The Catch-22 of Women’s Magazines

Are women’s magazines trivialized or trivializing? It’s a debate as old as third-wave feminism, and not one that another round of think-pieces is going to solve. But this week gives us an unusually illustrative example of how much that question oversimplifies those publications and their role in women’s self-image. Politico’s Sarah Kendzior fired the skirmish’s opening salvo at the beginning of the month by diagnosing “The Princess Effect,” in which glossies’ profiles of highly accomplished women “reduce female political leaders to their supposed fashion and lifestyle choices.” Now Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former White House deputy chief of staff and one of the objects of Kendzior’s critique, and New York‘s Kat Stoeffel have each published rebuttals arguing that the problem lies not with focusing on “fashion and lifestyle choices,” but in believing those choices “reduce” women at all.

Mastromonaco’s op-ed, published in the Washington Post on Friday, makes the more simplistic case for Marie Claire (where she’s now a contributing editor) and its peers: “Is it so inconceivable that a smart, accomplished woman would have both the latest issue of the Economist and the second season of The Mindy Project downloaded on her iPad?” She targets the “double standard” Kendzior reinforces by ostensibly claiming beauty and brains are mutually exclusive. That double standard is alive, well, and insulting, but Mastromonaco ignores what Kendzior’s really arguing in the name of creating an easier target: “The Princess Effect” doesn’t deny that a woman can be a fan of both The Economist and The Mindy Project; it just points out that magazine profiles often emphasize, discuss, and identify their subjects with the latter over the former.

Stoeffel is more willing to acknowledge the ways in which women’s over-identification with fashion and their appearance has been used for harm, as when Janet Yellen was criticized for repeating an outfit. She nonetheless praises women’s magazines as “a map for navigating style and other sexist minefields without compromising [women’s] intellectual integrity,” and shares Mastromonaco’s objection to equating an interest in clothes with a lack of substance. Stoeffel presents Mastromonaco’s transition from Josh Lyman’s world to Joanna Coles’ as a shift more for Marie Claire than for the politico herself, interpreting the hire — along with Vogue‘s decision to run a Hillary Clinton memoir excerpt sans photo shoot and Cosmopolitan‘s growing interest in politics — as evidence of “women’s magazines’ growing commitment to dissolving the gendered boundary between the frivolous and the serious.”

The problem, unfortunately, is that women’s magazines occupy that tricky space between sexism’s clear perpetrators and its clear victims. “Liking fashion makes you dumb” is a critical link in the chain of circular logic that keeps women in their place, right after “only pretty girls are people.” Punishing women for paying attention to style on the one hand and neglecting to measure up to beauty standards on the other is a catch-22 that writers far more eloquent than I have been calling out for a long, long time. (How long? Ellen Willis took an axe to it in 1970 with “Women and the Myth of Consumerism.”)

BUT. Women’s magazines also traffic in an industrial complex’s worth of twisted incentives, incentives it’ll take more than a handful of hires and tweaked mission statements to undo. First and foremost, they’re financially invested in the “be pretty to be a person” side of that catch-22; as much as women’s magazines may reorient themselves to emphasize professional and sartorial excellence as equally worthy goals, ad dollars from Victoria’s Secret and Diesel mean that upholding white, thin, and young as the ideal — and career success an optional side bonus — is literally how they survive. Such overpowering investment in keeping readers on board with spending money to look good is what rightly makes writers like Kendzior skeptical of Marie Claire‘s motives.

It’s thus counterproductive to either demonize women’s magazines as belittling or cry self-loathing sexism at their critics. The possibility that Cosmopolitan can both, as Jill Abramson put it, “kick ass” with their features coverage and reinforce archaic attitudes with cover lines like “Beach Body Shortcuts!” (August 2014) or “Copy Katy’s Flat Abs Trick ASAP” (July 2014) isn’t a crazy one. Neither is the idea that such magazines can offer a platform to marginalized women and the forces that keep them marginalized — see every profile and photo shoot that spends more time patting itself on the back for featuring someone who’s fat/over 40/not white than focusing on its subject as an individual.

In other words, it’s possible to answer the question that opens this post with “both.” As a non-dude with a personal stake in finding great outlets by and for non-dudes, I want women’s media to be taken seriously. I also want it to be better at serving women’s needs. And if that’s going to happen, it’s imperative that we’re comfortable with accepting Marie Claire‘s hire of Mastromonaco and Cosmo‘s new editorial focus as good-faith efforts — as long as we’re also still comfortable with pushing them to do more.