Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Last paper of the semester

For my magazine editing class, I had to write an extra paper since I was taking it as an independent study, since it was technically an undergrad level class. It's a magazine critique for three consecutive issues of the publication of my choice, and it had to be about eight pages long. I thought I would have trouble filling up that many pages, but I turned out to have more to say than even fit on eight pages. I chose Marie Claire, which has a new editor in chief that I think is doing great things. Pictures of the issues are to the left and here is my (very long) critique:

Marie Claire: September-November 2006


As a reader of Marie Claire for the past eight or so years of my life, I’ve seen a lot of changes within this magazine. For a while I didn’t really pay that much attention to the publication, though; I just read it when my mother happened to pick up a copy when she bought groceries. That changed in March 2001, when Marie Claire started their V Day campaign to end violence against women. One article in this issue changed my opinion on the magazine and probably my entire perspective on the world.

Sandwiched between “I’m Proud to be overtly sexy/ high maintenance/ materialistic/ ambitious/ selfish” and “Which outfit costs $300 vs. $3000?” is an article about a group of Bosnian women who’d been raped and tortured by soldiers every day for months. They were trying to get rape classified as a war crime so that their torturers could be prosecuted. It was disturbing, shocking, and totally unknown to me before reading this article.

This was the first time I noticed that Marie Claire has articles on more important things than makeup, clothes, and sex; and I have actually kept this issue all the way to now. Since 2001, Marie Claire has waffled between focusing on real issues that affect women and the vapid material we’ve come to expect from most women’s magazines. The September-November issues at hand are a giant leap in the “real issues” direction. The magazine is now wildly different than its 2001 incarnation. It barely resembles its contemporaries anymore. It has far fewer articles on makeup and clothes, but the ones that are left make use of stunning artwork and interesting angles (such as “Morning After Hair” in Oct [about how to tame your tresses after spending the night in someone else’s bed]).

Marie Claire’s new look and features are fantastic in so many ways. The only problem is, I would worry that people who liked all their fashion and beauty content may stop reading it. I suppose it’ll have to be a work in progress.


September’s issue was the first one I noticed as being extremely different. It has actress Maggie Gyllenhaal on the cover. This picture is totally unexpected and unique for a woman’s magazine. First of all, the background is black; it almost blends into her dark brown hair. Then she has heavy black eye makeup and a black dress. It’s almost goth. What a contrast to the perkiness and neon colors of its shelf neighbors. The only bits of color are her lovely light blue eyes (most likely airbrushed to be that color, but it looks fantastic), red lips, and a bright green apple she’s holding up to her face. This photo is leagues ahead of the smiley, cleavage-in-your-face girls that make up more typical cover fodder. It is art; and it would definitely draw the attention of a newsstand shopper, which I gather was the point.

The contents page that follows is located a mere page after the cover, instead of shoving 80 pages of advertisements in between. Plus it looks simple and clean, which makes it much easier to find the page for whatever article you may want to browse. In addition, the rest of the magazine doesn’t stray far from the contents page’s style, giving the entire thing a sense of cohesion and organization. For some reason, September doesn’t appear to have a contributing writers’ page, but October and November do, and it looks great. Each contributor has a different size photo with all of them joined in the center of the page. Then instead of having a third-person description, they each have a mini Q & A session. It’s all very clever.

From there we hit a few snags. The magazine starts out with a “shopping” section that’s rather ugly. You almost miss it at first because there’s no introduction. The first page looks like an ad and the next 10 or so consist of a mish-mash of photos of pieces of clothing. It’s completely stepped away from the organized simple look we started with.

Moving on, the photography that accompanies the “real” articles has turned into something truly incredible. September’s story on designer shopping in Dubai opens with a two-page spread of a woman in black head scarf and robe perusing a rack of Technicolor robes. It’s colorful, visually appetizing, and captures the spirit of the entire story. In the same issue, a story on illegal immigrants opens with another two-page spread, this time of a crosswalk covered in people, shot from above. Small labels point to some of the crossers, describing the person’s immigrant status in just a few words. It’s clever and appropriate to the story.

