Monday, June 24, 2013


Why So Serious?

There’s been a couple-weeks-long conversation simmering, and it all began (at least, most immediately; truly, it began long, long before that) when British quarterly Port magazine decided to put six white, male editors (of GQ, Wired, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, and New York) on its cover. It’s not just the all-male, all-Caucasian cast that was the problem, though. It’s that the cover heralded “A New Golden Age” of print media—an age ostensibly presided over by Port’s chosen six white dudes (Anna Wintour was asked to join, but declined).

Port's cover got all of the takedowns it deserved—read Alyssa Rosenberg at Slate and Ruth Franklin’s great open letter to “a few good magazine editors”—and in The New Republic, Jessica Grose investigated why this “pernicious assumption: that what women’s magazines publish is not as influential or important as what men’s and general interest magazines publish” continues to exist. She turned to ASME chief executive Sid Holt, who explained that “literary journalism is not central to women's magazines' editorial mission—which is one reason these magazines are rarely nominated in these categories.” ELLE’s Robbie Myers followed that (and it’s hard to take that as compliment) with a piece defending women’s magazines' work, and offering her own criticism to men who don’t bother to find out what those publications actually contain. Along the way there have been numerous lists of stories published in women's magazines upheld as deserving their own acclaim for “tackling complex, important topics.”

What have we learned? For one, we now know what Port magazine is. We've also gotten a fair reminder that women are capable of writing and publishing quality work. Of course they are. We even have a reading list or two to enjoy. And we've engaged in a necessary conversation about gender byline equality and credit where credit is due, though this isn't the first of it, and it's not the last of it, either.

Aside from the questions brought up about the way we see and reward male and female-oriented work (and whether we can rightfully expect men to read magazines targeted at women, and vice versa), this has gotten me thinking about the many judgments we place on writing—where they come from, who decides them, and why we see things the way we do. If we tacitly define “serious journalism” as being about men and by men (this has never been said, of course, though if we look at the awards, if we look at history, we can form our own conclusions) and confined to topics that men have traditionally written about, are more frequently assigned to write about, and are even more frequently likely to read (i.e., in men's magazines), “serious” will continue to fall to the male side of things, and those pieces in those magazines will continue to be the stories that are recognized.

"Serious journalism" seems a coded way, intentional or not, of saying "journalism by and for men." But I think what the label “serious journalism” is meant to imply, in spirit, anyway, is not gendered but simply good—demonstrating a high level of quality with regard to writing, reporting, creativity, resonance, and insight. Perhaps it’s a rare piece on nail polish colors that should be considered “serious,” but so it would be with any but the most daring exposé on seersucker suits. And yet, both of those latter pieces could, in fact, be good, and both of those types of pieces certainly appear in women's, and men's, magazines. What that tells me is that we need to expand our definition of “serious journalism." It's not that we should include things that are “frivolous,” necessarily, but we should include things with male and female bents, and even things that are not serious in subject, but serious in terms of the work they entail—the seriousness between the writer and his or her subject, and the reader and the page. "'Serious journalism’ need not be on ‘serious’ topics like rape, war, & death," the writer Amanda Hess recently tweeted. "Long live longform on beauty & boy bands.”

Another thing is, though, we shouldn't have to feel like all writing has to be serious, that serious is the only value in publishing. I do understand the need of women's magazines to defend what they do as such; none of us like being ignored for the writing we produce, whether it’s serious or not. At the same time, why should we hold up this one formerly and still currently male-dominated "ideal" when there’s a lot of amazing stuff out there that doesn’t fit the definition (a definition that’s vague in the first place)?

Long live longform and good work on all sorts of things—stuff that could appear in any sort of quality magazine, or, for that matter, website, whether it’s one that is targeted to a general audience, men, or women. “'Serious journalism’ defies definition, but a publication’s investment in storytelling—the time, money, and pages it devotes to narrative—is measurable," Hess writes further in a piece on Slate. "I’m not privy to the budget breakdowns of these magazines, but it’s not difficult to discern the editorial investment in a story just by reading it. And even the pieces that have been heralded this week as ‘the very best’ of women’s magazines could invest a lot more.”

