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Fashion, politics and feminism: Women’s magazines find new winning formula

The latest issue of Glamour offers up some of the expected glossy-magazine advice for young women: make-up tips for spring and a fashion spread on bold, colorful looks for work and going out at night.

But the issue also addresses the gender pay gap and activism on gun control, reproductive health and the environment. The cover story, moreover, showcases singer Alicia Keys, radiant in her new sans-makeup look.

And the Keys’ story doesn’t dwell on the Grammy winner’s new album or backstage gossip about “The Voice.” It focuses on how Keys is inspired by Nina Simone and other politically engaged performers to meld her art with her commitment to racial justice and gender equality..

“They totally go together,” she says.

Similarly, you could say seemingly disparate topics — fashion, beauty and political engagement — go together these days in today’s mainstream magazines geared towards teen and young women.

In fact, if you check out recent issues of Glamour, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle or Marie Claire — or better yet, their almost hourly updated websites — you might think you had stumbled onto outlets populated by Slate-ish news and politics junkies.

For a variety of reasons, popular women’s magazines, long associated with makeup and relationship advice, are getting topical and embracing an unapologetic feminist agenda.

One reason, of course, is the contentious 2016 presidential election, which pitted Hillary Clinton, the first woman to head a major political party, against Donald Trump, whom many feminists regard as the ultimate male chauvinist.

But the shift also reflects broader trends in the growing market power of news-savvy millennials, as well as a digital age resurgence of feminism, both as an identity and as a movement, says Marcie Bianco, managing editor at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.

“Thanks to Facebook and social media, women’s magazines quickly realized that including more feminist commentary and analysis was not just ‘on trend’ — it was critical to remaining relevant and to their continued future,” she says.

Glamour Executive Editor Wendy Naugle said her magazine, which reaches 10 million readers in print and 15 million online, wasn’t necessarily doing anything new this election year. The magazine, published since 1939, has always strived to tell its female readers — and of all partisan stripes, she notes — how politics affect their lives, she said.

But she agrees that this “personal is political” approach, advocated by second-wave feminism of the 1970s, took on added urgency this year when many readers became invested in the idea of Clinton shattering the nation’s highest glass ceiling.

“I think the possibility of the first woman president was obviously very important to our readership,” Naugle said. “Maybe that’s why people are noticing (our political coverage) more because they were feeling this election in personal ways.”

This increased coverage in women’s magazines became a hot media topic in December when Teen Vogue published a “scorched-earth” commentary titled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.”

The piece by writer Lauren Duca posited that the president habitually puts forth falsehoods to undermine his critics’ ability to trust their own judgment and hold him accountable. Within days, Luca’s piece was retweeted more than 30,000 times and viewed more than 1.2 million. It also won praise from a variety of personalities, including veteran newsman Dan Rather.

On his Facebook page, Rather described Teen Vogue, launched in 2004 as an offshoot of Conde Nast powerhouse Vogue, as one of journalism’s “surprising new sources of serious reporting.”

The piece garnered more readers than the magazine’s second-most read post of the year: “How to Apply Glitter Nail Polish the Right Way.” In an interview with NPR, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth and digital editorial director Phillip Picardi said they came into their current jobs in the past year with the mandate to boost circulation. Welteroth, like most editors, is tight-lipped about specific editorial objectives, but the magazine revealed their traffic had increased 208 percent in the previous 18 months to hit close to 10 million unique viewers in November.

“I think Teen Vogue did an incredible job in that beauty and fashion space for young women,” Welteroth told NPR. “But I think we all kind of came around the table and said, we have to mean more to our girls. Why are we here today?”

In many ways, Teen Vogue and other outlets are simply doing what women’s magazines have always done best: identify trends and disseminate them to readers.

This new emphasis on serious news reporting actually marks a return to women’s magazines’ traditional purpose, says Bianco. “Feminist activists have always turned to media — first print and, now, digital— to cultivate their voices, share their opinions, and foster feminist dialogue and community across the nation,” she says.

This tradition goes back to the late 1860s when suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton published “The Revolution.” The newspaper covered a variety of topics, including fashion and relationships, but in a combative way: criticizing women’s long, heavy dresses or the practice of women promising to “obey” during marriage ceremonies.

Fast forward to the early 1960s when magazines started to appeal to young women trying to move out of traditional homemaker roles. The now-defunct Mademoiselle published excerpts of “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s landmark book repudiating those roles. Two years later, Helen Gurley Brown took control of Cosmopolitan and told her single, career-focused readers to own their sexuality. Then in 1972, investigative journalist Gloria Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine, with the female-led publication producing some of the first major stories about back-alley abortions, domestic violence and sexual harassment.

But women’s magazines shrunk from hard-hitting coverage following the 1982 failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, Bianco said. Similarly, the term feminism became the “f-word” during the Reagan years and into the 1990s. Conservative voices asserted control over the discourse around women’s issues — the societal “Backlash” described by Susan Faludi in her acclaimed 1991 book.

Aside from Ms., women’s magazines largely stayed away from politics. Only publications geared to specific communities, such as Essence, a lifestyle magazine for African-American women, kept up serious commentary, Bianco said. If mainstream publications delved into pro-women topics, it was with a pop-culture, “girl power” approach that Andi Zeisler, co-founder of the formerly Oakland-based Bitch Media, labeled “marketplace feminism.”

In the digital age, mainstream print publications struggled, but scrappy online publications like Jezebel, Bustle and xoJane flourished by reviving feminist commentary with blog-like personal takes around social issues. These sites and newer ones, like Broadly, Refinery20 or the Skimm, discovered that their female millennial readers were avid news consumers.

The 2015 report, “Media Insight Project,” found that 69 percent of the some 1,000 18- to 34-year-old adults surveyed read the news daily, almost exclusively via online sources. Sixty-five percent said keeping up with news and world events ranked as high for online activity as researching hobbies, and ahead of shopping, researching restaurants and entertainment, and playing games.

The report also noted that female millennials — college educated, employed and single — were especially keen on following social issues, health care and education. The 2016 election cycle pushed politics and feminism front and center into their concerns, Bianco and others say.

With all these factors, it has made “literal cents” for mainstream magazines to take stock of their future, Bianco said. To that end, women’s magazines have begun to include prominent feminist voices in both their print and digital mastheads, she said.

For example, Cosmopolitan was eager to prove it was about more than “fashion and shopping and lipstick,” as editor in chief Joanna Coles said to the Columbia Journalism Review. It brought in feminist writers like Jill Filopovic and Prachi Gupta. The latter, now a senior writer for Jezebel, made news when she was one of the first journalists to challenge Ivanka Trump on the idea that her father’s proposed parental leave policy was boon to regular families.

“This change within mastheads reflects a profound cultural shift in America that we have not seen since the 1960s,” Bianco said.

But where this shift leads remains to be seen, especially in a post-Women’s March era. Magazines will continue to try and work out the best way to stay in business. In November, Teen Vogue announced it was reducing its number of print issues from nine to four a year, but beefing up its digital content, including its political coverage.

Glamour will continue to publish stories on social issues, politics and activism because it knows readers want those stories, Naugle said. “Based on what we’re hearing from women,” she said, “so many people are organizing and don’t want these issues to fall by the wayside.”

Source: The Mercury News