Ms.--A New Cosmo?
THE ad is sultry, elegant, shot in black and white. A tuxedo-clad man stares appreciatively at the long, thin legs of his companion. The woman, with demure pearls around her neck, has an empty smile on her face and very high heels on her feet. The ad, entitled "Reflections on Lindsay," is for Hanes pantyhose.
"She claims to read Rudolph Valention's lips. Won't talk to answering machines. And what legs...Lindsay's legs," the ad reads.
There are many magazine advertisements like it--the sexy woman smoking, the sexy woman buying a car, the sexy woman shaving her legs. Cosmetics, diet aids, jewelry, underwear--all commercial products geared towards a women's audience are represented in the glossy 98-page magazine. And they portray an image of women at once career-oriented and feminine, with flawless bodies and immaculate grooming to reinforce the "correct" female look upon which companies rely to sell products to women.
The magazine in which this ad ran must be Cosmopolitan or Glamour or even Better Homes and Garden--one of the mass circulation women's magazines that has survived the women's movement and settled comfortably in this post-feminist age. The magazines which speak to notion that women work but secretly worry more about sex, having babies and getting married than about the presidential election and the trade deficit. The magazines that feature articles on "10 Ways to Get and Keep a Man" or "My Garden, My Hobby." One would assume that harmless articles like that would appear in the magazine that carried such an ad as "Reflections on Lindsay."
BUT no--Hanes targeted the new Ms. magazine to sell the Lindsay ad. That's right, the mouthpiece of the movement, Gloria Steinem's brainchild, now sells silky pantyhose and sexual stereotypes along with consciousness-raising and feminist politics.
And the story of Ms.'s decline from feminist orthodoxy is an unhappy metaphor for the image of women in 1988--it is a story of business and money (or lack thereof), of waning interest in the women's movement and of new symbols that imprison women in much the same way that the "happy housewife" stereotype did in the 1950s.
A year ago, the original owners of Ms.--a non-profit foundation headed by Steinem and other holdovers from the women's movement--sold the magazine to an Australian media group which promptly introduced advertising into the previously uncommercial monthly. And, with the publication of last month's issue, ownership of the magazine changed hands again--this time, two women took over Ms., touting the sale as a victory for women in the publishing business.
IN a lengthy "Editor's Essay" that occupies a prominent place in this September's issue, Editor-in-Chief Anne Summers explains that there is "great news" to report--"Ms. is woman-owned." Women bought the magazine, women financed the sale of the magazine, women lawyers negotiated the sale of the magazine, and of course, women wrote the magazine, she proudly notes.
What she fails to mention is that despite these professional achievements, women are still a long way from being accepted as equals in society. What happened to the much-vaunted Ms. political agenda? To the days when Steinem, using the magazine as her forum, spoke for all women in their fight against discrimination?
Ms. has strayed from the path which its feminist founders envisioned for it. No longer is the magazine an irreverent, politicized bible for the women's movement. Instead, it has become a version of Cosmopolitan--with a pseudo-social conscience.
Advertisements, while perhaps an economic necessity, represented the first, gigantic slip from the prescribed feminist political agenda. Ms. may be owned by women, but companies like Hanes and Revlon control the magazine's future now. And since sex sells, it is unlikely that the businesses behind "Lindsay's legs" will change the content of their advertisements to reflect the editorial interests of the editors.
UNFORTUNATELY, Summers and the others who run Ms. have used the magazine's commercialization as an excuse to shift its coverage--in the wrong direction.
Consider an ad for the publication itself, which appears in the September issue: in it a sleekly dressed Black woman strides down the steps of the Capitol. The ad says that "this year women will elect the President" and promises Ms. readers that they will receive the "inside story" on Washington power politics. The ad argues that because Ms. is now non-profit, it can take partisan political stances that it was precluded from taking during its pre-commercial days.
A fine sentiment, perhaps. But in the pages following this new statement of purpose, articles on gardening and fashion are interspersed with advertisements promoting mascara and exercise machines. So much for politics, which is relegated to a few articles buried in the magazine and to one-liners faintly hearkening back to feminist rhetoric of the past.
SEPTEMBER'S cover story, luridly billed on the front cover as "Bess Myerson: A Woman Undone By Love?," provides what may be the best insight into how the magazine now distorts the original lessons of its feminist foundation. After describing the turbulent events that led former Miss America Myerson to shoplifting, the article goes on to explain how Myerson's problems reflected larger problems with the women's movement.
"As for the Women's Movement, I often think that we may have opened Pandora's box...We forgot that we are different from men; we are other, we have different sensibilities," the article says, in an attempt to explain Myerson's downfall.
Different sensibilities, certainly. But women do not rate gardening and miniskirts as pressing social or political issues today. And advertisements which degrade women, portraying them as sex objects and adhering to stereotypical sales pitches, do not belong in a magazine that purports to espouse feminist politics.
By retreating from the Women's Movement, conceding to the demands of the business world and mistakenly thinking that because "we are everywhere" there is no need to press on, the new, woman-owned Ms. magazine does itself and its readers a disservice.
Perhaps the ad copy-writers for Virginia Slims cigarettes really were lying when they said, "You've come a long way, baby."