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Has Ms. undergone a sex change?

HAS MS. UNDERGONE A SEX CHANGE?

But for the logo in the corner, it could be Self. "Re-Making Love,' reads the July cover headline that runs over a photo of a man kissing the bare shoulder of a carefully made-up woman. Yet this is Ms., the country's leading feminist magazine. So, what does Ms., which claims "the most influential women in America' as its readers, have to say about the current condition of lovemaking?

""Re-Making Love' was chosen as our cover story,' write the editors, "because sexuality is the area of our lives where the power balance has changed the most and is likely to stay changed.' And how has that balance changed? Feminists used to get angry at men who treated women as sex objects; now Ms. says sex objects are okay--if they're men. The authors of this article write: "Whether in 1950 or 1980, casual sex has always been the macho symbol, and very few men were complaining as long as they controlled the action.' Now, they boast, women can control the action, too, and they applaud women such as one who told them, "I have lovers because what else is there in life that's so much fun as turning on a new man, interesting him, conquering him?' They also scoff at George Leonard, who, in a 1982 Esquire article, deplored the "loss of loving, nurturing, long-term' sex. Have we ever come a long way.

Claiming "the macho symbol' as a woman's right is just one example of how Ms. has come to encourage some of the very values it used to condemn. While still officially feminist, Ms. is a compromised version of the radical magazine it was 14 years ago. The magazine that declared in its first issue that it wanted to be as "serious, outrageous, satisfying, sad, funky, intimate, global, compassionate, and full of change as women's lives really are' has retreated from that complexity. Ms. is now full of articles such as "How to Manage a Fear of Power,' "Packing It In: A 10-Day Trip in a Carry-On Bag,' "Toys for Free Grown-ups: A Consumer Guide to Sex Gadgets, Potions, and Videos,' and "The New Computer Diet--From Chocolate Chips to Microchips.' There is little anymore that distinguishes Ms. from other mainstream women's magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Working Woman, or even magazines such as Playgirl.

"When Ms. was launched scarcely a decade ago, it was a different world,' proclaims a recent trade ad. "We led the way, and we changed the world. So much so that we changed ourselves . . .' And so the magazine did. Perhaps the biggest change in Ms. is that it no longer challenges the greed, selfishness, and materialism it once claimed subjugated women and imprisoned men. Today's Ms. not only condones those values, but offers itself as a primer on how women can live by them.

Sofa sisterhood

In 1972, when modern feminism was hitting its stride, Ms. published its first issue, providing a forum for feminist political debate. Co-founded by Gloria Steinem and Patricia Carbine, Ms. was meant to fill a void left by traditional women's magazines. The first issue promised to examine the problems and hopes raised by the changing roles of women. Nearly every article questioned a cultural, political, or social norm. Even the magazine's name made a statement that women would not be defined by their roles as wives or mothers. In those first years the magazine grappled with a wide range of tough issues. Ann Crittenden Scott proposed in "The Value of Work' that housework be considered real work and that men and women have equal control over family finances. "Three Lives in Appalachia' damned stripmining and black lung disease in the hills of Kentucky. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that American society identified "increasing consumption of goods and services with increasing happiness' and explained how it used women to build the demand for, and to manage, all those consumables. There were articles such as "A Legislative Agenda for the 93rd Congress,' which proposed tax, welfare, and health insurance reforms; "Defusing the Atomic Establishment'; "Child Care Leave for Fathers'; "Economic Reality and the Limits of Feminism'; and "Abortion Reform: Never Again.'

As the years passed, plenty of the women beating on the doors and windows of maledominated institutions--many of them Ms. readers--succeeded in breaking in. Unfortunately, many of them are now so intent on rearranging the furniture inside to suit themselves that they've forgotten they swore to tear the whole rotten structure down and build anew. Ms. seems to have conveniently forgotten as well and has joined in the redecorating. Its iconoclastic message has faded; the new message is that the way for women to succeed is the same as it has long been for men: acquire money and status.

Vanity fare

The women Ms. has written about lately are almost always well paid, professional, and powerful; the female forklift driver is rarely spoken of in the same breath. In the July issue, Emily Card profiles ten women who "exert great influence' on the U.S. economy. They include a corporate vice president, a judge, a congresswoman, a commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. The month before Sallie Bingham of the Bingham communications empire was the focus of the cover story.

Even when Ms. still grasps the "correct' rhetoric, its examples often mock the effort. Last November, the cover story "For Love and Money' promised a "changed definition of success.' The women profiled are described as "successful yet underrewarded, happy yet still striving and dreaming.' So who are all these under-rewarded heroines? First is Judith Langer, whose consulting firm probes the predilections of the American consumer--for $2,800 per session. Sessions such as this one: "The women gathered at the long table are sharing their deepest feelings about flannel sheets--feelings they may have never before known they had.' Sessions that help industry exploit the way women have been encouraged to define themselves through their purchases: "Working women often develop "two selves' in order to provide needed separation from their job. For example, some wear fancy underwear beneath their work clothes. . . . Others buy themselves "treats,' anything from an icecream cone to a new blouse, just as a reward for making it through another week.'

