Paper Giants, or Why Won’t My Hair Do The Flicky Thing?

paper giants magazine cover promo

Last night I just finished re-watching Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, which was a miniseries on ABC a few months ago. I have it downloaded on my computer and wanted to write a post about it because I’m obsessed with it for many different reasons. So obsessed that after I watched it, I spent ages fiddling around with my straightener trying to get my hair to look like Asher Keddie’s.

For those of you that don’t live in Australia, which I suspect is nearly all of you reading this, Cleo is a women’s magazine that started in the 70s, kind of like Cosmo, controversial in its time because of its male centrefolds and sealed sections and men telling their wives not to read it because it was a ‘dirty magazine’. Paper Giants looks at Cleo‘s origins in Sydney, under the editorship of Ita Buttrose in the 1970s, when the Opera House was still under construction and Gough Whitlam had just come into power, and how Ita Buttrose and Kerry Packer created this magazine that not only reflected all the social and political changes going on, but actually managed to make a few of its own in the lives of Australian women.

There’s a scene where Ita says to her secretary Leslie that Cleo is for her, that it’s a magazine ‘for women who want more’. Today it just sounds like an advertising cliche, but back then it actually meant something. Cleo was for women who wanted to be something other than what society told them to be. True, they were starting to make progress in the workforce but it was still very much a given that if you held a high position, you would inevitably make some sacrifices in your personal life. Ita’s marriage falls apart and Leslie chooses a job in London over getting married or being the other woman in an office romance.

One thing that Cleo did was take a lot of the ideas of feminism and make them accessible to women of that time who found the whole ‘women’s liberation’ movement too radical or aggressive. Things like taking control over your own body or wanting a career as well as a family appeared alongside articles about food and fashion for women who may not have had the guts or the inclination to go out and buy The Female Eunuch.

Like pretty much anything I watch that’s set around that time, I couldn’t help but feel insanely jealous when I finished watching it. I hate that feeling of being born too late, after all the hippies cut their hair, after all the bands broke up and the guitarists got ugly, after people stopped caring about stuff in general. I feel like there’s nothing anyone can do any more that hasn’t already been done a million times.

Of course, Cleo‘s still around today and I buy it every now and then for a bit of light reading when something on the cover catches my eye, but I would hardly say that it’s been a life-changing experience for me. Just picking one up next to me and flicking through it, there’s a lot of ads and articles about fashion and makeup, articles on ‘million dollar babes’, organic food and sex toys (pretty tame stuff, really), but nothing there that really blows my mind. Seriously, another reason people can’t be bothered buying magazines is because they’re so damn expensive (Cleo’s gone from 60c to $7.50 since its creation) and they don’t offer you anything you can’t get for free on the internet. These days, Cleo’s just another women’s magazine full of pictures of retouched models advertising things I really don’t need, or articles telling me how to choose clothes to make me look skinnier.

Mia Freedman, former editor of Cosmo, came to my uni to give a talk once and she told us that part of the reason she left magazines and started her own website was that she thought the magazine industry is dead. She said that editors used to say ‘well yeah, computers have a lot of information but you can’t exactly read it on the train or take it to the beach, can you?’ Except the iPhone pretty much ruined that argument. She wrote an article about it as well, comparing Paper Giants to the reality show Park Street in terms of relevance and social impact:

That’s the biggest problem magazines have in 2011. How to stay relevant within the constraints of a dinosaur-like production process when your readers are living in a 24/7 news cycle.

When was the last time you can remember a magazine doing something truly daring that people spoke about? It took Paper Giants to remind us what women’s magazines USED to be. It was a time before the internet, when women’s liberation (the term sounds twee now but liberation is exactly what it was back in the early 70s) and the idea that women may ENJOY sex and WANT a life other than being someone’s wife, mother or spinster aunty was revolutionary.

I would have loved to have been one of the journalists working at Cleo in the 70s. I would have been proud to have been a part of something that huge, that did so much for women’s lives. Not that I’d turn down a job or an internship there if I got offered one today, but I agree with Mia about the magazine industry. In its current state, it’s not really where I’d like to make my name.

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