Pinko in Pearls

Spin Sisters’surprisingly radical takedown of women’s magazines.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

The seeds of American radicalism have often been sown in unlikely places—but the masthead of the Ladies’ Home Journal? Twenty years as its editor in chief appear to have turned Myrna Blyth into a rock-throwing subversive, and worse, now she’s written a tell-all indictment of the $7 billion a year women’s magazine industry. What’s more interesting—and surprising—than the dish about her sister media elites (who can’t be too happy about their treatment here) is that Spin Sisters is a surprisingly radical book, despite being cynically marketed as a conservative one. Since cynical marketing is one of Blyth’s main complaints about women’s rags, this marketing strategy would seem to be contradictory, if not cynical in itself. But these days radicals have to be inventive and fly beneath the political radar, and if they want to grab those conservative book-buyers, they paste on derisory subtitles like How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America, even if the women of the media are bit players in a larger process.

It’s easy to forget in today’s politically dumbed-down times that politics go beyond simplistic binaries like liberal versus conservative and that critiques of liberalism haven’t come only from the right. One way to read Blyth’s book is as an update on critical histories of marketing, like Stuart Ewen’s classic Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture.Having learned firsthand that “the media promotes ideas that support the products of their advertisers,” Blyth condemns the sleazy tactics women’s magazines use to produce pacified female consumers. (Her targets include the traditional service magazines—Family Circle, McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Better Homes and Gardens—and fashion and lifestyle magazines like Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan.) In classic whistle-blower tradition, she documents the correlation between the number of pages brands like Prada receive in the fall issues of Vogue or W and the number of ads they’ve purchased in the preceding months. She’s unhappy about the bedfellow arrangement between advertising and editorial, tattling on editors for getting lavish freebies as subtle kickbacks. Having looked deep into the heart of the female-culture industry, Blyth concludes that what’s sometimes known as media capitalism basically manipulates women—some 60 million women read these magazines—producing false needs and distorted self-images, marketing inadequacy for corporate bucks.

Book cover

OK, so this isn’t exactly news. Certainly many have long suspected that what the Seattle WTO protesters called “McDomination” isn’t actually flogging all that junk in our best interests. But Blyth is a novel source to hear this from, and given the anticorporate undertones pervading this book—the opposition to the “slavish attention paid to advertisers,” the indictment of the wage gap between media elites and their readers—the conservatism Blyth thinks she’s touting is seriously undercut by the book’s own argument. (I hope I’m not revealing things here that will get Blyth disinvited from any upcoming GOP luncheons.)

But Blyth has other big fish to fry. The gist of her argument is that liberal feminism has ceased working in women’s interests and now provides the hinge between McDomination and female desires, relying on a variety of ultimately repressive tactics: stirring up needless anxieties, then peddling expensive pseudo-solutions like plastic surgery, diets, ugly clothes, day spas, and more magazines. In other words, Blyth has rediscovered what the left and early feminists used to call “false consciousness”: distortions of thought that work to conceal social contradictions and uphold the social order.

Although she describes herself as a feminist, Blyth also thinks liberal feminism has pretty much dissolved into narcissism and whining. Paradoxically, it’s the most privileged yet still most dissatisfied women—the “Spin Sisters”—who propagate the most negative messages, hyping female victimization and marketing dissatisfaction. Staunch liberal feminists to a gal, they’re weirdly preoccupied with promoting newfangled disabling syndromes like stress and perimenopause as universal afflictions. They play up women’s vulnerability, describing an array of social and physical hazards—everything from unsanitized pedicure bowls and the deadly infections they harbor, to being stalked by ex-lovers, to possible toxins in plastic food wrap—then offer simplistic solutions like more government intervention (because they’re liberals) or more “quality time with yourself.” Or aromatherapy. When Blyth totes up the number of victim, terror, and hazard stories that run in an average month, it’s hard to refute that she’s onto something.

If Blyth is right, and liberal feminism has become the merchandising wing of consumer capitalism, disempowering women to boost sales, how did this come to pass? In other words, how—or when—did mainstream feminism lose its political direction? Blyth wants to chalk it up to liberalism—”Liberals have always needed victims to enact their policies”—but this explains little. For a better guide, turn to historian Alice Echols, whose account of the early years of the women’s movement, Daring To Be Bad,fills in the background.

Echols reminds us that second-wave feminism actually emerged from the social change movements of the ‘60s and early ‘70s: the New Left, the civil rights and antiwar movements, all of which challenged the fundamental suppositions and structures of society, including class and race stratification. In the early years, the goals went beyond smashing corporate glass ceilings: Some feminists wanted to smash the corporations themselves. Then came political battles and factionalism. Farthest to the left were socialist feminists, who emphasized capitalism’s role in women’s oppression. Breakaway factions, calling themselves radical feminists, focused more narrowly on women’s oppression within patriarchy. NOW-style liberal feminists just wanted more equality within the existing system. All demanded reproductive rights and pay equity; there was shared activism around rape and domestic violence. But both the radicals and the liberals thought that focusing on larger economic issues was “too male.” Only the socialist feminists gave the economic system itself prominence in their political calculations.

Today all this oppositionalism may sound rather quaint. But apparently the FBI thought the women’s movement enough of a threat to infiltrate it; according to its own files, the surveillance continued until 1973. After that, the movement seems to have lost its political teeth—even the FBI couldn’t muster any interest. By the mid-’70s, socialist feminism had little public presence outside of academia. Radical feminism was mostly superseded by what Echols calls “cultural feminism,” which celebrated femaleness, focusing on women as a separate (and superior) counterculture. The movement as a whole was shifting away from political transformation and toward personal transformation—and for liberal feminists, toward installing more women in the corridors of power.

Is it surprising that the aspects of early feminism that succeeded best were those posing the least actual social challenge? Corporate capitalism has managed to accommodate (mostly white, middle-class) women into its ranks without any significant structural transformation. When Blyth indicts Spin Sisters like Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer for reaping the benefits of economic stratification and enjoying lavish lifestyles, she not only reinvents the debates of earlier socialist feminists, she also echoes the contemporary left’s critique of an increasing wage gap and unconscionable CEO salaries, which now average 400 times that of an average worker. These, however, are not considered feminist issues. Instead, under the rubric of feminism, we get an amalgam of self-empowerment and traditional women’s culture—repackaged with cloying labels like “female affirmation”—along with, as Blyth aptly notes, a fixation on victimization. What she doesn’t say is that all the victimization is just the flip side of ersatz empowerment. (The feminist antiporn movement is the radical wing of the same tendency.) Having successfully broken into those corridors of corporate power, now women can be overworked, soulless executives, too. Dissatisfied? Feeling a little empty? There’s always the latest issue of Self and a bubble bath.