My entire girlhood I spent obsessed with magazines, a journey I can map exactly: It started with furtively reading 16 and Bop and Teen Beat at the grocery store, ogling pictures of JTT and Devon Sawa. I had a subscription to American Girl, a magazine for elementary schoolers with advice about dealing with friend drama and instructions for craft projects. I remember one about how to make a tiny model of a barbecue grill. When I was 10, I discovered Twist, a (now long-defunct) alterna-teen mag with cover stars like Fiona Apple. In it I learned about summer jobs, birth control, and how to dress for my body type (I WAS 10). I soon had subscriptions to YM, Teen People, Cosmogirl, and Elle Girl. (RIP one and all.) I remember the 2003 Young Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, where the cover story jokingly began, “Welcome to the launch party for Teen Vanity Fair.” I did not understand the irony and momentarily tried to find out where I could subscribe.
By my midteens I was on to Glamour, Jane, Vogue, and W, which I read cover to cover every month instead of doing my homework. Seeing an issue I had not yet gotten in the mail at the store would send me into such fits of covetousness that sometimes I would make my dad buy it for me, so I eventually had two copies. I reread my magazines and hoarded them, organizing them in a file cabinet that my parents supposedly still have in storage somewhere. I’m honestly afraid to ask about it.
In the hours I was reading my magazines I was fantasizing about making them, too. I have weird little pages in my childhood diaries where I invented fake teen pop stars and interviewed them. They were always dating hot celebrities like Paul Walker. The goal to work at a magazine seemed so natural — do what you love! — and I saw the dream of the magazine job modeled everywhere: in movies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and on TV, where The Hills’ Lauren Conrad got a job as an intern for Teen Vogue. I realize now that magazine jobs are also idealized by magazines themselves: Staffers were often the guinea pigs in their own stories, where they tried out fashion trends or weird beauty treatments or sex positions.
Vogue, especially, would feature pictures of their tan and classy editors who were learning to invest in art or work the season’s new skirt length into their wardrobes. The July 2017 issue of Vogue contains an article about a writer trying out pantsuits, wearing a pink Adam Lippes suit “to supper at Le Coucou” and a tartan suit by Racil “for a day at the races with friends.” It is common knowledge that the entire luxury industry is buoyed by the concept of aspiration, so selling a sophisticated lifestyle might mean promoting the idea of making a magazine as the chicest work imaginable.
For the adult reading the pantsuit article, there might be the question of how the writer can afford to wear three different designer suits, each costing a few thousand dollars, in one week. (I never had this question as a child.) In most depictions of magazine work, there is an emphasis on perks and freebies, editors’ clothing allowances, and an overflowing editorial fashion closet. There is less emphasis on the independent wealth and breeding of some in the magazine world, although Cat Marnell, in her magazine and addiction memoir (also a memoir about magazine addiction), How to Murder Your Life, admits that her parents paid her rent when she was only making $26,000 as a writer at Lucky.
How to Murder Your Life makes some efforts to separate magazine work from its fictional depictions. Marnell explains how she got a magazine-worthy wardrobe by shopping at thrift stores and consignment shops and became an expert in beauty and makeup by trying copious free samples. She goes on glamorous free trips with brands, works constantly, and makes almost no money. But even as she deflates myths about the magazine industry, she clings to them, since the prestige attached to her profession (“I’m an editor at Condé Nast,” she tells everyone who will listen, in rehabs and mental hospitals) is the chief indicator that she is not a failure.
When she was hired as one of the founding editors at the online magazine xoJane, where she was given free rein to create her own style of wacky and wacked-out beauty content (“Cat Marnell Snorts Bath Salts at Work,” reads one memorable headline), she was resentful of the permissive atmosphere of online publishing — the very atmosphere that permitted her to become the writer she is. “I wasn’t happy with the site,” she writes. “It was nothing like a magazine! Where were the unattainable physical ideals? Where were the aspirational fantasies?” One of the chief myths that How to Murder Your Life deflates is the dragon-lady stereotype of magazine editors: The editors whom Marnell works with are all kind, smart, cool, and nurturing, giving her, as she descended ever deeper in her addiction, ever more chances to make things right.
