Too Sexy for This Store

Wal-Mart’s strange decision to blackball Redbook.

Redbook magazine, you might assume, is the Laura Bush of glossies—maternal, remedial, smugly unstylish. Along with Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, Family Circle, Woman’s Day, and Better Homes and Gardens, it is one of the so-called “Seven Sisters” of service-magazine journalism—think of them as a regular bridge group—who, in gentle conspiratorial whispers and energetic soccer-practice tones, instruct American women in the lost art of domesticity. And so it came as a surprise when Wal-Mart announced in early June that it would install prophylactic “U-shaped blinders” to obscure the suggestive cover text of four women’s magazines—and Redbook was among them. This new sorority—including Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Glamour—was one where stories were less likely to be about organic snacks than orgasmic ones. (Redbook’s fellows in shame are publications whose readers tend to be single girls in their 20s while Redbook’s target audience is married women in their 30s.)

The magazine, which turned 100 in May, was evidently not acting its age, and what could be more vulgar? How about the revelation, in a rash of unrelated news stories over the next week, that Redbook had given two of its cover girls big crude face lifts: Jennifer Aniston had been doctored for the June issue (and was considering suing), and Julia Roberts, her head (from a photo taken at the People’s Choice Awards in 2002) scarily large atop a paper-doll stiff body (from the Notting Hill premiere in 1999), had been butchered for July. The editors apologized, saying they had wanted an image that would “pop on the newsstand,” a spokesman for Redbook said. “Pop” it did, against a background of garish pink, red, and bright violet.

But if Redbook isn’t all that dignified, it’s not that sinful either. The prevailing view within its pages is of a kind of married chastity—Miltonic, say. The values—and I don’t mean the articles on great summer buys and as-seen-on-TV kitchen gadgets—are family values: how to help your child get a better night’s sleep, the signs of a problem pregnancy, entries from a new-dad diary. The story about Julia? A swift recapitulation of her love life and a list of “five reasons this Pretty Woman will make a great mom.” The editors conclude with a ringing endorsement of her suitability: “We have no doubt that Julia will be a fabulous mom!” Wal-Mart-friendly stuff. So perhaps the reason for the company’s censure lay under the Sex and Marriage rubric in the table of contents? Alas, what dwells there is “Which pet belongs to which couple?”—a feature that asks the reader to match up five couples with a basset hound, three cats, five guinea pigs, a Russian tortoise, and a pug named Phineas. The piece titled “Men Confess: ‘The Sexiest Way I Was Ever Seduced’ ” has potential, but the boudoir secrets resemble nothing more than affirmation exercises from couples’ therapy. “I came downstairs after working for a few hours and found lots of candles lit in our living room, with the dimmer turned way down and her Diana Krall CD playing” (Andre, 31, Bangor, Maine). “One afternoon my wife said to me slyly, ‘The kids are napping, and I do not have a headache’ ” (Gary, 31, N.Y.). Anthony, 33, of Naperville, Ill., says he knows to get excited when his wife tells him, “The kids are staying at the babysitter’s overnight.”

From what heights of virtue did Redbook fall? First published in Chicago in 1903, Redbook was a short-story magazine that claimed to be composed of “the best stories that can be obtained anywhere, from the authors of the highest fame and most conspicuous ability.” But it was given to gushy overstatement even then: “Red is the color of happiness,” Trumbell Well, the editor, announced. The magazine had high-minded intentions—the word “literary” appears four times in the first issue’s statement of purpose—and a commercial side. Almost immediately it began printing a portfolio called American Beauties: voluptuous personifications of spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

By 1925, the magazine was serializing novels that dramatized the adventures of the liberated woman. “Proven Pudding” guaranteed “the whole truth about those girls who would be ‘free’ in New York’s art centers,” and “Mated” warned that “thousands of readers are learning from this novel, as never before, all that divorce may mean.” F. Scott Fitzgerald was a regular contributor, and jazz babies like Louise Brooks and Norma Talmadge had overtaken the American Beauties spreads. Over the next several decades, the audience shifted to young married couples—for a while it was subtitled “The magazine for young adults”—though more and more the articles were aimed at the one half of the married couple who would find the soft-core stories of modern marriage and romance sufficiently scintillating. Things coital were often featured on the cover, as in the alarmist headline from 1968, “Why Most Doctors Can’t Help Women With Sex Problems.” Better find out.

Redbook became the contented, ginghamy magazine we know today sometime in the ‘80s. (Hearst bought it in 1982.) The cover lines promised “The Secret Reasons Men Love Marriage”—not “His Secret Sex Turn-Ons.” (The content of the articles, however, was probably closer to the latter than the teasers might suggest.) Everything changed again in the late ‘90s, when Lesley Jane Seymour (now the editor of Marie Claire) took over, putting sex back on the cover and aiming for a younger audience. “We are trying to pull away from the rest of the Seven Sisters,” Seymour was quoted saying in a story in the New York Times. “We are moving it slightly younger, to fill that gap between the younger fashion magazines and the older, full-fledged Seven Sisters.” (Circulation had fallen from 3.2 million to 2.8 million; today it is 2.35 million, but under Seymour, who was succeeded by Ellen Kunes in 2001, readership among women ages 30 to 39 increased 20 percent.) 

The superficial sauciness of the latter-day Redbook notwithstanding, Wal-Mart’s decision to chasten the magazine seems bizarre, but the chain’s demonstrated desire to please Christian groups sheds some light. A month before cracking down on the women’s magazines, the $244-billion-dollar-a-year chain—which is responsible for 15 percent of all magazines’ single-copy sales—banned Maxim, Stuff, and FHM. The purported reason was “customer complaints,” but the announcement came simultaneously with Wal-Mart’s nomination to the Christian Merchants program run by Kingdom Ventures, a development organization that has established a private-label direct mail catalog and plans to launch free Web sites for every Christian church in the country. The Christian Merchants will be allowed to sell their wares through the Kingdom Catalog and through, the portal of the faithful. This means an open line to the hundreds of millions of church-going consumers, who spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year. “Our Christian Merchants initiative aims at providing approved companies with easy access to millions of Christians,” Gene Jackson, the president of Kingdom Ventures told Business Wire. “Personally, I would feel much better buying clothes, gas, or computers, knowing that they help increase the church’s positive influence in our country. In fact, the items purchased could remind us of our relationship with God,” he said. He denies that Kingdom Ventures exerted any pressure on Wal-Mart to clean up its aisles.

Well, if the Kingdom didn’t put the fear of God into Wal-Mart, maybe it was the vast sexual-discrimination suit filed by seven California women who complain of a pattern of harassment and unequal pay and promotion scales. The case, which could set a new record for civil-rights class-action suits and cost the company billions of dollars, comes to court at the end of July. Insiders have hinted that the sanitized stores exhibit the advice of a defense attorney, not an evangelist. “Judging by their covers, those covers might certainly be viewed by some as portraying women in a way [Wal-Mart] wouldn’t want to reinforce, given their current problems,” a plaintiff’s attorney told Women’s Wear Daily. (Might the policy to protect gay workers from discrimination, announced July 1, be part of the same legal strategy?) Whatever the reason for the censorship, the loss of the men’s magazines and the diminished desirability of the women’s titles makes room for a new women’s glossy that Wal-Mart has just helped launch: American, a lifestyle magazine with a patriotic thrust. If American reflects the principles Wal-Mart has lately espoused—prescriptive religion, sexism, corporate strong-arming to  prevent unionization—it is bound to be dirtier than Redbook.