“Lady-Mags”–Love Them, Flaws and All, or Leave Them?

Sarah Seltzer

The paradox of women's glossies: They largely acknowledge our progress and rights in terms of the workplace, sexual freedom and reproductive rights, but only skim the surface of the sexist dynamics and expectations that inform those issues.

Even in an era in which magazines
are shrinking in size and fading from the popular consciousness, the hoopla
caused by the remaining women’s magazines, or "ladymags" as Jezebel
calls them, will not die.

 

This month has seen a flurry of action around the
women’s glossies.  "The September Issue" documentary is in
theaters, providing the public a chance to ogle behind the scenes at Anna
Wintour’s high-fashion Vogue empire. SELF magazine, the weight-loss
glossy/self-improvement bible with occasionally meaty features got slammed by a
massive chorus of bloggers last month for its overly-photoshopped cover of Kelly Clarkson
SELF‘s editor later said the slimmed-down image showed Clarkson
at her "best"–even if that was visibly different from reality.
Racialicious has documented an endless stream of problematic images of women of
color in magazine spreads, photo shoots and advertisements. And just last week,
in response to riotous, widespread applause for a single photo of a plus-size
model, belly included, Glamour, the
least elitist of the mainstream mags, is going to feature a boatload of plus-size models in their next issue
(Kate Harding points out that plus-size models are "still tall,
well-proportioned, clear-skinned, shiny-haired, able-bodied and usually white,
on top of only being "fat" relative to size 0s.")

The typical formula for these magazines is this: two or three interesting
features, a ton of beauty and fashion advice, a decent but conventional and
heretonormative sex and relationships section, and some health stories, all
bookended by ads galore: ads for jeans, ads for diets, ads for birth control,
ads for makeup and shoes. The relationship beween these magazines’ content and
their ads is an ill-kept secret–it’s widely discussed that the mags’ more
typically-reproduced content is a result of trying to please their advertisers.

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Still, we remain fascinated by the ladymags. The never-ending brouhaha that
these magazines are capable of eliciting, to borrow Glamour‘s signature section, for their own "Dos" and
"Don’ts" reminds us that they still have a powerful relationship to
the female collective psyche. Naomi Wolf talks about this phenomenon in The Beauty Myth–how women’s magazines
despite being hawking grounds for patriarchal products like cellulite creams
and diet drugs–also afford women a kind of powerful group experience. They’re
the magazines we all read at the gym, at the air airport, under the blowdryers
or on the subway.

This need to keep up with the lady-mags leads to a sort of
devils’ bargains made by many of their avid readers. Women allow "their"
magazines the usual litany of transgressions: tons of skinny models,
"articles" about beauty trends that conveniently tout products by the
magazine’s advertisers, celebrity puff-pieces, and so on. They are happy to
accept these sometimes fun, sometimes pernicious features inherent to the
medium in order to read health news aimed at them, take quizzes, check out new
styles and read in-depth features about remarkable women or political and
social trends that affect their lives. But when the magazines break this bargain
mold by photoshopping too aggressively, not photoshopping a woman’s flaws away,
or publishing something out of the ordinary the emails start flowing in en
masse –and it becomes clear that a lot of these readers have keener
sensibilities than we give them credit for. They want something more genuine
out of their magazines.

At a panel at last year’s Women, Action and the Media conference,
journalists Ada Calhoun, Lynn Harris, Rebecca Traister and Kara Jessella talked
about writing for women’s magazines. All feminists, they felt that the good
stories about reproductive rights, women’s health, violence against women and
women’s stuggles worldwide produced by magazines like Elle, Marie Claire, Self and Glamour
(Cosmo and Vogue are both slightly different and less redeemable creatures)
balanced out the diet, makeup and fashion spreads that can range from shallow
to pernicious. The panelists encouraged young feminists to write for and read
the good stories in women’s magazines, saying that in a small field of
publications, these publications were a key vehicle for getting
progressive-minded stories out and getting paid for them. Jesellla, a former
beauty editor and co-author of How Sassy
Changed My Life
, talked about sneaking such articles into her regular
beauty coverage. Glancing at Glamour‘s
guide to the election last fall reminded me that the consistent
pro-reproductive rights coverage these magazines engage in is bold and
important.

