A life less ordinary? Well, excuse us for fantasising ...
Monday 01 December 1997
Flick through any of today's glossy women's magazines and you will find "a completely unrecognisable portrait of the modern woman". So says Anne Applebaum in her essay "The British Woman Today". She criticises magazines such as Elle, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and She for not mentioning the "real" issues that concern women today, and in particular is worried about the lack of articles relating to marriage and children.
And I have to agree with her. Women's magazines do appear to promote an irresponsible, materialistic, indulgent, even promiscuous lifestyle. Issues such as family-life, education, money management and morality do seem to be side-stepped in favour of frivolity and glamour. But is this really a bad thing?
Millions of women, including myself, buy these magazines every month and enjoy them simply because they do avoid "real" issues. The reason we love these magazines is for the same reason that we love watching Friends. The lifestyle depicted is not real, we know it never could be, but, oh, how we wish it was. I want a fantastic job making as much money as possible with the least possible effort, I want a gorgeous man who buys me flowers and whisks me off for expensive weekends in Venice, I want loads of friends with whom I can go on shopping sprees to New York and to lunch at the most fashionable restaurants, I want a big American Fifties-style fridge stocked with luxury food and wine standing in an industrial chrome fitted kitchen (are they still in?), I want to sip carrot and broccoli juice after a workout with my personal trainer in some exclusive gym, I want the shiny car, Hard Candy nail polish, figure like Liz Hurley's, Calvin Klein wardrobe, I want, I want, I want ...
And bang, I've fallen back to earth with a bump because I've just seen the red phone bill sitting on the table which should have been paid at least a fortnight ago. I can see it now: "20 ways to put off paying the phone bill". Well it beats "20 ways to ensure you orgasm every time", doesn't it, girls? Girls? Girls ... Oh never mind.
Those of us who read these magazines all have the sneaking suspicion that Rachel, 28, doctor, Tania, 25, scriptwriter, Laura, 30, advertising executive and Sophie, 23, PR, are purely figments of the feature editor's imagination. But do we care? Of course we don't. We love these fantasy women for their wild sex-games, trips to Goa, most embarrassing moments at the office party and all the other lovely snippets of their irrelevant, trivial lives that they feel the need to share with us.
Ms Applebaum compares these glossy magazines to pornography because they allow us to participate in fantasies that we have no real hope or even desire for in real life. And you see, that is the point. Never mind my "List of things I should do by the time I'm 30 or I might as well just lie down and die" as featured above, I have no genuine desire to lead this fantasy lifestyle of the "Cosmo woman". (Honest!) I even worry about winning the Lottery in case I get bored of going on holiday forever. I enjoy my nine-to-five job, most of the time I prefer my own cooking to some fancy restaurant, and I'd rather have a huge bar of Dairy Milk all to myself than some posh box of chocolates that you can only eat one at a time otherwise you'll be sick.
When we were little girls we played with Barbie. But we didn't grow up wanting to be Barbie (well, most of us didn't anyway). Playing with Barbie in her lovely big pink house with all her lovely pink furniture and her lovely pink horse was purely an escape from the real world of big brothers and sprouts. Even the most fertile imagination knows that horses aren't really pink.
And then we get too old to play with Barbie so we need another fantasy. And that is where glossy magazines step in. (I'd rather have a doll's house to play with but it looks cooler reading Cosmo on the bus.) But just because we lap up the contents of these magazines every month does not mean we cannot separate fantasy from reality.
In the same way, I would bet a large amount of money that every schoolboy in the land has at some time got his grubby little hands on a dirty magazine and enjoyed the fantasy that goes with it when he was supposed to be doing his algebra homework. That does not mean that every young boy who indulges in pornography grows up to be a rapist - although some would argue otherwise. Please give us some credit. The majority of people are not as stupid as society would have us believe.
This idea of people being sucked in by the media is not new. In the 19th century the government was terrified that the radical press could influence people to act in ways that were criminal or anti-social. Cinema was criticised because of the way it "Americanised" society and led to "copy-cat" villains. In more recent times computer games, comics and especially "video nasties" have all been blamed for teenage delinquency.
Well, it's better than blaming the parents and certainly better than blaming some poor little 14-year-old mugger from a broken home for his crime, isn't it? The idea that there is such a notion as free will seems to have gone out of the window.
My real life consists of spots, hairdryers that blow up, leaky taps, smelly bins, cleaning the toilet, washing-up, `flu and I DON'T WANT TO READ ABOUT IT. When I buy a lovely, shiny, sparkly magazine with a gorgeous woman with perfect white teeth in a glittery red dress on the front and captions that scream "60 Dazzling Fashion Finds", "Chanel and Champagne", "Hot Sex. For women who can't get it", and "Lingerie to Lust for", I get all tingly and excited because just for a little while I can escape from the real world and the "difficult choices that keep women awake at nights" and believe that I am wealthy and beautiful and intelligent and sexy because I answered mostly As in the quiz that told me so! I don't want to and I don't need to read about the mundane things in my life. They already take up too much time. Reading a glossy magazine does not mean I am going to ram-raid Harvey Nichols either.
Ms Applebaum also fails to mention that there are a lot of articles in these magazines that are informative and potentially life-saving. For a lot of women these magazines are their only source of factual information on sensitive issues such as breast examination, cervical smears, abortion, STDs, depression, etc etc. One could argue that such serious issues should not be sandwiched between men, sex, nail varnish, hair mascara, Kate Moss and Ralph Lauren. But how else do we learn? Who honestly would have had heard of chlamydia if it weren't for the likes of Cosmo, Elle et al?
The same point is missed with the on-going debate about teen magazines. People argue that these magazines are too sex-orientated, but for many young girls magazines are their only source of factual information. Families are not always the easiest of people to talk to, friends are unreliable and of those friends that are well-informed where do you think they get their wisdom from?
If modern woman really needs to turn to a magazine to find out how to juggle the school run, get her oven sparkling, do the week's shopping in less than an hour, while ensuring that her husband has his food on the table when he comes in from work every night, well, I'm sure there's one somewhere.
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