Sister swat

The Age

October 5, 2004

Myrna Blyth takes a shot at Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric and Tina Brown.
Photo: Harry Afentoglou

A bare-fisted assault on women's magazines in a new book has incensed their editors. But author Myrna Blyth is unrepentant. Helen Razer reports.

"You go, girl" is a trademark cheer for a generation of women. However, one woman believes this Oprah-fuelled finger-popping elation is about to pass its use-by date.

Myrna Blyth, former editor-in-chief of prominent US periodical Ladies' Home Journal, thinks that the time is right to dump this counterfeit call to feminist arms.

"You go, girl," she says dryly. "You go, and buy your Manolo Blahniks. You go in a pair of $400 shoes." As a professional engaged for more than two decades in the business of selling both high-end shoes and ideals, Blyth is uniquely qualified to divulge the secrets of major women's magazine publishing. And divulge she does.

For a retiree who once presided over a publication famed for its recipes, handy hints and temperate marital advice, this 64-year-old sure knows how to strike. Blyth's book Spin Sisters:How the women of the media sell unhappiness and liberalism was released last Manhattan spring to some good reviews, healthy sales and the chagrin of those whom she sees as an elite media girls' club.

The author describes a narrowminded sorority fuelled by expense accounts and arrogance and whose meetings are held at stylish restaurants and influential baby showers.

Writer and former editor of Australia's New Woman, Cyndi Tebbel found that the world of women's magazine publishing had particular and perplexing conventions. "The industry is an utterly surreal world," says Tebbel. She often found herself stumped by the ladies' code of conduct. "I was constantly being told to go and get a blow dry."

Local "spin sister" and editor of Cosmopolitan magazine Mia Freedman reports that she is unacquainted with any such girls' club. "Certainly, one might have friends in the industry. But we're not exactly out every lunch-time plotting in stilettos and perfect blow-waves. Conspiracies are difficult to arrange when you’re busy editing a magazine."

According to Blyth, the big names of upbeat oestrogen media are plotting. Barbara Walters, Tina Brown and Diane Sawyer are among the women she lambasts for their hypocrisy and clubbishness. The unstintingly adorable Katie Couric, dubbed "Her Cuteness" by a wryly cruel authoress, is imagined by Blyth as "nibbling her salad like a rabbit before hopping off to see her personal trainer".

No queen in the media menagerie is safe from Blyth's prodding pen. An often amusing medley of belligerence with sunshine, Spin Sisters had some ladies in the leading hutch hopping mad.

Cosmopolitan USA editor Kate White responded to press: "This is someone over 60 who wants to create a big enough stir to get on TV." An inflamed Glamour magazine editor Cindi Leive rebuffed the work as "an act of arson".

Whatever the claims from this radicchio gnawing elite, we can be certain that Blyth is enjoying the heat. Spin Sisters intimately describes an influential world of print and electronic media in which feminism has been supplanted by avarice; confidence by commerce.

"Media tend to encourage a peculiar combination of feminism and narcissism," says Blyth on the phone from her Manhattan apartment. Women's electronic and print media, she says, bleat a message that is indistinguishable from the advertising by which they are funded. Women are notified to "buy it because you deserve it, buy it because you're an outstanding woman. This is a new media hype. A kind of Sex and the City vision of women."

Freedman, however, says that Blyth is describing a time that has long since passed. "This do-you-have-fat-thighs culture is so much a part of the '80s and early '90s. The formula was simple: you told women that they had a problem and then you told them how to fix it," she says.

"An editor can decide that they want the reader to feel inadequate and hungry for their next fix of instructions. Or, they can decide, as we did at Cosmo, that helping a readership to feel positive and empowered is the way to go."

Blyth is adamant that magazines have hijacked empowerment and are using it to sell face cream. Spin Sisters is peppered with statistical slugs about products directed toward women such as yoga, day spas and beauty aids. The purveyors of these niche-marketed antidotes to "stress", says Blyth, are the only winners in the modern female economy of angst. More essential oils, yoga mats and moisturisers are sold as ordinary women begin to believe the fiction that their lives are unmanageable.

Cyndi Tebbel does not concur that the anxiety many women feel is simply a byproduct of marketing hype. "People get stressed without the encouragement of media," she says. However, she does take Blyth's point that magazines can manufacture fear in readers that can translate to advertising revenue.

"In many media, there’s such an emphasis on extreme body modification . . . there are 20 million routes to self-improvement in women's magazines. And, by the way, they all cost a little something," says Tebbel.

Dr Denise Varney, senior lecturer in gender studies at the University of Melbourne, is also not entirely persuaded by Blyth's assertions. "The stresses that women encounter are deeply ingrained in patriarchal and global culture," she says.

She does, however, find some value in Blyth's idea of an artificial victimhood: the chic, modern ideal of a gal simply too stressed to bear anything but a spa treatment is gaining momentum. "It links into a notion of an idealised romantic femininity," says Varney.

Stress, in this reading, has become the contemporary equivalent of the vapours of yesteryear. A girl-power consumerism is posited as the only antidote. "Certainly, feminism can be skewed and used in a conservative way to justify a spending spree," says Varney.

Blyth has written her book, she says "not for the Spin Sisters" or media queens who have raced to assail her, but "for women to assist them in making up their own minds".

Upon tackling this curious jumble of conservatism with anti-consumerism, only one thing is true: readers will think twice before buying their next lavender scented aromatherapy candle. After all, they might not be quite that stressed.

Spin Sisters, Myrna Blyth, hardback $50, Pan Macmillan