"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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Why Labour's tuition fees row could only be the start of a difficult summer

New appointees at CCHQ and Downing Street are keen to show that the Tories are back in business.

What is the row over Labour's tuition fee pledge really about, and does it matter? The party is under attack from its political opponents and parts of the press for Jeremy Corbyn's pre-election NME interview in which he said he'd “deal with” the issue of tuition fee debt.

The story has been given a fresh lease of life because Guido has got hold of a recording of a shadow minister, Imran Hussain, saying Labour would wipe out all student debt. The Evening Standard has splashed on it: “Corbyn caught out on students” is the headline.

Among the commentariat, certainty that a) Corbyn pledged to eradicate all fee debt and b) this was electorally significant seems to run in exact proportion with people who didn't think the Labour leader was surging before the election.

YouGov, who you'll recall did pick up on what was going on have found that just 17 per cent of 18-24s believed Corbyn's statement meant he'd wipe out all fee debt. More significantly, just 14 per cent of 25-41s, the cohort actually making tuition fee repayments right now, thought they were in line for a debt write-off. There is no partisan divide – Tory voters were actually slightly more likely than Labour ones to believe there was a write-off in the offing.

So does it matter? That much of the political class either pay tuition fees, would have paid tuition fees, or have children who will pay tuition fees is one reason why the issue receives outsized attention, and that matters.

As far as the politics goes: it's worth remembering that for all “tuition fees” became emblematic of the perceived failures of the Liberal Democrats in coalition, that party's ratings began to steadily decline pretty much the moment that Nick Clegg turned up in the Rose Garden with David Cameron. Other than among current students and their parents, the issue isn't a live one, even among fee-paying graduates. (Frankly, were I Labour, I'd rather my fees policy was on the front page of a London newspaper than I would my Brexit policy.)

There is a political reason why it matters. Today's newspapers are pretty thin and the next month looks like going the same way. (That the other big political story is Theresa May's £26 dress gives you an idea of the scale of the news drought.)

News is a lot like an ideal gas: it expands to fill the space available. That from the top of the party to the outer reaches of the frontbench, Labour expected to be involved in another leadership contest this summer means that not a great deal of thought has been put into what, exactly, they are going to fill the summer with. No one at the top of Labour has had a proper summer break since 2014.

On the other side, the new appointees at CCHQ and Downing Street are keen to show that the party is back in business. The opposition should brace themselves for a summer of difficult front pages.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.