If we accept their advice, feminists should view the lesser content in these
magazines as a necessary evil and train our focus on bending the popular
newsstand publications towards a better result, leveraging our voices getting
the women’s glossies to publish more good articles, more realistic and
normalized photos of women of different shapes, sizes, backgrounds and physical
types. But how much success will we have? As Erika Kawalek writes at Double X, "is it wise to seek
redress from a mainstream publication?" Perhaps we should leave them to
their inevitable decline and replacement by lady-websites.

It’s a hard question for me to judge personally, because I quit reading
ladymags years ago, and I never regret that choice. I found that although I
enjoyed reading them, and stacked neat piles of them in my travel bag, they
always made me feel dissatisfied when I was done. Even post
consciousness-raising when the endless dieting and weight loss stories had less
effect on me, those magazines always made me feel as though there was something
I lacked–whether it was the right pair of shoes or proper salon-going routine,
or on a deeper level the resilience and inner light that one of the many heroic
women profiled in the dramatic features always seem to have. I’d argue that the
magazines are designed to make readers feel a sense of need or incompleteness,
a need which will lead them to buy the magazine again the following month as
well as pay heed to advertisers.

As for our ability to influence them, I don’t know how many times I’ve opened a
women’s magazine to the editors letter and read a sentence along the lines of
"we’ve heard you and we’re going to change X." But of course little
actually changes in the formula described above: more features mixed with
beauty and diet is what we’ll get. Furthermore, the internet, and sites like Jezebel and The Frisky
and the expansion of the Bitch website all have allowed writers to take on
some of the magazines’ traditionally more fun topics like sex, TV, celebrities
and fashion without really losing their feminist/critical voice–a really
important development.

The paradox of women’s glossies sums up a lot of where American women have come
in the mainstream. The magazines, like TV shows and movies, largely acknowledge
our progress and rights in terms of our workplace, sexual freedom and
reproductive rights without delving deeply into the sexist dynamics and
expectations that inform those issues, partiularly the critical issues of body
image and mainstream beauty norms and gendered power dynamics in personal
relationships. How to approach the magazines, then, depends on our relationship
to them now–if we are active readers, we should fully engage them and push
their coverage towards a more progressive end, accepting that they’ll never be truly progressive. But if we prefer to
get our mix of fun and features elsewhere, there’s no need to turn back to the
ladymags, until the next time they do something scandalous, that is.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Cable News Turned Mostly to Men to Discuss Clinton’s Historic Moment

Ally Boguhn

Even as Hillary Clinton seemed to clinch the Democratic nomination, cable news shows barely had women on to discuss this moment. Also this week, Sen. Marco Rubio announced that his political aspirations didn't end with his presidential run.

This week on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton becoming the first female presumptive nominee of a major party wasn’t enough to push cable news to bring on women to discuss it, and former presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) changed his mind about running for re-election to the Senate. 

Cable News Turns Largely to Men to Discuss ElectionEven Amid Clinton’s Historic Moment

When Clinton became the first female presumptive nominee of a major party earlier this month, cable news tapped more men than women to discuss the historic moment.

As Gender Avenger Founder Gina Glantz, Women’s Media Center President Julie Burton, and Center for American Women and Politics Director Debbie Walsh explained in a Tuesday column for USA Today:

On the day when headlines and large photos of the former secretary of State celebrated her historic role in American politics, not one woman appeared on Fox News’ The Kelly File. In fact, the only time Hillary Clinton was mentioned was when Megyn Kelly speculated about the cost of her wardrobe, referred to a focus group discussing Clinton’s supposed divisiveness and considered whether President Obama’s endorsement would create a conflict of interest with the investigation of her State Department emails. 

Other cable shows did a bit—just a bit—better. On CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 and the MSNBC, Fox, and CNN morning shows (Morning Joe, Fox & Friends, New Day) about one in three of the voices in their discussions were women. Only The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC hit 50%.

