What's a Girl to Read?
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Trying to seduce as many underage girls as possible, corporate publishing has adopted the buzzword "real" as its come-on of the moment. Rightly sensing that there is a vacuum in the teen magazine market -- the fastest-growing segment of the population has, like, nothing to read -- publishers have dreamed up Jump, Teen People, Twist and Glossy. Teen People, which hit the newsstands this month, promises "real teens, real style." Jump's slogan is "For girls who dare to be real." It makes sense that realness should become a market niche -- existing teen magazines like Seventeen and YM being so decidedly unreal.But how much realer is this new crop? "Reality" is a place where bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and girls have a political, intellectual and creative life of their own. Despite their pretenses, commercial teen magazines' reality bureaus are still pretty short-staffed.Time Inc.'s Joe Camel, Teen People, deserves some credit for putting out a model-free magazine. Only a third of Teen People is devoted to fashion and beauty, and it has refreshingly little advice about how to find a boyfriend. Teen People also nods to the not-so-girly girls with profiles of girl sportclimbers and in-line streetskaters. But it's a sad commentary on the state of the glossies that these achievements are even worth mentioning, since Teen People is clearly nothing more than a way to hook future People readers on celebrity worship -- and on a made-in-Hollywood world view (movies are praised for making you "believe in love"). Worse, Teen People trivializes girls' achievements; a profile of Party of Five's Jennifer Love Hewitt is almost entirely dedicated to her clothes and her love life. But Teen People's most heinous crime is unskeptically quoting -- just five pages away from a full-page Dawson's Creek ad, but who's noting such minutia -- one of the cast members of Dawson's Creek as claiming, "We're a mouthpiece for real teens." Did Teen People even "watch" that show? Talk to the hand.Jump, just a few issues old, from the fitness-oriented Weider Publishing, is a refreshing paean to the active girl -- "stylin' snowboarders" and girl hockey players fill its pages; nail polishes recommended are quick-drying (which assumes you have something better to do than sit around and fan your nails). Jump clearly has feminist intentions; a first-person story by a girl who suffered from chronic acne offers a powerful indictment of how girls are made to suffer over any physical flaw. But at points Jump reads like a 90s Cosmo: Pressure to be skinny is replaced by pressure to be "buff," and a plea to girls not to worry about being model-perfect is written by a boy. The messageis clear: It's OK that boys and magazines still have the last word on what makes you sexy.Twist, a bimonthly launched this month by Bauer Publishing, fails at realness even more dismally. It does try to boost girls' body images; "Do our bellies really need busting?" is an eloquent plea for self-acceptance, and the magazine commendably names "Anti-Waifs" as a "Trend We Love ... Finally!" Hollywood is recognizing that you don't have to be scary skinny to shine." But check out their wussy examples -- Jewel, Jennifer Aniston, Neve Campbell -- no Janeane Garofalo or, hello, Kate Winslet, who was the romantic lead in the blockbuster of the year? Is it too utopian to hope that actresses with real meat on their bones could be presented as sexy icons in a commercial teen magazine? Twist shows some models of color, and recently ran a short item on how Janet Jackson gets her "rad red highlights," but these half-hearted hi-fives to multiculturalism are dwarfed by a full-page feature on "How can I get smooth silky hair" -- in which the strived-after tresses shown are, you guessed it, blonde.Aggravating as these body problems are, Twist's assault on girls' minds is even worse. We know only one thing for certain about a girl who picks up a magazine: She doesn't spend every single minute of her life watching TV. So what else does Twist recommend she read? Books that might as well be TV shows because they are: the Party of Five, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Moesha and X-Files book series. Twist also plugs supermodel autobiography Veronica Webb Sight. Whatever. Twist manages to have even less respect for readers' intelligence than its older sister glossies; while Seventeen, to its credit, has always featured fiction-writing contests, Twist's idea of reader participation is -- no joke -- a "love quiz" contest.Then there's Glossy, a Web magazine newly launched in print, which doesn't remotely aspire to realness. It makes YM look like the Seneca Falls Declaration.OK, OK. My catty sniping is all very well, but ultimately, what's a girl to read? Luckily there are a number of alternatives to these mind-numbing infomercials: independently published magazines written by and for teenage girls. These magazines are not only more feminist than their glossy counterparts, they're far smarter, more racially diverse, and yes, more real.Rochester, N.Y.