Women and the National Magazine Awards

Liliana Segura ran the numbers and found out that the finalists for the National Magazine Awards, which were announced today, include no women in the Reporting, Features, Profiles, Essays or Columns categories. Women did, however, dominate the nominations in the Public Interest category. Four out of five of those nominations went to women: Natasha Gardner for “Direct Fail,” about sentencing children as adults in 5280; Kathy Dobie for “Tiny Little Laws” about sexual assaults in Indian country in Harper’s; Lea Goldman for “The Big Business of Breast Cancer” about pink branding and profiteering in Marie Claire; and Sarah Stillman for “The Invisible Army,” a look at the fate of foreign workers on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the New Yorker—the piece also just won a Hillman Award.

It’s fantastic to see women clean up in this space, but I wonder if the paucity of female nominees in other spaces is due to the fact that there is a National Magazine Award General Excellence category for Women’s Magazines, which “Honors women’s magazines, including health and fitness magazines and family-centric publications,” while men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ are counted as General Interest publications. Now, Esquire and GQ aren’t truly general-interest publications: their style, health, and lifestyle sections aren’t designed to be accessible to someone like me, and that’s fine. But the division in General Excellence creates an incentive for women’s magazines to genuinely specialize their coverage across the board, while men’s magazines have incentives to commission features and criticism that compete with publications like the New Yorker and The Atlantic.

I think women’s magazines could stand to be a lot more ambitious in their criticism, and in the way they structure their profiles in particular, in ways that would challenge the idea that they’re not aimed at a general audience. Just because an actress is a woman, and a profile of her is appearing in a women’s magazine, doesn’t mean it has to be family and weight first and craft and artistic impact second. But the existence of the Women’s Magazine category, and the grouping of women’s magazine in with subjects that tend to be considered second-tier in comparison to the subjects that tend to win National Magazine Awards—heath and family versus national security, national tragedies, national media phenomena and the people who handle all three—isn’t helpful. It’s worthwhile to consider whether judges have biases. But it’s also worth interrogating whether the categories the National Magazine Awards uses aren’t set up to elevate the best in journalism, whatever its subject matter is. It’s not clear why Glamour’s “The Secret That Kills Four Women a Day” on relationship violence is in personal service rather than straight features unless the editors who submitted it felt they had a better chance of it being recognized as Helpful Tips for Women rather than an issue that should be part of the national conversation across gender lines.