Sunday, 24 October 2010

Masculine, feminine: Shortlist and Stylist magazines

Every Wednesday morning, two free magazines appear on the streets of several cities around the country, including Manchester (as well as airport lounges and French Connection stores). Left in piles next to the Metro newspaper, or handed out by men in yellow jackets, they’re designed to be grabbed by workers on their daily commute.

Why two magazines? Well, with its bold title in an unfussy font and covers in primary colours featuring prominent men such as Alan Sugar, Gordon Gecko, Russell Brand and Fabio Capello staring you straight on, with some cover stars, such as Tony Blair, so important they’re further emboldened in black and white, Shortlist is aimed at attracting the eye of men. The strapline promises that inside you will find ‘News, Sport, TV, Cars, Movies, Style’ — the same subjects you might see covered in the ‘Men’s Lifestyle’ section of a newsagents. Stylist’s decorative font, italicised to give the impression it’s a bit more thoughtful, and backed up by a palette of pinks and lilacs, is meant to attract the female sensibility. Its sleeves show cupcakes, shoes, handbags, a puppy with floppy ears, and singers and Hollywood actresses staring pensively into the distance or looking down shyly. Inside, is ‘Fashion, Travel, People, Ideas, Beauty’.

The two magazines are produced in the same building, and published by the same company, yet their whole premise is that men and women are fundamentally different. Rather than looking at the interests men and women have in common and producing a magazine anyone could find interesting, they focus on heightening traditional male and female pursuits and exaggerating conventionally male or female attributes until the two magazines display complete parodies of what is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

The magazines’ content is primarily concerned with selling a certain, ideal lifestyle — something for men, and women, to aspire to, which often harks back to recapturing the values of an earlier era. In Stylist, interviewees are praised for their sophistication, glamour and mystique, and for being enigmatic — in comparison with what the magazine regards as the ‘laddish’ behaviour of some women today. Shortlist talks admiringly of the ‘hard living charisma’ of Serge Gainsbourg and the glamour of the Rat Pack, emphasising timeless elegance, from Savile Row tailoring to owning a decent watch — ‘The mark of a gentleman’.

Shortlist is obsessed with the escapist themes of adventure, endurance, war and danger, from endless articles about drug lords and South American gangs to reports from war zones, instructions about how to survive in space and lists of the most dangerous places in the world to trade in. Shortlist is also heavily biased towards technology, and keeping up to date with the latest ‘must-have’ gadgets. Interestingly, Stylist has more emphasis than Shortlist on food and literature (although it does liken Philip Larkin, hilariously, to a ‘grumpier, smarter Bridget Jones’), but Shortlist makes more of music, covering newer, 'hipper' bands compared to Stylist's recommendation of mumsy music like Robbie Williams.

In case you’d missed what’s being sold to you, Shortlist backs it up with adverts for beer that promises adventure, deodorant that will ‘give you balls’, face cream that ‘wages war on oily skin’, phones aiding survival and endless adverts for cars, watches, clothes and the Discovery Channel. Stylist, in contrast, is primarily packed with adverts for grooming products such as shampoo and hair dye, IKEA furniture, clothes and the occasional car or rom com film.

Each magazine has a regular columnist with whom we’re supposed to empathise and sympathise. Danny Wallace’s column, in Shortlist, is one of the highlights of the magazine, a feature that rarely fails to make me laugh as he fails woefully at performing everyday tasks, from ordering a sandwich to securing the services of a plumber. His well-written column reads like a piece of creative writing exaggerated slightly for comic effect. I don’t believe for a minute that he’s as hapless as he makes out. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Dawn Porter, who was somehow given a column in Stylist magazine (which, thankfully, seems to have disappeared for the time being) despite being one of the least interesting women you can imagine meeting. Over the course of a few insipid paragraphs of fluff, Porter shares insights into her life such as being chased by a wasp, dying her hair and having PMT.

In her recent critique of contemporary feminism, One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power said ‘If the contemporary portrayal of womankind were to be believed, contemporary female achievement would culminate in the ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat and a man’. We can blame a lot of this on Sex and the City, which, in one of several Sex and the City specials, Stylist claims ‘shaped the cultural development of the 21st century’ and acts as a ‘champion of women…a platform for female independence, career success, a woman’s right to hideously expensive shoes…and made single life sexy’ (I couldn’t agree less with this description of Sex and the City — which focuses on superficial, self-obsessed, dull, needy women whose lives revolve around where their next man is going to come from). Stylist goes on to say that the biggest appeal of the women in Sex and the City is that they are ‘real’, managing to ‘tap into the pysche of modern, professional women brilliantly’, yet they are not like anyone I know or would ever wish to meet. It states that, unlike '99% of the female population', ‘men just don’t understand Sex and the City’ — ignoring all the women who, too, think Sex and the City is banal and shallow.