-based Blue Jean, an ad-free bimonthly, offers, to use its own words, an "alternative to the fashion and beauty magazines targetting young women." Ani "I-refuse-to-sell-out-to-the-McMusic-industry" diFranco graces the cover of the January/February "Women We Love" issue with gritty style -- not your father's Esquire's "Women We Love:" in addition to Ani, Blue Jean loves Third Wave activist Rebecca Walker, soccer star Mia Hamm, tennis pro Venus Williams (and "the sassy swing of her beaded hair"), author Veronica Chambers, teen novelist Jean Crowell and Hard Candy nail polish entrepreneur Dineh Mohajer, and features interviews with both Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott and Rosa Parks. To subscribe to this gently funkified Ms. for girls, send $29 (for the next six issues) to 7353 Pittsford-Victor Rd., Ste. 201-203, Victor, NY 14564-9790 (or call 1-888-4blujean and pay by credit card).Teen Voices, a national quarterly run out of Boston that roughly estimates its readership at 45,000, focuses on urban girls -- taking on issues from teen pregnancy and body mutilation to "Snowboarding on the Cheap!" Articles ask: Was the court decision in the Boston Latin affirmative action case fair? Are cartoons sexist? Do animals have rights? How do you get over shyness? Should you get a tatoo? Teen Voices has a fine mix of politics, personal stuff, book and record reviews, fiction and poetry. To subscribe send $20 (special group rates are also available) to Teen Voices, P.O. Box 120-027, Boston, MA 02112-0027; check out the Web site at http://www.teenvoices.com.Hues, a feisty, multi-cultural quarterly, has a high-quality, attractive, innovative layout -- on shiny paper (none of this hard-to-read, self-marginalizing newsprint). Its current issue features "Get On the Bus!" an account of Philadelphia's little-covered Million Woman March; "Making it Big," a profile of a successful and gorgeous 190-pound model who's outspoken in her criticism of the fashion industry; advice on looking for a good job "before you give up and accept a lifetime position at Minimun-Wages-R-Us;" an undercover look at phone sex; and a cultural dialogue between two young Indian women about arranged marriage. They've also run pieces on "Ghetto Feminism" and a "Swimsuit Issue" featuring women of all colors, shapes and sizes. HUES was recently acquired by New Moon publishing, the creator of the younger girls' magazine New Moon; it will go bimonthly next year. To get the next six issues, send $19.99 to HUES P.O. Box 3587, Duluth, MN, 55803-3587.Reluctant Hero is a Canadian quarterly with some serious feminist analysis -- "Birds do it, Bees do it, Boys sure do. Why is it so taboo for girls to have a libido?" -- asking why boys on TV shows don't listen to girls' desires (they pursue girls who aren't interested, harass them endlessly, and end up winning them over in the end). Reluctant Hero also explores cliques, sexual harasment and peer mediation, and asks that timeless question that you will probably never see in a commercial teen magazine -- "Why Are Girls So Mean?" Other features cheer girls' creativity and ambitions: "Be a Mega Zine Queen," "Does Science have a Gender?" and "Getting a Record Deal." For more information e-mail email@example.com or call (416)656-8047. To subscribe send $19.26 to Reluctant Hero, 189 Lonsmount Dr., Toronto, Ont., M5P 2476.These magazines are so good that re-reading them actually made me dislike Jump, Teen People and Twist even more. Though these commercial ventures are, considering the territory, a step in the right direction, girls themselves can do so much better. It's too soon to say for sure how many readers the mainstream newcomers have attracted, but Teen People is reportedly selling like the Titanic. The independents don't attract Gap ads, and, at least in Blue Jean's case, wouldn't even if they could; they need support. Subscribe, request them at your bookstore or library, make a contribution, show them to your favorite teenager -- or millionaire investor. Let's hope the talent behind this girls' alternative press gets the encouragement it deserves to keep on keeping it real.