Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America, by Myrna Blyth (St. Martin’s, 352 pp., $24.95)
Every month, 50 million women read women’s magazines that serve up a steady diet of left-wing politics sandwiched between ads for products that promise to make their beleaguered audience hipper, happier, and hassle-free. As editor-in-chief of Ladies’ Home Journal for over 20 years, Myrna Blyth was a sibling in good standing of the smug spin sisters whose glossy pages relentlessly peddle dissatisfaction and Democratic drivel to American women. In this terrific tell-all book, Blyth has left the clique of the powerful popular girls to tell the rest of us that they are as manipulative, incestuous, and condescending as we might have expected.
While male editors, writers, and readers might be tempted to dismiss the impact of a women’s-media empire seemingly more concerned about weight control than weighty issues, the women’s magazines — a $7 billion business — have enviable clout. Of the ten largest and most profitable magazines in America, five are edited specifically for women (the other five have large female audiences).
In addition to strollers, spas, and the latest shoes, these magazines promote an idea: modern feminism in all its fragile self-centeredness. With the conviction that “stress sells,” the spin sisters wildly exaggerate the pressures of daily life owing to the unreasonable demands of work and family — and they hysterically warn of the dangers lurking in everything from manicures and mattresses to mold and mercury. Stress sells self-indulgence, which keeps the advertisers happy; and what the $470 million aromatherapy market can’t fix is up to the government to handle.
The magazines tend to ignore common problems that can’t be solved by a hot scented bath, and simultaneously to hype exotic dangers. Why try to give sensible advice on family budgets, for example, when advertisers want women to spend, spend, spend — and alarming cover stories sell, sell, sell? A sampling from Glamour magazine includes “Stalked! Why No Woman Is Safe” and “He’s Going to Kill Me. Is Anybody Listening?” One issue highlighting “The Gunning Down of American Women” noted that “lawmakers seem to do little about it” and included a story about a woman being harassed by a police officer. The message, Blyth dryly observes, is that “if the robbers don’t get you, the cops probably will.”
Many women complain that our lot is unfair because we have no time for ourselves; but in fact, the average woman watches nearly five hours of TV a day, much of it programmed for her sex. And on the TV shows she watches, the message of female helplessness and hazard resonates: Women are depicted either as victims of cheating, abusive men or as implausibly plucky heroines who triumph despite unrelenting male hostility.
From her start as an ingenue writer at Ingenue magazine in the early 1960s, through stints at Redbook and Family Circle, Blyth experienced the metamorphosis of women’s magazines. Not so long ago, they celebrated the capability, smarts, and refinement of American women; now, says Blyth, “pregnant actresses pranc[e] across the covers of national magazines.” It’s startling to be reminded that back when “Ladies’” Home Journal meant it, Marilyn Monroe, the most sensational celebrity of her day, was never featured in a traditional women’s magazine. Today, female editors will pay any price (literally) and bear the burden of outrageous, self-involved demands to land a generally vapid (and always airbrushed) spoiled celebrity on their covers.
In addition to the analysis, Blyth does some dishing in the book. She reports, for example, that Barbara Walters courted Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer in “dozens of demeaning ways” — including flying to Washington to hand-deliver a box of bran flakes. It was William Ginsberg’s favorite lunch, and wasn’t served after noon at his hotel.
Barbara herself lunches at Michael’s, the tony midtown Manhattan restaurant where the media divas dine. Blyth invites us to join them on a typical afternoon. There’s “Her Cuteness” Katie Couric, the self-described “typical frazzled working mom” nibbling her salad like a rabbit before hopping off to see her personal trainer, whose fees are rumored to start at $7,500 a week. Diane Sawyer, “the high priestess of the hidden camera,” shares lunch and feminist opinions with some less recognizable spin sisters, including Jane Chestnut, editor of Woman’s Day, who’s overheard calling President Bush an “idiot.” Blyth explains that these reigning queens of TV and print are joined at their trim hips politically, socially, and professionally in an insular, coastal world. She quotes an advertising expert who explains that the marketers who pay the bills share this disdain for the “empty” space between the East and West coasts.
Blyth is a happily married mother with two sons whose own humor and common sense caused her misgivings about the sour message and sloppy methods of women’s journalism during the years she was a top editor. Although she makes clear that she is a penitent defector from the ranks of the spin/stress/sob sisters, a 1997 Media Research Center study named her own Ladies’ Home Journal the most “politically balanced” of the women’s magazines. She recounts the stunned reactions she got from her fellow editors when she ventured to point out that their monolithic view of American women might be incorrect. Women editors and producers behave as if women’s opinions were uniformly in accord with their own liberal views, despite the demonstrable differences among women on virtually every issue, from abortion and gay rights to the Iraq war. You won’t learn from a women’s magazine, for example, that the majority of women support the death penalty or that one in four women owns a gun. Blyth jokingly points out that half of American women drive a minivan, the other half an SUV, to the supermarket to buy women’s magazines that consistently cite the environment as a “hot button” issue for women.
Blyth hardly needs to explain that no one says grace at Michael’s. Polls indicate that 65 percent of American women pray daily, even as her former colleagues view religious women as “a small, slightly wacky minority.” The me-centered “spirituality” of the elite involves little more than strolling in the woods and lighting $65 Jo Malone candles; prayer and confession are good only for the soul, but scented wax is pleasing to the advertisers.
Myrna Blyth’s entertaining takedown of the spin sisterhood reflects her proven success in understanding how to engage and inform women readers. Unlike her former siblings, she is writing for an audience whose values, resilience, and intelligence she respects.