More magazine. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Laurie Penny on the death of More magazine: a price worth paying for a better media

Do we need to mourn every lost job without further comment, even in an industry that’s becoming toxic?

More is no more. For 25 years, the magazine specialised in the sort of wacky diet advice and anatomically implausible sex position tips that occasionally allowed you to re-use the same root vegetables. But it announced last week that it would be suspending publication because of what its chief executive described as ‘challenging economic conditions’ and the rest of us like to call ‘the internet’.

More isn’t the first such title to close its doors. Just17, Sugar and many others have also gone the way of the Rodrigues day gecko in the past few years. The lady-media industrial complex is changing forever - and with it, the way we write and speak about women’s experience is changing, too.

Reactions to the demise of this vaguely-beloved title have been mixed. The Vagenda team, of this parish, were attacked for celebrating the end of More on their Twitter feed. Rhiannon and Holly, whose stated mission is to challenge the organised, monetised misogyny of ‘women’s’ magazines, were accused of failing to show sympathy for the journalists losing their jobs. They later retracted the tweet and apologised for any offence caused - but the issues raised are, to mind, a little more complex than that. Job losses are always unfortunate, but does that mean we need to mourn every lost job without further comment, even in an industry that’s becoming toxic?

As writers and journalists, even more than any other creative work, our understanding of labour rights has to be precisely situated - because we are engaged in cultural production, and sometimes that cultural production can be harmful, and we know it. It’s rather like the tense discussion that comes up in activist circles whenever the police go on strike. Is every job worth fighting for? What about when the people working in those jobs are paid to prop up state power and pick on young people, poor people, black people and activists? Are we really going to stand on a picket line with cops when those same cops might well be smashing up our own pickets the next day?

In the case of More, it’s even more complicated. Journalists who produce sexist content designed to sell women products they don’t need to fix physical deficiencies they don’t have are engaging in an exploitative mode of production for pay, for sure. But writers are always more at risk of producing bad content when we have bad bosses, when we have editors and managers who exploit us, or encourage us to exploit ourselves in our turn.

Labour and gender issues intersect in media more than many other industries, and pay and representation aren’t just perennial problems in women’s journalism - they change its nature. They mean that in order to make a living, female journalists can find ourselves forced into precisely the kind of exploitative cultural production we most despise. Even if what we truly care about most is fashion and fucking, we will find ourselves dismissed for writing about those things. Our efforts are rewarded with scorn and professional ghettoisation. If you want to liberate the means of cultural production, you have to acknowledge that there's not a small risk that that process of liberation will leave many of us penniless, if we aren't already.

The women who churn out those endless pieces on how to get a ‘bikini body’ aren’t dumb, or taken in by the weary rhetoric, any more than you or me. I’m good friends with a number of them, and it’s far from an easy job: even if it weren’t actually pretty hard to write about a hundred slightly different shades of nail polish without your brain melting and flowing out of your ears like this season’s oyster grey*, there’s always been a price to pay in terms of being taken seriously. One day you’re writing about A-line skirts because that’s what you care about and you’ve a gas bill to pay, and the next day you’re stuck writing about A-line skirts for ever, because women who care about hemlines can’t possibly also know about climate change or stock market futures.

The class and gender issues behind this have been brewing for years. In a media industry staggering under the one-two punch of the internet and the recession, women are the last hired and the first fired. Certainly we are the very last to be promoted or fairly paid, as too many angry private rants from my contemporaries have lately reminded me.

Unless you already work in media, you’d probably be stunned to learn the real salaries paid to even well-known women working in traditionally male outlets - particularly if they are young, non-white, or both. I could list several female writers whose names, if you’re a follower of my work or my Twitter feed, you will certainly recognise, who are living hand to mouth, struggling to make rent, bullied into working unpaid overtime with no prospect of promotion by bosses who are almost exclusively male.

The traditional press - the tech and political and cultural press, which has its own money and platform problems right now - still remains a man’s world, struggling with the violence of a cornered creature to stay relevant and in charge. That’s before we even get on to issues of gender representation, on which the stats speak for themselves: in a recent analysis of nine British newspapers, 78 per cent of the content was written by men.

Women’s magazines are not wholly evil. If they were, it’d be easy to dismiss them outright. What makes them so goddamn compelling is the sense that they are for us, that they are written by and for women without the mediation of men.

Another word for this is ‘trash’. We are encouraged to think, and to talk about, issues that mainly interest women as ‘trash’, as cheap and awful gossip, as well as the only really reliable employment for a woman who wants to write for a living. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that women who read and write for these magazines understand that they’re being manipulated:

Most commentators, like this Private Eye satirist, ridicule women’s magazines’ “trivial” concerns and their editorial tone: “Women’s magazine triteness . . . combines knowing chatter about blowjobs with deep reservoirs of sentimentality.” Women too believe that they transmit the worst aspects of the beauty myth. Readers themselves are often ambivalent about the pleasure mixed up with anxiety that they provide. “I buy them,” a young woman told me, “as a form of self-abuse. They give me a weird mixture of anticipation and dread, a sort of stirred- up euphoria. . .

We accept that manipulation because the glossies kid us into feeling part of a private sisterhood, a breathe-easy world of womanity whose content appears undetermined by men, where writers we’ve never met really do want to advise us and help us to be the best selves we can possibly be - fun, fearless females.

