Glossy Panel: Should glossy magazines for tweens be classified?

Glossy Panel: Should glossy magazines for tweens be classified or left alone?

The last time we held a virtual glossy panel, we talked about the iPad. Now, also with implications for publishing houses, we discuss tween magazines (potentially coming to a kiddie-iPad platform near you soon).

Stepping into the minefield that
is tween magazine publishing is rather like refereeing a kids' soccer match – one one side we have interest groups advocating for tighter content restrictions; on the other we have publishers wanting to protect their properties. Parents stand on the sidelines trying to make sense of the rules, occasionally voicing their opinions, while the kids play along on the field, none the wiser to the storm brewing around them.

Everyone appears to have the kids' best interests at heart, but there can be virtually no agreement as to how to best orchestrate a compromise because everyone is intent on winning. Unless the ground rules change, the whole bunch will continue to run around in circles until someone passes out from fatigue (the already fatigued parents will be the first to go, throwing their hands up in the air for the sheer hopelessness of it all). As we all know, the most diplomatic (and grown-up) way to handle the situation would be to sit at a table and talk the issues through; to give everyone a chance to air their perspective and then debate the pros and cons. So, let's do that.

THE CONTEXT: Early this week The Independent Weekly reported that the South Australian opposition wants to introduce legislation to classify tween and teen magazines, like movies, in response to community concern about the sexualisation of young children (otherwise currenrtly known as The Miley Cyrus Effect). The bill proposed by opposition youth spokeswoman Michelle Lensink would enable parents to make more informed decisions about what material is appropriate for their child.

Anne Bunning, chief executive of women's interest group YWCA, which conducted a survey finding 75% of respondents support PG ratings for tween magazines, told The Advertiser: "The early sexualisation of girls through magazines and video clips, which provide instruction to six-year-olds on sex and how to dress and dance in sexually provocative ways, has gone too far. We are now seeing the damage this has done and, as adults, we need to take responsibility for our children and respect their rights to be a child and have a childhood."


'TWEEN MAGS ARE APPROPRIATE': Amanda Nicholls, editor, Total Girl

"We have very strict editorial guidelines in place to ensure the safety of our readers at all times. These guidelines not only cover the editorial content and the images that we use, but they also extend to our brand extensions and licensed products and our advertisers must also adhere to the criteria outlined in this policy. All images must be age appropriate and that includes finding images where the subject is dressed in an appropriate manner and that their make up is not too heavy...

With celebrities, we only focus on stars who are good role models for our readers because Total Girl is quite an aspirational brand and we understand that our readers need positive role models to look up to. The thing to remember is that celebrities are human and can make mistakes or do things that parents may disagree with - but we only ever focus on the positive things that these people have achieved and we never promote bad behaviour in Total Girl...

The simple fact is, our readers adore dressing up and feeling glamorous, so what we do is go to extreme lengths to make sure that our fashion and beauty pages are age appropriate... The most important thing we do every time we conduct a photo shoot with children, is to contact a regulatory body called The Children's Guardian. They are a separate entity that ensure that we have followed all of the appropriate guidelines when it comes to working with children...

We also have very strict guidelines for our beauty pages - we make sure the products are mostly nail polishes, lip glosses, shampoos, perfume and moisturisers. You will never see eyeliner, mascara, lip stick, foundation, eye shadow or tanning products in the pages of Total Girl because we don't want to encourage girls to wear the more mature make-up products...

There is an expectation that the content in Total Girl is going to be safe for all of our readers and we believe that we deliver on that 110%. Every single word that is printed in the magazine has been under my supervision and my entire team is extremely diligent with weeding out content that is too mature for our readers. We are working in a self-regulated industry and we are adamant that we are producing a product that appeals to the readers while also getting the tick of approval from parents...

One thing I would really like to clarify here is that Total Girl isn't just about fashion and beauty – it is packed full of content that is entertaining, informative, interactive and insightful. We offer our readers advice, we provide an entire section called "Totally Smart", which is full of educational content that is both engaging and fun for our readers, there are recipes and craft activities and, of course, there is loads of fun entertainment reviews on the latest movies and what the girls' favourite stars are up to. The magazine has something for everyone and it's a real misconception that what we do encourages girls to grow up too quickly because that is exactly what we aim not to do."

'TWEEN MAGAZINES ARE NOT INNOCUOUS': Melinda Tankard Reist, author of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, co-founder of Collective Shout

"A PG rating would at least alert engaged parents to the reality that these magazines are not innocuous but contain content that needs to be unpacked and discussed. For example, the May issue of Girlpower featured Lady Gaga ('Lady Gaga Oohh-La La!) and promoted her concerts even though they contained images of brutality, purging and simulated sex scenes. The same issue had a section on 'conversation starters for your crush'. Should we be encouraging crushes at all in very young girls?

