‘Paper Giants, the birth of Cleo’, which screened on ABC Sunday and Monday nights, told the story of how, against a background of emergent feminism, the victory of the Whitlam government, and the Packers’ shedding part of their media empire, the talented Ita Buttrose was made editor of a new and controversial magazine.
Against great odds, Cleo was launched in November 1972, six months ahead of what would be for a time its greatest rival, Cosmopolitan.
Apart from the wonderful sense of history and nostalgia the mini-series evokes (never mind the stellar performances of Asher Keddie and Rob Carlton), it focussed on Buttrose as a trailblazing cultural icon.
Attune to changes sweeping the political and social landscape, Buttrose, as a married mother of two, was also bound by the strictures of slow-to-change gender roles.
This is possibly what enabled her to reach out and speak to contemporary women through the magazine with directness, knowledge and insight.
In her inaugural editor’s letter, Buttrose wrote to Cleo’s intended audience, using the first person plural beloved of these publications. ‘We decided that you’re an intelligent woman who’s interested in everything that’s going on, the type of person who wants a great deal more out of life. Like us, certain aspects of Women’s Lib appeal to you but you’re not aggressive about it.’
In other words, the implied reader was an early version of Helen Fielding’s famous singleton, Bridget Jones – someone who forty years later, would enjoy embracing the benefits of feminism while simultaneously being ashamed and embarrassed by aspects of what it asks of followers. What Paul Kalina, in his review of the show describes as ‘middle-ground feminism.’
The infamous first issue of Cleo featured stories on Contraception, group sex, abortion, contained a guide to marriage and its ramifications, a look at what Jesus meant in the seventies, advice on how to be a sexy housekeeper and, of course, the ‘mate of the month’.
In Queensland, the ‘mate’, actor Jack Thompson’s ‘crown jewels’ were buried under a square of gold. Censorship in our Sunshine State forbade even a hint of male sex organs, though women’s were fine to parade.
Since those early heady days, there are now numerous magazines for both sexes competing for an audience and a share of the market. Interestingly, in terms of content and how women are represented – between the covers and as readers – there’s been a reduction of expectations. This is despite enormous and significant alterations to workplaces, domestic spaces and gender relationships.
If anything, the intelligence and interest that Buttrose projected has narrowed to an individual and consumer-driven obsession.
The ‘we’ Buttrose addressed, and which feminism sought to invigorate into collective action is now very much a competitive ‘I’.
The marketplace is cluttered with celebrity-driven tabloids and ‘gossip’ magazines – print and online – perceived as having little to no cultural value, and as simply pandering to the basest of ‘mass-market’ desires.
Understanding them this way is to underestimate their influence and the role they play, overt and subtle, in constructing female identity. They both negotiate the complexities of contemporary femininity by addressing common and difficult topics but defer real discussion by reducing them to consumption-led solutions.
Transformations, whether of the self from ordinary to extraordinary dominate, as does advice on how to conform to market-driven ideals of femininity, body-shape and size. There’s still a relentless push to remind females that their main objective should be to attain a man and, if not, to at least please one.
‘Intelligent’ conversation, awareness and analysis of other cultures, people, ideas and modes of being and challenges to these occur, but they’re often lost within screeds of advertising and superficial reports.
Even the most discerning of the magazines set an impossible yardstick of beauty, accomplishment and desire around which we will forever fall short. The only way to succeed, they remind us, is to consume – products, more advice, and to maintain hyper-vigilance and knowledge about each other through the indirect source of the publication.
Women’s magazines are, at one level, a paradoxical exploration of what it means to be female in contemporary times. If we don’t know what women want, what hope do men have?
As a thoughtful and apparently ethical pioneer in this field, I can’t help but wonder what Buttrose thinks of her legacy.
A version of this blog appears in the Courier Mail, 20 April 2011 – Viewpoint section.