Are lady mags afraid of powerful women?

Cristen Conger

On a recent vacation, I stocked my beach bag with two of my favorite indulgences: lady mags and mini-Bud Lite Limearitas (#noshame). Sprawled out in front of the ocean, I sipped and flipped through Marie Claire, Elle and Glamour, soaking up the advertorials, fashion spreads and beauty tips before me. Inside, I was pleased to find an Elle profile of women in tech (which notably did not include Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer) and a Marie Claire feature on the startling links between social media and stalking. But most of the pages between those more serious features were marketing-heavy instructions on how to look appropriately pretty this season. In many ways, one could easily argue, mainstream women's magazines are like the mini-Bud Lite Limaritas of the publishing world: fetchingly packaged, surprisingly satisfying and packed with stuff that's not-so-great for me. Yet I love them both.

Personally, I like to think of women's magazines in the optimistic terms outlined by former White House deputy chief of staff-turned-Marie-Claire-guest-editor Alyssa Mastromonaco:

Women's magazines have long been bastions for sharp, meaty stories about issues that, let's face it, might otherwise go unreported in mainstream media, such as Marie Claire's early piece about pervasive sexual assault on college campuses and Redbook's moving series on infertility. As for workplace matters, women's magazines were at the forefront of coverage concerning both women who put off marriage to pursue their careers and breadwinner wives. And they were the first to dispense with the requisite work-life balance questions men invariably ask powerful women in favor of far more revealing inquiries about how they got to the top and what the view was like once ensconced there.

Mastromonaco was defending the role of women's magazines in response to a not-so-optimistic Politico piece about how Vogue and the like (although I would argue that Vogue and the like are fashion magazines that cater to a female audience, not women's magazines, strictly speaking) chip away at female politicians' power by repeatedly dressing them up in designer dresses and gowns and quizzing them on workout routines, wardrobe preferences and dietary habits. And certainly, Sarah Kendzior makes some spot-on observations about society's often-uncomfortable relationship with powerful women, and how the media have a terrible tendency to evaluate women at the top through a rigid lens of normative femininity: Is she attractive? Is she a good mother? Does her work/life balancing act appear effortless?

Kendzior writes:

There are still only two main tracks for the female politico: intimidating and powerful or submissive and charming. When combined, these qualities translate into "having it all," although "all" must be tempered with notes of humility, lest the women vault back into the "intimidating" category. As pundits debate the virtues of female confidence, it is the confidante who is still made to appear the ideal female type: the yes-woman, capable yet culpable, assertive in her lack of assertions.

a "Feminine Mystique" quote

debate

plenty of evidence

GQ

Esquire's

Beltway workout regimens

Sen. Paul Ryan's p90x-sculpted pecs

Such dated arguments assume that women are incapable of being both informed and fashionable, that to be a woman of substance and gravitas, to be taken seriously by her peers, she must subordinate her appearance and interests outside the office. Is it so inconceivable that a smart, accomplished woman would have both the latest issue of the Economist and the second season of "The Mindy Project" downloaded on her iPad?