Women are from Venus, men are from Mars.
They filled the magazine basket in our living room, and I would spend fascinated hours perusing their colorful, cheerful pages filled with glossy images of furniture and kitchen appliances, steamy casseroles and crisp salads. Most intriguing were the articles in which marriage counselors and family doctors described their most dire cases and answered the question: "Can this marriage be saved?" (The answer was always "Yes," of course, though the articles were invariably accompanied by grim photographs of frown-creased female faces.)
I loved the "children's pages," too, with their paper-doll cutouts and cartoons of sweet-faced little girls in ruffles and ringlets that never seemed to wilt or soil.
These magazines offered me and my friends an enticing peek into the private, intimate world of the grownup female life we would someday enter and gave it a tantalizingly romantic shape and texture. As we gazed at the candlelit dinner tables and stylishly sleek kitchens, we learned to long for the limits of those sequestered spaces in which women selflessly filled the needs and soothed the troubles of men and children.
I hadn't looked at any of those magazines in a long time when I heard about the publication of a new one aimed at the twenty- and thirty-something group. Married Woman, it's called, and I wondered what a magazine with such a title would offer today, when even the most conservative women have been touched, if not transformed, by second-wave feminism. How would married bliss and its many expensive accouterments be packaged in an age when shared housework and two-pay-check families are so common? How would marital conflicts be presented at a time when domestic violence, incest, and other abuses of male power are so much in the air? I decided to find out.
When I got to the newsstand, I could hardly find Married Woman amid the vast array of magazines aimed at women. There are close to a hundred of them, for every conceivable subset of female readers with enough cash to attract commercial advertisers. From Sassy and Seventeen to Lear's and Mirabella; from Working Woman to Working Mother; from Family Circle to Self, from New Woman to Ladies' Home Journal; from Essence to Glamour --there are magazines to suit every lifestyle and every image the post-feminist world has to offer.
I lugged home no fewer than twenty--fifteen for women, five for men.
Yes, there seem to be a lot of men interested in fashion and lifestyle, too. Esquire and GQ are fat with ads and their clones spring up regularly. I was somewhat heartened as I carried them home: choice for women, concern with personal life for men. It could bode well for us all, I thought. But I was wrong.
First, the good news. On the most superficial level, I have to say all these magazines, even the old standbys like McCall's and Redbook, have been profoundly affected by the women's movement. Articles present both sides of the abortion issue, give guidelines for avoiding date rape and obtaining credit, laud the achievements of women (always famous ones) in nontraditional careers. On occasion, they even profile progressive social activists and projects.
So there is no question that feminism has made itself felt in these pages, as it has in all our lives. To that extent, the women's magazines are different from--and better than--their 1950s prototypes.
Nonetheless, as I sank deeper and deeper into the world of female magazines, with their quizzes and tips and how-to guides for doing everything under the sun for everyone you know and still looking great, my spirits sank. And when I turned to the men's magazines, I was ready for the barricades.
First, the ladies: When you get past the superficial talk of success and independence, you soon see that these magazines--from saucy Sassy for teens to elegant, overtly feminist Lear's for the over-forty set--are navigating a female world much like the one my mother groomed me for. Only more strenuous and confusing.
The concern for appearance--fashion, fitness, cosmetics, weight and age control--is paramount. But, to be fair, it is now a major focus of men's magazines, too. And it isn't only magazines, of course, that tout and terrorize us about the need to look gorgeous and young and to dress smashingly for all occasions. That's pretty much the message in every form of media today.
It's when you get to the activities and interests of the two sexes that things get surprising and spooky. Not one magazine I bought expressed any but the most rhetorical support for gender equity. Not a single men's magazine had an article on cooking, child care, or relationship maintenance--at least in the sense that most women understand the concept--while the women's magazines devote only a small percentage of space to much else, besides appearance.
Sassy is the best of the lot. Aimed at teenagers, it is cool, hip, and irreverent about established values and norms, in a feminized, MTV-ish way. It publishes more pieces about poor and minority girls and lifestyles than the others, and is slyly subversive in its attitude toward boyfriends. And it's the only magazine with no recipes or decorating tips. But then, it is aimed at young women with no family or work responsibilities--an audience not yet sunk into the abyss of modern womanhood. And it does little to prepare its readers for what's to come.
Its iconoclastic race and class consciousness is therefore a bit deceiving. For these young women will no sooner hit the job and marriage markets than they will find--in Glamour and Elle and, yes, in Married Woman--that the adult world is a lot less cool and free-wheeling.
Nor is all of Sassy quite so jauntily independent and progressive. Even here you find an intense concern with managing relationships and boys, and a sad obsession with raising one's self-esteem--something boys never dream of worrying about, at least in print. Are You a User? and How Good A Friend Are You? are typical titles. Sassy publishes touching poetry written by readers in which the major concern seems to be loneliness and self-doubt.