A content analysis by The Australia Institute of girls’ magazines found that about half of the content of Total Girl (8-11) and Disney Girl (6-13) and three quarters of the content of Barbie Magazine (5-12) was sexualising material. The idea of boys as sex objects or crushes is common. Headings include: “Is he your friend or your crush”, “Cute Crush Issue" (featuring pics of boys and men up to 30), “Our top 5 crushes.” All for girls aged 5 and up. As Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze observed in Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of Children in Australia, published by the Institute, girls are “being invited to see themselves not as healthy, active and imaginative girls, but as hot and sassy tweens on the prowl.”

Tween magazines facilitate readers' early socialisation into the popularised teenage world of clothes, makeup, sex and celebrities. Girls are told about stars wanting to lose weight, sending a message that important people are obsessed with their looks and size, contributing to body surveillance. And to be cool, accepted and to fit in with your peers, you need products, products and more products.

I would be urging parents to not buy these magazines at all. They reinforce obsession with appearance, the need to imitate celebrities (features on how to imitate 'hot dance moves', for example) and to attract male attention. They present a one-dimensional view of girlhood. There is little representation of body diversity. They also prep girls for graduation to Dolly, Cleo and Cosmo, which all promote sexual performance and availability, beauty rituals and the thin ideal.

I think a lot of parents have no idea about the content in teen magazines. A 2007 issue of Dolly – which we know is being read by girls not yet in their teens – contained a section entitled ‘OMG my boyfriend wants me to...’, followed by three sexual acts: ‘Give him “head”’, “Have anal sex’ and ‘Give him a hand job’ (Dolly, August 2007, 0.141). Dolly gave a clinical description – essentially a ‘how to’ of each act. There was no mention that the girls might be physically or psychologically harmed or violated, or that it might be a crime depending on their respective ages.

Much in young women's magazine culture suggests to girls that they are service stations for boys: that their role is to be pleasure providers for men. There is little content that empowers them to resist premature sexual activity. Research shows that most girls in Australia regret their first sexual experience, which is often marked by drunkenness and force.

Child development experts tell us we are losing the period known as 'middle childhood', the ages 9-13, because we are catapulting them into the teenage years. These magazines contribute to the erosion of these years, which should be as carefree as we can possibly make them. Why not buy the girls in your life some good classic novels instead, send them outside to play, engage them in causes and community activities which will make a difference to others and help them feel good about themselves and spend more time with them?"

'WOULDN'T BUY THEM IN A PINK FIT': Mia Freedman of MAMAMIA; mother: "I am pretty disturbed by a lot of the imagery in these tween mags. The air-brushing, the emulating Miley and Barbie, etc. And the emphasis on make-up and clothes. Make-up! But I also recognise that there is a real gap between girls reading Winnie the Pooh and then Dolly. The tween category is a very real life-stage. And it's sad it's only filled with crap. I wouldn't buy them for my daughter in a pink fit."

"I generally just tell parents not to buy these magazines, especially for the under sixteens. It's just very difficult for a glossy magazine not to be about advertising primarily, and therefore consumption, and to get people to consume you have to first make them discontent with their looks, possessions or social lives. Teen girls are too vulnerable in these areas already, so it just knocks them over confidence wise. We also advise parents themselves not to buy fashion magazines, and to drop these concerns (weight, looks, fashion) so they don't role model them to their girls.

There has been some good ethical movement in women's magazines in some cases, for which they should be congratulated, but also some greenwash from companies like the one that makes Lynx and yet also runs the Dove self esteem program.

A good move editorially would be to pump up the other aspect of being a young woman – idealistic action in the world, being creative, self expression – so featuring young adult women role models volunteering with MSF, girls who work in third world orphanages, women scientists. Women's Weekly was a big part of the softening of racist attitudes to refugees. Stories from Islamic girls, girls who write novels or make fantastic art, disabled girls talking about what it's like. There is huge scope for positive girlhood in a magazine. Girlfriend as a concept, rather than (someone's) Girlfriend. Girls are not just interested in their own age group, who are often perceived competitively, but more in young women in their twenties, as possible life paths."

'EMPLOY THE SERVICES OF A PANEL OF EXPERTS': GWAS (former tween mag staffer): "I grew up on a steady diet of Smash Hits, video clips, Dolly and dance lessons – while pop culture, dance culture and glossy ideals definitely affected my sense of self, particularly my poor body image and sexual awakening, it was also shaped primarily by my mother and other key female role models in my life (themselves influenced by social forces).

