Notes on Girl Power

The Selling of Softcore Feminism

 September 23, 1997

From the moment do-me feminism was coined (by a male Esquire writer) in 1994, it was inevitable that a magazine like Jane would be born. Although the term was reviled by the women it supposedly defined—attractive, prosex feminists of the Naomi Wolf genus—it did expose a growing trend among young women: a backlash against the perceived puritanism of traditional feminism, and a move toward the politics of pleasure.

But do-me feminism also described an emerging niche in the marketplace: young, free, and single 18- to 34-year-old women. Targeting this demographic, Jane—the monthly that made its debut last week—is the grown-up sister of Sassy, Jane Pratt's legendary teen magazine of the late '80s. Sassy had a serious agenda: to break through the sickly sweet fodder of Seventeen and its ilk, and put teenage girls in touch with the pleasure principle. Says Debbie Stoller, coeditor of the zine Bust and one of many then-twentysomething women who guiltily enjoyed reading Sassy, "The other teen magazines were about 'just say no' to everything, whether it was french fries or dick. Sassy was all about yes—the older you get, there's more and more things you can say yes to, and isn't that cool."

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The selling of softcore feminism

Jane arrives with little of this heady idealism. With more than $5 million of Fairchild money riding on it, Pratt's not likely to make many daring moves. At an idle glance, it looks a lot like your standard women's magazine: beauty and fashion advice, and endless ads featuring models so skinny it's hard to see where their internal organs might fit. Yet, within the narrow confines of the genre—one pretty much defined by its ability to stoke female anxieties and insecurities—Jane makes some subtle inroads. It avoids old chestnuts like "How to lose 15 pounds in 10 days," or "How to trap a man," instead continuing Sassy's emphasis on fun and independence with first-person accounts of a nudist retreat, kickboxing, and the hazardous life of a female pirate-radio DJ. The tone is feisty and the attitude is encapsulated in the subscription card: "Ever notice how most magazines are either for teenyboppers or baby boomers—filled with lame stuff about how to get a life? Hey, you've got a life! You're in your prime."

In her debut letter from the editor, Pratt, the perpetual teenager, admits that her first choice for a magazine name was Girlie. The appeal of that word is no fluke. Girl power has come to represent a whole new school of softcore feminism for thousands of (mostly) white, hip, middle-class young women. Girl reserves the right to think about clothes and makeup, but she still expects to be taken seriously. Girl isn't afraid to be obnoxious or snarly for fear she'll be seen as unfeminine. Girl wants a boyfriend but values her female friendships more. Girl knows she's as good as a guy, but she's proud to be girlie and to wield her girl power. Independent but not adult, pursuing a career but not exactly a "career woman," fierce but feminine, girl is a mess of contradictions and conflicts, sure. But when you get right down to it, she expects a lot from the world. As the online girlzine Minx puts it: "Can we please be smart AND want to get laid? We propose: Yes. We demand satisfaction. Meaning: Don't waste our time. Stay true to your word. Equal pay for equal work. And make us come."

At 34, Pratt herself is pushing the upper limits of girldom, heading toward arrested development. Yet she cannily understands that girl power is more than just a passing trend; it represents a new life stage. "It used to be that you would go from your family's home to your husband's home and that family," Pratt told the Voice. "Now there's this whole time in your twenties that gets ignored. The things you're interested in as a teenager don't necessarily drop off when you hit your twenties. Women in their twenties are not all dying to settle down and get married." In fact, in Jane's premiere issue a survey of women 18 to 34 conducted by Yankelovich reveals that "82 per cent believe a woman does not need to marry and have kids to have a full and rewarding life." Even more remarkably, "One in five say they don't know when they will feel like a grown-up."

Jane is a pioneer in the impending gold rush for the girl-power dollar. Waking from a great sleep, marketers, trendspotters, and product developers are discovering that the single-female 18-to-34 demographic is dripping with disposable income. (The average 25- to-35-year-old woman makes $25,000 a year, and spends about $1000 more than her male counterpart.) Several new young women's magazines are now in production hoping to capture this market (one of which, Siren, hit the newsstands this summer with the tagline FOR WOMEN WHO GET IT).

In the wake of Daria, the Beavis and Butthead spin-off about a supercilious teengirl, MTV is developing more female-centered programs, including a video show hosted by a Tank Girllike animated character called Cyber Cindy, and a program created by the editorial team behind Bust. Lifetime, the cable channel for women, has been working on a block of programming for twentysomething women called The Place, which they hope to spin off into a separate channel someday. Videogame creators, once fixated on the testosterone target, are struggling to create girl-friendly products such as Sega's new Enemy Zero game, which stars Jill Cunniff of the band Luscious Jackson. As for consumer goods, according to Nick Bennett of the brand-design agency nickandpaul, "It'll take about a year, and you'll start to see loads of products that reflect this new idea of femaleness. That's what everyone's salivating to tap into."

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