Investment is a key point. Every editor is tasked with putting forth something that both fits the vision of the publication and also, ideally, will be read by a large number of readers (ever more the case on websites). The problem of “serious journalism” may not, in the end, be something that’s about men and women, but more about the resources and time to truly invest in such a product, especially against the surge in shorter, faster, generally less editorially demanding web content (singularly if not in the conglomerate), and decreased budgets and time for long-form, long-lead pieces. Not that short stuff is all bad; some short writing is very good. But what happens to not only the label but also to the content so described as “serious” when there’s neither the time nor the money for “serious”?

“Serious journalism,” in fact, is likely only a small portion of what the typical reader reads, and it may not even be the thing the typical reader relies on or appreciates the most. It’s not the main thing filling the pages of any magazine, though its existence is clearly important. I confess, too, a certain personal dislike for the phrase "serious journalism" itself, because it so snootily implies that other sorts of writing are not. Imagine if you had a friend whom, when you suggested he or she read something you thought was awesome, said, “I only read serious journalism.” That person would be the worst! Personally, I like all sorts of writing: I like articles about how to do things better, profiles of important people, stories about what face cream I should use, and brave and thoughtful depictions of wartime. I also like cat videos. I know they are not serious journalism. To me the most important thing is the question of quality and purpose, and at the heart of that is, does this piece of entertainment do its job? Of course, a lot of that is up to the reader. But the reader isn’t the one giving the awards.

There’s always going to be room for opinion related to any categorical designation, even or especially one so simple as “bad” or “good,” "serious" or "silly" (there are no magazine awards given for “silly”). But in my imaginary hoped-for future media world, we would write about, edit, and publish whatever we truly care about, for whomever wants to read it, and we would most of all do it well, without the need to call it “serious” or “frivolous,” “male” or “female,” or anything else. That writing would speak for itself, those doling out awards would recognize writers who did what they did the best (regardless of where their work appeared), and readers, regardless of gender, would keep coming back for more, which would be its own award.


Photo via Boston Public Library/flickr.

Jen Doll will be writing about books and other things for The Hairpin. She is a contributor to The Atlantic Wire and has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and other fine media establishments. Her first book is due out in the spring of 2014. 

41 Comments / Post A Comment


GQ? GQ? Are you fucking kidding me literary journalism is central to GQ's editorial mission. GFY, Ports.


Look, there are lots of women's magazines that are garbage, too, don't get me wrong. But just cause it's for people with dicks don't make it journalistic gold.


@RNL While I definitely agree that Port was On Some Bullshit, I also wanna step in and defend GQ as a legitimately high-quality magazine. (Full disclosure: I've worked at GQ & still freelance for them; it was a lady-friendly atmosphere, which I cannot say of AHEM another men's magazine I worked for.) They have a really solid track record of great longform, from David Foster Wallace to John Jeremiah Sullivan to Elizabeth Gilbert in her pre-Eat Pray Love days, and their features are rarely aimed at dudes. (See: this lovely piece on women in the military, whose link doesn't seem to be working at the moment but hopefully will later.) I won't deny that their front of book is a lot of SHAVE GELZ and HOT LADIEZ but the second half of the magazine is like, 90% business, 10% Pitbull profiles.


@brassilsprout The musician or the dog? Because I might be interested in a magazine with regular profiles of pitbulls.


@brassilsprout I was just away for the weekend, perusing my bf's latest GQ, and this was not my takeaway, but I could have missed something. If so, my bad. I was distracted by the naked ladies, weed vodka recipe, and the feature on Drake. On the GQ website, the "news and politics" tab is pretty hidden and pretty thin when clicked.

The article you linked to is amazing, and I'm happy to stand corrected. But I still don't agree that GQ (or really, Vanity Fair for that matter) should a banner-carrier of today's print media. There are plenty of magazines this list did not include (Rolling Stone, anyone?) which have excelled at long-form.



