Observer Woman

It's now one year old and has won awards, but did it deliver what it promised to women? Dawn Kofie comments on the first year of the Observer Woman magazine.

, 4 January 2007

Before I actually saw Observer Woman I was really quite excited about it. Partly because the Observer’s other supplements (Sport, Food and Music Monthly) are all well written, witty and insightful. Music Monthly in particular manages to avoid being wanky, superior and wilfully obscure (how on earth do they do that?) Anyway, I presumed that The Guardian’s sister paper would be sure to produce a supplement for women that would be a little more challenging than the type of shiny, ad-festooned periodicals in which fawning celebrity interviews, (“tell me Angelina/Gwyneth/Nicole, your immense wealth aside, how do you manage having children AND a career?”), and features with titles like, ‘Think Your Way To Bigger Breasts!’ and ‘What Your Pubic Hair Says About You!’ are staples. How wrong I was.

Maybe I was being woefully naïve or my expectations were a tad too high. I just expected so much more from the Observer. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of the writing is excellent. It’s just that in terms of subject matter it very much errs on the side of caution, and so since its launch in January 2006 Observer Woman has firmly centred on the triumvirate of sex, celebs and shopping. This would be ok if it hadn’t already been done to death. But that particular horse has been thrashed, clip clopped off this mortal coil and took up residence in the big stables in the sky quite a while ago.

in terms of subject matter it very much errs on the side of caution

So, just like all its other glossy peers, Observer Woman ostensibly labours under the outmoded misapprehension that women’s main interests are the creation and maintenance of long term relationships, the acquisition of shoes and considered assessments of the burning questions of the day such as: are [insert appropriate famous couple] still managing to hang on to what remains of their irrefutably doomed relationship? These women’s magazine mainstays are not necessarily the work of Beelzebub and his fiendish friends, and they can be fine in small doses. But most narrow, journalistic conceptualisations of women’s interests fail miserably to address the diversity and complexities of our lives, and are definitely not the sum total of what we’re all about.

I’m generalizing a bit about Observer Woman’s content. Past features have included in depth interviews with Periel Aschenbrand (American feminist and creator of ‘the only bush I trust is my own’ t-shirts) and Fiona Bruce (an attractive and intelligent newsreader who’s a feminist – what a totally cray-zeee and noteworthy combination!) and a piece about Liz Smith (an 84 year old actress) and her love affair with fashion. However, save for a column extolling the virtues of Samantha Cameron’s wardrobe, it appears that politics is definitely not on the agenda, and the small amount of stuff that’s worth reading rubs shoulders with articles such as, ’15 Ways in Which Relationships Are Like The Housing Market’, ‘Shh, I’m Still Wearing Boot Cuts’ (a hanging offence, I’m sure, if ever there was one) and ‘Party Girl Re-lives The Wildest Days Of Her Life.’

As for the claim made in the press release that trumpeted Observer Woman’s arrival that it would be, ‘glamorous and irreverent with a broad and inclusive appeal’ hmm, I’m not so sure about that. There’s little, if anything for women who don’t tick the following boxes: white, heterosexual, 30-40 something, middle class, with a substantially-larger-than-average disposable income.

it appears that politics is definitely not on the agenda

Nevertheless there are two things that set Observer Woman apart from its identikit contemporaries. Firstly it’s eschewed the usual practice of adorning its front covers with a) photographs of Hollywood actresses looking gorgeous and euphoric or b) a long-limbed, clear-skinned, lissom young models. Hurrah for that! Secondly one of its aims was to appeal to men as well as women (which is terribly nice, because the poor wee lambs really don’t have enough reading matter of their own). I mean, honestly, what’s the point? Are men really going to be beating a path to their local newsagent desperate to devour the cornucopia of delights that each month’s issue brings? Granted, articles on sex and the older man might be of interest to your average bloke. But examinations of the world’s most extreme diet, or Joan Collins’ description of the contents of her wardrobe might not be quite so engaging (for people of either sex quite frankly).

The main thing that irks is that Observer Woman missed (or studiously chose to ignore) the opportunity to provide its female readers with something that’s substantially different from the norm. I’m not saying that it should do away with every last scrap of conventional women’s magazine fare forthwith. But would it really be so hard to intersperse it with something that was a little more thought provoking and relevant? How about features on mental health, self-esteem and assertiveness; pieces of investigative journalism about the hysteria surrounding women and alcohol, women’s representation in the media, sex trafficking, the (albeit small scale) backlash against disposable sanitary protection or how women in the UK cope with the stigma of living with HIV; pulling together a wide range of women’s views about the meaning of motherhood; individual case studies illustrating how changes in the law, legal system or government policy have affected women? Or asking someone like Bonnie Grier, Kirsty Wark or Zadie Smith to guest edit? Perhaps the lure of advertising revenue from the sellers of overdraft bothering products and services is just far stronger than the desire to commission innovative and energetic journalism.

Anyway despite its shortcomings, in November 2006 Observer Woman beat off its (presumably even more lacklustre) rivals and won launch of the year and editor of the year at the British Society of Magazine Editors’ awards. Bah! What do they know anyway?

Dawn Kofie is 30 and lives in Edinburgh. She’d like to spend much more time doing yoga, going to the movies and dancing round her living room.

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