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In praise of interesting women.

Where have all the interesting women gone? Is it capitalism that has turned us into one-dimensional consumerist ciphers? Or have Thatcher, Blair and women’s magazines rendered us all too self absorbed to be interesting?

And what has happened to all the interesting magazines? There are over forty women’s titles on our local newsagents shelves but they all look depressingly, uniformly bland. Grazia, once the crack cocaine of women’s magazines, is now an eminently resistible blend of mid-range ‘must haves’ and Jennifer Anniston snore fest. Even Vogue has lost its hauteur: the fashion ‘bible’ now lacks the confidence it once had to preach, even to the converted.

Six months ago, I floated the idea of producing a PR, advertising and celebrity free magazine aimed at interesting women. I knew there must be a market out there, but couldn’t say how big it would be.  The random, unscientific ‘focus groups’ I held to test the idea merely confirmed that a small circle of metropolitan artists and activists would buy it.

But who would be our role models? We all struggled to identify any we could agree on. Looking at the Guardian’s power list didn’t help. Karen Brady wouldn’t inspire my Tomboyish daughter. She was also bored by Dora the Explorer, recognising that Dora was a sop to mums, rather than a genuine attempt to address the endemic sexism of commercial kids TV – much as Brady’s public presence is a sop to female TV watching professionals. When Anna grows out of the Beano and casts around the culture for characterful role models, she may find, disappointingly that everyone seems to be heading in One Direction.

I was lucky to grow up in the golden era of interestingness, even though I didn’t know it. I remember watching Ann Leslie and other larger than life grande dames of Fleet Street on Question Time in the seventies. Today’s Glendas seem rather one-dimensional by comparison.

My teenage heroines were punk and new wave scions Pauline Noname from Penetration, Poly Styrene and Siouxsie who were neither bland nor conventionally pretty. I planned to grow up interesting like them, whereas my girls’ school was trying to instill a blandly professional bearing that would equip me for life in the commuter belt.

There are far too few characterful women in public life; no female Nigel Farages (apart perhaps from Grayson Perry). Women in the public eye come under enormous and explicitly gendered pressure to be bland, particularly if they’re doing and saying serious things. One of my most witty, acerbic and colourful activist friends has felt compelled to create a muted persona for her appearances on TV and radio. The fear of seeming un-serious has led her to be tight-lipped and cautious. It’s a process of self-effacement that I empathize with. I have often wondered myself whether I should have media training to make myself feel less silly acting the role of someone in full possession of the facts on my very occasional forays into what we laughingly refer to as the mainstream media.

By contrast with women in the media, my female friends in real life are far more three-dimensional – they hardly ever talk about men or sex or shopping like the ‘girls’ in Sex and the City. (Or indeed like any women in TV fiction – when do you ever see two women on screen having a discussion that is not about men or shoes?).  In real life we talk about the business of living and the complex reasons fulfillment sometimes seems elusive, even for people as privileged as us.

And those reasons turn out to be complex – equal parts personal and political, a combination of social forces and self-sabotage. I admire the way these real women struggle with the enemy within: the voice inside their head that’s telling them to obsess about Ofsted ratings and demand more ‘me time’, and the enemy without: the lack of affordable childcare and the fact that they are often working absurdly long hours, for less money. Consciousness raising is very unfashionable – my activist friends call it ‘navel gazing’ – but we will revive it.

In the 1970s, Spare Rib was lovingly fashioned by interesting women for interesting women. The founders attracted a wonderful ensemble of interesting and compelling sensibilities to the project.  When I approached them, I therefore never suspected they would be affronted by my desire to revive that unpredictable spirit, nor that they would want to curtail it.  But following some enthusiasm for my initial approach they soon began to question whether my ambition for a new Spare Rib was worthy of the original.  The lengthy written exegesis that they offered as a rationale for refusing to let me use the name without a legal battle reminded me of my school reports, deeply wounding but also missing the point.

I had the same experience reading Marsha Rowe’s piece on The Guardian website a few months ago.  It felt quite unnecessarily censorious – quite aside from the basic factual inaccuracies: our website isn’t elitist and there’s no paywall as she asserted.  We have in fact identified a completely different way of paying for the quality content and staff wages that will go into creating a PR, advertising and brand free online magazine – a membership system that will involve all members not only in the website but also in an ongoing programme of members’ events that couldn’t exist any other way. Radical magazines have an ignoble history of exploiting their staff and being in denial about it. We don’t want to assume that people will work for nothing, or guilt trip them into doing so. And we don’t want to be limited to working with the privileged few who currently dominate all branches of publishing simply because they can afford to work for free – sometimes for years.

This project began as a series of conversations around my kitchen table, which soon broadened into a dialogue with hundreds of members and supporters. We rang everyone on our email list to ask what issues concerned then, and invited them to submit ideas. I’m proud that we are able to use the tools of the digital age to facilitate these conversations – rather than limit ourselves to talking to those closest at hand (North London, in my case).

The constituency of interesting women is of course much bigger than you would imagine from reading the women’s press. Our editorial team has been busy these past six months on an inspirational round of meetings with writers, feminist theologians, punk poets and teenage activists who remind us of (slightly more focused) versions of ourselves at that age.

The amazing response we’ve had since the name change was announced suggests that men and women throughout the nation are buying into the ideas we’ve mobilised and urgently want something more interesting than just another magazine – a place where people can detox from mainstream media culture and meet interesting, like and unlike minds. I have broken my Grazia and Mail Online habit and hope others will do the same. Unlike Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’, our desire to plug into the collective female consciousness is ideological not simply pragmatic.

Who knows where it will take us?

Charlotte Raven, 03.10.13.