The Men’s Magazine Problem Is a Women’s Magazine Problem

GQ Editor Sarah Goldstein jumped in the comments on my post yesterday on the magazine’s Chris Evans profile to make two points, which I think are fair, though I don’t agree with them entirely. First, she says that women write things other than profiles of celebrities for the magazine. This is totally true! And it’s true of other men’s-oriented magazines, too. I, myself, wrote a snarky guide to getting your Cyrano on for Esquire‘s Valentine’s Day package, and got dandy editing, and had a fine old time.

And second, she says if I concede that women write a bunch of different things for the magazine, then my question, “If the only way for women to published in certain kinds of magazines is to take these kinds of cheesecake assignments, should we say yes, and dunk them and then insist on better for the next thing in the hopes that there will be a next thing?” is unfair. I’ve thought about this, and while yes, women may make it into GQ and its ilk in other ways, that doesn’t mean that assignments like these don’t pose a dilemma if a magazine like this comes to you and asks you to write a celebrity profile on the heels of a profile like Jessica Pressler’s camping trip like Channing Tatum.

The importance of magazines like GQ and Esquire to women writers comes in part from the fact that there simply isn’t an equivalent among magazines aimed at women. As I was thinking about this, I looked through the American Society of Magazine Editors’ database of National Magazine Award nominees and winners. If you count Vanity Fair as a general interest magazine rather than a women’s magazine, which I do, a women’s magazine hasn’t published a nominee for a Feature Writing prize in the last twenty years. Unless the interior design magazine Nest counts, no women’s magazine has ever produced a nominee for profile writing in the two categories that have existed to recognize that form. If we count Self, six Public Interest award nominees have come from women’s magazines in the last twenty years: two in that magazine, one in Golf for Women, one in Redbook, one in Glamour, one in Family Circle. Between 1991 and 2001, no women’s magazine has produced a winner or a nominee in the Reporting category.

It’s weird and hugely frustrating that women’s magazines have made such totally different choices. That’s not to say that all women’s magazines should be high-end bastions of literary journalism—certainly all men’s magazines aren’t that way—but certainly we should be able to support one or two publications that tell us about hot accessories and do groundbreaking, beautifully-written reporting. That kind of committment would both make women’s publications better, and provide material support for the kind of empowerment places like Marie Claire are ostensibly supposed to supply along with beauty advice. But they just don’t do it. And because there isn’t a parallel infrastructure for great reporting, profiles, and public service journalism among women’s magazines, access to assignments at the high-end men’s magazines, and to the amazing editing and resources that come with those assignments, and that produce major awards, is incredibly precious.

Sometimes those kinds of assignments don’t come with difficult choices, like deciding what physical risks you’re willing to face especially in circumstances where it might be more dangerous to be a woman, or whether you’re comfortable putting yourself out there in a One Crazy Night profile. But sometimes they do. Acknowledging that those kinds of choices exist and aren’t easy, especially when it seems like prestige magazines are expressing preferences for certain things, needs to be part of the conversation if we want more women writing more kinds of stories for more magazines.