Eva Wiseman recently wrote in the Observer magazine about the seeming decline of women’s magazines, describing how you “look down at a page and instantly lose a decade”, and commented “along with many publications […] their sales continue to drop, but I wonder if this is in part because they ignore the growing awareness not only that women are choosing to opt out of the life they draw for us.”
This was a fascinatingly honest, but also marginally upsetting column to read, given that I want to work at these magazines. Since I was fourteen and decided I’d rather read Heat than do homework, I’ve always wanted to be a magazine writer. But as I’ve grown up, the exact path I’ve wanted to take has slowly narrowed as my eyes have been opened to their negative side. I dropped the fashion idea fairly quickly via the usual The Devil Wears Prada style wake-up call, and moved to features, which I wrote for my student paper, and celebrity gossip, having managed to secure work experience at my teenage bible, Heat, during university holidays. So far, so good, but as I come to graduate, another wake-up call seems to have arrived in the form of The Vagenda.
The almost overnight success I think hardly needs describing, but the Vagenda has brought the sort of criticism Eva Wiseman describes to the forefront, ripping magazines, particularly Grazia and Cosmopolitan, to shreds on how they project the idea that women should be constantly self-criticising and ‘improving’ themselves, acting like the friend who will help them out on these problems, while actually making matters worse. While my friends and I have always mocked Cosmopolitan, counting how many times we could find the work ‘sex’ on the cover month by month, Holly and Rhiannon, the Vagenda’s co-founders were spelling out to me in black and white that I need a new career path if I am to maintain any sort of feminist ideals I hoped to have while working in the industry.
I spent a while feeling guilty about this. The elements seemed to be teaming up against me to point out that I had made a ridiculous choice and was an awful person for wanting to work in women’s magazines. However, I have soon realised that the popularity of such criticism is what’s important, and actually can be used to my advantage.
Women’s magazines have always been a fairly ‘soft’ choice for wannabe journos, and this is because of the clichés that they purport over and over again. ‘Unlucky in love’ celebrities, diets that clearly don’t work and sex tips that offer you more and more bizarre advice as each month passes are fine if you occasionally pick them up on a long train journey, but if you pick them up religiously, as I have done in the past, it can get somewhat frustrating.
However, things are changing in the world of women’s journalism. Eva Wiseman is just one example of a collection openly feminist writers who don’t let themselves be bundled into a boring stereotype, but merely write about female issues in the normal way that women think. As opposed to the ridiculous Carrie Bradshaw cliché of writing in your pants, fantasising over shoes while having no financial responsibility and an inability to commit to anybody except a fellow philanderer that so often haunts female journalists, writers such as Grace Dent, Hadley Freeman, Laurie Penney and the godmother of trendy feminism, Caitlin Moran, who has arguably raised the bar for most female writers, are some of the most popular in the country. Discussing such matters as the Uni Lad debacle, the strange renaissance of extreme sexism in gaming and comfort eating with a humorous and realistic slant is bucking the supposed trend of feminism being a turn off.
Similarly, the free weekly, Stylist, is becoming more and more popular by the day. It has managed to buck the trend of being a vapid fashion magazine, combining more attainable fashion and beauty pieces with travel, lifestyle, witty columns and intelligent, original features, engaging with, instead of patronising, its readers. It seems that other magazines have nowhere else to go but forward.
I’ve noticed a trend of the Twitter accounts of Marie Claire, Glamour and so on tweeting ‘teasing’ links saying ‘which celebrity has done xyz’ to make you click the link to the same sort of story about a breakup or get-together, and endlessly discussing Kate Middleton’s choices of designer, which when contrasted with the hilarious accounts of Grace Dent, Caitlin Moran et al, are simply not entertaining. The industry must modernise if it is to continue, particularly as print media declines.
While what is being called the third wave of feminism is still developing and defining itself, it is important that women’s magazines take this on, particularly as the image they project to women is a key part of this development. A whole new era is opening up with space both online and in print for new journalists in the field to work with these ideas and make them their own, as opposed to mindlessly repeating the same things over and over again.
The magazines have however picked up on this. For example, Cosmopolitan’s ‘F Word’ campaign has not gone unnoticed. Despite the fact it has received a great deal of criticism from the Vagenda bench, given that they declare celebrities feminists for looking hot, I think it is still positive. That they are acknowledging the changing face of feminism is important, and there is a focus on issues such as the equal pay debate which are at the roots of modern-day feminism, and hopefully shows that greater change is yet to come.
Realistically, any sorts of transformation will surely come slowly, but it enthuses me that the ‘bad’ side of women’s magazines is finally being addressed, both removing my moral quibbles about an industry I am ultimately a fan of. Most importantly it offers a whole new world of opportunity and creative space if I am lucky enough to secure a job. But that’s another story.
Victoria Gray has just graduated from the University of Leeds with a degree in English, where she was associate editor of Leeds Student. She is now looking for an entry-level job, having completed work experience at Heat, Closer and FHM among others. She tweets @vsjgray.
Image on home page by Toban Black.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look