Not sure I agree with dissing Vanity Fair's longform! Or GQs for that matter. Okay, full disclosure: I live with a GQ journalist. And while my roommate and I get in FIERCE battles about the naked ladies, I have found that almost every copy has at least one good, interesting long-read, whether it be an awesome profile or something like that military ladies bit.

But then, so does almost every copy of Vogue. But I bet if a dude picked up vogue they'd just be like wft, ads, ads, fashiony fashion, socialites, this is bullshit - sort of the way I pick up GQ and when not gently steered by my roommate tend to see ladies, booze, cars, tits.

The problem is that its dudes giving most of these awards and accolades. They're attuned to looking past the naked girls and cocktail recipes because they've been reading that all their life, like I can pick up vogue and go straight to a rad profile of Michelle Obama without being seriously distracted by anything else because I know where it is in the magazine and what it will look like and how to flip to it. I don't get bogged down in filler.

Also, on Vanity Fair, it was once called by my favorite prof "People for people embarrassed to be reading People, but with a really good story every two months." It remains one of my favorite mags.

a runner in the garden

@Hammitt Great point. I like to think I'm a pretty media-savvy dude and I'm completely bewildered by fashion mags. You literally have to page past a set of ads thicker than most entire magazines in order to get to a VOGUE table of contents.


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But wait, what is a subtweet?? I am left hanging.


@Emby "subliminal tweet," aka tweeting about someone without @'ing her/him.

I literally JUST found this out last week. Apparently Candy Crush is crowding out all of the other digital knowledge in my mindgrapes.


When I was little i thought a "serious relationship" meant you could only discuss "serious" topics with your partner. Smiling and laughter was not allowed. Can we please expand this definition to include "serious" anything and everything? :)


:) thank you!@y


For interested 'pinners, a number of stories that embody this debate were tweeted under the hashtag #WomenAtLength, which is turning into a weekly virtual reading list of sorts every Wednesday around noon. Lunchtime longreads!

*Disclaimer: I work for a women's magazine, but this was one of those amazing, shining moments where my personal and professional interests intersected. I maintain that women's magazines do print quality stories specifically, and also that women writers get shafted generally, and I was thrilled to get to play a small part in opening this discussion to a larger audience. Come tweet with us!


@Titania Oh, thank you for this!




@Troy171 indeed!

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:) nice one


I just feel like the women's magazines would be taken more seriously if they didn't have 896 Ways to Please Your Man With a Scrunchie on every cover. Perhaps that's a bit flip, but many women's magazine covers (at least the fashion- or celebrity-oriented ones) don't advertise the "serious" articles inside.


@Katyola YES!! I noticed this when I read that Elle defense. Right next to it was the cover, which was basically all about how to have sexy hair, etc.


@suzabellajones I have a background in magazines, and it is a tough market out there, especially on newsstands, but I'd love to have at least one or two coverlines that show the content's more than just flatter tummies, jeans for your body type and finding a husband. Because there absolutely is some more serious content in there.


@Katyola But the point is that Port believe that men can both be interested in longform articles and care about your abs. What you can't be is a woman who is interested in her hair and in, for instance, social justice.

Personally I can't read Vanity Fair much because there's too much social dross that I'm not interested in - too much "who's important in this industry" type stuff - actually exactly the piece that Port then replicated. But I don't see anyone putting Vanity Fair on the flaky pile.

And there's also the issue that when women's magazines do cover serious issues they will often cover women's issues. And those just aren't issues - in the way that men's issues are issues. At least not in Port's mind.


@dontannoyme Yes -- that's a whole other kettle of fish, and I agree, there's a bias toward Big Serious Men's Issues (war, politics, crime) as being the only things that count. Stories dealing with what women face -- especially in developing countries -- are just as important, and I'd love to see them considered as such. I agree with you that there's a bit too much inside baseball in VF sometimes. And if you want to find serious, longform journalism by women, I think you have to seek sources other than just Vogue and Elle. Mother Jones, Atlantic, Texas Monthly, Rolling Stone, New York magazine -- all have excellent female journalists.


