Are women’s magazines doomed?

OPINION: Layoffs, reduced print runs, and total shutdowns — 2018 has been a rocky year for women-focused publications. But that may be a good thing, writes Lauren McKeon
By Lauren McKeon - Published on December 13, 2018
a magazine stand
Canada’s Flare magazine announced in September 2016 that it would switch to an online-only format the following January. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

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It’s been a tough year for women’s publications. Late last month, Glamour magazine announced that, after nearly 80 years, it would stop publishing print editions. A few days after that, the 74-year-old Seventeen magazine officially confirmed that it, too, would shift to digital-only — following in the footsteps of Teen Vogue and Flare, both of which had made the same move in previous years. Before the end of the month, Tavi Gevinson announced that she planned to close Rookie, the groundbreaking teen-focused website she launched when she herself was just a kid.

And that was just November. Earlier this year, Chatelaine employees faced layoffs (the publication had already reduced its print schedule, starting in 2017), and editor-in-chief Lianne George resigned. Online magazine xojane deleted its archives, and both Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter and The Hairpin ceased publication — the latter simply posting, “Bye, I love you!”

Not all of these magazines would concede that tough is the right word to describe 2018. Glamour, for example, characterized its digital shift not as a death knell but as a sign of good things to come. “This is my plan because it makes sense,” Samantha Barry, a one-time digital journalist and Glamour’s new editor-in-chief, told media. “It’s where the audiences are, and it’s where our growth is.” The then-editor of Teen Vogue said of its online focus, “We were willing to lose some to have more.” Whether that’s just spin or a matter of acknowledging the next evolutionary stage of journalism, it’s safe to say that the landscape for women’s magazines is, at the very least, changing. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Feminism has long had a fraught relationship with mainstream women’s magazines. Many in the movement have recognized the value in having spaces for women’s and teen girls’ voices — but they have also, rightly, criticized those spaces for too often representing a narrow, rigid idea of advertiser-ready femininity. As Gloria Steinem wrote in a 1990 essay, women’s magazines have traditionally served as little more than ad fodder, “far below the journalistic and ethical standards of news and general interest publications.”

At the end of that essay, titled “Sex, Lies & Advertising,”  Steinem quipped, “Even as I write this, I get a call from a writer for Elle who is doing a whole article on where women part their hair. Why she wants to know, do I part mine in the middle?” She continued, “It’s all so familiar. A writer trying to make something of a nothing assignment; an editor laboring to think of new ways to attract ads; readers assuming that other women must want this ridiculous stuff; more women suffering for lack of information, insight, creativity, and laughter that could be on these same pages. I ask you: Can’t we do better than this?”

As Jennifer Nelson argued more recently, in her 2012 book, Airbrushed Nation, “chick slicks” are the publications we love and loathe. “The further we get into the pages of these magazines,” she writes in the introduction, explaining her own push-and-pull attraction to the glossies, “the experience often feels less like an easy escape and more like a passport to slow-creeping angst.” They glorify super-thin models, patronizingly refer to “real women,” and, she adds, muddle readers’ sense of self.

Often, criticisms of women’s magazines can imply that women’s pursuits are inherently bad or that women shouldn’t be interested in what are traditionally gendered activities: baking, for example, or hairstyling. But, as someone who happily reads — and writes — for women’s magazines, I know there’s no reason that discussions of such topics can’t be presented alongside considerations of politics and of the everyday inequities that women and girls face. Teen Vogue has earned praise for producing both gorgeous fashion spreads and sharp political stories while prioritizing diversity and inclusiveness. And independent women-centred magazines, such as Bitch and Bust, have always made politics their raison d’être.

Still, I’m wary of what happens when women — and feminism — become products. Rethinking what female readers want has certainly produced some promising results, but glossy feminism has also taken some peculiar turns. In 2013, for example, the British version of Elle tried to literally rebrand feminism, asking three ad agencies to “to re-brand a term that many feel has become burdened with complications and negativity.” The year after, its sister magazine in the United States put actress Emma Watson on the cover and declared her the “Fresh Face of Feminism.” When feminism becomes a question of marketing and aesthetics, we’ve lost something important.

We’re finally starting to acknowledge that we need to amplify the voices of women — and the issues that matter to them. As traditional media contracts and transforms, perhaps we now also have the opportunity to fully recognize that women are many things, that gender and identity are fluid, that the very idea of a women’s magazine may be limiting and unsustainable.

Because, yes, we may all be ready to hear about how chunky headbands are the next big trend. But we’re also ready to smash the patriarchy.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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