Keeping up with ‘Bust,’ a Riot grrrl mainstay of women’s media

January 31, 2019

Salutations, it’s the first Clipped issue of 2019.

I’ve been deep in a Bust rabbit hole for most of January, and I’m excited to finally share with you — so I’m gonna cut to the chase.

But first, welcome new subscribers. Many of you came by way of Delia Cai’s brilliant newsletter Deez Links, where I discussed this project and a WaPo headline some of you have sent me: “Women’s magazines are dying. Will we miss them when they’re gone?”

Something tells me y’all who subscribe to this newsletter will miss them. Email me which magazines you’d be sad to see go (or already miss) at clippedmags@gmail.com.
<3, Natalie

"for women with something to get off their chests"

In women’s media lineage, Bust magazine is pre-2009, A.K.A. before sites like Feministing, Jezebel, or Bustle upended the internet. The magazine came up in the '90s as an “antidote” to “mainstream women’s magazines” such as Cosmopolitan and Glamour, according to its founders, with a more punk vibe and a knack for landing high-profile yet on-brand cover stars. You might recognize just a few: Tina Fey, Erykah Badu, Aidy Bryant, Parker Posey, Jessica Williams, DOLLY PARTON, Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig, Björk, Jenny Lewis. On the 2010 Men We Love cover: Tracy Morgan, along with Aziz Ansari (who was publicly accused of sexual misconduct in 2018) and Will Arnett.

The magazine has occasionally been described as “third-wave feminist” (though doesn't explicitly identify that way) and boasts an international audience. But the business is primarily based in Brooklyn, and it shows. The founding story is charmingly D.I.Y. In 1993, then-Nickelodeon coworkers Debbie Stoller, Laurie Henzel, and Marcelle Karp decided to start making a zine. They Xeroxed 500 copies, women read them, and so they kept on making more.

BY THE NUMBERS
25 years of publishing
10,000 print subscribers
70,000 circulation rate
500,000 unique visitors on website a month
6 print issues a year
3 Craftaculars a year
2 publishers, Laurie Henzel & Debbie Stoller

Source: NYT, 2018

The idea to “make a different kind of women’s magazine” was not novel. But remarkably, the magazine’s overall mission and target demographic — which I’m just now aging into — hasn’t radically changed over the last 25 years, despite the rise of Google, Twitter and Facebook. The magazine has even had a “Trump bump” in subscriptions post-2016, according to the NYT. Like at many small women’s publications, both Bust execs and contributors have traded money for editorial freedom.

The financial history of the magazine is especially interesting for our current media moment of VC-backed mergers and corporate acquisitions. In the early 2000s during the dot-com bubble, Bust was approached by multiple prospective buyers; one of the world’s largest digital marketing agencies purchased the magazine in 2001. After the new owner went out of business a year later, Hertzel and Stoller bought it back and remain co-publishers. As of 2018, only six people work at the magazine full-time, plus a handful of part-timers and freelancers. Rates can be measly, or even nonexistent, for web writers and interns.

Today’s Bust would probably attend the Bikini Kill tour reunion, and it absolutely would have given Sandra Oh a Golden Globe-winning role a decade ago. Many stances the magazine has long taken — on reproductive rights, representation, pop culture, politics, gender, aging, and sexuality — feel prescient in 2019.

Sandra Oh was on BUST July/Aug 2005 cover

a DIY-quality magazine

I picked up a Bust magazine with "Broad City" co-stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer wearing pastel winter outwear while bored and isolated in my hometown over the holidays. It was my first time buying the magazine in print, and I *especially* dug the back recommendation pages of books, music, movies, and television to distract me from my Suburban Scaries. The interview with the stars on their show’s final season was comforting yet nuanced; it was aimed at women who clearly watched "Broad City," possibly as early as its YouTube days, and discussed the co-stars’ future projects, growth, and fears.

After returning to Brooklyn, I ordered a few back copies from the early 2000s on the Bust shop (there’s also totally a market for old women’s mags on Ebay, by the way, and they’re not cheap). I was particularly interested in covers of Rose McGowan, who’s become a public figure of #MeToo and #TimesUp since 2017; Sandra Oh, who slayed in BBC’s "Killing Eve" and has finally gotten the wide acclaim she deserves; Tracy Morgan in a “Men We Love” issue, which I *just* got a modern equivalent of from MEL Magazine last week, and Helen Mirren, because older powerful women are finally, increasingly in the picture.

Bust frequently pulls quotes from other women's magazines in the print issue (Bust Oct/Nov 2010)

What I found inside these issues was a bit of a time capsule, and a reflection of how significantly our culture has progressed in two decades while our laws and politics, particularly or feminist interest, have not. Reproductive rights were still at risk; women were still largely absent from and deeply scrutinized in politics. Workplaces, Fortune 500 companies, and Hollywood were far from achieving gender parity, despite women college graduates outnumbering men. A 2001 NYT profile reports that Bust might have a reluctant target demo because women’s issues were solved, legal abortion was theoretically protected in America, and campus protests especially about sexual assault had fallen into a lull. Organizations like NOW were even skeptical of Bust for diverting attention from pay inequity, and the author Erica Jong ("What Women Want," "Fear of Flying") doubted that Bust could ever sustain itself with ad revenue. How times have changed (or not). On a more trivial note, routinely asking celebrities if they’re feminist has today become a stale practice, but was a pioneering act in the '90s according to Bust’s founders.

The deeply reported features in the Busts I ordered still felt inviting, even exhilarating: profiles of women poker players, women working at a remote science station at the South Pole, Lady Gaga. Photo galleries of Sleater Kinney and Amy Sedaris and gorgeous up-close shots of honeybees. A history of reproductive laws in China, Nancy Drew, and menstrual pads. Quizzes on Marie Curie, Jane Fonda, Greta Garbo. A tip sheet on public speaking felt dated, with the line “Give up the valley girl talk.” Travel pieces on Philadelphia, St. Louis, Vancouver. An issue dedicated to women in science. The crafts and recipes were apparently more subject to scrutiny in the ‘90s, when whether women could craft and be feminists apparently warranted more discussion.

Part of the reward in back copies is they can make you feel like you're part of a larger tradition. I didn't grow up with a particularly feminist mother, but I was totally a Tracy Flick. As the Washington Post article noted, through old magazines, "you see how a woman’s role in history is not only changing, but how Glamour and some of the other women’s magazines were driving that change." Bust started conversations about women in politics, culture, business, and media that we're still having 25 years later — and knowing that context and history strengthens my conviction that progress is gradual.

An "Overlooked"-esque feature on Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr's contributions to developing Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth (Bust Oct/Nov 2010)

sound bites

— “Bust used to be a feminist magazine, but now it’s more crafty and about making things out of yarn.” — Jessica Valenti to NYT (2009)
— "The Bitch and Bust aesthetic, if you can call it that, never really appealed to me. Probably because I associated it, fairly or not, with cool young white women, and I was neither cool nor white." — Anna Holmes to The New Yorker (2016)
— “Bust has never asked readers to divide ourselves into politics versus fashion or seriousness versus adventure." — Gloria Steinem to NYT (2018)

Mirren was Bust Oct/Nov 2010 cover & McGowan was 2006 cover (inside shots)

in other women's media

more from CLIPPED

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