When we heard that Jane Pratt, the former editor of Sassy—the sharp, celebrated teen mag that above all was absolutely unwilling to pull its readers into the spiral of insecurity and product consumption so endemic to all others in the genre—was launching a new grown-up glossy, we, along with other feminist pop culture junkies nationwide, squealed with excitement. Then Jane launched. And we weren't excited anymore. Here's why.
Their fake, sanctimonious, look-how-we-encourage-you-not-to-be-obsessive-and-negative-about-your-body tone, combined with models even skinnier than Vogue's, endless reminders of all the beauty tasks you absolutely must do, and plugs for an endless array of products to help you at it. After August 1998's smug and self-satisfied proclamation that "We're so against boot-camp tactics of body toning and the pressure to skinny up for summer," they encourage you to "make a good thing better" with exercises to get rid of your "Jell-o thighs," "Buddha belly," and other problem spots. They think they're touting self-esteem, but they're really just reinforcing the idea that you can change the way you feel about yourself simply by changing the way you look: "We want you to be kissing that bathroom mirror—even if your stomach makes it difficult to reach over the sink…. [But] if you're not that liberated yet, take baby steps and focus on your favorite peeve." Um, I have a better idea. Why not take a huge step and forget your favorite peeve instead of letting some magazine writer sell you an exercise regimen under the guise of uncritical self-acceptance and distaste for exercise regimens?
And how about the notion of a more relaxed summer beauty routine? Jane's advice: Use a self-tanner instead of the sun and eschew blow-drying for a styling product. Gee, how revolutionary. Then, you're supposed to take all the time you've saved (ha!) and give yourself a pedicure—don't forget to shave those toes!
But by far the worst has to be this shot of the skinniest girl you ever saw (opposite page, from June/July 1998). "A chubby tummy is sexy and an empty tummy is so not," gushes the accompanying hypocrisy, I mean, copy. Well, if you actually think so, then why not put your photo editor where your copywriter is and a) actually print a picture (gasp!) of a chubby, or even unemaciated, bod; and b) not tell us in the next breath to eat enough but "avoid carbonation and salt, flush the good stuff through with plenty of water and practice that pelvic tilt." I don't care if "Sciascia swears that Anne-Catherine, our model here, is a healthy eater with a healthy body." She could just as easily be illustrating a story about anorexia, so stop with the defensiveness and get new models already.
Never has a magazine been so self-obsessed as this one, under the auspices of reaching out to its audience. At first, it's easy to believe that the Jane staff wants to be your friend. If they didn't, they wouldn't publish pictures of themselves in the editor's note—insouciantly titled "Jane's Diary"—so you're sure to notice how cute and stylish they all are, and so you won't overlook how wacky life around the office can be. (Highlights of the August 1998 entry: "Meanwhile, at Lark's Tony Awards party, David, perhaps overly inspired by the lighting design category, nearly set her new apartment on fire igniting a grill that had been doused with too much lighter fluid." Ohmigod! Those kids are sooo nutty!) And who else but your friends tell you when they get their periods and give themselves little nicknames like "Granny Fanny"?
The fact that every page of the magazine has been injected with irrelevant personal tidbits is precisely what's supposed to make Jane more accessible than women's glossies like Elle or Glamour, ones in which you don't turn every page to discover that this editor was dumped badly or that writer was feeling bloated on the day of a big interview. This device was also much of what set Sassy apart from the teen magazines of its day, but the informative, girls'-room chattiness that permeated Sassy turns, in the context of Jane, into egregious narcissism. The difference can perhaps be attributed to the age gap between the writers and their audience; since the readers of Jane are ostensibly around the same age as much of the staff, their in-jokes and self-congratulatory tone isn't so much about reaching out to their audience in an effort to make them feel comfortable and understood as it is about holding themselves above said audience. To make a high school analogy—which is the kind that seems most appropriate in this case—Jane is like the girl in your homeroom who chats with you pleasantly enough but always manages to mention that her skirt cost more than yours.
A special offender in the narcissism category is the travel column, in which a staffer goes on a trip to somewhere cool and writes a day-to-day account of what they did, how much it cost (see item 3), and how fun it was. In the time that Jane has been around (just over a year) readers have been treated to not one but two trips starring Christina "no such thing as too much information" Kelly and her boyfriend Dalton. When the adorable couple—there are lots of pictures illustrating just how adorable—visit San Francisco, highlights, Christina-style, include meeting Dalton's ex ("They still wear matching rings. (Would that bother you?)"), eavesdropping on some women at a restaurant ("I hear one saying that she just completed her training to be an office manager. I hate her"), and, naturally, getting her period. Another Kelly-penned column involves a trip to Savannah, Georgia, with her mother; vacation-related insights include "I only feel safe in a crowd; small cities and rural areas paralyze me with terror," and "I'm a great navigator, damn it! I am, I am, I am, I am!"
