporations, or incompetent doctors. Even on morning television, we constantly view tales of miserable, victimized women. And always underlying this non-stop doom and gloom media barrage is one simple message: It could be you!

This distorted vision of your life is absolutely crazy, since you also happen to be the best educated, healthiest, wealthiest, longest lived women with more opportunities for personal fulfillment than any other generation in history. What has always characterized American women has been our strength, energy, and competence; our desire to be actively and positively involved in improving our lives and the lives of our families. Over the past fifty years, the creativity and productivity of women in this country, unleashed and utilized as never before, that has been one of the most important reasons that America is now the strongest, richest, and most diverse country on earth.

The book can be bought here.

Here's Peg Tyre's article about the brouhaha for Newsweek.

Here's a Washington Times piece about the book.

Here's Lisa Granatstein in MediaWeek.

Women's magazine editors: hard-working, inventive purveyors of style, information and entertainment who are merely selling American women what they want? Or self-centered egomaniacs with an agenda, exploiting their fellow females for selfish gain?

And why do gals use so many exclamation points?



posted by Michael at February 25, 2004


Isn't Myrna Blyth a bit behind the times here? I mean, the big hits in the women's magazine world at the moment are the celebrity gossip sheets (People and US) and the jaw-droppingly successful Lucky. None of which fit into Blyth's blueprint.

And... Ladies Home Journal? Excuse me while I guffaw. Not exactly the pulsing heart of the media universe.

Posted by: Felix on February 25, 2004 10:46 PM

It'll be interesting to see how the book works. Will it generate lots of press? And will it sell a lot of copies? My hunch is that it'll get the press but that it won't sell that many copies -- how many people care that much in that way about the gals' magazines? What's your guess about how it'll work?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 26, 2004 8:10 AM

Two tidbits from my reading:

Back in the 80's while I was in journalism "school", we were told that the target audience for Cosmopolitan magazine was women 21-35 years old with an income of 18-30K. Not exactly a cosmopolitan (small "c") group.

Dan Jenkins, a magazine writer and novelist of some note, writing on the magazine biz, "It's all just commerce."

Posted by: Rick on February 26, 2004 10:02 AM

I don't think LHJ and Glamor are precisely in the same women's magazine universe. Glamor is geared to younger, single women while LHJ and its counterparts, Women's Day and Family Circle, are focused more on married women with children. LHJ differs from the other 2 in that they typically have a celebrity on the cover while the others may have a picture of a cake or a flower arrangement.

My mother always picked them up in the supermarket, which is where, I'm guessing, the bulk of their sales are come from. I also see LHJ at the nail salon. I have read and loved these since I was a kid. Not because I find them valuable but because they are so predicatable--they're the harlequin romances of the magazine world. They typically feature 1) a diet and/or exercise plan ("Six exercises that will get you swimsuit ready!" "Lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks!"); 2) a makeover; 3) a childcare column; 4) house and garden decorating tips; 5) how to fight aging; and 6) recipes. And every issue has at least one story on how some brave woman overcame a terrible disease/disability/family tragedy and is now fighting for other women who are similarly plagued. The cover promo for the disease generally suggests that your life may depend on reading the story and there are always boxes accompanying the story with phone #s and websites where "you can go for help." Although the tone of the headline and promos are alarmist the articles generally sshow our heroine triumphantly overcoming it and generally the disease is so rare you're probably more likely to win the lottery than fall victim to it.

A friend recently brought a couple in to work (her mother picks them up at the supermarket, too) so I was able to reacquaint myself with them. From memory:

1) A feature on women and heart attacks.
2) A story about a woman who, despite eating thousands of calories a day and stuffing herself with pasta and cookies kept seeing her weight drop to an alarming degree until it was finally discovered she was allergic to gluten.
3) A story about a woman who was an avid dieter and exerciser ( size 2!) who begen putting on weight at an alarming weight until it was discovered she had ... some other atypical syndrome.
4) A story on aging that emntioned, among other things, that your eyebrows grow shorter as you age. (As if I don't have enought to worry about.)

