Monday, February 8, 2010

Miniature Tales of Resistance

I picked up The Impostor's Daughter by Laurie Sandell, a graphic memoir (as in, memoir with pictures, not as in memoir with heaving bosoms, though there was some of that too) about how she dealt when she realized that her larger-than-life father was a fraud, in so many senses of the word. It was a good read overall, but its relevance to this blog lies in the depiction of a conversation the author had with, of all people, Ashley Judd.

Laurie (a writer for a women's magazine) goes to Ashley's mansion in rural Tennessee in order to interview her about her beauty routine, i.e. what makeup companies she's willing to shill for.

Laurie: So, what's your biggest beauty secret?
Ashley: Serenity.
Laurie: OK, um, what's one beauty product you never leave the house without?
Ashley: My higher power.
Laurie: ...OK, so what would be your go-to beauty tip?
Ashley: Go to rehab for depression.

Leaving aside any question of the liberties Sandell took with the conversation to make it work in her 2"x4" colored panels, it bespeaks one of the paradoxes of women's magazines, which is that they are forced to have content that nobody cares about besides beauty companies. Ashley Judd has largely made a living off of being beautiful (she now has her own makeup line), so I'm doubting that her answers had anything to do with giving the beauty industry the middle finger. Rather, I'm guessing that, just like many a hapless women's magazine editor, she had more interesting things on her mind--maybe including resistance to the magazine industry, which isn't always kind to celebrities.

It got me thinking of those small beats of resistance I've seen in my time at women's magazines, the urges that never manage to make it into the pages.

*A battle between the photo department and an editor when the former wanted to airbrush the skin of a woman who had been severely disfigured in a car crash and had had skin grafts over nearly 80% of her body. The story was about being comfortable in your skin.

*A health editor trying to write about a little-covered eating disorder that is more fatal but less "glamorous" than anorexia and bulimia (ED-NOS, eating disorder-not otherwise specified) and being told by one of her higher-ups that because nobody knew about it, they shouldn't write about it.

*A beauty writer saying "Can't we just tell them to use soap and water?" in a fit of exasperation when the product she was supposed to be pushing cost over $40 and didn't do squat. (The question, we both knew, was rhetorical in that world.)

*Staff members protesting when they were told--not asked--to be photographed to be candidates for "staff makeovers," which showed up in the magazine pages. "I'm fine with the way I dress," said a staffer who lived in sweaters, jeans, and sneakers. "And I don't want millions of women judging me for it."

*A writer who was crushed, and furious, when her editor said that the subjects she had picked for a story about inspirational life turnarounds weren't "relatable" to the reader; she knew it was a superficially kind way of saying "not pretty enough." (I was once featured in a glossy mag, but was only photographed for it after the designer of the page had come by to snap a Polaroid of me to prove to the editor that I was "pretty enough" to be pictured. The article in question? I'd won the staff brownie contest.)

I'm not trying to make excuses for women's magazines; I'm trying to list ways in which I've seen that the very people responsible for stuff I consider damaging are on the right side. (You know, my side.) I stopped blaming the individuals years ago--not just to protect my sanity (by working at these magazines, I'm a part of it too, after all), but because I saw daily, firsthand proof of what Gloria Steinem was writing about in the essay from which this blog takes its name. The machine of women's magazines will never change. The best we can do is move on.

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