The fashion shoots have become quite lovely and artistic as well, and the “101 Ideas” section has taken a turn for the much, much better. It used to be just a bunch of squares on a page, each encapsulating an outfit in roughly the same color and style. Now there are fewer outfits with more white space between them. It’s less confusing to look at, and the larger photos allow the reader to actually get a decent look at the clothing. The best art by far, though, is found in the magazine’s photo essays. September has a montage of close-ups of the unusual looking body parts that play a role in a number of women’s careers. A firewoman’s arm, a ballerina’s feet, a violinist’s hands. These photographs tell far more about the women’s lives than the ensuing first-person blurbs.

November also has a photo essay whose pictures are worth innumerable words. “Love is a Battlefield” consists of blurry, grainy, and hazy photographs of women who live on a Marine Corps base, whose husbands (or fathers, brothers, etc.) are currently serving duty overseas. Most of the women aren’t looking at the camera, but their eyes still loudly tell the reader how sad or worried or hopeful they are. This is the kind of feature one would expect to find in Newsweek or Time, but the fact that it focuses on women makes it fit in just right with the new Marie Claire.


I personally could not be happier that Marie Claire is focusing so much more on real issues. It appears to be a result of the backlash against the Ashlee Simpson article in which she insisted over and over that girls should be happy with how they look, then got a nose job right around the same time the issue hit the newsstand. I’m also impressed that the magazine kept some of the features they used to have, but improved upon them.

“10 Best to Do,” for example, has always been a really informative little feature; it describes in a few well-chosen words ten upcoming books, movies, and bands or CDs. An addition to the “10 Best” feature is the new “Culture” section, in which the magazine does more in-depth reviews of new books, film, and music. Within the same feature, they also list a few similar companions that have already been available for a while.

Marie Claire has also maintained some of the lighthearted, but slightly less superficial, articles, allowing the magazine to stay safely rooted in the “women’s magazine” category. September’s “The Ex Files” chronicles four women’s ex-boyfriends (and girlfriends). It’s not anything revelatory, but makes for some good vicarious fun. Pitting one lifestyle choice against another has also been a staple for as long as I can remember, and the new version does not disappoint. October has a story in which one woman could only communicate through computers and text messages and one through face-to-face interaction for a week. Whose week will go worse? This type of story is usually funny and allows the reader to compare the lifestyles in the article to her own.

Hands down, the best new part of this magazine is the “What I Love About Me” feature. This includes page after page of close-ups of everyday women who then explain their “beauty statement.” They choose things such as their large nose, weird hairstyle, makeup choices, or facial piercings. It’s so refreshing to see such a variety of non-modelesque smiling women who are happy with themselves and know how beautiful they are.

As for the articles on “real” issues, Marie Claire seems to have always had a knack for finding stories on issues around the world that are pertinent to women, and that no one knows about. I call it the “Who knew?” factor. September’s issue includes “Crime & Beauty,” a story about beauty pageants held in a Siberian prison, in which the winner oftentimes gets early release. October includes a story on female rescue squads in Islamic countries. These squads are necessary in natural disaster-prone countries where women are forbidden to be touched by men outside their families. November has an article on female journalists in the Middle East that is incredibly engrossing. All of these stories are on topics that just aren’t reported on in traditional news outlets, but they’re absolutely fascinating.

One aspect of Marie Claire that is really impressive is their ability to get interviews with seemingly untouchable people. November includes a lengthy article and interview with Lynndie England, the woman in the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib. This was the first interview she gave since being put in prison. The article covers her relationship with her former boyfriend and “ringleader” of the prison scandal, as well as her interactions with her infant son. It humanizes her without placing blame squarely on someone else. It’s very well-written overall, and is missing the annoying “cheerleader” voice that has permeated Marie Claire’s writing in the past.

September featured a wealth of similarly serious articles, including a fashion photo spread in which the model posed amid politicians, joined by snippets about each one. One story is about National Public Radio’s Baghdad bureau chief, Jamie Tarabay. Unfortunately, this one falls prey to the cheerleader intonation mentioned above, as one of its line breaks has the title “Craving a Miniskirt.” I realize that she has to wear certain clothing to avoid standing out too much, but did they really need to focus on something as trivial as a miniskirt? They could have used sunglasses, because Tarabay mentions that Iraqis like to be able to look you in the eye; or perhaps the food she says she misses, since food is a universal tie to home, unlike a miniskirt. It’s just too cutesy for the material at hand.

