Why are women’s magazines still so sexist?

I just watched a trailer for a great-looking new documentary called Miss Representation. Its premise, from the film’s website, is that “American youth are being sold the concept that women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality. It’s time to break that cycle of mistruths.” Here’s the trailer:

A very worthy topic. I actually watched an extended 8-minute trailer, which you can find on Facebook. In that video, the film expresses a theory of change based on getting more women into positions of power in politics, corporations and media. From the film’s website:

While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have an eating disorder.

Though it’s not plainly stated anywhere, the website and trailer imply that if more women were in positions of power, the despairing treatment of women in media and advertising would improve. This, on the face of it, seems like a rationale approach to the problem.

I can’t speak broadly to the issue, but whenever this solution is presented, I think of women’s magazines. Specifically, I think of magazines apparently culpable in the objectification of women–Cosmopolitan, Glamour and their sundry sisters.

These magazines have been staffed and run by women for decades. Glamour has had a female editor since its inception in 1939.

If these magazines are produced by women, then why do we regularly point to them as a source of the message that “women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality”? Here are the possibilities I can think of:

  • I’m wrong about how deplorable these magazines are. This seems unlikely–my own little experiment indicated that Cosmo was very concerned with sex, men and being naughty.
  • Despite all the women on the masthead, the tone and content of these magazines are driven by the men who own the magazines at Condé Nast and Hearst.
  • Sex sells, and in a competitive landscape, women are as likely as men to race to the bottom.
  • We’ll require many women leaders in many different fields and vocations before progress can be made on this culture of objectification and sexism.
  • Other reasons I haven’t thought of.
  • Now, obviously, achieving gender equity in positions of power is essential for a healthy society. There are many, many reasons for why we need more female politicians and executives. And Miss Representation seems like a very worthy film.

    However, the ongoing popularity of Cosmopolitan, written by and for women, prevents me from completely buying the “more women in power” leads to “less emphasis on girls and womens’ youth, beauty and sexuality” thesis.

    What do you think?

    A Footnote on the 3%

    The trailer also used the statistic I quoted above, about only 3% of women being in “clout positions” in media. That seemed shockingly low, so I wanted to learn more about it. The Miss Representation site provided no source for this quote. I did some searching, and determined that it came from a 2003 report entitled “The Glass Ceiling Persists”. The report defines “clout positions” as “clout titles as those positions that ‘wield the most corporate influence and policy making power.’ These titles include: Chairman, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Vice Chairman, President, Chief Operating Officer (COO), Senior Executive Vice President, and Executive Vice President.”

    The report examined three advertising companies, 11 entertainment firms and 18 publishing companies. So, that seems hardly like a definitive analysis of the media industry. It’s a dubious statistic at best.

    It’s also worth noting that the average age of a new CEO in 2009 was 53, while the average age of any CEO according to a couple of sources is about 57. Considering it’s a 2003 study, that means 2003-era CEOs were entering the workforce in the late sixties and early seventies. At that time, there were fewer women in the workforce, and fewer of them expected to become a CEO.

    My point? It’s a lousy stat, and there are definitely better, equally shocking ones available. Also, we’re probably a generation away from seeing anything close to parity in these “clout positions”. On top of all the other battles women have fought, it just takes a long time to make a CEO.


  1. They’re sexist (your word, not mine) because women choose to buy them that way (I’ve never seen a man buy those magazines).

    More women in power is not going to change that. There really aren’t a lot of positions of power and making them 50/50 men/women isn’t going to bring an avalanche of women into the upper echelons of corporate/government power.

    Besides … even if they do get there … what do we know about the magazines those women purchased on their way up the ladder? They might very well have been purchasing them anyway.

  2. Two things:
    Take a look at this: http://www.allwomeninmedia.org/

    The stat on eating disorders is wildly inaccurate. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, the incidence of eating disorders among Canadians is 1.5%. Even if this is off by an order of magnitude, it’s nowhere near the stat in the doc.

    Finally, a non-statistical observation from the other side of the demographic targeted by ladymags: when you are young and impressionable and worried about what people think, you look for guidance where you can. This is as true for young men as young women: otherwise, men would still have chest hair.

  3. On the positive side, I think we’ve seen a lot of progress in women’s magazines from 10 years ago to now. There seems to be a wider variety of articles and models on the covers.

    Although I do think women’s magazines perpetrate a specific beauty ideal, I think men’s magazines do exactly the same.

    On a completely random note, as a women (and a working woman manager at that), I actually like the traditional roles in society and in my relationship don’t have any problem fitting in with those 🙂

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