It’s not easy being a “former editor-in-chief.” When you’re the editor-in-chief of a women’s magazine, you get car service, screening passes, and nice lunches. The staff has to listen to your stories and opinions, no matter how dopey or pointless they may be. Going cold turkey is hard. It can be weeks—even months—before anyone solicits your opinion. I know this, because I am a former editor-in-chief. So it was with some sympathy that I picked up Myrna Blyth’s book, Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America. Blyth was, for 21 years, editor-in-chief of Ladies’ Home Journal. For the last twelve or so, she also ran the business side of the magazine. She is the founding editor-in-chief of MORE magazine, which does a credible job of writing about women over 40, and how they reinvent themselves. The latter is a subject of great interest to me. My own Act Two has involved writing fiction. It allows me to still be in charge and tell people what to do, only now these people live within my imagination. Blyth’s reinvention seems also to involve writing fiction—of a different sort.
She begins her story at a baby shower on Fifth Avenue with a $5 million view. The shower is given by Hillary Clinton for her former press secretary Lisa Caputo, and, as Blyth tells it, every member of the media elite from the sorority of spin sisters is there, including Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Mandy Grunwald. During the party, Blyth realizes that although she is a member of the “Girls’ Club,” she feels awkward knowing that she is the only woman in that room—and, alas, in the whole profession—who is not a liberal, and not wondering out loud “what dreadful, stupid, moronic thing George W. Bush would do next.” Afterward, as she’s walking home, she laments how she and her editorial sisters are “to blame for creating the negative messages of victimization and unhappiness that bombard women today.” You’ve got to wonder what they served at that shower.
The book continues to attack the women editors for being a secret cabal of liberals from which she feels increasingly excluded. “Quite honestly,” she says, “it is kind of lonely when absolutely nobody ever agrees with you.”
If Blyth feels excluded from the sorority of “Media Princesses,” believe me, it was not because of her politics. I was the founding editor of New York Woman and My Generation, and I’ve worked at a half-dozen other magazines. I know many of the editors she writes about. Some are my closest friends. I couldn’t tell you which levers they pull once they’re inside a voting booth. That accusation is just silly.
Her other point, that magazines exhort their readers to feel anxious about their lives, is absolutely correct. And even worse, she claims, they tend to personalize the stories. Have we exacerbated anxiety among women about their health, finances, relationships? I’d argue that were it not for the women’s magazines writing about breast cancer in the most personal ways, many women would remain ignorant or blasé about checkups and treatment. Same goes for sexual abuse, eating disorders, colonoscopies. In 1986, at New York Woman, we did one of the first pieces about women and AIDS. We worried that we were being too negative. But we were all too right.
“Women’s magazines can be like bad boyfriends. They’ll tear you down, then spend pages trying to build you back up.”
Blyth argues that the magazines turn women into victims because of the emphasis we put on stress, health, men, the environment. Victims, she says, are what liberals need to enact their policies, thus the leap to the fiction of the liberal conspiracy. She finds this shocking, since we are the most fortunate women the world has known. True, but until there are no unwanted babies, everyone is employed, and no one has to think about terrorism every time they get into a plane, there are real issues out there, and thank heaven someone is addressing them in an accessible way. As an editor, I never thought of our readers as victims. They were many things: funny, annoying, tender, opinionated. To think of them as people to pity would have made going to work every day a grim effort. One of my favorite stories arrived in the mail handwritten on yellow legal-size paper. It was by a woman who had finally gotten the courage to kick her abusive, drug-addict husband out of the house. A spirited and heartfelt piece, it made you want to cheer for the author. If personal stories are too treacly, or make the writer sound like a victim, blame the editor, not the Democratic Party.
At their worst, women’s magazines can be like bad boyfriends. They’ll tear you down, then spend pages trying to build you back up. But in doing so, they’ll give you all the service and the information you need. They’re different from men’s magazines that way. Men’s magazines reassure their readers from the get-go. You’re a womanizing slob who drinks too much? Hey, that’s cool. The assumption is that you’re okay; it’s the car or the stereo that needs fixing. Women’s magazines work from the premise that their readers want, and need, to improve their lives. As Blyth points out, in the early days of Clinton’s presidency, the First Lady would invite groups of women editors to visit with her at the White House. She wanted advice on how to soften her image. Most of us, including Blyth, obliged.
While we’re magazine-bashing, let’s not forget about the advertisers. As Blyth points out, magazines write about products to make you feel better. Fashion spreads urge you to spend money to look better. And guess what? The magazines advertise these same products and clothes on their own pages. More and more, publishers determine the course of a magazine to please the advertisers. As publisher of her own magazine, Blyth was one of the few editors with any power to do something. Did she? She avoids answering that.
Blyth recently said that she was surprised by the harsh response her book has received. Let’s put aside the fact that she has turned her back on the hand that fed her for 21 years; that’s for her to deal with. But when a writer is gratuitously nasty, calling Katie Couric “Her Cuteness,” claiming editors and art directors are hooked on luxuries like $1,200 Prada bags (where’s mine?), and writing sentences like “When the political bell rings, most (spin sisters) salivate like expensive Pavlov poodles over Bill and Hill, abortion and gun control, and saving the spotted owl, or, at least, an African ‘princess,’ ” she ought not to be surprised that the spin sisters she’s attacking have their sorority pins bent out of shape.
Betsy Carter’s first novel, The Orange Blossom Special, will be published by Algonquin Books.