Women's magazines aren't serious. That's the perception that exists anyway. It might be a matter of what consumers think about them, or maybe it's just how the people who work at them are judged by their peers in the media. But they're not taken seriously, and it's not because of their content. It's because our understanding of what Serious Journalism™ is, who makes it and the historical reasoning behind why ladymags — tucked aside in a pink ghetto — are often misunderstood.
Despite the fact that no one in the United States had ever heard of Port magazine until their horrific cover last week celebrating the many white males leading excellent American magazines, the comment by Port magazine's editor-in-chief that Dan Crowe that it's just too bad that there isn't "a gay person or a black woman editor" interviewed for the article or on the cover "but unfortunately these are not the people editing these magazines" was still upsetting for its total cluelessness. The hashtag #WomenEdsWeLove was started up, celebrating women editors that we, well, love, at the helm of all sorts of publications. Ruth Franklin criticized the men participating in the story for not calling out the lack of diversity. And former Jezebel staffer Jessica Grose took to The New Republic to ask an important question: "Can Women's Magazines Do Serious Journalism?" We haven't had a question be this good since "Can women be funny?"
You can't discuss women's magazines without discussing Helen Gurley Brown, and Grose doesn't avoid her. Brown was not the first editor of Cosmopolitan, but was most certainly the first editor of the modern Cosmo, paving the way for Kate White to turn it into a literal sex bible (if it wasn't already). Brown essentially took her sassy little advice book, Sex and the Single Girl and made it a magazine, furthering stereotypes about the prescriptive nature of women's publications that already existed, while at the same time writing about young women in the workplace in a way that hadn't been addressed before. During this time, the magazine got limited props for covering "serious" issues.
Though women's magazines can and do cover serious issues, Grose claims that the magazines at large are still "ghettoized," relegating the articles within them to a separate judging sphere. Even when women's magazines discuss big issues, those issues are those that primarily affect women, and are considered – even by women sometimes – to be less "serious" or even topical than the stuff published in general interest publications. Suppose you saw the same article published in two different publications: Would that change how seriously you perceived it? The New York Times just did a piece that was on the front page of their website on women's sexuality. Would that same article go unnoticed in a women's magazine simply because the right people aren't reading it?
Of course, there's a lot about ladymags that's not quite so defensible, especially when their focus is often centered on having better bodies and smoother skin and shinier hair and nicer handbags. At worst, women's magazines can encourage an unhealthy way of thinking about the world, one in which you simply can't measure up (not with those thighs, anyhow). The less insidious content, meanwhile, can be frivolous. There's actually nothing wrong with frothy stuff — femininity and the fluff that goes with it can be a lot of fun, and there's no reason we shouldn't indulge it — but when serious pieces are preceded by a hundred pages of decidedly unserious content and packaged in a publication that features Taylor Swift on its cover, it no doubt colors the perception of how "serious" those pieces really are.
The funniest thing about the "women's magazine ghetto" – which must lie directly adjacent to the chick lit ghetto – is that one of the most important women's magazines launched from a general interest magazine. Taking only a brief glance at how it started is a clear indicator of the issues that still remain in magazine journalism. Would we consider New York better than Ms., the magazine it helped get off the ground?
Ms. was and is a women's magazine and certainly doesn't cover the things you'd think a woman's magazine would cover (beauty, fitness, etc.) but then again, it's not considered major any longer, due to low circulation and little to no advertising. More importantly: Ms. covers problems we've societally decided only matter to women, things like rape, abortion and health.
Grose points out that the male market covers a lot of the "serious" journalism, so women's magazines don't need to do it. It might also be that the women at those publications are used to being isolated: Gloria Steinem has talked extensively about how she was forced into writing women-specific content when she wanted to be a "serious" journalist, citing her "low-point" as an article about textured stockings she was assigned for the New York Times magazine – though it really sounds as though the low-point was how her boss sexually harassed her:
"When I delivered the articles to my editor at the Sunday Times magazine, he generally gave me a choice: either I could go to a hotel room with him in the afternoon, or mail his letters on the way out. Needless to say, I mailed the letters. But I just assumed I had to put up with this.”