LHJ also has a running feature ("the longest-running feature on any magazine!) called "Can this marriage be saved?" which is so popular they're now running "Was this marriage saved?" and looking back at past couples. This is a great formula: First the wife speaks, then the husband speaks and then the counselor speaks and reports on progress. The situations are boilerplate: The couple "had" to get married and both resent having their youth taken away from them; husband loses a job and now wife has to go to work; wife puts on 50 pounds after devastating miscarriage. Yet somehow, I always read them and their neat little endings are soothing.

I'm not sure anyone takes these magazines seriously, I suspect most pick them up for ideas on what to make for dinner.

Posted by: Rachel on February 26, 2004 10:33 AM

Reading this posting, I recognize that I basically have nothing to say because it's been so long since I read any "traditional" women's magazines that I have no idea what they are about. I stopped reading them because they were numbingly stupid and seemed to solely be about how to be "good enough" for a man. (However, I did read GQ while I was getting my hair cut the other day---and it's every bit as stupid as anything you have quoted here about women's magazines). I think women who actually read those mags get what they deserve. If everybody stopped buying Cosmo or Jane or LHJ, they would go out of business and we'd all be the better for it. Ditto to Esquire and company.

Two questions:

A) As a kid, though, I DO remember the LHJ feature, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" and devouring it. I wonder if they still have it. This is not a girl thing. My older brother and his friend used to watch a show called "Divorce Court" after school when they were in junior high.

B) I never met anybody who used more exclamation points and little smiley faces than an over-forty man I know, BUT he was from the media biz. I think it's more a media thang than a girl thang. I managed to complete this entire comment without a single exclamation point. So there.

Posted by: annette on February 26, 2004 2:02 PM

Rick -- Cosmo used to be a magazine for feisty semi-working-class gals with glamorous dreams. I remember in the '70s lots of secretaries carrying it around. Since they moved Helen Gurley Brown along, the mag has seemed to want to pursue a slightly more upscale audience, or at least more media-centric, or something. It's full of fairly-familiar "attitude" these days. I wonder whether the new approach is working for them.

Rachel, Annette -- Sounds like you two have the women's magazines in good perspective. I often wish the women who put them together did. Not that I ever did a survey or anything, but I've only met a couple of women's-mag gals who seemed at all sane (ie., cynical but good-natured and enthusiastic) about their business. The rest seemed to feel compelled to try to live what they preached and vice versa. And, hey, I was a fan of "Can This Marriage Be Saved" too. They're still running that? An American classic, I guess. I remember a Roy Blount Jr. piece where he mentioned that he loved the column too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 26, 2004 2:47 PM

"What's His Body like at 20, 30, and 40?"

2 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock.

Posted by: ricpic on February 26, 2004 3:28 PM

Yes, Annette, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is still running. (Someone brought it into work not long again). And it's as good (?) as ever. Really the same. It's comfort food. Perfect reading in the nail salon.

Posted by: Rachel on February 26, 2004 3:54 PM

Thanks for your interesting comments about my upcoming book "Spin Sisters." However I want to point out a few things. It is not merely about women's magazines but about media for women, in general, that includes the morning shows, the TV news magazines and the cable networks that focus on women. Also it makes a political point that the Spin Sisters--including the Spin Sisters Supreme --Katie, Diane, and Barbara ---are selling a liberal agenda to women. The women of media who are, by and large, liberals believe all women should be liberals just because they are women. Neither conservative men --or men who are liberals --think men should have one political attitude just because they are men. But the Spin Sisters telegraph their liberal attitude about social issues and politics to their viewers and readers and it can be very influential. Women's media is biased--and that is a major point I make in my book.

Posted by: Myrna Blyth on March 1, 2004 6:23 PM

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