Thomas Reeves has his own blog at the History News Network. Saturday, my fellow Cliopatriarch Jonathan Dresner drew my attention to this Reeves post entitled "The Joys of Jane". It's about Jane the magazine in particular, and contemporary women's magazines in general:
Articles display such titles as “My Boyfriend Used to Be My Girlfriend,” “When I Smoke Pot, I Turn Into Ms. Satan,” “How to Date Eight Guys at Once,” “’I Want Her Babies.’ What’s With Guys All Of a Sudden?” and “Yet another great reason to keep on smoking!” In the November issue, an article gives eight tips guaranteed to help the reader pick up guys. (If you try all eight tips and the you fail to pick up at least eight guys, Jane Pratt will refund the $3.50 price of the magazine.) In a monthly column called “It Happened To Me,” there is a horror story by a woman who dated a Libertarian who did not believe in premarital sex. The author also reveals having had a brief affair “with someone who has flown in Air Force One with Dubya. And when we talked politics, it always degenerated into a pretty amazing sexual romp.” Information abounds in Jane, including how to train your brain to have dreams of sex with celebrities, and which SUVs are the most comfortable for having sex.
Reeves decries the intellectual vacuity that such magazines feed and inspire, wondering:
Where are the women crying out for higher moral and intellectual standards in the popular literature designed for their consumption? We hear enough about the right to abort, glass ceilings, and sexual harassment. Why not speak out about the literary pollution that damages and destroys the mind and soul? The voices of informed and concerned women might do much to reverse the cultural slide that degrades our civilization.
I have not read the particular issue to which Reeves refers. Knowing, however, that Jane tends to have its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, I am not as certain as Mr. Reeves that its contents are truly damaging and destroying mind and soul. Fewer young women use these magazines as instruction manuals than conservatives fear or advertisers might like! Rather, I suspect most young women who are flipping through Jane and its competitors are looking for momentary distraction and amusement. Yes, the content of these magazines is vacuous -- but after a hard day at the office, or in the lab, or the classroom, or the board room, sometimes folks like to unwind with a little vacuity!
Of course, there's a bit more to these magazines' popularity than escapism!
I know I'm posting with quotations, something I don't normally do, but reading Reeves' piece, I immediately remembered the following passage from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which I assign each semester in my women's studies classes. Offred, the title character, is given an old copy of Vogue, a magazine now banned in her dystopic world of Gilead:
Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fish bait, I wanted it. I wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. At the same time I saw this longing of mine as trivial and absurd, because I'd taken such magazines lightly enough once... After I'd leafed through them I would throw them away, for they were infinitely discardable and a day or two later I wouldn't be able to remember what had been in them.
Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome, and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.
The more I read these magazines and work with those who consume them, the more Atwood's words seem apt. I'm not defending their content, but I am defending their readers. A woman can read with amusement about dating eight men at once, or about embarrassing sexual episodes in the lives of others, without compromising her right to be taken seriously in "real" life. Indeed, the more responsibility we carry, the greater the longing to escape!
I like to unwind reading about college football. Now, there's an intellectually vacant activity! After a day of teaching and grading, I come home and curl up with any number of sports magazines. I lose myself in average yard-per-carry statistics for running backs in the SEC, or speculation about where the hottest high school players in Texas will sign. (And national letter-of-intent day is less than two months away! Oh, the excitement!) It's trivial, empty stuff -- and it amuses and relaxes me. I don't blog about it because most folks don't care, but gosh, I enjoy it. I know that big-time college football is corrupt. I know that its players are immersed in a culture of violence that encourages and condones sexual assault. And though these realities are never far from my mind, I continue to find great and simple pleasure in reading the magazines that cover the game I love in glorious and numbing detail! Am I "dumber" as a consequence? I would like to think not. Rather, I'm indulging in remarkably harmless escapism, allowing my brain to rest.
I suspect that with different magazines, millions of my brilliant and interesting and ambitious sisters are doing exactly the same thing.