It features columns, written by boys and girls, which offer advice about sex and dating from a decidedly humanist, if not overtly feminist, slant. DEAR Boy is written by a sensitive young black male who gives excellent advice to troubled girls about such issues as interracial dating: "Don't give up the boy. Try to explain to your parents that racism is wrong." And it provides clever psychological profiles of typically obnoxious male types which--cute as they may be--should be avoided. The Tormented Boy, for example, is traced from James Dean to Luke Perry and sympathetically analyzed. "These guys are scared to death of girls underneath it all," says the writer. While you should be sympathetic to them, you should, she wisely advises, never fall for their games.
"Girls are so nice," you feel as you read. The girl-world, like the Care Bear world, is a nice place to live, a place where sensitivity, compassion, and tolerance seem to thrive. The trouble is that this is not the world in which the boys live. Not by a long shot.
This gender polarization becomes more apparent as you look at the magazines geared to older and older women: As the teen years recede and the nagging need for money and the desire for children and stability kick in, the magazines become gradually more obsessive, even hysterical, about the difficulties of dealing with men, staying solvent, and staying gorgeous into your fifties (whew!). From Glamour to Married Woman to Ladies' Home Journal to Vogue to Working Mother, the concern with keeping it all together in a world of unreliable men and job markets grows ever more strident.
Articles on how to tell if your relationship will last, if your guy is cheating--or is bisexual, or is emotionally unavailable, or is domineering and potentially violent, and so on--fill these magazines. So do articles about how to understand male selfishness and immaturity (my terms, by the way). Why Husbands Hate Sundays, for example, gives advice on organizing your life around his male quirks. So do dozens of others I read--why men don't like shopping, cooking, your friends, your parents, your way of arguing--and how to adjust to it, or manipulate your way around it.
Love Means Never Having to Say |I Told You So' is a typical title in the women's magazines I read. Nothing like it ever came up in the men's magazines. For that matter, "love" itself looks to be a "four-letter word" to most of the guys. (Psychology, it seems, is woman's work, except. of course, for male therapists with posh offices.)
As for the parenting years, don't even ask. Women are still being steered to the new books and theories, still being told how to socialize kids and negotiate their conflicts and concerns. Men--at least in the emotional fantasy worlds they inhabit when they browse through Esquire while watching the Super Bowl--don't have children, cook, clean, make lists of household chores, learn to like your friends or parents, worry about their self-esteem, or do any of the other things the women's magazines go on and on about.
There are a few magazines--New Woman, Lear's, and, interestingly, the more upscale fashion magazines like Mirabella and Vogue--which present at least a mix of articles, some of which offer alternatives to traditional, man-centered lifestyles. But these magazines are obviously geared to women of independent means.
Feminist therapist Harriet Lerner writes an excellent column for New Woman in which she suggests, for example, that women cultivate a range of woman friends and make such relationships central to their lives. That this sort of thing should stand out as radical in 1994, however, is one of the things that depressed me. The often-excellent articles--also in New Woman--touting single motherhood by choice, or debunking the "must-have-a-man" syndrome, were so remarkable as to be the exceptions that proved the rule.
But even these more enlightened magazines actually lean decidedly in the other direction--toward how to get and keep a man, how to size him up before you take him, and, if you make a mistake, how to adjust to your sorry circumstances. Lear's--supposedly a feminist book--gives lessons in handling Men Who Can't Shop. And Mirabella, for which many well-known feminists write excellent stuff, definitely stresses money and men--preferably both--as paramount, the better to buy all those pricey designet outfits on the fashion pages. A recent piece on computer magnate Bill Gates, for example, focused exclusively on the woman who "finally caught him" and how she did it.
As I read these magazines, I was conflicted. All of this managing of relationships, organizing of complex lives, and creating a warm and loving home environment for those with whom we live is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. The problem is with the assumption that it is women--and women alone--who should be dealing with it all.
So what are the men's magazines talking about? And what is their take on equality of the sexes?
Luckily for me, my little research project was done during February--Valentine month--so both Esquire and GQ had special issues devoted to women and relationships (or what passes for them in Boy-Town). Ah, Women, sighed GQ on its cover--which featured a dishy photo of Geena Davis in a largely unbuttoned shirt, touting an article called Geena on Top.
"What do they want? What do they want from us?" GQ asked. "And why are they so damned angry?" That pretty much typifies the spirit in which the men's magazines are approaching the challenges of the women's movement.
Esquire's cover featured a nude and nubile Drew Barrymore, The Twentieth Century Fox, and offered a twenty-two-page special supplement on women, headed by a lengthy piece on THE NEW |Do Me' Feminism. It also featured a poll in which a thousand women aged eighteen to twenty-five answered such questions as "Are you more sophisticated sexually than your father?" and "Who would be sexier to men: Diane Sawyer or Connie Chung?"
The women overwhelmingly guessed it would be Diane while the group of men polled chose Connie, and that hints at the kind of trouble we are in for, even in this male-defined area of concern. If men don't know what women want, women are even less in touch with male desires, even those women who willingly answer such dumb questions for magazines.
The emphasis on sex in the poll is far from atypical in these magazines. There really isn't much else except sports, celebrity profiles of men (Stallone and Eastwood), and advice on consumerism ("I'm buying my girl an engagement ring. How do I know if the diamond is good?").
