NAPS Symposium (Session 1) – Mediating Gender in Magazines: Gender, Tension, and the Internal ‘Civil War’ of Magazines by Maxwell Donaldson

The recent Network of American Periodical Studies (NAPS) symposium, hosted at Northumbria University, was titled ‘Mediating Gender in Magazines’. The Women’s History Network (WHN) provided the travel stipend that allowed me to attend this event. During the morning session of the symposium three speakers presented different magazines, each with its own rich socio-historical and periodical context. Annabel Friedrichs gave a compelling argument for the exploitative commercialisation of the ‘New Woman’ in Up-to-Date – a topical, bi-weekly, humour magazine from the late nineteenth century. Afterwards, Barnaby Haran explored the complex relationship between Margaret Bourke-White, the renownedGirl Photographer’, and Fortune, Henry Luce’s opulent ‘class magazine’. Marie-Andrée Bergeron wrapped up the session with an overview of her ongoing research (with Jean-Philippe Warren) into Odette Oligny’s short-lived yet ground-breaking Chic: founded in the 1950s, this was ostensibly the first Canadian periodical aimed at, and staffed by, women exclusively.

All three papers, in one way or another, highlighted the fact that the periodical is a publishing medium inherently prone to internal tension. Fortune brought Bourke-White into the fold of magazine photography, elevating her to the apex of the profession. As well as being the most senior photographer at the magazine, she also happened to be the only female one. Whilst Bourke-White’s position might be interpreted as a sign of open-mindedness in the offices, on the page Fortune was far from progressive: it targeted an elite, hypermasculine, minority audience, and according to the 1929 prospectus, was ‘his Ideal Super-Class Magazine’ – not ‘hers’. Up-to-Date profited from the idea of the ‘New Woman’ with eye-catching covers that appeared to celebrate (though often in a dubiously aestheticized manner) the changing notion of femininity. Meanwhile, between the covers, the magazine’s predominantly male contributors (with the notable exception of Rose O’Neil) mocked women who rode bicycles and wore bloomers. Similarly, Oligny’s Chic showcased internal clashes between progressive editorial content, and images of conventionally accepted femininity. On one page would be a short story of a girl who gets the boy, while on the next was a social commentary about female agency.

All magazines are sites of tension, and those examined during the ‘Mediating Gender in Magazines’ session all provided fascinating insight into how this can manifest along gender lines. Fortune used Bourke-White’s celebrity to appeal to an extremely limited, conservative, male readership. Up-to-Date’s bold depictions of the ‘New Woman’ jarred with their male-dominated, topical humour. Odette Oligny’s Chic showcased an assortment of contrasting messages about gender in mid-twentieth-century Canada. Although the speakers approached their topics in completely different ways, they all highlighted a tension between the discrete elements of the published whole – the internal ‘civil wars’ of the magazine form.

Photograph courtesy of John Donaldson (https://www.facebook.com/johndonaldsonphotography/; https://www.flickr.com/people/103131645@N07/)

Biographical Note:

Maxwell Donaldson is a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. His research focuses on The New Yorker magazine’s role in post-WWII American literature, with a particular focus on the author J. D. Salinger. Maxwell has previously won ‘The Andrew Rutherford Prize in English’ for his work at MA level.

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