‘How Liberated Are You?’ a quiz from a 1978 issue of Cosmopolitan asks. 'Are you Bridget Jones?' asks Cosmo today. The former invited readers to reflect on gender roles in their relationships, home life and workplace 30 years ago. The latter asks you to monitor your chardonnay intake and your predilection for shagging your boss. Tell-alls in the comments, please.
Welcome to the (d)evolution of women’s magazines, the history of which is traced in the excellent Between the Covers exhibition, currently on view at the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University. Offering an insightful introduction to the many publications that comprise the UK’s 300-year history of women’s magazines, this interactive multimedia exhibit gives visitors the chance to take the above 1978 Cosmo quiz and compare their responses against the original survey results; to listen to audio recordings of interviews with past and present editors of many of Britain’s best-known women’s magazines, including Elle, Vogue, and In Style, and of smaller-circulation publications, such as Spare Rib and Henna; to flip through samples of many of the magazines on display in the exhibit; and to watch Annis Joslin’s Talking Magazines, a brief but fascinating film chronicling the role of magazines in the lives of a diverse group of women from Tower Hamlets. The result is a compelling narrative that charts not only the changing face of women’s magazines but also the changing roles of women in society – from the era that wrought the angel in the house through that which brought us the bitch in the house.
And yet, as the exhibit makes clear, a cultural history that depended solely on women’s magazines for its interpretation of women’s interests and concerns would be seriously lacking. Between the Covers, though it has no ideological bone to pick, highlights that lack and leaves the visitor with the overall impression of there being a gap between women’s experiences as portrayed on the magazine page and women’s experiences as actually lived. Almost all of the journalists interviewed alluded, either overtly or by implication, to the editorial restrictions they faced in publishing the kind of content they thought important or relevant. Meanwhile, the women interviewed in Talking Magazines consistently described their relationships with the glossies in ambivalent, and oftentimes powerfully antagonistic, terms. It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to assume that the frustrations expressed by both journalists and readers are somehow correlated.
What these shortcomings, the potential of niche markets to reach a broader readership via the internet, and the migration of readers from print to online publication mean for women’s glossies – Between the Covers leaves such theorising to the visitor. As a starting point for such a discussion, or for just a gratifying and colourful walk through magazine history, you could do no better than spend a few hours at the Women’s Library.
Between the Covers runs through 1 April 2009 at the Women’s Library. Admission is free.