Steinem has also said that when she wanted to write about politics, she was rebuffed by her editor, who said "something like, ‘I don’t think of you that way.'"
When Steinem eventually founded Ms., it was a man who got it out into the world. New York's editor Clay Felker famously feared publishing a women's issues magazine but was pushed into it by Steinem, then a contributing writer to New York. Though he eventually backed the magazine, he required Ms. – which planned to become monthly – to publish their first issue with the date "Spring 1972" so it wouldn't look weird sitting on newsstands for a longer period of time (like New York's wedding issues, which appear twice a year and, coincidentally, are also geared towards women). The first issue of Ms. sold out in three days.
40 years later, New York would proudly celebrate the anniversary of the launch of Ms., and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the co-founding editor of the magazine, would mention Felker's help with the launch. "In those days, nothing happened without men. You needed one man to be nice to you and then maybe you could run with it," she told her daughter, who wrote the oral history.
Those men are still putting women in their own category, but they're doing it with the help of women. A major crux of Grose's piece is her discussion of how American Society for Magazine Editors Awards works. Grose explains how ASME literally puts women's magazines in "a different camp" than other publications:
"Women’s magazines are considered for a 'general excellence' award in their own separate category—'service and fashion magazines'—while men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire are considered in the general interest category. The segregation has been justified by the nature of the business. As ASME chief executive Sid Holt has previously said, 'there’s no men’s category—that’s not the way the magazine business works, as a trip to any newsstand will show—and [men’s magazines] compete against other magazines in the same category for readers and advertisers.' But given the inability of women’s magazines to compete in the more broadly prestigious categories, it seems like separate is not equal."
Separate is most certainly not equal, but perhaps time will make it so. Clay Fleker, Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem have all been put in the Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame – Fleker and Brown in the same year, and Steinem two years after. Maybe for women's magazines, it's more about end-game. Or maybe they aren't innovating the way they were in the 1960s – or that that space has moved online. Because the Port magazine article was all about print publications, it seems almost unnecessary to point out it totally ignores the web, where the popular nature of "ladyblogs" has taken off, with it receiving extensive praise and criticism.
Even the placement of Grose's piece is notable in itself. The New Republic is a general interest magazine, and it's the one asking this question in the first place. Maybe women's magazines don't wonder whether they're doing serious journalism because the people at women's magazines spend their time writing pieces and publishing them, sitting in their safe space, slightly distanced from traditional media circles. Women's magazines feed off each other in their own bubble. As Glamour's circulation and style has improved, Marie Claire has "glamourized" itself (or did it happen the other way around?). Cosmo under Joanna Coles looks different than the publication as it existed under Kate White (especially the staff). They consider each other their competition, and not GQ, Esquire, Playboy or even New York (if they did, why would Coleslet New York's The Cut, a women's publication itself, do a story about her new reign?).
Grose ultimately comes to a conclusion that women will never get out of the women's magazine ghetto until they try to take themselves out of it. They can't do this individually, however; they've got to drag the magazines with them. Steinem's experience in the 1960s is no exception to this conclusion. She got a mild revenge at the end of that story about textured stockings in her bio on the piece, which reads "Gloria Steinem is a writer-about-town who knows all about textured stockings, but does not – repeat not – own a single pair." This revenge unfortunately required throwing fashion coverage, a ladymag's bread and butter, under the bus.
Grose's herself admits a Steinem-type bias; on her resume, she puts New York before Cosmo. No one will take women's magazines seriously if women themselves don't take their own issues seriously. Is that blaming the victim? Yes. But it still might be true. The only difference is, maybe women's magazines don't want to leave where they're at. Maybe they're happy where they are, in their safe space.