Brand building through storytelling

Sexism and double standards

I was flipping through Content a few years ago when an attack on Chatelainecaught my eye. Among Chatelaine‘s presumed crimes against the thinking reader was the coverline “I Molested My Stepdaughter.” I wrote that story, and I’m still proud of it. A clean-cut, middle-class guy had told me how he’d wait for his wife to go to work so that he could catch her 12-year-old daughter alone. While he fondled her, she would touch up her manicure, as if by concentrating on her nails she could block out her horror and her helplessness.

My story hit the newsstands back in 1985, before sexual abuse became a front-page issue. As far as I can tell, it was the Canadian media’s first inside look at the mind of an incestuous parent. If my critic had read past the coverline, he’d have learned a thing or two. But hundreds of thousands of readers got the message. Soon after that article appeared, a therapist I know sat down with a new client, a young woman. She arrived with the tearsheets in her hand. “This happened to me,” she said, “and I never told anyone.”

Women’s magazines run lots of groundbreaking stories. They were the first to blow the whistle on unnecessary mastectomies, first to publicize date rape and wife assault, first to explore the tangled politics of abortion– first to report on all the so-called “women’s issues” that get short shrift in male-controlled media. Their impact is literally life-changing. Moved by articles in Chatelaine or Homemaker’s, readers start new careers, leave abusive husbands, launch community campaigns for better schools and safer streets. No other print medium can match the power of women’s magazines. But only supermarket tabloids command less respect. Journalistic quality is not the issue. Sexism is. And it pervades the entire publishing industry.

Take the National Magazine Awards. When I write a cover story for Report on Business Magazine, I have a pretty good shot at a nomination: two out of seven have made the grade so far. When I write the lead article for a women’s magazine, my chances appear to be zero. My business stories are not better researched or more carefully crafted than my stories for women’s magazines. To my mind, they’re less original than two stories I wrote for Flare– one on the mother-daughter bond, the other on violence against women. These subjects affect readers just as urgently as the state of the economy, and I have heartfelt letters to prove it. But stories about women aren’t considered “real” journalism.

I’ve been told as much by someone who should have known better, an executive in this industry. I used to be an editor at Flare, and when I moved up to a job atMaclean’s, he said, “Now you’re going to work for a real magazine.” A friend of mine, an editor for another women’s magazine, tells a similar story. When she raised “journalistic ethics” in a friendly debate with her boss, he looked puzzled. Then he admitted, “I guess we don’t think of editors on women’s magazines as journalists.”

People who wouldn’t dream of telling a blonde joke have no qualms about dumping on a women’s magazine. Indeed, female journalists do it all the time. Eye WEEKLY book reviewer Pamela Swanigan, panning Hot and Bothered, speculates that author Wendy Dennis has “[written] one too many articles for Chatelaine.” Down the page, Donna Lypchuk lights into Sally Armstrong, author of Mila, with a gratuitous dig about her role as editor of Homemaker’s. Armstrong’s presumed “knowledge of recipes” has nothing to do with her success or failure as a biographer– unless you believe that magazines containing recipes are strictly for airheads.

Over at the Globe & Mail, Kate Fillion identifies the biggest difference betweenGlamour and Esquire: “one can be purchased with a straight face at an upscale bookstore.” As Fillion tells it, Glamour and its ilk serve up “unabashed junk” that smart women like herself devour to their shame– like fashion, fitness and a story on “the delicate art of persuading a man to use a condom.” What about Esquire’s infamous cover package, “The American Wife: An Owner’s Manual”? This was a great moment in journalism? I’ll take the condom piece any day. And so, I think, would any woman who would rather learn something useful– perhaps even life-saving– than impress the checkout clerk at Lichtman’s.

Women’s magazines are fatally conflicted, critics charge. Stories on anorexia run side by side with fashion spreads where the models wear size 6 bikinis. A double message, to be sure– one that’s widely blamed on advertiser pressure. The truth is that many readers, not just advertisers, would object to chunky models. The appeal of fashion pages lies in fantasy, as Fillion herself admits. She says she’s hooked on the “sugar high” of fashion glossies– that she buys them for the fluff, not the hard-hitting features. Behind lofty feminist sentiments about double messages lurks the old double standard. Esquire runs fluff about cars and stereos, but is still taken seriously– simply because men read it.

Women’s magazines aren’t perfect. When they falter, it’s because they forget their own power, exploiting the trend of the moment instead of making personal connections. Readers look to their magazines to learn how women like themselves are coping with everyday challenges. If you’ve lost a breast, will you feel awkward with a new lover? If your teenage daughter is turning tricks on Yonge Street, what will it take to bring her home? Through women’s magazines, women share stories that are told nowhere lese. This vast country becomes as intimate as my kitchen table.

I think I’ll put the coffee on. It’s going to be a long conversation.

First published in Masthead, September, 1992. Copyright by Rona Maynard.

Posted by Rona

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