Girl Trouble


Will anyone mourn the late Mademoiselle? Folded after 66 years, the last issue had the bad luck to hit newsstands almost immediately after the worst attack in American history, though that can hardly be the whole reason for its demise. The turquoise and pink cover, awash with the lameness that afflicts most ‘women’s’ magazines, bills the typical mix of the prosaic (‘Your New Haircut Starts Here”), the lurid (“Cadee Condit: Why I’m Sticking by My Dad”), and the deeply conventional (“Engagement Special—Yes! Yes! Yes!”). Inside, there’s a list of products purportedly favored by the late Natalie Wood’s daughter, and a picture spread of Julia Stiles and Catherine Zeta-Jones sporting a hairdo the magazine calls a demi-ponytail.

Mademoiselle‘s last cover girl is Keri Russell, an actress who used to be on a show called The All New Mickey Mouse Club and now plays Felicity, an NYU student with a roiling love life, on the WB television show of the same name. If plenty of readers would love to trade places with someone playing a student rather than stay in school themselves, this was most assuredly not the case when Mademoiselle, once a highly regarded magazine, was founded. In its heyday, Mademoiselle did not spend its time telling you how to look like an actress or a model. These unseemly careers, associated in the public imagination with nudity, casting couches, leering directors, and photographers with greasy hands (in polite society, model was a euphemism for whore), were the polar opposite of the métiers the Mademoiselle girl had in mind.

The Mademoiselle girl wore a cashmere twin set and lived in a dorm with a curfew; she got a degree, suffered the ignominy of learning to type, killed a few years working someplace like an art gallery or a publishing house, and then achieved her true goal: marriage. This unvarying script had an iron grip on social life, repeated for decades not just in magazines but in novels, movies, TV shows, and plays until the late 1960s, when the curfew was permanently lifted. (Invitation to readers: If you can think of one American movie made before 1965 where the heroine is allowed to live a happy life without benefit of husband and/or children, please e-mail this column.)

The suffocating world Mademoiselle was born into has faded into oblivion, and good riddance. But it’s a shame that what was best about the original Mademoiselle—its willingness to acknowledge the intellectual aspirations of its readers (the magazine once published Truman Capote and Carson McCullers)—has vanished as thoroughly as bobby socks and circle pins. Like its sisters—Jane, Glamour—who survive it, Mademoiselle died trying to serve a modern reader who herself is torn in a dozen contradictory directions at once. If the marriage-minded college girl of Mademoiselle‘s early days was schooled to be reasonably well-groomed and well-read, her successor is expected to look like a model, pursue a brilliant career, be hot in bed, and still spend untold hours trying to snag a husband.

In its attempt to please this combination of Britney Spears and Madeleine Albright, the magazine took the low road. “Is Your Job Sabotaging Your Sex Life?” queries one article in Mademoiselle‘s last issue. As if you don’t have enough to worry about, “Plan Dates for When You Ovulate!” is the suggestion made by another piece, but not so you’ll get knocked up—the article alleges that “you feel more beautiful when you ovulate.” “You Conform? Hell, No” is the headline extolling the virtue of “being yourself at work,” with no nod to the ominous consequences that can attend this strategy. Is it any wonder Mademoiselle lost its way, preaching to women who’ve been told that to be happy they need to sport a diamond engagement ring on the fist that holds a bulging briefcase?

Just as it was hearing its exit music, the equally anachronistically named Harpers Bazaar was debuting a new editor—Glenda Bailey, imported from Marie Claire. In recent years, Bazaar has been the Pepsi to Vogue‘s Coke, offering a similar if weaker brew of what Anna Wintour has on tap: an unspoken contempt for people who can’t afford the prices of designer fashion, a giddy adulation of socialites and that reformed call girl, the model, and the odd pairing of a head-in-sand approach to social ills with the occasional worthy digression about, say, breast cancer treatments. Bailey’s Bazaar throws a bucket of cold water on those Blahnik pumps and Gucci pedal pushers. For the first time in its life, the magazine has stuff like a $35 shirt from the Gap, and, in a feature called “Luxe for Less,” an $80 coat from Old Navy. (The hyperactive, super cheap Old Navy has been called many things, but luxe is not one of them.) Of course, like Mademoiselle and virtually every other magazine on the stands these days short of The Nation, the new Bazaar borrows from the highly successful, celebrity-besotted Instyle, telling readers where actresses buy their hairpins in the hopes that this will inspire you to buy them too. The obligatory page of party pictures is here, but now it not only shows you what Sofia Coppola and Sarah Jessica Parker are wearing, it tells you where you can buy the same outfit. (Oh, would that the magazine went just one step further and revealed that, unlike you, these starlets don’t pay for the stuff they wear.)

There’s still plenty of retrograde stuff: do’s and don’ts makeup columns, endorsements of quack diets, articles about events like a “plastic surgery party,” where gals get together for nips and tucks. But these reactionary vestiges are undercut by a number of features about women who couldn’t care less what kind of hand cream Madonna uses, and here, one senses, is where Ms. Bailey’s heart really lies. An interview by David Bowie with the highly unorthodox British artist Tracey Emin discusses matter-of-factly the artist’s life in 1990, when she had an abortion and destroyed all her work. The text that accompanies a fashion spread designed to help the reader look like Mexican painter Frida Kahlo ($3800 Marc Jacobs skirts, $925 Dolce & Gabbana blouses) has anecdotes that make it clear that Kahlo, a highly original, nutty dresser, wasn’t the sort of woman seduced by designer clothes sold in department stores. Little kids would yell “Where’s the circus?” as Kahlo swept through town in authentic peasant skirts, ruffled blouses, embroidered aprons, and clanking jewelry. “It’s so horrible, it’s beautiful!” she would crow as she swooped down on a market stall full of kitschy treats. Kahlo was notoriously difficult, but she wasn’t trivial: It’s hard to imagine her at a botox party.

Even women you wouldn’t expect to break the mold reveal themselves in unexpected ways. Though an article about Gwyneth Paltrow, Bazaar‘s November cover girl, regurgitates the predictable movie star fodder—she eats whatever she wants; she hates her butt; she loves sex—it’s not entirely without surprises. Asked who she’d like to trade places with, the actress picked a woman who can be seen nightly wearing a khaki jacket and hanging out a few miles from the Afghanistan border in Pakistan. “Christiane Amanpour,” confesses Paltrow. “I just think she’s totally punk rock.”