“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

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.

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.”

Culture & Conversation Abortion

The Comic Book That Guided Women Through Abortion Months After ‘Roe’

Sam Meier

Abortion Eve used the stories of fictional girls and women to help real ones understand their options and the law. At the same time the comic explained how to access abortion, it also asserted that abortion was crucial to women's health and liberation.

“Can you picture a comic book on abortion on the stands next to Superman?”

In June 1973, Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli wrote to the National Organization for Women in Chicago, asking this question of their “dear sisters” and pushing them to envision a world where women’s experiences could be considered as valiant as the superhero’s adventures. They enclosed a copy of their new comic book, Abortion Eve.

Published mere months after the Supreme Court’s January 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, Abortion Eve was intended to be a cheap, effective way to inform women about the realities of abortion. Like the few other contemporaneous comic books dealing with abortion, Abortion Eve‘s primary purpose was to educate. But for a comic dominated by technical information about surgical procedures and state laws, Abortion Eve nonetheless manages to be radical. Though abortion had so recently been illegal—and the stigma remained—the comic portrays abortion as a valid personal decision and women as moral agents fully capable of making that decision.

The comic follows five women, all named variations of “Eve,” as counselor Mary Multipary shepherds them through the process of obtaining abortions. Evelyn is an older white college professor, Eva a white dope-smoking hippie, Evie a white teenage Catholic, Eve a working Black woman, and Evita a Latina woman. Evelyn, Eve, and Evita are all married and mothers already.

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Their motivations for getting an abortion differ, too. Evita and Eve, for instance, wish to protect themselves and their loved ones by keeping their families smaller. Sixteen-year-old Evie is the poster child for sexual naiveté. Pregnant after her first time having sex, she spends most of the comic wrestling with guilt. “It’s all so ugly!” she exclaims. “I thought sex was supposed to be beautiful!”

Teenager Evie, one of the characters in the comic book Abortion Eve, breaks down as counselor Mary Multipary asks questions about her pregnancy. (Joyce Farmer)

Nonplussed, the older Eves talk her through her choices. As Eve reminds her, “Like it or not, you are a woman now, and you are going to have to decide.”

In an interview with Rewire, Farmer said that the plot of Abortion Eve was a direct outgrowth of her and Chevli’s experiences in the nascent women’s health movement. Both women had started working as birth control and “problem pregnancy” counselors at the Free Clinic in Laguna Beach, California, soon after it opened in 1970. Archival documents at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute show that Chevli and Farmer visited Los Angeles abortion providers in December 1972, on a business trip for the Free Clinic. According to Farmer, one of the doctors they met approached the pair with the idea of doing a comic about abortion to publicize his clinic.

Earlier that year, the women had produced one of the first U.S. comic books written, drawn, and published by women, Tits & Clits alpha (the “alpha” distinguished the comic from subsequent issues). So they took the doctor’s idea and ran with it. They decided to use their newly founded comics publishing company, Nanny Goat Productions, to educate women, particularly teenagers, about abortion.

At the Free Clinic, Chevli and Farmer had seen all kinds of women in all kinds of situations, and Abortion Eve attempts to reflect this diversity. As Farmer noted in an interview, she and Chevli made sure that the Eves were all different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to demonstrate that all kinds of women get abortions.

Farmer had made the choice to get an abortion herself, when her IUD failed in 1970. The mother—of a 12-year-old son—who was putting herself through college at the University of California at Irvine, she decided that she couldn’t afford another child.

California had liberalized its abortion laws with the Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, but the law was still far from truly liberal. Before Roe, California women seeking abortions needed doctors (a gynecologist and two “specialists in the field”) to submit recommendations on their behalf to the hospital where the abortion would take place. Then, a committee of physicians approved or denied the application. Only women who could pay for therapeutic abortions—those needed for medical reasonscould get them.

For Farmer, as for so many others, the process was onerous. After an hour, the psychiatrist who had interviewed her announced that she would not be eligible, as she was mentally fit to be a mother. Stunned, Farmer told the doctor that if he denied her an abortion, she would do it herself. Taking this as a suicide threat, her doctor quickly changed his mind. She wrote later that this experience began her political radicalization: “I was astounded that I had to prove to the state that I was suicidal, when all I wanted was an abortion, clean and safe.”

Farmer and Chevli began work on Abortion Eve before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal in many states. After the Supreme Court’s decision, they added a page for “more info” on the ruling. Yet even as they celebrated Roe, the women weren’t yet sure what would come of it.

The comic reflects a general confusion regarding abortion rights post-Roe, as well as women’s righteous anger over the fight to gain those rights. On the day of her abortion, for example, Evita tells Eve that, at five months pregnant, she just “slipped in” the gestational limits during which women could have abortions.

Eve explains that women now have the right to an abortion during the first three to six months of a pregnancy, but that the matter is far from settled in the courts. After all, Roe v. Wade said that states did have some interest in regulating abortion, particularly in the third trimester.

“I get mad when they control my body by their laws!” Eve says. “Bring in a woman, an’ if the problem is below her belly button and it ain’t her appendix, man—you got judges an’ lawyers an’ priests an’ assorted greybeards sniffin’ an’ fussin’ an’ tellin’ that woman what she gonna do an’ how she gonna do it!”

Abortion Eve Dialogue

Abortion Eve confronts the reality that abortion is a necessity if women are to live full sexual lives. Writing to the underground sex magazine Screw in September 1973 to advertise the comic, Chevli noted, “Surely if [your readers] screw as much as we hope, they must have need for an occasional abortion—and our book tells all about it.”

Six months after they published the comic, in December 1973, Chevli and Farmer traveled to an Anaheim rally in support of Roe outside the American Medical Association conference. They were met by a much larger group of abortion opponents. Chevli described the scene in a letter to a friend:

300 to 8. We weren’t ready, but we were there. Bodies … acquiescing, vulnerable females, wanting to show our signs, wanting to be there, ready to learn. Oh, Christ. Did we learn. It was exhausting. It was exciting. We were enervated, draged [sic] around, brung up, made to feel like goddesses, depressed, enlightened … bunches of intangible things. I have rarely experienced HATE to such a massive extent. 

That wasn’t the last feedback that Chevli and Farmer received about their views on abortion. In fact, during the course of Nanny Goat’s publishing stint, the majority of complaints that the independent press received had to do with Abortion Eve. Several self-identified Catholics objected to the “blasphemous” back cover, which featured MAD Magazine‘s Alfred E. Neuman as a visibly pregnant Virgin Mary with the caption: “What me worry?”

As archival documents at the Kinsey Institute show, other critics castigated Chevli and Farmer for setting a bad example for young women, failing to teach them right from wrong. One woman wrote them a letter in 1978, saying “You have not only wasted your paper, time, money, but you’ve probably aided in the decision of young impressionable girls and women who went and aborted their babies.”

Farmer and Chevli responded to such charges by first thanking their critics and then explaining their reasons for creating Abortion Eve. In another response, also in the Kinsey archives, Chevli wrote, “Whether abortion is right or wrong is not our concern because we do not want to dictate moral values to others. What we do want to do is educate others to the fact that abortion is legal, safe, and presents women with a choice which they can make.”

Today, abortion opponents like Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson (R) frame abortion as the “dismemberment” of unborn children, suggesting that women who seek abortions are, in essence, murderers. With Abortion Eve, Chevli and Farmer dared to suggest that abortion was and is an integral part of women’s social and sexual liberation. Abortion Eve is unapologetic in asserting that view. The idea that abortion could be a woman’s decision alone, made in consultation with herself, for the good of herself and of her loved ones, is as radical an idea today as it was in the 1970s.