Recession and Romance go together like Horse and Carriage, right? In terms of commercial entertainment, the Great Depression of the 1930s amounted to Picture Palaces inhabited by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In the 1980s there was the fantasy couple of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. All right, they really were the leaders of their respective nations, but you get my drift: typically, recession prompts fantasies of love and marriage.
Flip this equation round the other way, and you might expect avowedly unromantic magazines to find themselves unhitched (divorced, even) from the market during times of recession. Like the times we are now living through. However, according to a newly published audit by Paul Darigan, my student and colleague at the University of East London, real life (non-romantic) magazines for women such as Love It!, That’s Life! and Pick Me Up, are holding up well. Meanwhile other more glamorous titles are going to the wall, and whole sectors feel like they are up against it.
How come many of today’s women readers are sticking to reality rather than indulging in the sort of fantasy which their grandmothers relied on to exorcise the spectre of recession? It can’t be because the readers of today’s real life titles are relatively unaffected by the current economic downturn. They are drawn from the lower socio-economic groups which are taken to be bearing the brunt of it. Could it be that their whole experience (up to and including the recent experience of recession), has taken on an air of unreality? If so, perhaps Pick Me Up, That’s Life! and similar titles are offering their readers a reality check that is well worth the cover price of 68p.
(Such a lovely figure! Just counting out the exact money provides a gratifying reminder of what a sensible shopper you are.)
I’m suggesting that real life magazine consumers are purchasing the equivalent of that moment in Enid Blyton stories when the heroine pinches herself to make sure she is not dreaming.
An extra dose
Aren’t their lives real enough? It’s not as if these readers are living in a bubble, like the boys in the City with their botox babes and silicon bonuses. Perhaps they already are down and dirty in the nitty gritty, yet 323,171 people are prepared to pay the publishers (IPC Media) of Pick Me Up for an extra dose of it. Do they take prurient, almost ghoulish pleasure from reading a series of ghastly melodramas which have occurred, thankfully, to someone else? Possibly, but Darigan’s dissection of this title suggests that readers come to it more in search of affinity than smug complacency.
The fact is we all need our reality to be valued by others. We need it to be interpreted, evaluated and thus validated by them, otherwise we can’t be sure it’s really there. Besides mirrors, modern human beings require a whole range of reflective surfaces. Also, when old ones get smashed or covered over, there is a market for new kinds of looking glass, and money to be made from polishing them up.
In years gone by, the mothers and grandmothers of Pick Me Up readers would have seen themselves reflected in the fabric of working class communities, from the pub to the launderette to the Labour Party. Now Labour (ha!) is the sole property of middle class apparatchiks (seemingly to the deliberate exclusion of the white working class). Meanwhile far fewer pubs remain open and few people remain in the ones that are. For all its labour-saving benefits, consumer technology has also strengthened the trends towards domestic isolation. A wall of silence has arisen between individuated working class women and their equally atomised contemporaries. In this context, magazines like Pick Me Up do something to wire them back together again.
It’s debatable how strong the wiring really is. Maybe it lasts for only as long as it takes to read the magazine. In which case it is a gross exaggeration to refer to this kind of association as ‘community’, as various publishers are now inclined to do. But this is of no concern to the regular readers of real life magazines. For 68p, I doubt they expect a lifelong sense of belonging. At this price, it’s enough to be offered a fleeting sense of connection. Especially since so many other erstwhile sources are now unable to supply it, even fleetingly.
Of course, the ‘reality’ of reality magazines is about as genuine as a wedding reception. Readers’ life stories are subbed into shape like a pregnant bride squeezed into her wedding dress. In constructing the magazine to match readers’ requirements, there is a high degree of artificiality, a large amount of personal manipulation, and a ring of truth that is often as unpalatable as the ‘transgressions’ revealed in a best man’s speech.
It would be easy to assume that readers from lower socio-economic groups don’t appreciate the tension between reality and artificiality in their favourite titles. Do they take at face value the lurid copy, unduly garish stories, and the cheap and somehow cheerless colour schemes? Again, I doubt it. Like the art crowd that went for ‘hyper-reality’ in the 1980s; and the trendy young people who adopted ‘the grunge aesthetic’ in the early 1990s, I reckon they are having a play at being real (they just took their time getting round to it).
Regardless of how much irony their working class readers are picking up (if so, it is another bad habit acquired from the middle classes), the continued commercial success of these titles suggests that they have identified a viable market where social solidarity used to be.