The New York Review of Magazines

Marie Claire

By Candice Chan

Circulation: 985,053
Date of Birth: 1994
Frequency: Monthly
Price: $3.50

When I started reading Marie Claire, I found its articles both refreshing and empowering. After flipping through other magazines containing countless variations on the same tired themes — “100 Sexy New Moves He’ll Love” or “His Body Reveals What He’d Never Tell You” — I wanted a women’s magazine that informed me about, well, me. In Marie Claire I found an ethos, and image, I could identify with.

There was fashion, international reporting and some much-needed career advice. There was also relationship and body advice, primarily kept to the “Love/Sex” section, so it never felt like I had to question whether I qualified as a woman. It was a magazine focused on women gaining power to please themselves, instead of women gaining power to please others.

But suddenly, in September of 2009, I noticed a jarring change. Sexually implicit (or explicit) titles, like those I expected from Cosmopolitan, had begun appearing on Marie Claire’s pages.

“The New Trophy Wife” pointed out a hot new trend: Successful Caucasian men were gravitating toward younger Asian women. “Asians (in addition to African orphans) are hot commodities right about now — status symbols as prized as a private Gulfstream jet or a museum wing bearing your name (neither of which goes so well with a frumpy, aging first wife).” Among the couples cited were Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng, and Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn.

Within days of the article’s release, Marie Claire was bombarded with a firestorm of unhappy responses in the press. And I, as an Asian-American woman, found the article particularly offensive. Though it professed to dispel the stereotypes of “geishas” and “dragon-ladies,” it only seemed to bolster these dated perceptions, especially in relation to interracial dating. That article alone made me consider canceling my subscription.

Sadly, it wasn’t an isolated instance. Since then, there’s been a steady flow of titillating subjects. October 2009’s “My Friend is a Mail Order Bride” describes an American woman’s experience watching her Shanghainese friend marry a wealthy, divorced Chinese-Canadian husband she sought out on a website. This January’s “Sleeping with the Boss” profiled women embroiled in love affairs with their employers, a la David Letterman. On the cover of March’s issue, you could find “I Agreed To A Threesome For My Husband’s Birthday.” There seems to be no end to the delectably sinful material the editorial team comes up with these days.

Marie Claire’s U.S. edition is the daughter to a French parent of the same name, part of a large family of global magazines; there are now 27 other national editions. Since 2002, when the magazine had only 350,000 subscribers, it has continued to gain new readers, to reach a circulation just shy of one million as of January 2010. Almost half of those new customers were gained after Joanna Coles took over as editor-in-chief in 2006.

In a visit to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism last year, Coles drew a distinction between her magazine and her competitor, Cosmopolitan, “the sex bible.” She said that Marie Claire isn’t “against orgasms, we just don’t put them on the cover.” When she took control, there was a perceptible change to a magazine “edited for a sexy, stylish, confident woman who is never afraid to make intelligence a part of her wardrobe.”

In contrast to “I Surfed Naked for a Pair of Manolos” and “Orgasm Secrets You Haven’t Heard” in the May 2006 issue, the articles in that October’s issue, which held Coles’ first editor’s note, were deeper and more varied. Subsequent issues profiled international women of note and carried internationally-oriented monthly columns. Female strength, around the world, seemed to have become the magazine’s selling point.

That was then; trophy wives, threesomes and sleeping with the boss are now. What’s behind this change? The editors declined to comment, but it may be that the answer lies in their recent move to market the magazine aggressively on television. They followed the example of Elle, another of Marie Claire’s competitors, which has had great success using TV to expand its brand (in the last few years, Elle has seen an increase in sales, with a circulation rising to 1,105,456 as of June 2009). Elle is featured on MTV’s The City, and in 2008, the magazine aired a reality show, Stylista, on the CW. Marie Claire soon followed, in 2009, with its own reality show, Running in Heels.

As that show was ramping up in 2008, Nina Garcia left Elle and became Marie Claire’s fashion director, bringing glamour and fashion credibility with her — and TV visibility: She had been in the public eye as a judge on the show Project Runway since 2005. It may be that these ties to the mass medium of television produced a conflict between Coles’ avowed intention to position Marie Claire as a beacon for the independent, intelligent woman, and the competitive need to present it as glamorous and sexy.

So far, the edgy new approach has seemed to work. This January, Media Industry Newsletter reported a 23 percent increase in ad pages for Marie Claire in 2009. In many ways, it is still the empowering magazine I remember discovering, and one could argue that the articles mentioned above and the TV-ready attitude are helping the magazine stay afloat in a changing market. But in every provocative article I’ve read, there seems to be an implicit condescension or ridicule embedded in the text — an attitude that doesn’t leave me feeling informed; it leaves me feeling like I picked up just another “sex bible.”

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