Jane's affliction

Jane Pratt's muchvaunted new teen mag was supposed to be a hip blend of Sassy and Ms. Instead, it's just another advertiser-friendly clothes horse.

Published November 12, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

| When the first issue of Jane Pratt's much-awaited new magazine hit the stands last month, you could practically hear the excited squeals of all those 20-year-old ex-Sassy fans. We'd been waiting a long time for Jane, the magazine that was, according to a conversation Pratt had with Ms. magazine in March 1996, going to be an "ethnically, culturally and sexually -- as in orientation -- diverse ... bridge between the old Sassy (radical, chic, funny) and Ms. (intelligent, feminist)." Those of us salivating in front of the newsstand were hoping for something that took Sassy's early vision of self-confident girl power and critical thinking a step further. I don't know why we thought that we could expect something different, something intelligent and even mildly subversive, something really good, from a corporate publisher whose parent company, Disney, thinks flirtation between women is adult content.

But we're not alone. Pratt seems to inspire wrongheaded overconfidence in people. Why else would Fairchild Publications put a multimillion-dollar bet on a magazine that's supposed to be driven by the personality of someone responsible for two TV shows that tanked and a book that not even the most die-hard Sassy fans have ever heard of? Given the near-constant advertising boycott problems of Sassy, the big surprise isn't that Jane is blatantly ad/fashion/beauty-driven: it's that someone trusted Pratt once again with a glossy budget. Judging from the first two issues, she won't disappoint. Her profit-hungry corporate sponsors, I mean. She has clearly learned her lesson.

With a substantial chunk of editorial pages devoted solely to fashion and beauty products (an average of 45 percent over the first two issues), Jane is an advertiser's wet dream. Beauty Central is an entire section devoted to name-dropping all those overpriced must-have products. "It may sound like a marketing thing, but women's shaving lotions are actually formulated for leg skin," gushes the copy, right before naming three lovely potions that will prevent razor burn. Admitting the salesmanlike nature of the comment may disarm a reader's cynicism, but usually if something "sounds like a marketing thing" that's because it is. A few excellent features (on the Promise Keepers and running a pirate radio station), a car column, a computer column (I think they're trying to do some sort of women-use-technology-too thang, but their suggestion of purchasing a scanner and some graphics software and using it to make Christmas cards instead of, say, starting a graphic design business is more than a little ridiculous) and matter-of-fact references to vibrators, plus an absence of diet tips, don't counterbalance the overweening focus on clothes and grooming -- even if some of the models proudly sport braces. (Braces might be transgressive in YM, but since Jane is aimed at women ages 18 to 34, wouldn't it be a bit more meaningful to have models with, say, flab?)

Overly mannered, look-how-quirky-we-are, models-in-yellow-eye-shadow-and-blue-lipstick fashion spreads alternate with straight-ahead pitches like "So Great: Products that amaze us." (The New York Times reported that, late in the game, editorial pages had to be added to the first issue to bring the edit-ad ratio into line -- and it shows. "Breaking Up With Prozac" is a slipshod pastiche of the writer's filler around quotes from doctors, pharmaceuticals marketers and the depressive Elizabeth that leaves the reader wondering, "What chronic fatigue? Who's Elizabeth? Wait, who's talking now?")

I suppose we should be happy that Jane is forgoing the usual women's mag selling tactic of insecurity. True -- you don't feel as bad about yourself after reading it as you would after reading, say, Mademoiselle. No, you only feel much, much poorer. "Indulge in what you want to do" is the message she wants her magazine to convey, says Pratt. And it does, as long as what you want to do is "avoid cosmetic curses of the dusk-to-dawn shift" or snag yourself a Calvin Klein dress that looks like a Lillian Vernon monogrammed terry-cloth cover-up.

Yes, I am one of those silly people who was hoping against hope that Jane would deliver my glossy magazine dream -- something like James Truman's Details, but finally, finally, for girls (you know, interesting, intelligent, with just enough fluff but not too much). Given the high expectations -- and not-so-high salaries -- of the post-Sassy crowd, and the even higher prices of the advertised goods (Versace, Armani, Prada), how could I reasonably expect a magazine that doesn't disappoint?

Still, I have questions: Why doesn't anyone in the magazine world understand that women crave a magazine without interviews with makeup artists and those annoying fashion spreads that suggest we might wear a spaghetti-strap slip-dress while camping? Does the Jane staff want to escape the mind-numbing requirements of its genre? Do they want us to recognize the blatant placement of an ad for stiletto pumps across from an editorial page proclaiming that we all need "at least one pair" for the upcoming season? And who do they think can afford $895 boots and $1,000 vacation weekends, anyway? That's when I remember that even though Truman made Details a great magazine, he couldn't make it profitable.

Only in this context -- where we literally pay, with our demographic spending power, for our reading material -- could cover girl Drew Barrymore's comment "Beauty is a good thing" be seen as an empowering profundity.

By Lisa Jervis

Lisa Jervis is the editor of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture.

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