The director of a top modelling agency has accused women's magazines of being obsessed with sex. But Hilary Burden, former deputy editor of Cosmopolitan, says they have already been destroyed by the advertisersby Hilary Burden / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
When Marcelle d’Argy Smith left the editorship of Cosmopolitan suddenly this summer, the world of women’s magazines was rocked to its high heels. Her departure stimulated more column inches than that of Andrew Neil’s from the Sunday Times. Cosmo staff reacted to the news as if there had been a death in the family. The embodiment of Cosmopolitan had packed up her soul with her Dorothy Parker wit, and left.
For me, Marcelle’s departure coincided with the culmination of ten years work in women’s magazines. Newspaper journalists have rarely taken women’s magazines seriously. Yet it was once a world to which many intelligent women were attracted because it reflected and respected womanhood. It turned Simone de Beauvoir’s second sex into the first. It was a world with a woman’s lens over life, generated by offices with 90 per cent female staff, where women felt freer to say and wear what they liked without fear of being misunderstood. Being understood was always a given. And if the pay wasn’t enormous, the pleasure certainly was.
In my ten years of work, women’s magazines have built healthier-than-ever circulation figures. But at the same time, they’ve witnessed a profound cultural change. It’s an industry shift personified by the recent changes at Cosmopolitan. While Marcelle d’Argy Smith described her motivation as editor as “finding wonderful writers and mobilising women to take control of their lives,” incoming editor Mandi Norwood told a newspaper she was motivated by “making money, and stacks of it.” It is an unavoidable development, given the new economics of women’s magazines. Editors who aim to do the best by their advertisers as well as their readers are on a fast track to insanity.
Commercialism used to be discreetly commonplace in women’s magazines, where letters to the editor have long been sponsored by pen companies. Now that commercialism has all but taken over, editorial integrity inside women’s magazines is a quaint notion. An industry once peppered with gentle and creative souls who preferred to avoid the grittier journalistic ghetto of Fleet Street, is now dominated by marketeers. Cosmetic advertisers now keep a tally of the number of plugs they get, threatening to take their budget elsewhere if their quota isn’t met. And according to Campaign magazine, the beauty editor of Women’s Journal is to appear in a television commercial promoting a Procter and Gamble shampoo.
Pre-recession, only beauty editors were required to…