Media Circus: The shrieking sisterhood

Why do I hate women's mags and their horrific editors? Because I just really, really feel that way.

By Catherine Siepp
Published August 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

from time to time I'm invited to various networking organizations for women in Hollywood. I always decline because, frankly, it just sounds like too many women. Before you dismiss me as a traitor to my sex, let me say that over the years I have periodically visited that inner circle of journalism hell called women's magazines, so I know what life in a henhouse is like. As Huck Finn put it, I been there before.

Actually, my relationship to women's magazines resembles that of Charlie Brown to Lucy and the football. Even when I merely think about writing for them again, I know I'm going to end up flat on the ground and mortified. Yet I continue to fall for it, year after year. Why? Well, of course there's the prospect of what, ludicrously, always seems like easy money. Women's magazine editors are brilliant at making whitewashing a fence sound like a relaxing summer pastime. "All we want is quotes from a dozen or so people -- our dream list would include Madonna and Carol Burnett, but you be creative -- about: happy Thanksgiving memories/worst date/best 'treat-to-myself' ever, and all you have to do is spend a few days on the phone calling and calling and calling ... it's easy!"

Not to mention that, should you manage to inject some style into the finished piece, your prose then will be transformed into that classic women's magazine voice: perky, smarmy, know-it-all, generic. With, typically, a drippy quote from a psychotherapist tossed in for good measure. A friend of mine, a former His columnist for Mademoiselle, says he used to imagine his editors laboriously sweating over his pieces for hours with an iron, working like dutiful drudges to get the tone absolutely flat.

Another friend, New Times restaurant critic Meredith Brody, used to write a food column for Mademoiselle called Taste. Since they always provided her with both a topic and an outline of how it should be structured, she wondered why, month after month, she would open the magazine to see the column completely rewritten. "I asked my friend Pauline Kael why the editors didn't just save money by writing it themselves," she recalls. "And Pauline said, 'Oh, darling, don't you know, it's so much easier to rewrite somebody else."

The other day I did manage to turn down one of these assignments within two minutes from one of the Seven Sisters. The article, called "I Can't Believe I'm Getting Paid for This!" was conceived around interviews with people like a woman who bakes brownies for a living. Since no matter what you do, I can believe you're getting paid for it, I'm happy to say I declined without wasting anyone's time.

But the main problem with women's magazines is that, with few exceptions, they have all the worst aspects of any sorority: hysterics, bitchiness, hurt feelings. Let me share just a few examples from my perfumed album of women's magazine memories:

Hysterics: Some time ago I did an article on stylish Los Angeles hotels for Metropolitan Home. The piece went smoothly, I think I even got paid on time, and several weeks went by without my hearing anything from the editor. Then one evening I picked up the phone to hear her calling, in a panic, from the composing room: "I'm sitting here reading this, and I just don't think the style of these hotels comes across at all!" she said between great gulps of air. "You're going to have to punch it up! Right now!"

Bitchiness: I was once assigned to do an at-home style profile of an actress and her film-executive husband for Harper's Bazaar. The husband was extremely busy and invited me to interview him during the photo shoot at their house (I'd already talked at length to the wife). No problem; as anyone who's been on a photo shoot knows, these events are pretty much defined by down time. Unfortunately, Nancy Dinsmore, then Bazaar's longtime West Coast editor, for some reason found this idea shocking and unfathomable and decided to make it as difficult as possible.

When I showed up at the couple's house on the day of the photo shoot anyway, Nancy let out a small shriek and immediately picked up the couple's phone to call her New York office to complain to Joe Dolce -- now known as the recently ousted editor of Details, but then a mere Bazaar subeditor. "How old is Nancy Dinsmore?" Joe, who had never met her, asked me later. "About 103," I said. See, that's the thing about bitchiness -- it's catching.

Hurt feelings: This is actually the most annoying trait of women's magazine editors, and they carry it around like a dark cloud even after they've moved on to other publications, where they encounter ... well, me, for example. I once worked on a project with two women's magazine veterans whose standard presentation of each idea was, "I just really, really feel that way." Why? "Because I just really, really feel ..." My requests for hard facts or logical arguments were met with hurt, baleful looks and no more invitations to lunch.

As a friend of mine, in the middle of some torture session with one of the career gal magazines exploded one day, "It's a PMS carnival over there and I'm sick of it!"

This whole phenomenon crystalized for me when I came across a half-century-old Esquire essay, still remarkably topical, written by Elaine Greene called "Tears In the Ladies Room." The nominal subject was women executives in general, but since of course the writer was a journalist it's quite clear whom she was really talking about. After a particularly unnerving job interview with a fashion editor, Greene came up with "a self-steeling phrase to be chanted to oneself before stepping into a strange woman's lair. It goes, 'Here's a bitch who will try to torture me.'"

Unlike men, women subeditors are not terribly concerned with appearing powerful and magnanimous to a lowly writer. "Sure, you can have $2 a word," said the last man who assigned me something at Harper's Bazaar, end of discussion. I was one of the few writers to emerge unscathed (that is, paid in full) during the debacle that was Lear's, probably because I dealt directly with managing editor Bob Sabat, whom I'd known from Penthouse. Women editors, on the other hand, often seem more concerned with pleasing their pecking order of superiors: "Well, I'll ask if we can go up to $1.50 a word, but I don't think they're going to say yes." The disapproving response is then typically passed on for your enlightenment, just like in a high school slam book: "And FYI, they said to me, 'Why does she think she should get that much?'"

Los Angeles writers are generally called by women's magazines for their "access," as the current lingo has it, to Hollywood. The other day I got a call from someone's sulky assistant at McCall's, who wanted me to Federal Express her some of my clips. She then called back to complain that there weren't enough recent celebrity clips. Interviewing celebrities, of course, isn't exactly brain surgery. You don't forget how to do it after a couple of years, any more than you forget how to sweep with a broom because you've gotten into the habit of using a Dustbuster. It's actually the easiest, most mindless form of journalism there is. But I wasn't about to argue the point with McCall's.

The one consolation in writing for women's magazines is that it provides hours of entertaining griping with fellow travelers. A friend of mine who's done her share of slumming in the sisterhood deconstructed the whole McCall's encounter for me thus:

"Well, I do see McCall's point. McCall's profiles always have a distinct, unique sense of badness; they demand the interviewer to often lean forward, chin on hand, and murmur, 'But, Jane Seymour, don't you feel that children are the answer? Without children, do we as women ever really feel fulfilled?' Or is that Redbook? No, my feeling is that Redbook is Harper's compared to McCall's. I think McCall's is afraid that you may generate text that, side by side on a page, may make the Super Choco-Fudgy Brownie recipes look ... somehow less appetizing.

"You might use an adjective -- 'persnickety,' 'somnolent' -- that may cause an uncomfortable shift of chemicals in the brain synapses of a Tampa housewife. 'Fiesta Holiday Low-fat Tortilla Pizza?' she may suddenly exclaim. 'Now WAIT a minute! Something I read today ... something I read struck me as upsetting. Was it a recipe, was it a mole I saw on Jane Seymour's chin ... or was it someone's use of the word 'persnickety?'"

I'd credit who wrote that, but for some reason she wants to keep writing for these magazines.

Catherine Siepp

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