Magazines are supposed to have changed in the last 15 years. Now we have lots of exposes about Indian eunuchs and mail-order brides that paint a picture of the world beyond Kettering as a seething morass of prostitution and white slavery. But most of the girl's stuff still revolves around sex and shopping. You can hardly open a media page without stumbling on an interview with some super-confident hackette describing her revolutionary relaunch of some hoary old title. "The challenge was to revamp Wife and Mother as a cutting-edge forum for the intelligent woman of the Nineties", she says, blithely insulting the 100,000 women who were faithfully buying the rag before she arrived. For the first few months she drops all the most popular features and does some ground-breaking pieces on Indian eunuchs. Then the next time you get locked in someone's bathroom with a copy of WAM (as it's now called) what do you find? Pigeon-toed stick insects wearing a sour expression and ugly clothes, winning ways with pasta and a good orgasm guide.
Deja vu sets in after the merest glance at the cover stories. "How often do you have sex?" demands September's Marie Claire. "None of your business, you nosey cow" you might reply, but happily for the features editor, the magazine managed to dredge up 14 shameless bints who decided to spill the beans, with photo. This eerily familiar piece included a rare sighting of a 23-year-old virgin (every magazine should have one, they improve the morale of the undersexed reader).
Tired sex-talk aside, every shiny page stinks of PR, the same new season's exciting eye shadows gaily plugged in what is notionally editorial space. No autumn fashion spread would be complete without its list of must-haves. There is a depressing consensus about this season's look (ie, short-cut to urban anonymity). The fashion editors went to the same shows, devoured the same press packs, had the same lunch and, surprise, surprise, they give the same advice. I'm only going to say this once: unless you want your next night out with the girls to look like a raid on Burton's window DO NOT buy a pin-striped trouser suit. Every mag, every chain store is awash with these cut-price apologies for tailoring. We're women. We don't all have to dress the same.
Cosmopolitan has a list of 35 things you should do before you're 35 (although 15 would be nearer the mark). Among the bizarre list of suggestions for the 35-year-old-to-be is the mind-boggling "Buy a set of matching luggage". I must be younger than I thought.
The target market for Cosmo is ostensibly young, employed, flat-sharing, sexually active babes. In fact, if memory serves, each copy is being pored over by spotty 12 year olds in the break before double biology. And what a bleak picture of adulthood it paints! Cosmo trains these girls to picture their emotional future as a sorry sequence of grief-stricken shag-ins with unsuitable men punctuated by dermabrasion and occasional sightings of the G spot. "Why do I have better sex with men I dislike?" wonders one little problem. "Because your self-image is registering minus 12 and you need expensive professional help," I reply - three magazines into my marathon binge and I am already talking to myself in the kitchen. Am I hallucinating, or are people still writing to ask Cosmo whether their boyfriend's penis is too small? Cosmo's reply was that size makes absolutely no difference (it was written by a man). As a rule of thumb, if you need to ask if your boyfriend's penis is too small then your boyfriend's penis is probably too small.
It's still failing to grip. Despite doing my fair share of cooking, shopping and shagging I'm still obviously not target audience for all this chat. Does this make me a gap in the market? Style-mag guru Nick Logan of Face and Arena fame obviously thinks so as he is about to launch a new women's magazine called Frank targeted at women dissatisfied with the standard glossy. I certainly qualify but will Frank be my friend? I'd be surprised.
Ultimately, magazines are only conjured into existence because their publishers believe that enough advertisers will want to buy space in them. Anything with an ad-to-copy ratio of over 30 per cent is really just "Spenders and Spending" in disguise. The advance PR for the title makes great play of editor Tina Gaudoin's desire to cater for the thinking woman but I think that glossy women's-interest magazines, apart from straightforward fashion catalogues like Vogue, are incompatible with an intelligent response. Not because the people who buy them are stupid, but because they disengage their brains while reading them. It's like a monthly version of the airport novel. Flicking through a magazine is the sedentary equivalent of wandering the aisles of a supermarket. Your eyes glaze over as you saunter from one page to the next, your heart rate drops and before you know where you are your whole soul is coloured by an inexplicable craving for a pounds 300 coffee table made of coconut matting (p156, She magazine). Spending money in this way is not intelligent behaviour however smart the buyer may be in real life. Glossy magazines basically exist to normalise preposterous extravagance and I'm not sure I can buy into that however good the travel writing isn
John Lyttle is on holiday