The horror that is the women’s magazine market

Each cover is nastier than the one before. Should these publications be treated as emotional pornography?

Sat, May 10, 2014, 01:00

shaneThere are many grim places on this planet. Dark, depressing corners where optimism and hope are replaced by aggression and poison – and where humanity’s darkest fears come true. But few of them are as terrible as the racks in your local newsagents that stock Take a Break.

“My toddler, killed as she watched Peppa Pig,” is its big splash this week. Down the page: “Sister’s courage: My brother raped me but I STILL love him.”

The women’s weekly magazine sells 700,000 copies an issue of that sort of thing. (Last week’s lead: “My darling boy: Stabbed, but I FORGIVE his killers”.)

But Take a Break is only one publication on a shelf on which lurid headlines are crammed beneath titles of contrasting pep and pink and bouncy exclamation marks.

Pick Me Up: “I Threw My Baby Out the Window.”

Love It!: “My poor boy was COOKED ALIVE.”

That’s Life!: “My hubby dragged me, then filmed himself RAPING ME.” And: “My son was taken away over a BIRTHMARK.”

Chat: “Forced to kill my dad: Stepmum threatened to cut off my penis . . .”


Weight-obsessed
This is the horror that is the women’s magazine market. Move farther along the shelf and the bloody gives way to the body, as you reach the weight-obsessed, celebrity-war-reporting, “close friends reveal”-quoting, circle-of-shame-drawing magazines, such as Best, Heat, Now, Reveal, Closer and numerous other titles that offer bleak gossip in Day-Glo colours.

They have become wallpaper on newsagents’ shelves. The detritus of waiting rooms. Background noise. Taken for granted.

The focus of complaints about women’s magazines in general tends to be on its obsession with body issues – or body shaming, as it’s more aptly called – but the violence-driven end of the market is usually overlooked.

It’s all there for €1. Domestic violence as a sales pitch. Rape as something worth putting in CAPITAL LETTERS. Relationships as a battle zone. Bodies as blast sites. Judgment, bullying, intrusion, drama.

Just to scan the shelves is to browse the deep seam of self-disgust and neurosis that so many children are raised alongside, and that is usually placed at just about the height a girl is when she gets to 10 years old.

The magazines’ popularity remains high, although many will not survive. Their sales are in an online-driven freefall that will eventually see casualties – although even a runt of the market, Love It!, was selling 110,000 copies a week last year.

The final issue of Nuts was also on the shelves – higher up – last week, its final cover a weeping glamour model, part of an accompanying photoshoot whose funereal theme greeted its demise with a certain bleak humour.

The magazine’s sales had dropped from a high of 300,000 to a terminal 55,000 in less than a decade, and it followed the death of Front and Maxim long before it.

The rest of that men’s magazine market is in shreds, squeezed out in part by online porn. (The one success story is Men’s Health and its monthly promises of great abs. But that’s a whole other body-issues article in itself.)

However, the final months of Nuts were also marked by a campaign that had seen Co-op stores in the UK refuse to stock it unless “lads’ mags” agreed to be wrapped in “modesty bags”, effectively elevating it to the less glamorous end of the top shelves.


Pornography
Irish retailers were briefly dragged into the discussion by the media after a group of lawyers wrote to the Guardian to demand the removal of lads’ mags and pornography from UK shelves, saying that employees could sue because exposure can violate “the dignity of individual employees or customers, or [create] an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”.

Irish newsagents’ shelves do not groan under the weight of plastic-wrapped porn in the way that they do in the UK, so such concerns could be waved away without too much fuss. But it was interesting that the Irish edition of the Sun ditched its Page 3 models (motivated by “cultural differences”) while a campaign against topless models was in full swing in Britain.

But although sexism and nudity in lads’ mags, and their exposure to children, have been derided, the pernicious, damaging content of the better-selling magazines aimed at women has been largely overlooked. They sit on the shelves, fighting for your attention, screaming your deepest fears – yet what they’re really saying somehow goes unheard.


@shanehegarty
shegarty@irishtimes.com

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