The blithe unconcern with which they suggest spending huge amounts of money on items of debatable utility. Some of the items that are "affordable" and "guilt-free" in the Jane‑universe: $100 wood thong sandals, $90 silver mesh slides, and a $195 miniskirt that's meant to be worn with a $158 bustier and a $98 sweatshirt. The presumably guilt-ridden stuff is, of course, more: A random sampling of fashion spreads yields a $490 Armani jacket (styled in a faux camping tableau, by the way…), a camisole for $415, and one page featuring a selection of items that total more than many of us make in a month—a $590 skirt, a $365 sweater, a $720 coat…. The only thing that most of us could afford would be the socks from the Gap. Even more alarming, many of the clothes featured are not priced, which leads me to suspect that the ones they list may be among the more reasonably priced items. Sheesh.
Jane's emphasis on individuality is countered by their fashion-forward dogma on a near-constant basis. Their many bite-size front-of-the-book features detail the latest and greatest in beauty and fashion trends, like the column called "So Great…," which has been subtitled in the past with such passive-aggressive tag lines as "You don't know you need them—yet." Then there's the Jane Makeunder, in which a gal with some kind of individual look (big curly glam hair, funky eye makeup) is magically transformed to look hip, natural, and straight-tressed—just, conveniently, like all the Jane girls.
Jane's encouragement to make your own decisions ("So I consulted my Magic 8-Ball, and slowly the answer floated to the top: 'Make up your own damn mind, why don'tcha!'") is hard to take seriously when they're shoving the sartorial/cosmetic equivalent of a Magic 8-Ball in your face. Statements such as "You'll be wearing violet shadow (oh yes you will!)" or "Haircolor used to be a bold move—now you feel almost naked without it" seem innocuous enough, until you realize that these are the same people who are supposedly touting individuality in pretty much every overstyled fashion and beauty spread they run. It's telling that the one beauty feature that actually realizes the magazine's credo of individuality is one that wasn't written by any of the staff—it's the Jane beauty survey, in which readers wrote in to confess to a triple-digit lipstick collection and sing the praises of their favorite conditioner. Our suggestion to Jane—let your readers do more speaking for themselves, because if individuality is really what you're all about, why should we give a fuck that bright red eyeliner/orange lipstick/dead baby seal pelts/etc. were all over the runways in Milan?
They think we're still supposed to give a shit how men want us to look and behave. Their overweening focus on the superficial, ersatz do-it-for-you tone, and fake individualism (see item 4) add up to this: Your appearance and behavior are not about being attractive to men. Except when they are, which is most of the time. Token staff boy Tony, who functions as Jane's voice of universal male opinion, graciously lets us in on scoops such as: Men don't like "granny panties" or "when action hair is excessive." The latter is "just too masculine for us and besides, we were weaned on centerfolds in girlie magazines." (Um, maybe we girls would kinda like for you to learn the difference between the woman in your bed and the one in the magazine on the back of your toilet…but I digress.) It may be some kind of improvement to tell women not to be shy about giving opinions, and that hearty appetites are attractive (which Tony, to his tiny credit, also does)—but the message is still that what men think matters more than what we think. Wouldn't it be better for us to be eating and running our mouths off because we want to, not because some mag told us that boys like it, in much the same way they used to advise women to eat before—not during—a date, and to keep their mouths shut as much as possible?
When their lips are not attached to famous buttocks, they are busy dropping names of close, personal celebrity friends. Each issue is stuffed to the brim with gushy accounts of staffers' too-fabulous brushes with fame and gratuitous kissy-kissy: "Jane and I were unexpectedly whisked away to an intimate dinner hosted by Donatella Versace at the late Gianni Versace's town house. We ate lobster salad and drank champagne while Bono took a tour of the art collection…." "By the way, Ethan Hawke called to say how much he liked Nicole Burdette's fiction story in our premiere issue. And Courteney Cox called to congratulate us." "Samantha Mathis is an amazing person and an amazing actress." But the special Touched by a Celeb, Like We Care prize goes to Jane herself: "I was going to say Michael [Stipe of R.E.M.] and I used to date, but he says, 'Let's just throw the euphemisms right out the window and say that we…were friends and lovers on and off for several years.'"
Jane is mean. And I don't mean mean like a mean martini. I mean just mean. In the June/ July 1998 editor's note, for instance, Jane herself lashes out at an intern who thought that it might not be such a hot idea to put Pamela Anderson on the cover. (She and anyone else who isn't thrilled with the choice of cover model are "so-called feminists" who are "elitist," "predictable," and "closed-minded." But certainly reasonable minds could differ on the appropriateness of putting a woman who arguably made her fame and fortune through her breast implants on the cover of a magazine that purports to speak to progressive women.) They also love to throw around choice phrases like "whiny coffeehouse wench" and use their letters column to insult their fans. Lovely.
