Exhibition review: Between the covers. Women's magazines and their readers. Women's Library, London.
Cosmopolitan, Heat, Take a Break, The Lady, Vogue, Grazia, Bliss, Bella, Zest - visit any newsagents and you will find the shelves chock-full with magazines aimed at women.
Contrary to the popular perception they are "just a bit of fun", Between the covers at the Women's Library has decided to take women's magazines seriously. Sourcing magazines and periodicals from the library's extensive archive, the exhibition argues that from the first women's magazine published in 1693, to the 1950s sales peak and on to the celebrity-obsessed weeklies of today "they have been both damned and praised" but have always allowed "readers to enter a world in which women are at its centre."
The exhibition is wide-ranging, with an illuminating section about how the reliance on advertising revenue can affect magazines content. One introductory blurb perceptively notes how the more political feminist periodicals such as Spare Rib and suffragist literature have often struggled "to sell around a distribution system geared to making money". Transnational corporate ownership is also a concern, with a fascinating display of 12 of Cosmopolitan's 59 international editions, from nations as diverse as Israel, Kazakhstan, India and Malaysia.
Although it is not explicitly stated, it is surely the corporate nature of the industry that is partly responsible for the relatively narrow focus of mainstream women's magazines - beauty, fashion, health, personal relationships, sex, celebrities etc. The exhibition itself is a little more forgiving of the magazines' content, arguing that magazines often publish contradictory articles and, occasionally, do focus on social and international issues.
Although it is normal exhibition practice and makes perfect sense to offer the visitor leading questions rather than concrete answers, its openness and fixation on presenting both sides of the argument can be a little frustrating at times.
However, this fence sitting is mirrored in a specially commissioned short video of ordinary women talking about their love/hate relationship with women's magazines. Watching the fascinating interviews it is immediately apparent that many of the women are discerning, savvy readers, rather than the stupid, brainwashed drones that populate condescending arguments on the topic. But while those interviewed are often highly critical of much of the magazines' content - their negative effect on readers' self-esteem and bank balance, for example - they also have a huge attachment to them, often seeing them as a ‘guilty pleasure' or something they can't resist picking up.
By shining a questioning light on this hugely important cultural phenomenon, the Women's Library has not only created a thought-provoking exhibition, but is providing an essential public service too.
Between the covers. Women's magazines and their readers runs until 1 April 2009. Admission is free.
* An edited version of this review recently appeared in the Morning Star. firstname.lastname@example.org