When I first joined the Pacific Magazines stable, working on K-Zone, Total Girl was the twinkle in the youth division's eye. It now reaches less girls, but remains the number one seller in the category. I admire its commitment to standards for imagery and content – it is the benchmark (some mags in the category often fall short). But it's also caught between a rock and a hard place: while I don't believe it intentionally undermines girls' capacities to form a well-rounded view of themselves, it is a product driven by consumerism, which has a set of implications its readership cannot possibly understand.

I established the GWAS rating scale as a way of filtering through some of the "crap" presented in women's media: if tween magazines were to employ the services of a panel of industry experts to go over their content each month (as with some of the health magazines), they might save themselves from being the unwitting victims of the sexualisation debate. At the same time, parents and schools should work towards developing their daughters' media literacy (books like Does My Bum Look Big In This Ad? are a helpful aid) and fostering self-confidence based on achievements other than looking cute/sexxxxy/pretty/hot. Jessica Watson, please stand up."

Now, of course, it's your say...

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


dillpickle said...

I must completely agree with the affirmative! As a child psychologist and mother of an 18 month old daughter, I'm greatly concerned by the heavy marketing to young girls that encourages them to be sexual and obsessively focussed on appearance. What bothers me most is that many parents seem completely oblivious to the implications of exposing their daughters to these ideas at such a young age. At least if these mags were classified, it might stimulate some level of questioning by this otherwise accepting group of parents! I know that it might result in reduced sales and the potential loss of jobs for some people, but I think the long term mental health of our children needs to take precedence over an economic argument in this case.

Thanks for helping to keep these issues noticed!

Anonymous said...

As someone who works in the media and has followed this debate quite closely - I'm so frustrated when I see commentators like Melinda Tankard Reist and Steve Bidulph weighing in on the issue. The majority of Melinda's comments are completely outdated. Barbie magazine shut down years ago - it doesn't exist in the form that she continues to say it does!
As for the other kids mags, Melinda refers to statistics from a report that was written in 2006. Since that report was written - a Senate Enquiry has been underway and a lot of changes have been made to these magazines in the past four years. It's completely inaccurate to say that 75% of the kids magazines contain sexualising content.
Both Melinda and Steve Bidulph suggest that girls become more active members of their community and focus on things like sports, friendships, charity work and looking up to positive role models. Isn't that exactly what these magazines core message is? But the worst and most offensive comment of all was printed (and re-quoted for this blog) in the Advertiser. None of the tween magazines has EVER had content instructing 6 year olds on sex. That statement is so sickening! I think before all of these social commentators says another word about the content being printed in these magazines - they should pick up a recent issue and get their facts straight!

Yellow said...

I can't believe Melinda Tankard Reist is still banging on about Barbie magazine - didn't this shut down about a decade ago? As for the content analysis she quoted, again it's about 5 years old - ancient in today's media landscape - maybe time for some new research to back up her statements... Tween mags have come along way since then, I'd like to see where in Total Girl it gives advice on how to dance provocatively or attract the attention of your crush? Melinda?? The challenge is there!
Mia - I also challenge you to pick up Total Girl and say it is only 'filled with crap'(pretty rich coming from an editor COSMO). A quick flip through the latest magazine and I can find articles on doing charity work, facing your fears, making your dreams come true... what about this exactly would you not want your daughter to emulate?

Anonymous said...

Isn't it a bit of a chicken and egg situation? What came first - girls having school yard crushes on boys and loving to dress up or tween mags? Considering these magazines have only been around for a few years I think we can safely deduct from this article that the magazines are providing fun content that their readers are interested in. If you took these magazines away - do you think girls would be any different? It sounds like all of these people are really out of touch with what kids today want. Imagine if Steve Bidulph put out a magazine for kids - bet nobody would buy it.

Footprints Australia said...

There are a couple of positive alternatives available for tween and teen girls. The first is Bella The other one is

Anonymous said...

Thanks anonymous and yellow for confirming that I am NOT a bad mother for letting my daughter read Total Girl. I have never seen the kind of content that Melinda refers to in TG and always find it to be positive and age appropriate. Please GWAS leave self promoting Mia F to be hypocritical on someone else's site - what is her opinion based on anyway? If she has read a recent copy I'd challenge her to point out with what exactly she takes issue.

Mimi said...

This issue reminds me of the dumbing down of our community, the passive asbsorption of anything we are fed without much thought or debate.
Maybe it's our feeling of powerlessness or just ignorance that we dont see the harm sexualisation of people inflicts. I think it helps reduce us to things and commodities, nothing about honoring our uniqueness.
I'd also love to see notice when photo shop is used, a before and after picture to inform readers that what they are looking at has been edited and is not real.
Good on you and the success!