When it comes to features, style over substance is definitely the order of the day. The fact that the magazine's January/February 1998 issue honored Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy as one of their "15 Gutsiest Women of the Year"—why? because she occasionally goes out in public sans dark glasses?—pretty much sums up the worldview at Jane HQ. (Other paragons of gutsiness, by the by, include Kathie Lee Gifford and Jenny McCarthy, whose sole gutsy accomplishment is that "She wasn't popular in high school, and now she has her revenge." It's also worth noting that the McCarthy item was penned by Kelly, and—in a display of self-absorption that deserves its own award (see item 2/2a)—the next line of the blurb is, "Guess who else wasn't popular?") Granted, celebrity journalism is not known for its intrinsic depth, but Jane's burning desire to be The Mag That Famous People Like (see item 7) ensures that the compelling stories they do run (and there definitely are some—Luther Verbatim's piece on the Promise Keepers, Margie Borshke's interviews with women who sell their eggs) will always be outnumbered by those of the "Milla Jovovich is rilly cool and she invited me to her house, and by the way, she smokes Parliaments!" variety.
Jane made some promises it couldn't keep. "I didn't want to create a magazine that would make women feel bad after reading it. I didn't want it to be a manual for all your caws and all the things you need to fix," Pratt commented in a New York Times article that accompanied the magazine's release in September 1997. One of the standard criticisms of women's magazines is that they present their readers with a completely unrealistic idea of what a woman's life is/should be. Smart women know it's not all about curling irons and bikini waxes and dog-earing your copy of The Rules and cooking the right kind of soufflé to impress the hunky guy in Marketing. It's this knowledge that is supposedly the engine behind Jane.
But Pratt and her cohorts probably shouldn't strain their arms patting themselves on the back. It's true that you won't find diet plans, calorie breakdowns, or dopey self-discovery quizzes within Jane's heavy, well-designed, matte-finish pages, and less of those things in the world of women's mags is always welcome. But much as Jane would like to believe that retro typefaces and bleeding-edge fashion styling make them the anti-Cosmo, it ain't so easy. In plenty of the ways that count, Jane is just like any other women's magazine (see items 1, 3, 4, 5, 6). There might not be an article on, say, how cellulite makes you a less valuable person, but Jane's premiere issue's road test of cellulite creams featured Pratt herself remarking that she hid her tube of something called Chanel Multi-Hydroxy Cellulite Complex "so no one would think I cared about something so superficial."
In "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable," Gigi Guerra investigates (and I use that term loosely—she writes as if she was distracted by something shiny in the next cubicle) the world of repeat plastic surgery customers. One of the people she chats up is a clinical psychologist who suggests that environment might have something to do with wack body image: "Maybe [the plastic surgery patient] is aspiring to be like somebody in your magazine." To which Guerra writes, "That's not what we're about Sonia, but anyway." Mmm-hmm. This kind of hypocrisy disguised as tongue-in-cheek sass is Jane's biggest conceit. Guerra ends the piece with what is meant to be some sort of epiphany: "It's easy to blame society for pressuring us to be beautiful, but it's we women who are our own worst enemies by being such beauty-obsessed Eve Harringtons." Ohmigod, it's like, so true, Geeg! I mean, maybe we should stop printing huge photos of the latest Hard Candy products to hit the counters at Barney's so women don't get the wrong idea or an inflated, distorted view of consumer beauty from a magazine that's supposed to make us feel rilly rilly good about ourselves because we don't need that kind of stuff to feel good!
And how about those "ethnically, culturally…diverse" models whom, according to what Pratt told Ms., Jane planned to feature? You know, the ones with "all different body types." Have you seen them? We haven't.
Maybe our expectations of Jane‑were unfair. Maybe it's our own fault for forgetting that anything run by a major media conglomerate (Jane is owned, ultimately, by Disney) can hardly buck the ad-driven culture of women's magazines that literally depends on the product plug for its revenue stream. There was a reason, after all, why Sassy‑went down the tubes. But why insult intelligent women by instituting hypocrisy from the start? Sad as it is, we're used to women's magazines making us feel that we're not thin or pretty enough or rich or well-heeled enough, and that's why many of us choose not to read them. But it's far worse to be smugly informed that what we're getting from Jane is different, when in fact the only difference lies in the pitch itself. Jane's snooty, preening reality is that much more painful for having the initial premise—and Pratt's own promises—dangled before us. Good design may allow Jane to assume the pose of an alternative to the usual crop of women's magazines, but the end result is nothing more than, to cop a phrase from my high school math teacher, an old friend in a new hat. An old, advertiser-smooching, beauty-product-hawking, celebrity-ass-kissing, skinny-model-filled old friend in a new, faux-iconoclastic, hypocritical, self-congratulatory hat.