And, while feminism is everywhere present between and behind the lines, it is in a context of rage and fear, not compassion and support. "What do these babes want from us?" is the dominant tone. That and "Why don't they just lay back and enjoy it for a change instead of yap-yap-yap-ping about feelings and commitment?"
What about male efforts to understand and adapt to feminism--as their female counterparts at the women's magazines work so diligently to adapt to the socialized needs and desires of men? Forget it.
"What I wouldn't give to be a black lesbian with a pierced navel," comments one writer as he mulls the challenge of the new sexual arena. This is the perspective most of these articles take on feminism as men try to figure out, "What am I missing out on here sexually and how can I finagle my way into getting some of it?"
After "lesbian envy"--and what would Freud make of that?--the most common response to feminism seems to be an irritation which surpasses reason about any attempt on the part of women to communicate about sexual relationships. In a critique of the new Antioch College code for sexual behavior (in which verbal permission must be given before sex acts occur), the author expresses exasperation that the code means, "You have to ask permission to cop a feel."
It is not so much the sentiment but the language that reveals the depths of gender trouble. What is called "copping a feel" in GQ is likely to be described as "a romantic embrace" in Married Woman or Glamour. And therein lies a tale. A tale of two worlds. two imaginative universes, two realms of experience of desire and fulfillment as different from each other emotionally and morally as imaginable.
As for the male treatment of the women's movement, per se, you don't want to know. It is difficult to describe the confused and finally sick feeling I got reading the piece on |Do Me' Feminism, wherein a wildly mixed bag of prominent women writers--ranging from Bell Hooks and Susie Bright to Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia--declare themselves to be "pro-sex" and "pro-men" to the wild cheers of the editors.
Many of these women represent political and sexual beliefs at odds with--indeed radically opposed to--those of the editors, a fact the editors conveniently ignored as they edited the words of the women. and posed and identified them all, in a way which leads one to believe that the women were indeed talking about the same issues and writing from the same perspective: "We love men, we love sex, we hate traditional, puritanical, fuddy-duddy old feminists."
The quotation from Bell Hooks was the most outrageous. "We need a versatile dick who ... can negotiate rough sex on Monday, eating pussy on Tuesday, and cuddling on Wednesday," she says in an excerpt from her work. No doubt it fueled the fantasies of a lot of men--men who would not understand a word Hooks said if they actually met her.
Next to Hooks is an article by Katie Roiphe warning (yet again) of the dangers of "rape-crisis feminism" and its unwarranted hysteria over male sexual aggression which, she is here to tell you, doesn't exist at Princeton. Get real, girls, says Katie (above a sultry photo of her dressed in black). Feminism solved all those problems for us and now it's time for women to grow up, stop complaining, and start enjoying sex.
Roiphe is followed by Rene Denenfeld, author of The New Victorians: Why Young Women Are Abandoning Feminism. Same reasons: no good sex. And she is followed by Bright, again sexily posed, and identified as a "sex guru."
As an admirer of both Hooks and Bright, and as a supporter of many of their ideas about women and sexuality, I am not criticizing their words or their appearance in this magazine. It is not their fault that the editors of Esquire chose to distort and misrepresent the meaning of their ideas by placing them--out of context--in this setting, surrounded by such ultimately opposing ideas and agendas.
Hooks and Bright are speaking from a left-feminist perspective which assumes, automatically, that sex and gender issues are socially and politically constructed and negotiated. They are calling for a kind of sexual climate in which women will be free and safe to control their own sexuality and act upon their own desires.
They do not--who but Roiphe and Paglia do?--assume that sexual violence and force are no longer problems for women because feminism has eliminated them. (Any woman who does assume that, by the way, would do well to read these magazines--and start bolting her doors and carrying Mace.)
These guys--the Beavis and Butt-heads of journalism--couldn't possibly get such complex, politicized ideas about sexuality as Hooks and Bright discuss. It's all "Wham, bam, what's next, ma'am?" to them. And they are sorely uninterested in what the woman in question might have in mind when she provides her services. All that matters is that she should "like sex" and "like men," that she should be "hot" and "like it rough," that she should have no demands except "do me." That's the only "new feminism" they are willing to consider.
The juvenile tone and range of these magazines, and their unitary focus on a single aspect of gender relations--the sexual--angered and depressed me. To the teenagers in Sassy, these guys would be psychologized and deconstructed and sympathized with: "How come guys are so hung up on sex?" they might muse. Or "How come they are so scared of their feelings that they must reduce women to objects of conquest?" And the sweet young man who writes the advice column would no doubt suggest ways to "rehabilitate" these slobs--and how to know when to cut and run when the job is clearly impossible.
But this is what women have always been doing, reading about, adjusting themselves to. And men have always been stuck in their own separate worlds where gender relations consist of being serviced by women, from womb to bedroom to tomb, so that they can get on with the important work of life.
If I thought that things had changed because of feminism, I came to realize, from these magazines, that the changes have been slower and more partial than I imagined.
Elayne Rapping, author of "Media-tions: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars," appears in this space six times a year.
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|Title Annotation:||Culture; women's and men's periodicals|
|Date:||May 1, 1994|
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