In the list there are two more women who run the same kind of consulting business (and gross $1.5 million per year), as well as an "executive bodyguard,' an accountant, a woman who works in the Office of Consumer Affairs in Boston, two lawyers, four film directors, one community organizer who helps Korean immigrants adjust to living in New York City, and several artists. In discussing the artists, the article describes a meeting of women artists, critics, and dealers where "the women get down to the real business of the meeting--an exchange of information not often heard among artists.' A thoughtful discussion of the sources of their inspirations, perhaps? No. They're more interested in "how they're getting shows, who was buying what, and for how much.' Those who sell works for $30,000-$75,000 are reversed, though they complain they haven't "achieved parity with their megabuck male counterparts.'

Ms. has plenty of ideas on how women should use their money once they make it. It has run stories such as "New Frontiers in Jewelry Design,' "The Right Shoe: A Guide to the Immortal Sole,' "The New Appeal of Hotel Dining Rooms,' and "Tips on Tipping,' as well as articles on investing, business plans, and tax write-offs. A recent article "The Joy of Risk-Taking,' plugs hiking trips in Tibet, scuba diving in the Caribbean, and skiing in Norway. Ms.'s reader profile says its readers "shop in gourmet stores more than anybody--even more than readers of Harper's Bazaar.' They also buy more rum and tequila, more fine china, more lingerie, more 35mm cameras, more books, more imported cars, and more fine jewelry and gems than readers of any other women's magazine. Accordingly, Ms. ran an article that suggested its readers buy as gifts $75 teakettles, $50 icebuckets, and $40 high-tech corkscrews, which, it said, "reflect the way we live now.'

Concern for social issues has been eclipsed by concern for "Pampering Yourself,' as a February article was titled. That article confides: "Being confined to your quarters on a blustery day can make for a delightful time if you celebrate your own company as you would that of a special friend. Wear something you feel great in, take out the good china, take a bath instead of the customary shower, dab on some perfume before going to bed--whether or not you sleep alone.'

Noting in the profile that its readers "cook for fun more than anybody--even readers of Food and Wine,' Ms. has even found space for gourmet hints. In a July article on buying and storing fancy cheeses, the author writes: "Experts differ as to how cheese should be stored. Some say it should be wrapped in wax paper so the cheese is not suffocated. Others say that cheese should not be exposed to air and should be sealed in plastic wrap or foil. Whatever the case, a little drying usually does not affect quality.' If the author seems to be straying a bit far for even the most laissez-faire feminist reader, she reins herself in by giving up a third of the next page to praise for women cheesemakers.

Larding this kind of article with leftover radicalisms is common. An April article on "Dream Houses,' which cataloges reader responses to an earlier questionnaire, reveals that Ms. readers "had strong ideas about the "character' of a house . . .. Fireplaces, gardens and lots of closet space cropped up over and over again . . . and virtually everybody had something to say about kitchens and laundry rooms.' Sensing, perhaps, that this was getting a little too House & Garden, there's a brief bow towards conscience. "Some of you even expressed misgivings at thinking about a dream house. Said one: "This was a lovely fantasy! But I feel slightly guilty because my greed is boundless, and recently I've seen and lived in Third World countries.''

In the same spirit, in an article on buying computers, Lindsy Van Gelder writes, "How would you like to type "RR is a MCP' and have your computer keystroke "Ronald Reagan is a male chauvinist pig'?' Right on.

Ms. used to run articles that criticized society's emphasis on a woman's appearance. The magazine that in 1973 printed "Alice in Cosmeticland,' which ridiculed the rituals of using makeup to please a man, now carries as many ads for cosmetics as any mainstream beauty magazine; fashion and grooming make up 30 percent of Ms. ads. In fact, Ms. recently announced that its entire November issue will be devoted to fashion.

That shouldn't be surprising if you saw the May "Beauty of Health' issue, which shows a woman leaning out of her bath wearing only strategically placed bubbles and perfect makeup. (There is one issue every year devoted entirely to health, though last year there were two, including an August issue on "Staying Fit For Life.') In between informative stories on women's health care centers and the National Black Women's Health Network are stories such as "Do You Have Color Anxiety?' an analysis of the fun of wearing bright colors, a story that includes information on plumping out wrinkles with collagen injections, and--the clincher for the healthy feminist--"Going for the Big "O': Discoveries About Easily Orgasmic Women.'

Ms. also now runs articles on men's appearance. In an "exclusive' interview with February's coverman Richard Gere [Ms. was on the right on our cover; Playgirl on the left], Gloria Steinem hails Gere, her "premier example' of the new "sexual and sensual' male lead, who, she says, has displaced the "ordinary looks of a Dustin Hoffman or Donald Sutherland-- or a Woody Allen, Al Pacino and others . . ..' In reclaiming the importance of prettiness, Ms. has at least gone egalitarian.

