Girls, Uninterrupted


If you are eight years old and you have nothing to do, you might consider hanging out at the 7-Eleven. If you’re all grown up and looking to kill time, you could make a wreathed votive cup out of clay flowers and floral tape. These are just two of the suggestions proposed by a pair of celebrity-driven magazines debuting this month: mary-kateandashley, a bimonthly from the Olsen Twins, 14 year-old actresses who got their start playing the baby on Full House, and Rosie, Rosie O’Donnell’s attempt to resuscitate the faltering McCall’s magazine.

The torpor of suburban life, the steep challenge of finding one’s way in an unlovely world, the brutal necessity of taking care of oneself, the ennobling satisfaction of selflessness, the glittering allure of celebrity—all are addressed by both magazines, often in similar ways, though one is targeted at adult women and the other is meant for eight-to-14-year-old girls.

“We all worked hard and here it is: a funny, well-written magazine for women, one that celebrates humanity with humor and heart,” claims the “From Rosie” letter in Rosie; 16 pages later, someone called Cathy—no surname, but presumably the Catherine Cavender listed on the masthead as editor-in-chief—is less modest: “We’ve done it! This is a women’s magazine that’s completely different from any other.”

Like Rosie, mary-kateandashley, though its very name treats two people as one, trumpets its individuality. The inside cover shows the twins dressed in fringed ponchos and kneeling in water, with an accompanying text that lists “The Top 10 Reasons We Created a Magazine.” Along with the usual palaver (“Because we want a real magazine for real girls”) is reason number 10, the haughty “Because we can.”

The reason the twins can, and Rosie can too, is because their paths have been greased by two successful foremothers: Oprah Winfrey’s O, and Martha Stewart’s Living. If Martha specializes in neo-Victorian craft projects and Oprah is relentlessly uplifting, O’Donnell and the Olsens indulge their own passions: The former has a penchant for articles about neglected children, the latter a desire to guide readers through the anguish of early adolescence.

Despite their insistence that they have nothing in common with the other mags on the stands, mary-kateandashley and Rosie are stuck in the strange country that all general-interest women’s magazines inhabit these days, a gray land between pre- and post-feminism. At Rosie, the reader is expected to feel at home in both the 19th and the 21st centuries: If page 65 offers a feature entitled “Make Me Over! We Turn a Bride-To-Be Into a Wedding Belle,” page 51 recounts in unsparing detail a woman lawyer’s struggle with a gambling addiction. mary-kateandashley insists that girls can be anything (presidents! astronauts!), but feels no shame in tagging a piece called “Kicking the Odds,” about a female high school football player, with the subtitle “What If a Girl Wanted to Play Football and Be Homecoming Queen?”

By an odd coincidence, Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique took as a template an issue of McCall’s, the very book O’Donnell is now charged with reviving. Forty-one years ago, McCall’s July 1960 issue offered, in addition to recipes, sewing patterns, and a fashion spread of maternity clothes, the following four short stories: a tale of a non-college-bound teenager who steals a man away from a bright college girl, a story about a baby throwing a bottle out of a crib, a story entitled “Wedding Day,” and a yarn about a 19-year-old who learns to bat her eyelashes and lose at tennis.

By that standard, Rosie and mary-kateandashley, with their pieces on gun control and investment strategies, cannot be considered half bad. So it’s especially jarring that the celebrities spearheading these magazines feel compelled to assume, within their pages, the kittenish poses of pre-feminism, rather than unleashing the brawn and toughness that surely got them to the top in the first place. Why can’t O’Donnell tell us how she negotiates her contracts, instead of offering “Rosie’s Craft Corner”? Might the Olsens consider for a moment describing to jealous readers their exhausting days on the set, their struggles with sibling rivalry and tutors, and being robbed of a normal childhood?

Not only do the magazines’ namesakes share their favorite candy, makeup, music, etc., but other stars are pressed into service as well. In Rosie, Madonna tells readers about the “Get-Gorgeous Goodies the New Mrs. Ritchie Just Has to Have Now.” These include Johnson & Johnson Baby Wipes (“doubles as a makeup remover”), though it would strain the credulity of a mary-kateandashley reader to believe that she swabs down her own baby. Further on, Jane Seymour, Marilu Henner, and Tracey Ullman team up to form a “Mom Squad,” dispensing advice on bedtime fussing and picky eaters.

Nickelodeon’s Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson are the celebrity advice-givers at mary-kateandashley, and they are in a position to do more harm, since their audience hasn’t been reading this stuff for 40 years and may not know enough to discard the information immediately. In any case, Thompson seems capable of doing the most damage. To the heartrending “There’s this group of girls at school who are known for being the prettiest and coolest. . . . How can I get them to notice me and be my friend?” he suggests the suicidal “Introduce yourself,” rather than disclosing the real answer: Forget them. Life is long. Make friends with someone else. When another innocent asks if she should tell her friend’s older brother that she has a crush on him, he gives the worst possible advice: yes.

The whole subject of gentlemen companions—how to capture their attentions, how to deal with their presence and what seems like their inevitable absence—is handled by the two journals with brisk detachment in place of the syrupy seduction scenarios of magazines past. In 1960, McCall’s ran an article called “An Encyclopedic Approach to Finding a Second Husband.” Now, there’s plenty of doubt about the need for a first. Though Ms. O’Donnell prattles on ad nauseam about her passel of kiddies, there’s no dad around. Wendy Wasserstein, another dadless mom, is the author of a feature about a center in Harlem for poor children—Uma Thurman volunteers there—where a woman called Atasha Jenkins, a single mother far less well-fixed than Rosie or Wendy, is a client. mary-kateandashley lists the top 10 reasons you don’t need a boyfriend, with number nine offering this jaundiced view of romance: “Tears and screaming: not your idea of a good time.”

Even when the features are frisky, the advertisements can’t help but drag down the buoyant tone. Rosie has an article about a runner whose credo is “I’m going out there to be a beautiful, plus-size, healthy woman running 26.2 miles,” directly across from a Slim-Fast ad. A terrific feature in mary-kateandashley called “You’re Better Looking Than You Think You Are” takes to task the media’s unrealistic portrayals of young women, though it would have been nice if it had acknowledged just how airbrushed all those pics of the Olsens are.

Still, in the end, all the dumb celeb stuff and makeup advice, the craft projects and religious school inspirational messages, are vanquished by an activist spirit that occasionally rears up and kicks sand at those Jenny Craig and Revitalift ads. In a piece entitled “The First Female President?” mary-kateandashley introduces readers to Victoria Woodhull, no doubt the first time this 19th-century libertine, who ran for president in 1872, has popped up in a magazine for eight-to-14-year-olds. And Rosie‘s cover story, “Fran Drescher’s Triumph Over Cancer,” isn’t the four-hankie special you’d expect. Drescher, furious at the shoddy medical care she’s received, recommends an empowerment plan that would have made Friedan and Woodhull swell with pride: If you get sick, you should beg, borrow, or steal $150 for Web TV, then buckle down and research your symptoms yourself.