Thursday, March 29

Empowerful women and their empowerful publications

Working for a big corporate media behemoth has its perks: Decent pay, health insurance, air conditioning, cake when people get awards, etc. But there are drawbacks, too.

[Disclaimer: I like my job and would like to keep it. I am only writing this here at my personal blog because these are points I would be happy to make to any of my superiors if consulted; I write better than I speak, so I am, in effect, collecting my thoughts on the matter and offering them up for mass consideration. And ridicule. You know, whatevs.]

For one, you have to put disclaimers on your personal opinions because no one wants to get Dooced.

For two, you have to count yourself among the ranks of the dreaded MSM, which can make it tricky to rail against the dreaded MSM.

For three, you have to suffer through all sorts of insipid corporate e-mails from people you've never met who don't know your name or what you do.

For four, you are but a cog in a much larger machine that will often be used in ways you really, really wish would just evaporate and go away, because they're so horrid and your influence is so minimal that you can't really do anything about it.

I allude, clumsily, of course, to this: Skirt! — a monthly women's publication currently being offered to subscribers of the Knoxville News Sentinel (among other papers, I'm sure, including, very possibly, the CA in days to come).

I have to admit, I am not clear on all of the details of Skirt!. All I know is what one of my bosses told me when he laid his March copy down near myself and two fellow young women designers and asked us to take a look and tell him what we thought of the unconventional design approach. He described it as a publication geared toward youngish, successful professional women.

My first impression, based on the name and the flag design alone, was one of uncontrolled revulsion.

"Skirt!" is written in some vaguely familiar and probably commonly misused typeface (my guess is Franklin Gothic), and is at times stretched and condensed and all manner of other typographic abominations in order to achieve a sort of chaotic, frantic, childish feel, punctuated frenetically with an exclamation point. Which really bugged one of my co-workers for some reason. (Perhaps she had an exclamation-point accident as a child or something?) The 'i' utilizes a different typeface than the rest of the word — some sort of italic serif deal, which, on the website, is animated to be a blinking eye. I am sort of happy yet still queasy to report that there is NO EYE in the print edition. Small miracles and all.

So, based on name alone, you know where this is going. Tell me you've got a publication for strong, successful women and I'll usually be all, "Okay, right on," thinking we've got a political-minded, informative, thoughtful outlet on our hands. Tell me it's called "Skirt!" and my brain will start shutting down. Suddenly you've introduced fashion and feminine markers into the premise. Not to mention the secondary verbal definition of "skirt," which means to avoid or work around. It's indirect; it's passive.

Open up the tabloid (it's a large tab, maybe the size of the Scene or the Flyer — though I'm thinking the Scene is bit taller than the Flyer — printed on hi-brite with what seems to be full color available on every page, though they don't use full color on every page, which I'll get to in a minute) and you're met with the typical blitzkrieg of colorful advertising that greets you in any periodical. My boss asked our opinion of the editorial/advertising design divide, since it seems to have blurred a bit within the pages of Skirt!, thanks to the editorial and ad designer being one in the same.

The pages of Skirt! feature gaudy blue and violet display type, aligned anywhichway seems cutesy and fun, and hefty sprinklings of solidly colored flower clip-art. Think flower power clip-art. Flowers and text, flowers and text, cute illustrations of vaguely ethnic women with impossibly long nails and eyelashes and hair, flowers and text. Ads. Flowers. Ads. Text and flowers. Ads.

One of the more remarkable (and profoundly depressing) aspects of the design is the editorial photography. All editorial (non-advertising) photographs are printed in black and white. I am told that this is — and I shit you not — because women look better when not photographed in color. That's so their complexions don't look so icky in print.

So you've got brightly colored ads of airbrushed models sitting alongside somber black and white portraits of actual women.

I'm not sure there could be a more clear and ironic distortion of what it means to be a "real" woman than this policy.

The ads sing, of course, in full color, while the editorial copy whispers. "HEY YOU SHOULD BUY SOME OF THIS AWESOME DEPILATORY CREAM" vs. "Hi, my name is Mary Ann and I save lives because I am a paramedic who works 36-hour days while raising a kid on my own and raising money for cancer patients."

It's almost too sad to ponder.

The rest of the editorial copy within the newsmag ranges from the feel-good, pat-yourself-on-the-back-for-having-a-job type profiles of working/creative women to the usual hyperconsumerist agitprop about which wrinkle creams get the best results and so forth.

And then, of course, there are the little things. "Shemail" as a stand-in for "e-mail." A section called "PMS: Problems Men Started (right now, featuring "Girls Gone Wild," "Voting machines," "Brawling," "Office cubicles," and "Homophobia."). A page in the print edition devoted to the skirt of the month. And then this borderline crazy letter from the publisher about her leap into the unknown territory of publishing health and beauty tips for upwardly mobile honky women. Because, you know, that's something that's never been done before.

And yet, Skirt! proclaims its mission so loudly on its cover that I must snicker at the bitter irony (see Fig. 2 for details). A huge-ass tagline that touts its deepness and its ability to bring you to the light, to a revelation about yourself is, at best, a display in marketing hackery and, at worst, a cruel joke perpetrated on unsuspecting readers who, after years and years of being bludgeoned by the spiked mace of patriarchy-consumerism, may not know how to wield a skepticism filter properly.

It's just sad, really, that any of this could be touted as deep and meaningful, when it is so clearly viciously superficial and about anything but actual empowerment.

