The Feminism and Politics of Teen Magazines
For teen magazines, serious issues have always been part of their makeup
In December, an online opinion piece headlined "Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America" appeared in Teen Vogue magazine. Within hours, the harsh indictment of the then-president-elect exploded on the internet: Comments sections erupted in debate, and egg-avatars trolled the writer, Teen Vogue Weekend Editor Lauren Duca, on Twitter.
But it wasn't just the subject of the article that caused the uproar; it was the nature of the publication that ran it. What was a political piece doing in a teen magazine?
When Duca appeared on a Fox News talk show to discuss her piece and the reaction to it, host Tucker Carlson admonished her to "stick to thigh-high boots".
The comment - and the fuss - didn't faze Duca. She'd heard it all before.
"There's definitely a mode of stealthy condescension sometimes," she told Mother Jones about the reaction to the piece. "Other versions of the Tucker Carlson comment: 'Her last post was about Selena Gomez's makeup.' " But, she said, "it's possible to like both those things".
Yes, it is possible to like both makeup and politics, fashion and feminism. And yet, the last thing most people expect from a teen girl magazine is substantive articles or opinions on the issues of the day. Teen magazines are supposed to be about clothes and glamour and summer jobs and relationship advice, right? Actually, wrong.
Duca's piece - which editor Elaine Welteroth called a "watershed moment" in Teen Vogue's history - wasn't the beginning of a seismic shift on the teen mag scene. It was the culmination of one.
The intense conversation Teen Vogue has inspired is the latest flare-up in a decades-long history of teen girl magazines pushing the envelope, embracing serious subjects and expanding their audience beyond, well, teens.
Devoted readers remember Sassy, Jane and other titles that published reporting on politics, feminism, identity and more alongside fashion spreads throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Casey Lewis, co-founder of Clover Letter, a newsletter for teen girls, wrote for Teen Vogue in the 2010s and finds the current furor over the magazine somewhat perplexing. She recalls the now-defunct Teen People, published by Time Inc., which explored politics and world news in much the same way that Teen Vogue is doing now.
"Teen People was doing really serious reporting on immigration and AIDS" in the early 2000s, she says. "It's wild. Teen mags have such a massive history of covering these issues for teen girls, and now a lot of adults are like 'Oh, we need to take these magazines seriously.'"
Teen magazine historians - aka people who actually used to read or subscribe to teen magazines - all had their favorites. Tavi Gevinson credits Sassy with inspiring her online hit Rookie (now also a podcast from MTV News), and Sassy founder Jane Pratt went on to launch a number of successful teen brands, including her eponymous Jane.
Editor and writer Brandon Holley led the charge at Elle Girl when Hearst was first dipping its toes into the teen mag business in 2001. She recalls the reaction when Elle Girl ran a cover story titled "The F Word - are you a feminist?"
"People were like, 'Ooh - feminism,' " she says, adding that she finds it "weird" that 17 years later, "we're still having this conversation."
From those early days of f-word covers, Holley saw the teen magazine landscape evolve and push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable for teen readers. At Jane, where she worked from 2005 to 2007, she published reports on gay conversion therapy, essays on work and money, and even a multipage spread of reader-submitted nudes dubbed the Jane Guide to Breasts.
Around that same time, the oldest surviving teen magazine - Seventeen - was undergoing some radical changes, led by editor Atoosa Rubenstein.
In the early 2000s, Rubenstein launched a religion section, a first for the magazine. Where competitors led their coverage with celebrity profiles and beauty shots, she fought to add a new section called Inner Girl.
"Inner Girl was all about your relationship with yourself, your internal dialogue and self-esteem," says Rubenstein. "And when you say self-esteem, the suggestion is that self-esteem is low." She saw the new section as "food for the soul".
Even earlier, in 1998, when she was at Cosmogirl, Rubenstein had launched a politics series called Cosmo 2024, named for the year when one of the magazine's oldest readers could theoretically be elected the first female president.
Rubenstein and future Seventeen editor Ann Shoket interviewed leaders like Madeleine Albright, Barbara Walters and, yes, Donald Trump about their paths to professional success. The final package, a collection of advice and essays on success and career-building, fit the promise in CosmoGirl's tagline: "Born to lead."
But CosmoGirl folded in 2008, as magazines across all genres struggled to meet teens where they were: online. As more and more once-iconic titles disappear - most recently, Condé Nast announced that Self would cease print publication entirely - Teen Vogue has embraced its online audience.
The magazine launched in 2003, targeted at "an audience of sophisticated young women who wanted to see fashion," according to then-editor Amy Astley. But it quickly ran into some snags: controversy around photoshopped fashion spreads, a lack of diversity in the models and profile subjects - and shrinking subscriber numbers. Readers saw skinnier and skinnier volumes arriving in their mailboxes. Soon, the leadership knew, fashion features alone wouldn't sustain the brand much longer than recently axed counterparts such as CosmoGirl and Teen People.
Rather than shutter the magazine entirely, Condé Nast looked to digital talent like Welteroth and Teen Vogue digital director Phillip Picardi to revamp the magazine's website.
Picardi described his vision when he first interviewed for the job of digital director with Vogue editor Anna Wintour: more news, concentrating on coverage that could stretch Teenvogue.com's reach beyond teens.
And in fact, between April 2015 and March 2017, Teenvogue.com's traffic has grown 226 percent, says a Condé Nast spokesperson. As of March, politics is the most popular section on the website. And even before Duca's piece went viral, more people than ever before had visited to read stories outside the stereotypical teen-mag genre.
The print edition, meanwhile, is no longer monthly. Instead, it's a "quarterly journal," still with glossy ads and perfume samples, but in a smaller, palm-size edition. December's cover lines - "Smart Girls! Speak UP!" "featuring Zendaya and Michelle Obama" - evoke CosmoGirl's "born to lead."
So when Holley thinks about her time at teen magazines and their history, from Elle Girl to Jane, and now to Teen Vogue, she thinks about her 8-year-old son's friend Fiona. Fiona loves lip gloss, but she can also ride backward on a surfboard. At the Women's March on Washington in January 2017, she held her own protest sign.
Girls like Fiona don't need just any magazine, Holley says. They need a guide to womanhood that doesn't preach or condescend but instead educates and uplifts - and, most important, reflects the girls who are reading it.
Teen magazines today "are introducing girls to feminism that isn't bra-burning, which is also cool," she says. "But you can be feminine and a feminist".
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