Gender Avenger, an organization that seeks to “build a community that ensures women are represented in the public dialog [sic]” has partnered with the Women’s Media Center and the Center for American Women and Politics to release monthly reports on how many women appear to discuss the 2016 presidential elections on some of cable news’ most-watched television programs. According to its website, the organization “monitors the highest-rated morning and evening shows on three major television news networks: CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. Any guest who is not the host (or substitute host) and is asked to comment substantively on the 2016 presidential election is counted as an analyst.”

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Analyzing data from March 1 to May 31, the groups found that only CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 had roughly equivalent ratios of men and women on to discuss the election. Of the other nightly programs, only 15 percent of guests who joined Fox News’ Kelly File to talk about the presidential election were women; 33 percent of guests on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show to discuss related issues were women.

All morning programs examined had a poor ratio of men-to-women guests who discussed the election: CNN’s New Day had 31 percent women guests, Fox News’ Fox and Friends had 22 percent, and MSNBC’s Morning Joe had 24 percent.

Glantz and her co-authors explained in their column that these findings coincide with past research from the Women’s Media Center, which found that “in 2014, men reported 65 percent of all U. S. political news stories.” 

Former Republican Presidential Candidate Rubio Decides to Run for Senate Re-Election

After losing the 2016 Republican nomination for presidentand spending months of vowing he would be a “private citizen” in JanuaryRubio has decided to run to keep his Senate seat.

Admitting that he had previously expressed frustrations at the limitations of what he could accomplish in the Senate, (remember, he justified skipping Senate votes because of his “frustration” with the process), Rubio cited the importance of Florida’s position in determining which party would hold the Senate as a key factor in his decision. “Control of the Senate may very well come down to the race in Florida,” said Rubio in a press release announcing his decision. “The stakes for our nation could not be higher.”

Rubio went on to point to the 2016 presidential as another component to his decision to run for re-election, reasoning that “no matter who is elected president, there is reason for worry.”

Calling Donald Trump’s rhetoric about women and people of color “not just offensive but unacceptable,” Rubio noted that the prospect of electing the presumptive Republican nominee to the White House was “worrisome.” He also criticized Clinton, claiming that electing her “would be a repeat of the early years of the current administration, when we got Obamacare, the failed stimulus and a record debt.”

Rubio’s late-entrance into the race was not unexpected. Last week, Rep. David Jolly dropped out of the GOP primary race for the seat Rubio was supposed to be vacating, instead deciding to run for re-election to the House. Just before he announced his decision, Jolly appeared on CNN’s New Day, mentioning that “Marco is saying he is getting in [the race],” seemingly referencing rumors Rubio would be running.

The New York Times reported that Rubio has already told “colleagues and advisers that he is considering running for president again, in 2020 or 2024.” Yet Rubio told CNN today that “if my plan was to run for president in 2020, jumping into a race like this with all the political risks associated with it would not be the decision one would make.” He did not, however, explicitly rule out a presidential run.

The Florida senator’s time in the presidential race this season was marked by anti-choice positions so extreme even some Republicans questioned his electability. As Rewire previously reported, “Rubio’s anti-choice views were a key part of his platform throughout his campaign, even leading him to create an advisory board of anti-choice leaders and activists to advise his campaign on how to chip away at abortion rights.”

What Else We’re Reading

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Friday said he would vote for Clinton to “focus on defeating Republican Donald Trump,” according to CNBC.

A Moody’s Analytics analysis released Monday found that electing Trump to the presidency would hurt the economy “significantly,” leading to a nationwide recession.

“I hate the concept of profiling. But we have to start using common sense,” said Trump on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday, seemingly suggesting that the United States should indeed begin profiling against Muslims.

Ann Friedman wrote in New York Magazine that the “real lesson of the Obama presidency is not that our sitting president is a failure. It’s that having a president who looks like a feminist is not enough.”

Washington Posts Glenn Kessler looked into a claim made in a recent Clinton campaign ad suggesting that the Democrat had worked across the aisle as first lady on child health programs.

Did Trump’s campaign really pay $35,000 to advertising firm “Draper Sterling” (the last names, of course, of two leading characters from Mad Men)?

Aliza Abarbanel highlighted in Elle magazine the 27.3 million Latinos who will vote this November, and what they think about the election.

Politico offered a look into a campaign finance case that could be “the next Citizens United.”

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