Women's mags: proof misery sells
TORONTO — Like a repentant cattle rancher turned vegetarian, Myrna Blyth appears to have turned on her former self. The retired editor of Ladies' Home Journal has written a book dishing scorn on women's magazines - "Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America."
Ms. Blyth accuses an entire magazine genre of marketing anxiety in order to perpetuate the myth of women as victims - and the fur's flying.
Cosmopolitan's editor, Kate White, accused Blyth of "dragging other people down with her self-loathing." Cindi Leive, of Glamour, said that Blyth was "trying to burn down the whole category of magazines." Ellen Levine, editor at Good Housekeeping, calls Blyth's condition "serious Ann Coulter envy."
It is fair comment to point out that this book was written after a successful career in the field the author condemns. I wouldn't pretend to know Blyth's motives. Or who she envies. But I'm certain she is right.
Women's magazines fall into two categories, with occasional overlap. There are the fluffy, and there are the fear-mongering - reflecting the bifurcated legacy of feminism: be sexy while you file for divorce. The former fill their pages with eyeliner, Armani, and Beyonce's luscious curves. They are, I believe, harmless. The latter fill theirs with infidelity and infertility, and I cannot, for the unfulfilled life of me, see what good they do.
My experience writing for several such magazines in Canada - Chatelaine, Modern Woman, Flare, Homemaker's - confirm Blyth's claim that editors skew facts, court alarmism, and reject the positive. There's no better (seemingly bottomless) swamp to draw from than the one filled with insecurity and victimology that mainstream feminism has created. At times, I've played along - the pay's good. But one tires.
Three years ago, I pitched what I felt was an empowering (to use a word I hate) story to several women's magazines. I got the idea from my gynecologist, who, dismayed at my extreme fear of breast cancer, gave me a good talking to about what he termed "the breast cancer hysteria." The 1 in 9 statistic, he said, should read more like "1 in 9 if every woman on the planet lives to be 100." And three times out of four it will not be fatal, he said.
I hoped to explore in this article the politics of the disease, showing how the threat of breast cancer is disproportionate to the amount of attention and money it receives, and that attention takes away from other problems and, indeed, from the quality of life.
Editor after editor rejected the idea with no comment, except one at a magazine called Elm Street who snippily e-mailed: "There is no way this story can do anything but trivialize the plight of women with breast cancer."
That this woman failed to see how condescending she was being to her readers - as though females cannot grasp nuance - should not have surprised me. Ultimately, I wrote the piece for an online Libertarian magazine. This argument has been made elsewhere, notably in "PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine," by Sally Satel, a Yale psychiatrist.
On another occasion, an editor at Homemaker's hired me to write a feature about the division of housework. I gathered up statistics and anecdotal evidence and found that men were helping and were particularly involved with childcare. Madame Editor was grim. She told me to "find evidence" men didn't help, but not before going off on a rant about her second or third husband never having lifted a finger.
She instructed me to interview a friend of hers whose husband was "useless," and specifically told me to begin my piece with a description of this woman "having a meltdown." I attempted second and third drafts, neither of which conveyed sufficient misery for the editor. I gave up. The story appeared in the magazine, bylined by another, replete with meltdowns and lazy lunks, months later.
Still another time, I proposed a story to several magazines. I wanted to write about having a mother who was in her 40s when I was born. My focus was positive: about how much it benefited me and how close I am to my mum. Homemaker's bit on the idea.
I got back, with the first draft, a request that I add some statistics about older mothers and birth defects, the "dangers" of old eggs, and that surely I could think of instances when my mother was "too exhausted" to play with me. I refused but was promised the story would run, nonetheless. It didn't. An e-mail and a call from me went unanswered by the magazine, so I sold the story to the Life section of a newspaper for Mother's Day.
And that was the last time I bothered with women's magazines - except to read them. But I go for the fluff. I'd rather read the story under the headline that says "Six Ways to Sexier Lips" than the one under "You're Going to Die Barren and Alone and Even If You Don't Your Husband will Probably Leave You" any day.
• Rondi Adamson's conservative social commentary appears frequently in the Canadian press.