What is the perfect women’s magazine? The merger of thought and glossy spreads of girls in streaming, DIY couture. Aqua fabric that eddies around Christian Louboutin heels, or Converses, and articles upwards of 5,000 words — on anything but ourselves.
Any given month Elle, say, might get it right. From this January’s issue: a profile of Hilary Clinton by Katha Pollit (whose byline appears in the Nation, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harper’s, and Ms.), and a black and white pictorial of Miss Universe in a Marabou feather coat. What’s irksome in the January issue? Neither Clinton, nor Miss Universe are on the cover. Victoria Beckham (Posh Spice) is.
Add Beckham to the corseted rotation of Jennifers (Aniston, Garner, Lopez, Love-Hewitt) and the like, who reinvent themselves as cover girl multiple times a year. And then: where are the articles — not blurbs — on art, music, culture, philanthropy, anything besides: acting and looking young, like a dodo heiress? Magazines like Bitch and Bust might feature more of these sorts of pieces; but they’re blameworthy of other things — how many articles on Beth Ditto can I read? That there are racks of women’s mags, none worth reading or revisiting monthly, befuddles. Such is the redundancy of role models, moppet-like, and topics (fashion, fame, plastic surgery), and the decline of magazines like Ms. — now a quarterly — hatching rampant ho hum when it comes to mags that, supposedly, cherchez la femme.
No matter cluttered covers — what to eat and wear and surgically alter — the insides of the glossy girls’ girl mags (Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Vogue, etc.) remain more hackneyed than their indie counterparts (Bitch, Bust, Venus Zine). Popular is: short editorial, short fashion spreads, short on mind-catching content. Cosmo remains chauvinistically steeped in sex with a section of the Web site devoted to “Sex Tips from Guys” and a blog called “Joe Hottie.” Models wear stretch bustiers from Bebe. Even the knits misbehave: “You’re about to learn how to ooze sex appeal even if you can only show a sliver of skin.”
Cosmo’s good-girl real-girl counterpart Glamour has at least got guest-entries on the “Glamocracy” blog by presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and John McCain and interviews with the late Benazir Bhutto and Michelle Obama. But the everybudget fashion and lifestyle mag sometimes reads like an Oprah-script: “I chased down my identity thief! Read one woman’s amazing story.” Or “Cleavage: Should you flaunt it if you’ve got it?”
Then there’s Vogue, the fashion/heiress-wannabe bible, a little too My Super Sweet 16 for adults. The bible is utterly good-looking, marrying models in gingham, zebra, and green lipstick. But even in the age of Anna Wintour, Vogue always seems on the brink: of aging, thinning — a crumpled dress of a cultural icon — and more often than not, offering only haute-couture sound bites: artist Ellen Berkenblit in 200 words or less. Curious readers reading Vogue risk feeling hungry, with little but features on anorexic teenage athletes and Kate Hudson (the opening line of the Hudson profile being,“Your body is sick!”)
Where to, then? The bitchblog on Bitch magazine’s Web site — the magazine that calls itself the “Feminist Response to Pop Culture” — hasn’t been updated since 2006. In the magazine, articles on getting kicked out of the fat club for getting thin feel as gratuitous as articles on just getting thin. In Bust (Bitch with pictures and DIY): DIY candles, cocktails, and cuffs, and some mention of Iran in the form of writer/filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis). But Gossip vocalist, British columnist, and big girl/lesbian, On-Our-Backs sex symbol Beth Ditto is everywhere in her jet black bob. Which leaves Ms. But in its 35th year, Gloria Steinem’s feminist mag reads like the Economist for women: brief stories on abortion, polygamy, and female foreign politicians. It’s not as blasé as weight loss; but not as fun either, like an encyclopedic entry of everything enlightening, but somehow wrong: like feminist polygamy.
Then there’s Lola and Skirt, two new women’s mags recently launched in Boston. Boston Globe launched Lola January 1 with a graphic of a headless girl in a red, plaid coat on the cover. Buttoned and cinched, she drags a Yorkie behind her through the snow. “Hello, You!” It reads beneath her. Inside, Lola reminds Metro readers that middle-age women exist, with sequin-cardigan clippings and a three-paragraph-long review of a film that came out circa World War II.
Up front, the editor’s note discusses pilates, insight from a Peace Corps volunteer, and a woman who fails the bar three times, “one of the most ‘successful’ people I know.” Perhaps not total fluff. But detectable in Lola is the familiar women’s-mag-fluffy-and-parenthetically-cute tone. Otherwise, the free magazine tries to be a local dear, profiling Boston eateries and Lowell. The articles in the issue are mainly lifestyle features about debt and life coaches, unfocused self-help stuff, like strategies for taming shaggy boyfriends. So, “Boston’s new best friend” — to quote the cover — is not so Boston-centric.