This “cheerleader” voice should really stay with clothing, makeup, and fluffy feature articles, and nothing else. It almost mocks the seriousness of the bigger issues. The editor’s letter has really unpleasant little catch phrases. In the November letter’s mention of its interview with actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, editor Joanna Coles writes, “Sounds like a script for a happy home life to us!” with regard to Gellar’s marriage. It made me want to gag. I suppose it could be argued that the magazine is just trying to talk to women in their own language, but I think that idea just doesn’t give women enough credit.

Speaking of celebrities, the articles on them could really use some work. The Gellar feature is just a page of questions and answers with no real writing. There isn’t even an introduction. It’s literally just a big letter “Q” and a colon. September’s story on Maggie Gyllenhaal is a bit better since it involves actual writing, but it’s just not that interesting. It doesn’t tell anything new or unusual about her. October’s cover story on Sarah Jessica Parker is far better; it focuses on the success of the launch of her first perfume and the work she’s putting in on her next scent. Although designing perfume may not be the most important decision she ever makes, it’s a side of the actress that you don’t see through television shows and the red carpet. Having a real focus created an actual story; and its length of a page and a half is just right.

Overall Impression

Marie Claire’s new look, simply put, is fantastic. Its articles and even small features are all very clever, sometimes witty, and mostly intelligently written. It has whittled down its fashion and beauty departments to shorter pieces that get to the point quickly and feature absolutely gorgeous photography. I especially love the close-ups of faces and makeup (a 12-inch vibrant red chunk of lipstick looks sparkly and delicious on a stark white background).

The magazine as a whole still seems to be a bit schizophrenic, though. The covers, for example, vary wildly from month to month. September was the goth Gyllenhaal/apple photo, October featured a more traditional laughing toothy-grinned Parker with windblown hair, and November a somewhat dull black and white close-up of a non-smiling Gellar. The Gyllenhaal photography inside is almost too edgy for this publication (she’s wearing crazy pouffy hair and the backdrop consists of a room covered in every inch by greenish-tinged grimy newspaper), while Parker’s is again traditional (just pretty shots of her in the perfume lab).

Then you have November’s article on the fact that women lag behind men when it comes to managing money—it’s immediately followed by “20 Things to Get Before You’re 40.” Not 20 things to do, 20 things to get, i.e. buy. And it includes things like “a big-ass TV” and “a serious ride” (luxury car, that is). These articles should not be in the same issue, much less separated by a mere page of ads. They stand in complete contrast to one another.

Despite the kinks that still need to be ironed out, however, Marie Claire’s changes are a welcome addition. I would still worry that some readers won’t like the fact that there are so many fewer makeup and clothing features, but the occasional special section would make up for that. If you flip over the October issue, in fact, you’ll find 78 pages of just beauty advice and articles. So long as Marie Claire keeps going in this same direction, I think it’ll do nothing but improve. The schizophrenia will probably work itself out as the new editor sinks into her position more.


Cut the cutesy stuff. Save it for superficial topics and purely entertainment articles. When it comes to the editor’s letter, leave the exclamation marks out. This is the very first thing readers will see after the table of contents, and it should speak for the rest of the issue.

Perhaps introduce some new subjects beyond clothes, makeup, and world issues. There’s more to being a woman than appearance and current events. There needs to be more about women’s health. Where is the article on the HPV vaccine? This is exactly the kind of topic Marie Claire should be writing on.

How about food and exercise? Recipes for tasty snacks that cover a gamut of fat and calories would be good. It could be set up like a timeline, with more fat on the left and less on the right. An article on “before bedtime” exercises that you can do on your floor (or even on the bed! That would be different.) would also be useful. These wouldn’t have to be monthly features, but there should definitely be more on these topics.

Lastly, the celebrity features either need to be more interesting, or need to go. Most of the writing in this publication is stellar, but the celebrity stories are dull thus far. If there isn’t anything particularly intriguing or news-worthy about the woman, just make it be a photo essay. The photography has proven to be more telling than some of the articles. So as long as it’s done well with a decent introduction, I don’t think anything would be lost.

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