Magazine wars get bloody

Feminisms' future lies in the balance, reports Luiza Chwialkowska
Luiza Chwialkowska, The Ottawa Citizen

'The latest in magazine empire back-biting," roared the business press this week as Bonnie Fuller, the Canadian editor of North America's top-selling women's magazine, Cosmopolitan, was lured away to its arch-rival Glamour.

But to readers of the women's magazine, more is at stake than the fortunes of the Conde Nast and Hearst publishing empires -- the very future of feminism, in fact.

Cosmopolitan / One Cosmo edition features knockoff designs inspired by TV lawyer Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart.)

Ms. Fuller's defection from the raunchy pages of Hearst's Cosmo to the more serious pages of Conde Nast's Glamour, is a crossing of the feminist battle field, from the headquarters of push-up bra feminism to an organ of the power-suit variety.

Thanks to stories about lipstick and orgasms, the magazines may look like twin slumber parties in print. But observers say a lot more goes on between the covers.

"The magazines are recreation and entertainment, but they are also a kind of social barometer of where we think we're at and where we ought to be," observes journalism professor Barbara Freeman, who teaches a course called "Gender and the Journalist" at Carleton University.

Glamour / Costumer Loree Parral is featured in Glamour for creating the "look" of Ally McBeal.

The style and content of Cosmopolitan and Glamour have come to represent two competing expressions of feminism. They both tell women they can "have it all," but they disagree on how to get it.

Take their contrasting takes on Ally McBeal. Time magazine recently identified the ditzy fictional TV lawyer as a touchstone in the feminist debate. Does the popularity of the mini-skirt- clad and boy-crazy fictional character herald the end of feminism, Time asked.

Both Cosmo and Glamour this month address Ally McBeal's leg-baring style.

In a section about accomplished women, Glamour offers a profile of the show's costumer, Loree Parral -- a real woman who has a degree in gerontology and works 19-hour days dressing women for shows that have included L.A. Law and Picket Fences.

Meanwhile, Cosmo girls get news they can use. "Ally McSteals," says the headline: "How you can get TV's leggiest lawyer's style for less."

And if the micro-mini fashion tips aren't enough to turn a Cosmo girl into an Ally-McClone, Cosmo will help.

Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and you can win your very own Ally wardrobe (sizes 4 to 10 only.)

"In all the years I have edited Cosmo, I have not been influenced by the feminist movement, even though I am a feminist," said Cosmo's legendary editor Helen Gurley Brown, who took over the magazine in 1965, and ran it as a one-woman show until Ms. Fuller displaced her in 1996.

"A lot of people tend to take different strains of feminism and conflate them into one. Whereas traditional feminism came from about 5 different places. Some of it was socialist, some was very liberal," says Ms. Freeman.

"When Cosmo was invented, I think Helen Gurley Brown saw women's assertion of their own sexuality as very liberating. In those days, everyone was dressing down, not wearing lipstick, not curling their hair, not wearing a bra if they could get away with it, and basically focusing on social issues," says Ms. Freeman.

"Cosmo girls" can have it all if they master the art of men.

On this month's cleavage-heavy cover of Cosmo: "Fifteen New Sex Positions We Highly Recommend You Test-Drive Immediately," and "The Sexiest Stuff Minimal Money Can Buy."

Glamour tells women they can have it all, if they learn not only to dress, but how to invest and balance their lifestyles.

Glamour was the first fashion magazine to put a black woman on the cover, regularly covers social issues, and has won prestigious writing awards.

"They are actually addressing some of these issues that are almost Ms. magazine-like without some of the rhetoric," says Ms. Freeman of Glamour.

In Glamour this month: "Could You Have A Saner Life?" and "Men's Sexual Health Report -- What They Know and Why They Lie."

The original Cosmo girl, Ms. Brown was a small-town Arkansas secretary who made her way by marrying the boss -- a Hollywood producer who bought her a magazine that she turned into America's best-selling women's monthly.

"Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere," was the credo that fuelled the magazine under Ms. Brown.

Ms. Fuller is a generation younger than Ms. Brown. Her perspective is one of a working woman who rose on her coattails, not her husband's.

