Getting with the Times: Magazines as Social Barometers, by David Querusio

It was a public execution, with the victim’s faces splattered on newsstands across the country. It was unexpected and abrupt – nobody saw it coming. The reaction was divided, with some expressing outrage at the spectacle while others were pleased that the end had finally arrived after years of fighting.

On June 29, 1998, Time magazine sentenced feminism to death. Its cover featured four faces of the movement: Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and, interestingly enough, Ally McBeal. With a solid black background and dramatic crimson font, it asked, “Is feminism dead?” with the cover story inside proclaiming, “Feminism: It’s All About Me!” The story and cover came at an interesting time for the movement, as the Third Wave was beginning to develop and evolve after a break from the Second Wave that had persisted for the past few decades. The magazine cover marked what many would come to refer to as the start of a postfeminist age, a culture where individuals believe that they simply no longer need feminism anymore. It wasn’t feminists, however, that advocated this notion; just as the 1990s began forming a whole new iteration of the movement, the media took it upon itself to end feminism without consulting the activists themselves.

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Magazines act as both an agenda setter, enacting cultural change, and as a social barometer, measuring and observing that very change. In fact, the feminist movement has often used magazines as a way to fight the sexualized representation and confined notions of femininity and womanhood that other magazines have presented and still continue to present.

Six short years earlier in 1992, Time featured feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi on the cover – what happened in the meantime that led to feminism’s supposed death in 1998? Well, riot grrrls, the Spice Girls, Daria, Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth,the coinage of Third Wave feminism, Destiny’s Child, Monica Lewinsky, and Anita Hill all happened, propelling a feminist consciousness to the forefront of our culture, but that apparently wasn’t enough for Time. Nobody’s trying to claim that Baby Spice and Posh Spice are feminist icons (although they’re pretty close), but just because not all of these women were proclaiming themselves as feminists doesn’t subsequently negate their accomplishments and resilience as women in a male-dominated sphere.

And while the 90s certainly didn’t foster the same activist spirit that defined the Second Wave of feminism, it was still an important decade for women, so feminists were understandably appalled by the magazine’s callous disregard for a movement that was far from dead.

The story’s author, Ginia Bellafante, characterizes feminists as self-obsessed and shallow, using Courtney Love as a primary example (because a white, rich, and controversial rock star is obviously representative of an entire sociopolitical activist movement). It compares how scholarly the First and Second Waves were in relation to the current Third Wave, implying that thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millet would be disgraced by the 90s version of feminism. Bellafantereally thought she was exposing the feminist movement’s decline by comparing Courtney Love to Simone de Beauvoir.The story conveniently ignores equally influential and current Third Wave scholars including Judith Butler and Gloria Watkins who continue to intellectualize the movement. Bellafante sneers, “feminism today is wed to the culture of celebrity and self-obsession” and “has devolved into the silly” (Bellafante). Yet, she again misses how “silly” it is to compare the fictional sitcom character Ally McBeal to three of the most influential women of all time on its cover.

time2By focusing so much on Courtney Love and Ally McBeal, Time was ironically degenerating feminism into the pop culture-obsessed movement that it was attacking feminism for becoming in the first place. Bellafante presents a version of feminism that stems paradoxically from attacking other women and their choices to indulge in popular culture in any capacity, despite how omnipotent celebrity culture was during the 90s. Time wasn’t as up to date as it thought.

Magazines often reflect the cultural happenings of the time, but Time’s cover story proves how magazines often opt for shock value rather than accuracy. The cover acts as an example of what happens when a magazine functions as a cultural barometer: it often ends up becoming a cultural influence instead, due to its delayed publication schedule and need for a good hook.

By hyperbolizing such a particular and specific opinion into a decisive death sentence, Time created a cultural self-fulfilling prophecy: it declared that feminism has lost its edge and was now useless, and so society then grew to see it that way. A recent Huffington Post poll reveals that only 20% percent of Americans identify as feminists.[i] Obviously Time isn’t the sole culprit, but it’s a major contributing factor that must be acknowledged.

It’s an extreme example of how magazines, cooperating with the media as a whole, influence society and our thoughts. How many female time3celebrities must justify why they are (or aren’t) feminists? Our postfeminist society, conditioned by media outlets like the Time cover, refuses to believe in anything but gender equality when reality tells a much different story.

But, our society is dynamic – just look at two of Time’s more recent covers, one featuring Beyoncé (who’s proudly feminist) and the other Laverne Cox, the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover.

Magazines must capture the ebb and flow of society, observing what changes and what stays the same, but they should always remember the power they have and how to best use it.

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[i] Swanson, Emily. “Poll: Few Identify As Feminists, But Most Believe In Equality Of Sexes.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 Apr. 2013. Web