Today, though, we no longer have to rely on women’s magazines for that secret sensibility that costs so much of our pride to access. Thanks to the internet, we no longer have to guess what other women and girls might be thinking about sex and social justice and the cutest top to wear on the day you take your boss’ corner office. We can find out, in detail, on endless forums, without the explicit mediation of advertisers and editors with one eye on their bottom line. We can find it all out, and more.**

Of course, it’s not as though the internet is free from commercial influence. This isn’t about network good, hard copy bad. If I want to make, for example, a private post on my Facebook wall about how I can fit into my ‘skinny’ jeans for the first time in months, I’ll have to do so next to a banner advertising “one simple trick to a flat belly”, unless I download specific software to block those ads. Nor can I be sure that the blogger advising me, in the breathy tones of a fantasy best friend, to ditch my date and curl up with some starchy snacks and a japanese sex toy isn’t being sponsored by the makers of the Hitachi Magic Wand. Although if she is, I want her job.

Online intimacies are not always what they seem. They can be monetised just like everything else. One only has to look at a website like XOJane, which consciously positions itself as the future of ladymedia, as opposed to media which women merely create and consume. XOJane is all about the whispered confession, the dirty secret, and it’s one of many such sites that routinely underpays its contributors, or solicits content for free in exchange for publicity the satisfaction of a platform, which you cannot eat, and believe me I’ve tried. It Happened To Me: I opened my heart to the world for bus change. Speaking about women’s intimate experience will always be important, because the personal is political - but as in meatspace, so in cyberspace, the political is forced to collapse into the personal to the point at which it can be streamlined and sold off for money, and not much money at that. We will henceforth refer to this process as XOJanification.

Nevertheless, the network still does what the dead-tree press attempted to do for women far better, and far more honestly. The mainstream media hasn’t found and attempted to make money off, for example, the endless tumblrs comparing and sharing women’s real lived experience of sex, power and violence, or the co-created projects bringing together pictures of how breasts and bottoms and bellies actually look. There aren’t many ways to financially exploit women from queer, politically non-standard, working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds talking about what it’s really like to be female outside the ‘aspirational’ fantasy of magazine-land, because advertisers remain uninterested in speaking to those people. But we’re talking about it anyway, and we’re changing what women’s collective writing means in the process, and many of us, yes, are turning that impulse into paid work.

Jobs for women writers aren’t disappearing - they’re just diversifying, becoming more individually determined as the network demands more content that is not determined by what editors think will sell.*** It’s not always glamorous, or marketable, or even fucking grammatically coherent, although it can be all those things. But it’s compelling, and it’s growing year-on-year in a way that the old media stooges haven’t even grasped yet. Big business finally woke up to fan fiction with Fifty Shades of Grey - but only in the most superficial of fashions, failing to really plumb the murky depths of Harry Potter porn forums and alternate-universe co-writing kink projects, where suspicious lumps of sexual and literary innovation float to the surface of an endless well of pixellated filth. If the real marker of equality is that women of mediocre or dubious talent have as much chance of success and employment as mediocre men, then the internet might be more of a leveller than we anticipated.

It can also be a frightening place to be a woman. In 2011 I wrote that an opinion is the short skirt of the internet, in that having one makes you fair game for any amount of ugly sexist abuse - but part of the violence of that backlash has come about precisely because the internet allows women to express and educate ourselves without men’s mediation in a way that simply wasn’t possible before, and some guys just can’t handle it. The difference is stark. Online, 33 per cent of opinion articles are written by women, as opposed to 20 per cent of print-based opinion pieces, according to the Poynter institute. It’s not equality, but it’s a 65 per cent improvement on the dead-tree press.

The modes of cultural production to which women’s work and experience are relegated remain toxic, but the internet is shaking it all up. We’re not done yet, and we may never be done. But digital writing is making the old lady-media industrial complex increasingly irrelevant, opening up opportunities for women and minorities to create and influence discourse. It’s a good thing. It’s one of the few things that makes me hopeful for my industry. And incidentally, it’s the reason I’m a writer. For me, and for many, many other women journalists, writers and readers, the implosion of a few antediluvian glossy mags is a price worth paying.

*Those of you who were paying attention will notice that this is, in fact, one of this season’s most popular nail colours, and it legitimately looks awesome.

**Further evidence of just how ridiculous the internet makes the old ladymag formulas look can be found at cosmarxpolitan.tumblr.com. Best line: "Shocking truth: is constant unceasing class warfare ruining YOUR skin?"

***Not that I’m knocking editors as a species; they do a vital job, and one of them worked with me on this. But it’s worth noting that after a lag-time, the best commissioning editors now understand that curating content for the web is a brand new task, with a different breed of reader; if you’ve been following the evolution of the New Statesman website over the past three years, you’ll see what I mean.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Parliament TV screengrab
Show Hide image

MP Michelle Thomson's full speech on rape at 14: "I am a survivor"

The MP was attacked as a teenager. 

On Thursday, the independent MP for Edinburgh West Michelle Thomson used a debate marking the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to describe her own experience of rape. Thomson, 51, said she wanted to break the taboo among her generation about speaking about the subject.

MPs listening were visibly moved by the speech, and afterwards Thomson tweeted she was "overwhelmed" by the response. 

Here is her speech in full:

I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.

When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere - it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived - I was very comfortable - and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.

It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.

Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.

I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.

Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.​
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.

I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response - and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.

When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.

It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally - and fatally - undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?

I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.

As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.

As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all - it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.

We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.