You might assume that at the very least Ms. would refuse to encourage practices that are dangerous to one's health. Especially since the first issue of the magazine stated that a humane advertising policy was an important goal: "Obviously, Ms. won't solicit or accept ads, whatever the product they're presenting, that are downright insulting to women. Nor will we accept product categories that might be harmful.' Moreover, a survey last year revealed that "our readers identified health coverage as the number one reason you read Ms.'

But just how harmful must a product be before it offends Ms.'s editorial board? Publisher Patricia Carbine says the only ads the magazine refuses outright are those for products such as bust developers. Yet Ms. regularly runs cigarette ads (and always has), even though smoking was clearly recognized as unsafe in the early 1970s and is now the leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Although tobacco companies have increasingly directed their campaigns at women, depicting smoking as both assertive and sexy, Ms. has only infrequently, in general articles on health, pointed to its dangers. "We write about subjects when they're news,' Carbine says. "What we have done consistently in regard to smoking is to report news as it breaks.'

Following a complaint from a reader that running tobacco ads in its 1985 health issue was offensive, Ms. editors responded that they "depend on advertising to "pay the rent' and keep the magazine financially healthy [ad revenue was down 11.2 percent last year] . . .. Ms. readers have the intelligence to make their own choices if they have up-to-date, relevant information about products . . ..'

The cutting edge of fluff

Vacuous articles and articles that promote the lifestyle of the powerful and well-to-do are certainly common enough in the magazine market. But one expects more of the country's most influential feminist magazine. After all, Ms. even refers to itself as "the magazine of record for women.'

It is true that there are articles in Ms. about poor women, pink-collar workers, and Third World patriarchies--articles that expose serious problems. Last December, for example, Ms. reported the spate of miscarriages resulting from the Union Carbide plant leak at Bhopal, India. Ms. also was responsible for the first national survey on campus date rape, which revealed staggering statistics on its prevalence.

But this kind of story is rare. Furthermore, the analysis offered on important feminist issues is too often limited, the proposals for change too often narrow, and the space given to either, too small. While the early Ms. sometimes ran articles on silly subjects, they tended to be short; the bulk of the magazine was devoted to serious issues. Now the reverse is true.

Few magazines are willing to struggle with the difficult problems that still face women. Wasn't Ms. founded to offer more than Glamour, Mademoiselle, or Vogue, which, for all their fluff, have taken to running legislative updates on issues that affect women, as well as articles on sexual harassment, spouse abuse, and pay equity?

Why has Ms. changed so much? In large part, it seems, because its readership has. Ms. is proud of its nearly 480,000 regular readers, whom it describes in a recent ad: "Ms. stands squarely on the cutting edge, and our readers are the readers who are making it happen. They're the innovators, the opinion-makers.' Ms.'s most recent reader profile supplies the statistics. Ms. readers are "much better educated than readers of any other women's magazine . . . better than readers of Esquire, U.S. News, Time. 71 percent went to college . . . 26 percent have a $40,000 plus household income. 41 percent own stock. They have an average $88,000 each invested. More work in professional specialties than . . . readers of Forbes, Fortune, Money, and Business Week. 13 percent own their own business. 35 percent are in management positions.' And, of course, Ms. readers "run, jog, swim, play tennis more often than anybody--including readers of Self.'

Without question, the women's movement has radically changed the boundaries of a woman's and, to a lesser extent, a man's, role in American society. And Ms. helped lead the way. Ms. urged women to attain the positions that have given them the power to make change. The tragedy is that it no longer pushes them to demand that change. Instead of challenging its readers, it panders to them: the economics of magazine marketing has taken over.

"Think of the magazine as a woman,' says Carbine. "There are virtually no women of any age in the country who have not been on a sort of personal journey over the history of Ms. . . . There are many diverse things to write about precisely because of things the magazine helped set in motion . . .. In the earlier days, we spent a lot of space examining where women really were, vis-a-vis society. It's accurate to say that we don't have to do that anymore. What's now accurate--and more fun--is the ability to look at solutions as opposed to devoting space to quantifying the problem.' But instead of offering "solutions' that show women how to play by today's rules, Ms. would do better to build on its original ideals. The early Ms. certainly didn't have all the answers, and sometimes it was wrong. But at least in its groping, it challenged the worst of the status quo, and pointed to the possibility of a society where relationships could be more than conquests, where individual worth wouldn't be measured by the money one made or the prestige of the job one held.

By publishing heaps of articles on gaining traditional status jobs, on being pretty, on playing sexual power games, and on buying the toys of the entitled, Ms. insinuates that these are what should be important. And in that pile, Ms. also buries its occasional political insight--and its credibility. After all, how seriously can anyone take a story about a welfare mother trying to break out of her Chicago ghetto when the pages are perfumed with the cloying sweetness of Calvin Klein's "Obsession?' As an old feminist saying goes, "context is everything.'
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Copyright 1986, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:America's leading feminist magazine
Author:Milligan, Susan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1986
Words:2998
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