Women’s glossies are dy­ing will we miss them?

In­sis­tence on the sta­tus quo, even as wom­an­hood changed, led them to ir­rel­e­vance


IN LATE Novem­ber, Glam­our came to the same con­clu­sion reached by so many other women’s mag­a­zines these days: af­ter 80 years in mail­boxes and gro­cery store check­outs, it will stop pub­lish­ing its glossy monthly, end­ing with the Jan­uary is­sue. For Glam­our, print is of­fi­cially dead, the in­ex­orable “pivot to dig­i­tal” now com­plete.

Teen Vogue, a ju­nior ver­sion of the fash­ion bi­ble, was al­ready there. Self, pur­veyor of 1 000 ways to say good­bye to your back fat, dis­ap­peared from the racks in 2017. Sev­en­teen, once a life­style primer for high-school girls ev­ery­where, now will pub­lish only spe­cial is­sues, and Red­book, one of the “seven sis­ters” of mag­a­zines for sub­ur­ban house­wives, is high-tail­ing it to the web as well.

The mag­a­zine in­dus­try as a whole has been belt-tight­en­ing for years thanks to a print ad­ver­tis­ing famine, elim­i­nat­ing costly pa­per copies while try­ing to es­tab­lish a beach­head on the in­ter­net. Yet women’s pub­li­ca­tions some­how feel much more en­dan­gered than the rest, es­pe­cially now that even the on­line up­starts that aimed to re­place them are them­selves turn­ing off the lights.

From Ladies’ Home Jour­nal (still hanging in there, but down­graded to a quar­terly) to email-based Lenny Let­ter (ex­tin­guished this fall, af­ter a wild three years), these pub­li­ca­tions helped mould tastes, de­fine main­stream fem­i­nism (as well as fem­i­nin­ity) and give ta­lented fe­male jour­nal­ists a leg up into high-fly­ing me­dia careers.

Their demise feels like a loss – but is it?

For gen­er­a­tions, women’s mag­a­zines filled a com­plex cul­tural niche, adopt­ing the voice of a con­cerned big sis­ter to chide women into keep­ing up with the cur­rent hem­lines – but also the cur­rent head­lines.

One Sassy cover touted a piece ex­plain­ing why Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans would never achieve peace, and an­other on why women re­ally ought to pout more. Jane told women how to wear jeans to work without get­ting fired. You could read a som­bre ar­ti­cle about abu­sive boyfriends, or kill time with a quiz about your flirt­ing style.

The glossies were re­lat­able, vis­ually pleas­ing and use­ful all at once – a tac­tile, ad­dic­tive habit.

“You could tear out the page and say, ‘This is the hair­cut I’m go­ing to bring to my hair­dresser’,” says Lisa Pe­cot-hébert, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s An­nen­berg School. “There was just some­thing about a glossy to read and en­gage with.”

Even if you didn’t sub­scribe, do­geared copies of Marie Claire and Good House­keep­ing and Sev­en­teen found their way to you – at the doc­tor’s of­fice, at a friend’s apart­ment, in a mid­dle-school class­room. For ev­ery copy of a thick glossy that landed in a mail­box, there was usu­ally not one, but sev­eral readers.

It was the home-mak­ing mag­a­zines, be­gin­ning with Mccall’s and the Ladies’ Home Jour­nal in the late 1800s, that spurred the craze for women’s tips and ad­vice.

Glam­our, ini­tially a Hol­ly­wood gos­sip rag, fol­lowed in 1939. Sev­en­teen, which of­fered the same for­mula for the not-quite-yet-a-woman set, dis­patched its first is­sue in 1944.

Cos­mopoli­tan homed in on a fe­male au­di­ence in 1965, when He­len Gur­ley Brown took the helm of the dusty lit­er­ary mag­a­zine and un­veiled a brand in­ter­twined with sex and fem­i­nism; among the first sto­ries she edited was one about the pill.

“At a time when main­stream me­dia didn’t pay at­ten­tion to is­sues that mat­tered to women, they were a place that could bring at­ten­tion to those things,” says Har­riet Brown, a Syra­cuse Uni­ver­sity mag­a­zine jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor.

In 1966, Glam­our was the first fash­ion mag­a­zine to fea­ture a black woman, Katiti Kironde, as the cover model, a ges­ture to­ward in­clu­sion amid the civil rights move­ment. In 1976, dozens of ed­i­tors of women’s and teen mag­a­zines agreed to cover the Equal Rights Amend­ment, with sto­ries that would reach their col­lec­tive 60 mil­lion readers.