But there is some weird mother-longing in both of these depictions of the editor: Marnell disdained online publishing because she saw it as about quantity over quality, whereas legendary magazine editors are famous primarily for saying no, something the excessive Marnell relied on. In the documentary The September Issue, which depicts the process of an issue of Vogue going to print, the magazine’s legendary editor-in-chief Anna Wintour is shown as the archetypal distant mother, getting off on being withholding like Lucille Bluth, mercilessly vetoing outfits, removing photographs from fashion spreads, and nixing stories altogether.
In The September Issue and its fictional counterpart, The Devil Wears Prada, magazines are shown as serious business for editors but not for writers. The September Issue features a scene where Anna Wintour meets with executives from department stores and discusses how to get designers to deliver their inventory on time. The Devil Wears Prada, the most famous and cartoonish depiction of magazine work in recent memory, has an iconic scene where Miranda Priestly, Meryl Streep’s Wintour homage, explains to her doubtful assistant Andy Sachs how magazines direct the trends of the clothing market from runways to bargain bins. Nevertheless, a job at Runway magazine is hardly Andy’s dream. It is a dreary gauntlet of nonstop availability, impossible errands, diets, and constricting clothing, a sort of female-gender-expectation Olympics, until Andy can use the cachet she earns there to become a serious journalist at a paper resembling The Village Voice.
Many forget that the also-ran 2003 romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days has the same premise: Kate Hudson’s character Andie [!] has a degree in journalism in Columbia but has landed a job at a magazine as their “how-to girl.” She longs to write articles like the one she shows her editor called “How to Bring Peace to Tajikistan,” but instead has to write puff pieces about how to deter potential suitors.
This view of women’s magazines — and the tyrannical whims of their Cruella de Vil-esque editors — as an alternately frivolous and harrowing rite of passage for serious writers is condescending and simplistic. But it must illuminate something about the way we think about modern womanhood, since some version of this dynamic is in most of the zillion fictional depictions of magazines, from the most light-hearted (13 Going on 30 and Ugly Betty) to the most dark and satirical (Dietland, Absolutely Fabulous, and, lest we forget, The Bell Jar, where a summer job at a magazine sparks Plath’s heroine’s descent into madness). The creators of the new Freeform series The Bold Type, which is based on the inner workings of Cosmopolitan magazine, emphasize the seriousness of magazine work, name-dropping writers with a magazine pedigree in its pilot, including Joan Didion and Meghan Daum. The series will have storylines based on the unexpectedly tough political coverage of women’s magazines in the past year, including Lauren Duca’s viral Teen Vogue editorial, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” and Ivanka Trump’s contentious interview with Cosmo’s Prachi Gupta.
“We always joke that the tagline of the show should be ‘Searching for the right shade of lip gloss to wear while smashing the patriarchy,’” The Bold Type’s showrunner, Sarah Watson, told The Hollywood Reporter. This tagline is perhaps more telling than Watson means it to be. As Julia Carpenter pointed out at The Washington Post, women’s magazines have always been political. But in this way, they walk a strange line: Lip gloss and smashing the patriarchy aren’t necessarily in conflict, except for that most lip glosses are sold by enormous corporations run by men.
Barbara Bourland’s new mystery novel I’ll Eat When I’m Dead takes the lip-gloss-and-patriarchy argument even further, as one of the staffers at the fictional RAGE Fashion Book, Cat Ono, dropped out of her Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago and sees her work in fashion as an extension of her interest in feminist semiotics. She quotes from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing about how “men act and women appear.” She lectures a rude New York City policeman, telling him that women are not “blind narcissists” but instead “self-aware pragmatists.” (This ambivalence guides the tone of the book, which is somewhere between satire and homage: RAGE runs fashion spreads called “Judy and the Technicolor Housecoat” and “’Dotty for It,’ the Sylvia-Plath-in-a-mental-hospital-themed spread.”)
