Home > opinion > online-views > Why do women crib about women’s magazines?

I have been intrigued by the relative peace and quiet with which the news that Condé Nast is bringing GQ to India has been received. There’s been some murmuring within the industry about how the title is certain to do well given that there’s nothing of any calibre in the men’s magazine segment of the market at a time when ad spends are growing. But that’s about it.

Gender bender: Women’s mags caricature men as buffoons to be won over by sex. Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint; Oxford Bookstore, New Delhi

Consider now, how different the reaction would have been if the launch of a women’s magazine had been announced. Years and years ago, when Cosmopolitan was launched in India, many strong, successful women of my acquaintance puckered up and made disparaging remarks about the editorial content of Cosmo. “Who wants a magazine full of articles about 50 ways to reach orgasm?" Or “It’s just going to appeal to every insecure girl who thinks that the way to get ahead is to make herself attractive to men". Or even, when the masks of political correctness had dropped: “It’s only a mag for secretaries, really."

For many women — and not just hard core feminists — the idea of a women’s magazine is, in itself, offensive. Why do women need magazines of their own? Aren’t they good enough to read men’s magazines? How dare some publisher think women should be ghetto-ized in this way? And so on.

They make exceptions for so-called fashion magazines. At present, India has three good fashion magazines (Vogue, Elle and Verve), all of which are roughly on par (though Elle is probably the strongest editorially). Even those who oppose women’s mags have grudgingly accepted them on the grounds that magazines about fashion are not really meant only for women (oh yeah? Why then is there something called Men’s Vogue?).

But mags meant specially for women! Oh no, never!

So, why don’t men object? I can’t think of any man who regards men’s magazines as conspiracies aimed at ghetto-izing them. Even the objections to Playboy come from women. No man ever says of Playboy: “it is a sick, cynical magazine that treats us as overgrown adolescents who are ruled solely by our hormones..." We take the Hefnerian assumption that some of us like looking at pictures of naked women and reading dirty jokes at face value. The worst we ever say about Playboy is that it now seems a dated, faded relic of a more repressed age (and even in those days, we bought it only for the interview…).

Feminists would argue, of course, that both Playboy and Cosmo are the same. Both magazines are dedicated to the assumption that the true test of womanhood is the ability to have pleasurable sex with a man. Of course, men don’t object to Playboy! It treats us as masters of the universe, as gods who exist only to be pleasured by women. Cosmo, they would say, tells the women how to pleasure us.

I’m not sure I buy the argument. From what I’ve seen of Cosmo these days (and you understand that I’m not a regular reader, of course), it focuses more on teaching women how to pleasure themselves and get ahead. And the era of the Playboy/Penthouse kind of men’s magazine is over. Even the lad’s mags in England (Loaded, etc.) are on the skids. Men don’t buy magazines for the sex content (god knows, in the era of the Internet, you don’t need mags for that sort of thing).

And besides, I think the sexism works both ways. If the men’s magazines encourage us to treat women as sex objects, then the women’s magazines also caricature men by treating us as buffoons who can be won over with a new haircut or a good night in the sack.

But yes, there are differences between men’s and women’s magazines. The basic difference was summed up by Nora Ephron way back in 1970, in her famous Esquire (a men’s magazine, natch!) profile of Helen Gurley Brown (who then edited Cosmopolitan): “The Playboy man has no problems. The Cosmopolitan girl has thousands. She has menstrual cramps, pimples, budget squeeze, hateful room-mates. She cannot meet a man. She cannot think of what to say when she meets one. She doesn’t know how to take off her clothes to get into bed with him..." Nearly four decades on, little has changed. The men’s magazines celebrate manhood. The women’s magazines offer up ways of surviving womanhood.

And, strangely enough, women seem to prefer it that way. As Ephron wrote in that same profile: “I read Cosmopolitan every month. I see it lying on the news stands and I’m suckered in. How to Increase the Size of Your Bust, the cover line says. Or Thirteen New Ways To Feminine Satisfaction… Buy a padded bra, the article on bustlines tells me. Fake it, the article on orgasm says. And I should be furious. But I’m not. Not at all. How can you be angry at someone who’s got your number?"

Indeed you learn more about women from women’s magazines then you do about men from men’s magazines. The men’s mags focus on the usual stuff: fashion, sport, columns by opinionated morons, the odd celebrity interview, etc. But the women’s mags focus on the concerns, fears and ambitions of their readers. They glorify female success in a peculiar despite-being-a-woman sort of way. Nearly everybody who is profiled in a men’s magazine could be profiled in any magazine. But many of the women profiled in women’s mags are profiled because they are women. Their success may not be enough to take them to the top of their professions and often their special qualities may lie in doing what men are expected to do (“despite being a woman, she fought an intruder," “despite being a woman, she covered a war"). But that’s enough to make other women want to read about them.

So, should women complain so much about women’s mags? I don’t think so.

Most men I know don’t bother with men’s magazines. But women’s mags? Now, those are perfectly targeted to their readership. They may not always conform to feminist mythology. But as Ephron, herself no faint-hearted lady, says, they’ve got her number. And the numbers of many of their readers.

Write to Vir at pursuits@livemint.com

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