"Feminists do the best Photoshop": the independent women's magazines getting it right

As <em>Bust</em> magazine celebrates its 20th birthday, Anna Carey writes in praise of the women's magazines that avoid the diets and the circle of shame in favour of stuff women might actually be interested in, like swearing and graphic novels and femini

The first time I saw an issue of Bust, back in 1998, I thought it was too good to be true. The cover showed Jon Spencer, frontman of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and his equally cool wife Christina Martinez of Boss Hogg, and the cover line read “This is girls on sex. Any questions?” The magazine’s tagline was “For women with something to get off their chests”, and it was aimed at young women who loved indie music and feminism and charity shop dresses, who had grown up with zines as well as Just Seventeen. It was, in fact, aimed at people like me, and I loved it.

This week, Bust will celebrate its 20th birthday with a party attended by former cover stars Kathleen Hanna and Gloria Steinem. The magazine’s survival is particularly impressive given that back in 2001 it was briefly bought by a publishing company that then went, well, bust. But co-founders Debbie Stoller and Laurie Henzel bought back the title, and now release six issues of Bust every year. Everyone from Mindy Kaling and Beth Ditto to Helen Mirren and Missy Elliott has graced its cover; Tina Fey did so in 2004 and wrote about the shoot in her memoir Bossypants, saying “feminists do the best Photoshop”.  

But perhaps what’s most surprising in an age where we’re constantly being told print is dead is that Bust is not alone. In fact, the last few years have seen the emergence of several new independent women’s magazines, from the dreamy Oh, Comely and the elegant, grown-up Libertine to the fresh, funny Frankie. These aren’t lo-fi zines; they’re all beautifully designed and produced on high quality paper. They’re not trying to be hugely political or radical, and they follow the classic women’s magazine template; they have fashion spreads and features on new products. They just assume women are interested in reading about stuff like swearing and graphic novels and feminism and space travel.

Recently on this very site Rhiannon and Holly wrote about their ideal women’s magazine, and in many ways these titles fulfill their requirements. They’re not perfect, of course. Most of them are quite white, straight and middle class (although Bust has always showcased a comparatively wide range of ages, sexualities, body types and ethnicities). And Oh Comely and Frankie can tend towards the twee, which is fine by me but which some may find off-putting.

But they’re all smart and imaginative, and they don’t lecture or berate their readers. Oh Comely’s motto is “Keep your curiosity sacred”, and the latest issue includes pieces on both pregnancy and Mogwai. The beautiful first issue of Libertine had a “space and science” theme; the second issue’s theme was history. Recent Frankie features include a history of big hair and a homage to female anger; the latter’s author writes, “Maybe I’d be smiling more if I didn’t live in a world where even the action of my facial muscles is supposed to be pleasingly bland and non-threatening. Didn’t think of that, did you, weird old dude at the fruit market!”

I cherish these titles. It’s not that I don’t love internet publications – I’ve been writing stuff online since the nineties. But magazines are special, which is why people keep starting them. Nothing beats the tactile and aesthetic pleasure they inspire, and I love that, unlike a website, each issue is self-contained, an individual parcel full of potentially interesting and beautiful things. I love the whole idea of magazines. I just want them to be, you know, good. I want to feel like they’re written for women like me.

On the rare occasions when that happens, I fall in love. It happened a few times in my teens and early twenties, when I was besotted by the groundbreaking American teenage mag Sassy, hilarious British glossy Minx and, before it descended into self-referential smugness, former Sassy editor Jane Pratt’s women’s magazine Jane. I’m 37 now, and I’ll probably never feel as strongly about magazines as I did back then.

But I look forward to every issue of these new ladymags. They not only give me something lovely to look at, they entertain and inform me. They may inspire me to spend money, but it’s more likely to be on the books and music recommended in Bust’s extensive review pages than on clothes or make-up. Unlike some mainstream women’s publications, these magazines don’t make me dissatisfied or irritated. They make me want to make more and read more and do more. They make me happy. I hope they all last for another twenty years.

Now read about the ideal women's magazine, as imagined by Rhiannon and Holly 

 

Tina Fey's "Bust" magazine cover from 2004. She wrote in her memoir that "feminists do the best Photoshop".
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times