Thursday 6 December 2007

Big dicks, high heels and subliminal messaging.

Tonight, feeling sick and ill at ease with myself, I bought a small stack of 'girly' magazines on my way home from the grocery run. Now, I've got a dirty secret: I rather like these sorts of magazines, if by 'like' one means 'find absorbing and fascinating in a deeply terrifying, makes-me-want-to-throw-things sort of way'. They're compelling. They're compelling in the way a traffic accident on a nighttime motorway is compelling: convincing you that, somewhere very close by, half-hidden and staked out by fuss and flashing lights, something deeply terrible is happening.

There's a certain cliche to the mutteringly levels of dissent against 'girly' magazines' use of repetitive images of impossibly airbrushed, stick-thin 'ideal women'. But that's just the superficial evil, the scum and bits of rotting crisp packet on the frothy cesspool of gender-fuckery that is every edition of Glamour, Cosmopolitan, New Woman and Grazia. There are, in fact, a surprising number of words in these things, and many of them are extremely upsetting. Let's jump in at the murkier part of the deep end, with a look at the horror that is the horoscopes.

Magazine horoscopes are ludicrously clever little pieces of tripe: good ones are ambiguous enough to make sure at least half the readers will be able to find something to relate to their situation, whilst remaining pointed enough that this isn't obvious. So, here's what Glamour magazine predicts for me and my fellow Librans for the coming months:

'Now Pluto moves into your home zone, changing the way you live at the deepest level. Catherine Zeta-Jones has Pluto transforming her ideas about home and domesticity...If you're single, you could settle down and get married. ..this will be a positive change and you'll discover a much calmer, happier and more contented you.'

Fantastic! Marriage is going to sort out all my problems the old-fashioned way!Only trouble is, though, I'm actually on the cusp of Virgo. What would my fate be had I been born a few days earlier?

'You may start to think about having children. Say a big hello to this question: do you want children or not? Celebrity Virgo Amy Winehouse has already expressed a wish to give up singing to be a wife and mother, and maybe that would help her to clean up her act.'

And for Cancerians:

'If you've been finding it impossible to land a steady relationship, well here it comes. If you've been dating a string of men, here comes The One. And with lucky planet Jupiter joning Pluto in 2008, expect a proposal very soon! Cancerian Lindsey Lohan will meet a partner (probably someone older) who calms her down and helps her to reinvent herself as someone more sensible - and much happier.'

Anyone starting to notice a pattern here?

Another thing these magazines simply love to do is to make lists. Ten Ways To Be Better In Bed. Top Twenty Signs You're Ready To Commit. Top ten trenchcoats for this season (subtly different buttons from last season's). What's being plugged is a lifestyle where high-fashion, high-maintenance living and hot sex are merely keys in to the ultimate goal of - guess what - finding a man, settling down and having children. Yes, content has subtly changed over the past decade: you'll now find tips on asking for a payrise or promotion alongside articles like 'My Abortion Hell' and 'A-List Diet and Excercise Secrets' - the focus, of course, always upon earning more money to spend upon the high-fashion items spewed gaudily across three-quarters of the content. Don't be fooled: nothing written in these magazines has anything at all to do with empowering women. Rather, it's about creating a hermetically sealed dystopia in which women are not thinking, feeling, creating political beings, but androids: androids who exist, quite simply, to shop.

Shopping for the right outfit, make-up or shoes for that party, that club or that dinner date; shopping for the right partner, the right house, the right wardrobe, even the right body, with diet-clubs and cosmetic surgery chains providing a large proportion of the magazines' considerable advertising revenue. Shopping for the sake Anything that falls outside of this broad dystopian market category is simply not acknowledged. For the purposes of Cosmo, Glamour, Grazia and Heat, it doesn't exist. We don't exist. Or we shouldn't.

Almost more important than what's in these magazines is what's missing. Hetero-abnormality is forbidden. The content is strictly, savagely heterosexual and heteronormative. There is simply no room in these pages for those of us who are happily gay, bisexual or genderqueer, those of us who are happy with our body shape, those of us whose main recreational activity *isn't* shopping or applying This Season's Makeup Pallette. Alternative ethnicity is forbidden: nearly all of the faces one sees in this magazine are white, and those which aren't are abnormally pale. Poverty is forbidden: nowhere is it suggested how 99% of the readership is going to afford to buy all of the new outfits, shoes, make-up and gizmos every single issue requires us to find in order to be a cool, confident woman of the moment. Alternative politics are certainly forbidden: you'll be hard put to find any political references at all, in fact, although I'm sure it won't be long before someone decides to give The Home Secretary a makeover.

Let me make one thing absolutely clear: you cannot read this stuff ironically. I know that you, and me, and probably most people we know who have ever bought one of these vile magazines, all think that we're okay, that we're above this stuff, that we can see through the sham and advertising. Like hell we can. The people writing, producing and planning these magazines are very clever, very well-paid and very good at what they do: selling a fantasy of conformity and a cooked-up, artificial femininity which requires ridiculous amounts of extraneous spending to attain. They sell it overtly, but they also sell it subliminally, and you, too, are susceptible.

There's only one option: you, and me, and every poor fool hanging aroung the 'women's lifestyle' rack have got to stop giving our money to these people. Subscribe to Red Pepper instead, or to New Statesman, or New Scientist. And instead of this poisoned dystopia of credit cards, big dicks and high heels, let's use our imaginations to dream of other possible worlds, of endeavour, justice and radical experimentation. Anything else is selling ourselves and our intellects woefully short.


  1. I couldn't read that without having to post a comment saying that I agree entirely; saying anything else would probably be superfluous.

  2. Have you by any chance read "Feminism and Youth Culture" by Angela McRobbie? It's a collection of 6 essays, one of which deals with exactly this issue, and McRobbie pointed out how it works right from preteen up until adulthood, with magazines pitched for each age group along the way to guide girls and young women into their assigned gender roles. She wrote it back when "Jackie" was still being published, and focussed her attention on the content of that magazine, but when I read the essay last year I was struck by how little had changed.

    As a teenage boy, I used to sneak a peek at my sister's girlie mags, and felt vaguely disturbed by the ideals that were being portrayed, but never understood why. Now I'm older, it's because I realise that both boys and girls were being marketed to each other as commodities.

    Excellent post!

  3. I totally agree! I stopped reading this trite when I was about 14 and urged everybody else to as well.

    Found your blog via. The F Word.


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