Media: For little women

As `Marie Claire' celebrates its 100th fabulous-selling issue, Suzanne Moore surveys it and its magazine sisters. Does the earth move for her? It surely does not
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What is the modern woman interested in? Sex, little black dresses, Hugh Grant's diary, vibrators, "plastic surgery for sexual pleasure". Oh, and putting a stop to torture around the world. This, at least, is what an alien might deduce from looking at women's glossy magazines.

In the week that Marie Claire celebrates its 100th issue, it may appear churlish to complain that while men get a category of publications all to themselves in the form of "adult" magazines, there are very few magazines - not even Marie Claire - that treat women as grown-ups.

Granted, no one picks up a copy of Cosmopolitan expecting it to be The Economist. No one is likely to confuse Company ("Good Vibrations: 12 toys you won't be bored with by Boxing Day") with Prospect. No, we expect women's magazines to be about escapism. They offer a fantasy life, a life full of non-stop orgasms where we barely have time to be on intimate terms with the "supers" (that's supermodels to the uninitiated). All of this is spiced up up with true-life confessions of the "I caught my boyfriend in bed with my sister" variety.

They also offer us a realm of visual pleasure: beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes, sumptuous pictures of meals that we might cook (and eat) if we weren't on a diet, health spas we might visit if we ever had the money. Women's magazines, it has been claimed, are a form of "mental chocolate". Is that so wrong? Yes it is.

I like chocolate as much as the next pig but too much of this goo can leave a nasty taste in your mouth. I like my chocolate dark and bitter. You won't find that variety here.

It is generally accepted that women's magazines have gone downmarket. Marie Claire is still held up as somehow less traditional than other magazines, although I don't buy that. In fact, I have never really understood the buzz about the magazine. Yes, it may always have had a few dubiously anthropological features about incest in the Amazon or promiscuity in New Guinea, tucked up front. But the rest of the magazine has always been formulaic. The genius of Marie Claire and its Ab Fab editor, Glenda Bailey, was to fill it with clothes that women would actually wear and could sometimes even afford to buy. Elle and Vogue might have been more arty and creative, but at the end of a hard day there are only so many blurry pictures of anorexics you can stomach.

Even Marie Claire, despite its reputation for covering "global" issues, has moved downmarket. The only time it bothers these days to leave our troubled shores is if some exciting sexual variation is found elsewhere.

And so to sex. Cosmo, now edited by Mandi Norwood, the editor famous for sexing up Company, may have always been sexually obsessed. But the nature of that obsession has clearly changed. Cosmo Girl's interest in things sexual used to be directed inward. The fantasy, so carefully created, was that underneath every secretary dwelt a ruthless executive, just waiting to burst out. Failing that, there was always a multiple orgasm to be had, a new oral sex technique to bone up on. Back then, even just a few years ago, Cosmo was also a campaigning magazine, with serious articles about health, say, or employment issues. In short, the magazine was in fact quite politicised (with a small "p"). The idea of women entering the workforce in large numbers was first talked about in this hugely populist forum. There, amongst the same old drivel about "communication" and "relationships", there were articles about how women were coming to terms with important social changes.

Now, sadly, the glossies have degenerated into pure escapism, with none of the social or political awareness that used to come through. They are indeed vacuum packed.

Why does it matter? After all, print media generally has followed (or been forced to follow) a tabloid agenda in the competitive race for readers. But not all of them have done so artlessly. Loaded, for instance, manages to move downmarket with wit and occasionally even irony. Women's magazines are following the worst aspects of tabloid journalism without thinking through what it really means. And the results are ugly, and an insult to one's intelligence.

Consider how much misogyny and voyeurism now makes it into the pages of some women's glossies. This is neither clever nor funny, just desperate and clueless. This month's Cosmo, for instance, features a photograph of a woman's torso, legs open as if in the gynaecologist's stirrups, the legs dressed in red fishnet stockings. Over her stands a man in doctor's garb, clutching a scalpel. This accompanies an article about how genital cosmetic surgery can improve your love life.

Just who is this image for? Is Cosmo aware of the references - to domination and violence? The male gaze, and certain masculine preconceptions, are being poorly imitated here, but in an unknowing, unfunny way. This is not an exhibition of humour, but of stupidity.

I realise, of course, that these are competitive times. The newer celebrity mags such as Hello! have eaten into the women's market, which has proven to be very poor at catching up to what the Nineties are all about. The old stand-bys of sex and shopping as the answer to every female problem seem frightfully dated - made worse by the fact that they are unleavened by anything else. It has become compulsory to exhibit our interest in sex, all the time. The advent of the Lad has produced a frantic display of women being frantically bawdy.

Uncomfortably, this supposed new freedom is still tempered with endless features about breaking up, making up and ultimately being with one man. A woman is allowed a sex life until she is married; then, of course, she becomes problem page material. The implicit lesson in this is that men get to have a laugh (especially the new Lads). Women must do all the emotional work of every relationship.

Presumably because we are are so preoccupied doing this, we have little time to read or have opinions about art, politics or culture. In the world of the women's magazine, we eschew all these in favour of the horoscope.

Perhaps it is just as well that we have so little time for books or films. If we did, we might even notice how appallingly bland so much of the writing in these magazines actually is. There is no style, and the articles all appear to have been written by one person. We are allowed to be obsessed with "style" - except in the writing.

Women's magazines lack interest in the broader culture. They assume that fun means sex. The tedious regurgitation of information on model skin, teeth and hair, and the absence of anything resembling wit, intelligence and soul, are just some of the reasons that chase me away from these magazines. If I want to read something that treats me as a discerning adult, I am far more likely to read a men's magazine than the dross served up in the name of womenn