The importance of magazines like GQ and Esquire to women writers comes in part from the fact that there simply isn't an equivalent among magazines aimed at women. As I was thinking about this, I looked through the American Society of Magazine Editors' database of National Magazine Award nominees and winners. If you count Vanity Fair as a general interest magazine rather than a women's magazine, which I do, a women's magazine hasn't published a nominee for a Feature Writing prize in the last twenty years. Unless the interior design magazine Nest counts, no women's magazine has ever produced a nominee for profile writing in the two categories that have existed to recognize that form. If we count Self, six Public Interest award nominees have come from women's magazines in the last twenty years: two in that magazine, one in Golf for Women, one in Redbook, one in Glamour, one in Family Circle. Between 1991 and 2001, no women's magazine has produced a winner or a nominee in the Reporting category.It's weird and hugely frustrating that women's magazines have made such totally different choices. That's not to say that all women's magazines should be high-end bastions of literary journalism--certainly all men's magazines aren't that way--but certainly we should be able to support one or two publications that tell us about hot accessories and do groundbreaking, beautifully-written reporting. That kind of committment would both make women's publications better, and provide material support for the kind of empowerment places like Marie Claire are ostensibly supposed to supply along with beauty advice. But they just don't do it. And because there isn't a parallel infrastructure for great reporting, profiles, and public service journalism among women's magazines, access to assignments at the high-end men's magazines, and to the amazing editing and resources that come with those assignments, and that produce major awards, is incredibly precious.
I've never understood this. It's worth pointing out that this isn't a question of audience: higher-end men's magazines (like GQ) enjoy a significant female readership. It isn't a question of talent or achievement, given the number of bad-ass women writing in the field. (I'd rather not name-check here, but there are many.) It isn't a question of editors, as most of them at women's magazines tend to reflect the audience. It was as if someone just decided, "Meh, no women want to hear about Abu Gharaib."
My only hunch is this: It's about class.
Men's magazines like GQ and Esquire are not really "men's magazines," so much as they are "Gentleman Magazines." And women's magazines, at least the ones that would normally be candidates for long-form journalism, are not so much "women's magazines" as they ate "Ladies Magazines." The expectation for what one would read in each is likely rooted in notions as old as the very categories they represent.
Thus the "gentleman" is expected to know about politics and the world, hence his "journal" would cover such matters. The cult of Ladyhood includes no such requirement, indeed in many cases it considers politics impolite. The result is that a Ladies Magazine would not be particularly likely to run a hard-hitting profile of, say, Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman. It just isn't very lady-like.
But again, that's just a theory. To truly test it, you'd want to have some understanding of the history of women's magazines. For instance, what was Mademoiselle like circa 1976? I know that the magazine once published literary fiction, but that's about it.
Smarter people than me can take this one on. I've probably been studying the Civil War for too long.
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