Magazines That Became Only Skin Deep
Browsing the magazine rack the other day, I noticed that Seventeen magazine still exists, but I hardly recognize it: “Sexy Legs Workout!” “The New Party Drug That Could Kill You,” “How to Get a Natural-Looking Spray Tan.”
I read Seventeen magazine religiously in the 1970s and ’80s. Headlines from old copies that I have saved include: “Five Pollution Fighters,” “How is Women’s Liberation Doing in the High Schools?” “How to Survive College Rejection” and “Volunteer Work Does Pay Off.”
The last article is one I wrote in 1982, when I myself was 17. The magazine, especially with its annual fiction, art and photography contest, strongly influenced my decision to become a writer; it was a perfect forum in which to express my thoughts. Well into my 20s, I continued to contribute articles and essays — “Taking a Foreign Language Could Be Your Ticket to Travel!” “Get Growing,” “Computer Friendly” — and tried (unsuccessfully) to get my fiction in as well.
Lately, when I meet other female writers in my age cohort, it turns out we are all alumnae of Seventeen and other magazines of the day, such as YM and Mademoiselle. A friend remembers being turned on to Seventeen as a teen by an article promoting busing and in- tegration. She went on to do an article on the biosphere for Seventeen and now is a writer on environmental issues. Mademoiselle (now defunct) published some of the best fiction in the nation, discovering such talent as Truman Capote (who was also published in Seventeen), Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams. Mademoiselle also ran an annual college guest editor contest, one famous winner being Sylvia Plath, who immortalized the experience in her novel “The Bell Jar.”
Of course, back then, Seventeen had a bit of an unseemly focus on appearance and boys as well, but it is difficult to imagine the slightly neurotic “When Your Boyfriend Forgets Your Birthday” of 1982 eliciting any frisson compared with today’s “Do I Have an STD?” There seem to be plenty of articles on what to do about rejection from a boy but none about rejection from a college. In fact, as opposed to thoughtful articles on college, joining the Peace Corps or relating to parents, in the current Seventeen (Spring Shopping Issue!), life beyond instant gratification seems utterly absent.
Another article in that 1982 issue, “How to Make a Candy Necklace,” would today be relegated to the “tween” (8-13) age group maga- zines such as Discovery Girl or Girl’s Life. But even the Girl’s Life covers boast “Hot New Spring Looks!” and “Love Secrets.” Its “Dear Carol” column receives letters from writers obsessed with padded bras or lamenting that “I finally found the boy of my dreams . . . The problem is, he uses drugs and alcohol.”
And the first-person stories that used to appear in Seventeen’s “You Said It!” and “Frankly Speaking” columns have been replaced by “Real Life” (“I Survived a School Shooting”), written not by the subject herself but by an “astold-to” journalist.
Celebrities dominate these magazines in a way that they did not 20 years ago. The celebrity-industrial complex already saturating our culture keeps the reading experience at a distance, with the reader passively digesting news about an off-limits “them” and not relating to her contemporaries — and herself. The magazine acts more as a vehicle for marketing than insight into what girls today are thinking. Thus, the magazines are thick with celebrity profiles and pages of glossy ads, but there is little fiction (God forbid, poetry), reader contests are largely merchandise promotions and the only opportunity to share thoughts is the woefully narrow: “Your opinions about our January issue.”
I recently won a writing prize for creative nonfiction, and scanning the list of previous winners, I saw a name, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, that was very familiar. Not because she was a MacArthur fellow or had written a nonfiction book that I admired but because she had been my editor at Seventeen.
Maybe this is a natural generational evolution, the aging baby-boomer reminiscing on how things were so much better “back then.” But my first novel, begun during the time I was writing for Seventeen, was called “Finding My Voice” because I had found my voice as a writer, and it was Seventeen that was the first to publish me, to make me feel that my words were important.
Will the budding writers of today receive the same encouragement? Will the alumnae and alumni of today’s young women’s magazines include Pulitzer Prize winners and MacArthur fellows? In 20 years, we shall see. Marie Myung-Ok Lee is writer in residence at the Center for the Study of Race & Ethnicity in America at Brown University. Her most recent novel is “Somebody’s Daughter.”