The biggest problem I have with Sex and the City (aside from its limited depictions of homosexuality and bisexuality) is the same I have with Shortlist and Stylist magazines — the distinctions they make between men and women, and the way they don’t even try to understand each other. The women in Sex and the City show little interest in anything outside men and each other; their level of political engagement is limited to sleeping with politicians, they have no heterosexual male friends and find it seemingly impossible to relate to men on any level other than sex — not that they want to. As Samantha says: “I’ve never been friends with any men. Why would I? Women are for friendships, men are for fucking.”

At the start of this century, David Gauntlett noted in Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction (one of many studies of men’s and women’s magazines) that the men’s magazine market is relatively new as it had long been thought that “‘real men’ didn’t need a magazine to tell them how to live". Today, however, Shortlist magazine seems hell bent on reclaiming manliness from a perceived social and cultural assault on male values and pursuits. It runs articles with titles such as ‘Why it’s ok to be a man again’, and Giles Coren defending the barbecue as ‘the last bastion of masculinity’. Despite this, there’s just as much pressure on men as women to look after their appearance, from protecting their hair on holiday to ten steps to getting the perfect beach body.

Shortlist and Stylist magazines are inherently conservative. Writing almost forty years ago, in a set of essays entitled Ways of Seeing, the critic John Berger said 'publicity is the culture of the consumer society' — advertisements are the images by which capitalism sustains itself, selling the public an idealised vision of themselves. It manufactures glamour, which is described by Berger as the 'happiness of being envied'. Publicity shows people who they could be and where they could be placed within society if they make the right choices (ie purchases) or, if they already hold that position in society, it sells them the ability to maintain that position — one which is, in the eyes of others, enviable. Shortlist and Stylist magazine, despite masquerading as serious magazines which are read for their content, are in fact just publicity for the dominant, accepted lifestyle. Those who read Shortlist and Stylist do so either because they accept that the lifestyles the magazines portray are something to aspire to, or because they already belong to the social group that can afford such a lifestyle. They see their values reflected, so their place in society is therefore reinforced and confirmed.

I don’t, however, think that either magazine is bad — they both have several features I enjoy, and in both magazines there are whole sections I flick straight through (sport in Shortlist and beauty in Stylist). Shortlist magazine’s ‘Secret Genius’ quiz page is fun for passing time, and some of the ‘Instructions for Men’, such as ‘how to avoid showing fear in a job interview’, are useful. Stylist magazine celebrates female achievements, holds networking events for female entrepreneurs and prints women’s responses to topical news stories such as the Marie Stopes TV advertisements. Its ‘Elsewhere’ page rounds up world news stories relating to women around the world, often focusing on the quirky and bizarre, which I would otherwise have missed. I’ve also cut out and tried several recipes from Stylist magazine (Shortlist too used to publish recipes, but stopped for some reason). ‘Work Life: A one-day diary, from morning latte to lights out’, which looks at the typical day of a different career woman each week, from school teachers to paramedics to zookeepers, is a good idea — although it almost always focuses on women in London and the south. I admired Stylist’s election coverage, which looked at each of the main parties’ policies, and how they affect women, in turn, and even hosted a women’s question time.

Furthermore, both magazines, albeit separately, try to address issues affecting men and women, such as depression, bereavement, work life balance, housework and fertility, and sometimes even offer new perspectives on much written about stories — what it’s really like to be raised by a teenage parent, the psychological impact on men of women waiting longer to have children, the mindset of female terrorists and mafia members, and what motivates women to ‘kiss and tell’.

I’ve been reading Shortlist since it started in 2007 (Stylist is a far more recent addition to newsstands which hit the streets just over a year ago), for the simple reason that it has a sense of humour — it makes me laugh. Of the two, I’d say Stylist is the slightly better magazine — not, I’d like to think, because I’m a woman, but it has more consistently substantial, varied content than Shortlist which, as the name suggests, is full of lists of trivia aimed at a short attention span. Stylist has some good features, from a recent article about women graffiti artists to reports on the oppression of women around the world and pieces on serial killers and prostitution. The main criticism I’d make of both magazines is their homogeneity — the people and lifestyles shown within their pages are rarely anything other than white, affluent and heterosexual.

I don’t understand why, instead of patronising us with sexist, outdated notions of male and female interests, such as ‘a generation of women obsessed with shoes’, Shortlist Media can’t just produce one super magazine that will appeal to everyone, combining the intelligent, interesting, feature length articles and topical news stories of Stylist with the humour and factoids of Shortlist. I, for one, would definitely read it.

You might also enjoy my friend Olivia Singer's article about Stylist magazine and feminism.

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