Ms. Fuller started as a fashion reporter at the Toronto Star and worked, cajoled, and some say pushed, her way into the editorship of Canada's Flare magazine, at the age of 26.

The same age as the models who showed off the latest fashion in the pages of her magazine, Ms. Fuller was commanding a staff of 15 and a budget of about $1 million.

She went on to turn around ailing Young Miss magazine into successful YM magazine, and launched the American editions of Marie Claire, before coming to Cosmopolitan.

Now, after only 2 years a Cosmo girl, Ms. Fuller is leaving one of the most envied posts in publishing, to displace yet another veteran editor, 70-year-old Ruth Whitney.

The big question is whether she will turn Glamour into Cosmo or vice versa.

"I'd be very interested to know why she is making the leap," says Ms. Freeman. "Is it just bucks or does she find something challenging about Glamour? Or are the people in charge of Glamour not happy about the feminist messages and they want something that looks more like Cosmo?"

Given that as recently as last year, Conde Nast CEO Steven Florio was telling The New York Times, Ms. Whitney's job was secure, Ms. Fuller's arrival may be a signal of impending change.

"Helen Gurley Brown, Rona Maynard at Chatelaine, Stevie Cameron who's doing Elm Street the editor really does hone the direction. But she's not going to be able to do that without the backing of the people who run the magazine," says Ms. Freeman.

The question is whether the Cosmo-ism or Glamour-ism will win over readers.

Historically, Cosmo has won hands down. It's circulation has been close to three million, compared to second-place Glamour's which is just over two million.

"An editor can have an enormous impact," says Rona Maynard, editor of Canada's most popular women's magazine, Chatelaine. "When Bonnie Fuller came to Cosmo, the whole look of the magazine changed and became much more contemporary, but the subject matter didn't change. Bonnie took out some things. They got right out of travel and profiles, and they started doing a lot of fashion. But the portrayal of the Cosmo girl did not change."

Will the Glamour woman survive the Cosmo girl?

How much she Cosmo-fies Glamour remains to be seen. But, in any case, it is unlikely Ms. Fuller's arrival will mean an end to the quest for equality.

After all, this month's Cosmo tell its readers "How to get a man-size ego."

Comparison Shopping

What do women want? Here is a selection of articles from three of Canada's top-selling women's magazines.

How to:

Glamour: Put a woman in the White House

Chateleine: Outgrow sibling rivalry

Cosmo: Get a man-size ego

Editor's Column:

Glamour: "How your letters influence our editors" (unsigned)

Chateleine: "My first love" by Rona Maynard

Cosmopolitan: "I dreamt last night that I was auditioning to be the new fifth Spice Girl--Cosmo Spice" by Bonnie Fuller


Glamour: "How can I play up boring brown eyes?"

Chateleine: "My adult daughter has arthritis and may need a wheelchair. What renovations will make her life easier?"

Cosmo: "I think I'm a nympho. I've slept with 37 men so far this year!"


Glamour: none

Chateleine: Dream Cuisine Contest

Cosmo: Fun Fearless Female Awards


Chateleine: Will I lose a promotion if I tell my boss I'm three months pregnant?

Glamour: Sexual Harassment lawsuits: Too many or not enough?

Cosmopolitan: Getting fired


Glamour: "A month of Great Sex"

Chateleine: Menopause and Sex

Cosmo: The Cosmo Kama Sutra (illustrated)

Birth Control:

Glamour: Pregnancy scare options

Chateleine: A day in the life of an abortion doctor

Cosmo: Morning-After-the-Condom-Broke Emergency Measures


Glamour: Too busy to eat?

Chateleine: 50 ways to love tomatoes

Cosmo: How to tell if your weight has gone off the charts


Glamour: Can you afford your dreams?

Chateleine: Treating your finances like a personal corporation

Cosmo: A Day in the life of a moocher


Glamour: How to film your baby's birth without annoying your doctor

Chateleine: Getting pregnant after 40

Cosmo: Cosmo Kama Sutra position #1, degree of difficult 5: "The Rock-A-Bye Baby"