Even in the over-the-top world of the book, where the editors of RAGE use their clout to force humanitarian and environmental production standards for all clothing companies on earth, it’s difficult to know what the end of Ono’s philosophy is. Why is she encouraging women to live pragmatically, squarely within the constricting and unjust paradigm that Berger has identified? Why, indeed, are women so complicit in our own oppression?
What a great question! Sandbagged by other questions about race, class, education, and desire! I will pretend, for now, that that is not my question. I want to know why our culture is so interested in the women’s magazine as workplace, and the answer can most likely be found, once again, in the iconic figure of the editor-in-chief. In the mid-20th century, the editors of women’s magazines, including Diana Vreeland and Helen Gurley Brown, were powerful and creative figures who reimagined what it meant to be a women in the public sphere, wielding influence in publishing, fashion, and every corner of culture. Vreeland, in particular, is probably the dreamiest and most visionary editor ever to work in fashion, creating spreads and layouts for Vogue that were colorful, graphic, simple, and full of movement — that look, in fact, exactly how Vogue’s layouts still look today.
Vreeland famously wrote a column for Harper’s Bazaar before she began at Vogue called “Why Don’t You?” filled with both practical and impossible advice. “Why don’t you,” she asks, “have two pairs of day shoes exactly alike, except that one pair has thin rubber soles for damp days? Any cobbler can put these on.” At another time: “Why don’t you have an elk-hide trunk for the back of your car? Hermes of Paris will make this.”
Vreeland spoke explicitly of creating dreams in Vogue, wanting to transport her reader to a reality where she could order an elk-hide trunk from Hermes. Joan Juliet Buck was editor of Vogue Paris from 1994 to 2001, where she masterminded the transformation of the magazine to a colorful playground for the imagination, overseeing shoots including the one of Thierry Mugler as a centaur with a giant erect penis. As Buck writes in her memoir The Price of Illusion: “Vogue is a potent drug women get lost in. We are making more than magazines, we are making the most addictive substance there is — the dream.”
But the editor is a tragic figure too: As much a trope of the magazine story as the dynamic, seemingly all-powerful editor-in-chief is her ultimate expendability at the hands of the men even higher up. There is an arresting scene the end of The Devil Wears Prada where Andy walks in on a makeup-free Miranda Priestly in her hotel room in Paris Fashion week, her face streaked in tears. She fears she will be fired and replaced by the glamorous editor of Runway’s French edition.
The Price of Illusion begins with a strikingly similar scene, with Condé Nast chairman Jonathan Newhouse sitting Buck down during Paris Fashion Week in 2001 and giving her a piece of paper containing one word: “Cottonwood.” This, bizarrely, was a rehab she was supposed to check herself into, even though she did not drink or do drugs, during a forced “two-month sabbatical” from Vogue. She knew, of course, that she was actually being fired. Before Vogue, Buck was a film critic who had published two novels. “Two thoughts collided and set off a high-pitched whine in my head,” Buck writes of the moment she was fired. “No more Vogue. Back to writing.” So these magazine stories, in the end, are about the precariousness of women in power and the dilemmas of the creative life: do you make something small, for and by yourself, or make something grand, and have it constantly threatened by your collaborators and patrons? It is easy to forget that Diana Vreeland was eventually fired, too.
Women allow ourselves to be sold a dream: that we can work our way up, transform things from the inside, that the beauty we create offsets the ugliness it’s ultimately selling. That there’s a space that’s actually ours. But I can’t say I regret ever aspiring to work at a magazine. As a kid I was moved by YM and CosmoGirl! because they spoke directly to me, understood my interests, answered my questions. As Marnell’s mentor Jean Godfrey June told Into the Gloss, “I just always wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t particularly interested in beauty. What I discovered as I became a writer is that everyone relates to beauty.” I wanted to relate with people too, intimately and as myself: to be a woman, and a writer.