In the 1990s, Self launched the now-ubiq­ui­tous pink rib­bon cam­paign to raise aware­ness of breast can­cer. And back when you could still clutch the minia­ture Teen Vogue in your hands, the mag­a­zine de­liv­ered one of the most talked-about op-eds of the 2016 elec­tion, en­ti­tled “Don­ald Trump Is Gaslight­ing Amer­ica.”

Thumb through old is­sues of women’s mag­a­zines, says Katie San­ders, a free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes for sev­eral women’s mag­a­zines, “and you see how a woman’s role in his­tory is not only chang­ing, but how Glam­our and some of the other women’s mag­a­zines were driv­ing that change.”

Still, these mag­a­zines bat­tled a sense that they were some­how lesser. “A lot of it was sex­ism, and peo­ple not tak­ing them se­ri­ously be­cause they were meant for women,” says An­drea Bartz, a nov­el­ist who worked at five such mag­a­zines, all of which have folded their print edi­tions. “But men’s mag­a­zines – they were al­lowed to have a groom­ing sec­tion and a cloth­ing sec­tion, and that was fine.”

In 1990, Glo­ria Steinem an­nounced that Ms. mag­a­zine would part com­pany with all of its ad­ver­tis­ers; she also took a swipe at what she saw as the cyn­i­cal mis­sion of other women’s mag­a­zines: “to cre­ate a de­sire for prod­ucts, teach how to use prod­ucts, and make prod­ucts a cru­cial part of gain­ing so­cial ap­proval, pleas­ing a hus­band, and per­form­ing as a home-maker.”

On one 1959 cover, Glam­our trum­peted that “9 out of 10 Amer­i­can women can be more beau­ti­ful.” Cos­mopoli­tan in 1966 of­fered its readers a “Poor Girl’s Guide to Amer­ica’s Rich Young Men” and “New, Kooky (but Work­able) Cures for Frigid­ity.”

But the rise of fem­i­nism in the ‘70s and the have-it-all as­pi­ra­tions of the ‘80s hardly changed a thing. A 2016 Marie Claire cover still hawked Brazil­ian se­crets for bet­ter hair and Korean so­lu­tions for skin care.

Many crit­ics be­lieve women’s mag­a­zines clung far too long to the prob­lem­atic for­mula Steinem de­scribed, pum­melling readers with mes­sages that their bod­ies were less than de­sir­able and that their boyfriend’s eyes prob­a­bly wan­dered, and that only prod­ucts could fill the void.

They are much more di­verse now, says Pe­cot-hébert, but through the ‘80s and ‘90s, “you still had that Western­ised, ‘beau­ti­ful’ per­son on the cover of the mag­a­zine. Whether that per­son was dis­cussing recipes or that per­son was sell­ing a bathing suit, there was that same kind of woman that I don’t know if most women could iden­tify with.”

They also of­ten felt the same. Most of the widest-read ti­tles shared the same pub­lish­ers – Condé Nast, Mered­ith and Hearst. Writ­ers and ed­i­tors, too, seemed to shuf­fle from one glossy to an­other, in a great big game of lady-me­dia mu­si­cal chairs.

The mag­a­zines’ in­sis­tence on the sta­tus quo, even as wom­an­hood changed dra­mat­i­cally, led them to ir­rel­e­vance, Har­riet Brown says.

Their for­mula is also ev­ery­where these days. What women’s mag­a­zines once de­liv­ered to readers – the girl­friend-style ad­vice, the gospels of or­gasms and equal pay, the re­minders to al­ways be di­et­ing – can now be found many places on­line.

Cosmo’s web­site lures more than 19 mil­lion unique vis­i­tors a month, ac­cord­ing to coms­core, and Glam­our can at­tract more than 6 mil­lion.

The old brands are draw­ing Youtube fol­low­ers with orig­i­nal videos, and are em­brac­ing anew the women-fo­cused po­lit­i­cal re­port­ing that made them must-reads a cou­ple of decades ago.

But some fear for what will be lost in the tran­si­tion. The old mag­a­zines “had fact-check­ers on staff,” says Bartz.

“Ev­ery­thing those mag­a­zines were telling me about at the time – nutri­tion or sex­ual as­sault sta­tis­tics or men­tal health – it was com­ing from le­git­i­mate sources, and it was ver­i­fied by the staff there.”

Even if they could still af­ford that level of rigour, the time when glossies were one of the most in­flu­en­tial re­sources in women’s lives has gone. | Wash­ing­ton Post

VOGUE ed­i­tor Anna Win­tour ar­rives at a White House state din­ner in 2011.| BILL O’LEARY Wash­ing­ton Post

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