@Katyola ELLE's EIC spoke to that in a little more depth in a different interview--AdWeek gets a lot less exposure outside the industry, but the takeaway is, basically--she knows that. The subscriber cover is often a lot less screamy, because it's a different audience and doesn't have to have as broad an appeal. http://www.adweek.com/news/press/elles-robbie-myers-womens-magazines-and-serious-journalism-150482


@Titania True -- I have a subscription to Bazaar, and the subscriber covers are so elegant and spare. Like old-school Esquire covers! I look forward to reading that article. Thanks for posting the link. I do feel their pain -- at my magazine (smaller scale, but subject to same market forces) we had to put numbers on every cover (top 25 restaurants, etc) to sell. Or Top Docs or Readers' Best & Worst. Those cover lines pay the bills.


I have a background in magazines, and it is a tough market out there, especially on newsstands, but I'd love to have at least one or two coverlines that show the content's more than just flatter tummies, jeans for your body type and finding a husband. Because there absolutely is some more serious content in there.


I liked that n+1 piece about serious mags and the gender issue.

Then I looked at n+1's masthead.

One woman. Five men.


I love this discussion but one thing that gets me about this article and the slate one is the discussion of race. Both articles talk about the problem of having six white dudes but then both become discussions of gender in print media. Why state that it is a problem that these Titans of Magazines are white men and then...fail to talk about whiteness in any form? Especially when mentioning that Anna Wintour was invited (I suppose as the sole woman)? Even if she had appeared as the token woman or whatever, that Port cover would have been undeniably white. Essence, Ebony, Jet, and Latina (just a few) get no discussion in either article. The sexism and racism of dominant media go together and I don't feel right about articles that mention race as a sidenote. Which I guess falls into my general dislike of articles that talk about white d00ds but then only analyze maleness as a problem. Basically, why mention whiteness if you're not going to talk about it at all?

Cat named Virtute

@Takoroft Yes! Yes, this for sure.


@Takoroft Ooh yes I think this is an aspect of the problem that pretty much everyone is uncomfortable discussing, probably because nearly everyone who is in a position of power such that they could have a major voice in the conversation is white. The #WomenAtLength twitter tag I mentioned has some AWESOME tweets from Essence and Ebony with some story examples that basically say the same thing--they've always printed long-form too, and are even more underappreciated because their "niche" audience is even more othered than women's magazines.


This got me thinking about men's magazines...the one thing I took away from a GQ issue I read recently was that "She Said" piece or whatever it's called, written by a woman, on the apparently new fad of women going bra-less. What got me was the 'rules' that men are now supposed to follow, the first one being something like '1. Look. Go ahead! A woman with no bra on pretty much wants attention!'

...um. I can't really support a magazine that blatantly tells men to stare at women's breasts, as if they exist only for men's, I don't know, pleasure? To look at? Saying that ANY woman dressing ANY certain way wants ANY kind of attention perpetuates the 'she is asking for it' notion, and the fact that it was written up in a popular magazine, I actually found it quite disgusting. Maybe the men who read it know better than that, maybe not. Why would they add it if they didn't think it would appeal to their readers?
That was the issue with the piece on women in the military, which I did appreciate, although the concept of "Women - just as tough as men!" seems dated, to me. That article sounded like it was trying to educate men, when really I hope that they don't have to read an article in GQ to know how tough women CAN be.
This is getting off topic, but gah! The whole concept of 'women's magazines' vs 'men's magazines' are just so gender stereotypical. But please do not think you have the authority to tell men to look at my breasts, bra or no.

crane your neck

So excited to see your byline on the Hairpin more often, Jen Doll!

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Look, there are lots of women's magazines that are garbage, too, don't get me wrong. But just cause it's for people with dicks don't make it journalistic gold.


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