But that is the way with words and products hawked to the empowerful woman and the patriarchal construct that keeps her in check.

That's why this publication, aimed supposedly at professional women (which implies the twenty and thirty and forty and fiftysomething set, at the very least), looks like a joke; its design aesthetic is more suited to a magazine for tween girls who can more easily be wooed by cute flowers and choppy typography (which they see in their glossy mags every day anyway). And the copy? Well, it's the same hyperfeminine/hyperconsumerist shit you can read in any depressing glossy fashion mag that purports to be Empowered Woman's Best Friend.

Twisty, the patron saint of the What I Wish I Had Written, gets the last word:

This modern preoccupation with the Empowerful Woman was funny for a while, but it begins to wear thin. I predict that if a post-patriarchal social history of the New Millennium ever gets written there will be a hilarious chapter on this bizarre, buffoonish construct.

I allude to the confident, photogenic, entirely fictitious female who inhabits TV ads, “Sex in the City,” Oprah, and the popular imagination. Today’s woman isn’t a feminist. She doesn’t need to be, because she’s empowered.

She may only earn 3/4 of what a man earns, but she damn well has the empower to look sexy doing it in her cheapcrap push-up bra from Victoria’s Secret. She has the empower to demand pink products from manufacturers. She has the empower to cry out ‘I did it for me!’ when she gets her boob job; maybe she even has the empower to believe it. The empowerful woman is saucy, yet feminine. Clever, yet feminine. In her early thirties, yet feminine. Heterosexual, yet feminine. Stays in shape eating Lean Cuisine and sweating blue Gatorade while kickboxing in slow motion, yet feminine. Yes, the empowerful woman is many things. Too bad powerful isn’t one of them. That’s because feminine is all of them.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's as if Jane, Seventeen, Cosmo, and Marie Claire mutated into one incredibly annoying publication. Dear God in heaven, please do not let this publication infect Nashville. Oh, wait, we already have Nashville Lifestyles.

Thu Mar 29, 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger ml said...

Awesome post! I wish someone would come up with a good parody publication for ugly, downwardly mobile women who like mullets and need to know the best way to show off their back fat.

Thu Mar 29, 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you be able to keep your job if you told your boss it could only be equalled or surpassed by a magazine called Pant! - designed for youngish, successful professional men, with little pasted-on pictures of cars and weights and decorated with borders made of little pictures of boobs?

Thu Mar 29, 12:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Magnificently written, ma'am. Outlines as a creator *and* a consumer what is inherently wrong with the concept and offers suggestions on how to fix it.

Of course you know when you actually share it with anybody male in the office, though, they'll either say "oh, don't get hysterical about it" or nod reassuringly and say "bitch" as you walk away. (At least that's been my experience, several times. Jeebus.)

And your other commenters are cracking me right the hell up.

Thu Mar 29, 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger T.V. Fritz said...

Does this magazine talk about light flow days? I suppose it would. 'Light Flow Days at the Office and How to Avoid Them."

Thu Mar 29, 01:16:00 PM  
Blogger theogeo said...

Lesley, exactly. I don't see what sets this magazine apart from the rest of the beauty mags. Except the local angle, which kind of takes a back seat anyway.

ML, thanks! I would love to see something like that, too. :)

La Belladonna, that is a fabulous idea. Absolutely perfect. Hell, maybe I'll mock up something like that AND the mullet woman mag.

Grandefille, thank you. I have already been met with shrugs from some male co-workers, but the majority of them seem to roll their eyes at yet another woman-centric publication. It's frustrating to try and explain the difference between dismissing it because it's for women and dismissing it because it's a hack job of a product for women. Most people don't even know that there's a difference.

Fritz, I bet you enjoyed writing "light flow days," didn't you? Admit it!

Thu Mar 29, 02:14:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've posted my comment over at my place, but I'll leave it here, too:

The whole premise is bewilderingly patronizing. And it's not like I don't subscribe to fashion magazines -- I do! several! -- but I subscribe to them to follow fashion and admire clothing design. I know what I'm getting into when I open a copy of InStyle, and believe me, I don't read it expecting to encounter thoughtful essays written from a feminist perspective. Those types of publications simply have no credibility with me for that sort of content. But when I want those feminist essays (Bust, perhaps, or Off Our Backs? I admit I don't subscribe to either -- blogs provide me with ample content), I don't expect to be condescended to with fashion and beauty advice. And here the credibility issue works basically in reverse: include fashion and beauty advice in your progressive woman's publication, and, for me, you cease to be a progressive woman's publication.

This sort of mental partitioning may be uncommon, but I sort of doubt it. That's not to say that a cross-market magazine (or even cross-cross-market, if you think fashion-feminist-local) can't work, but this appears to be the reason to undertake such a venture with extreme caution.

Thu Mar 29, 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger phallicpen said...

I read this eloquent post aloud to Craig and he responded as such:

"Typical Lindsey. Give a nice publication to the ladies and she shoots it down."


"Skirt" is also used as a derogatory term.

Thu Mar 29, 10:10:00 PM  
Blogger La C. said...


Fri Mar 30, 08:07:00 AM  
Blogger fearlessvk said...

if i wasn't so tired and brain-addled right now i'd say something insightful, but instead, i'll just say, this was awesome.

now i'm going to get back to preening in front of the mirror and drawing cute flowers on my notebook!

Sat Mar 31, 11:38:00 PM  

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