Reading Up on Teen Culture—YM and Seventeen

Now that we’re up to date with a couple of the teen magazines aimed at the youngest adolescent audiences, it’s time to look at the two kingpins of this genre: YM and Seventeen.

Both of these veterans set their sights on capturing high school juniors, seniors, and (especially Seventeen) early college achievers. Of course, it’s a safe bet that younger eyes are sneaking a peek at their older sister’s copy, or picking up a volume at the newsstand, in hopes of learning more about the mysteries of the eldest teen years.

But while their layouts are more sophisticated, the overall themes are no better—and in many cases, worse—than what I found in J-14 and Teen People. Although there’s slightly less emphasis on everything celebrity and an increased use of “real” people (with perfect bodies), the subtler messages have the potential to be even more potent for their readers. After perusing these titles’ glossy leaves it appears a good makeup job, the right clothes, and a cool guy, are the key things a gal needs to win the adolescent scavenger hunt of life.

YM – Volume 51, Number 11 – November 2003
Circulation: 2,234,770
U.S. Ranking in circulation size: #31
Advertising — (number of ads from each category appearing in this edition)
Beauty (Cosmetics, hair care, etc.): 16
Fashion: (Clothes, jewelry, etc.): 4
Celebrities & Entertainment: 4
Other (Feminine hygiene, cell phones, anti-drugs): 7
Editorial —(number of articles from each category appearing in this edition)
Beauty (makeup, hair, etc.): 6
Fashion: 1
Celebrities & Entertainment: 4
Other (Girls field hockey; getting into college; and boys, boys, boys.): 8

One of the oldest of teen journals, YM originally signified Young and Modern. But the aged title is nowhere to be found in current editions, and that has proven to be a smart marketing move for today’s acronym loving teen.

This monster publication (the 31st largest in the U.S. at the time of writing) shares some similarities with J-14 and Teen People. Amanda Bynes and Hilary Duff are still the flavors of the month, but both are presented in a more mature fashion… and yes, the word fashion has a double meaning. Bynes is the cover girl on this issue, and if you read the fine print on the masthead, you can discover the precise details of her clothes and cosmetics so you can “copy it” yourself. Inside, the four-page article covering Bynes celebrates her “brand-free” image and mentions her desire to be a serious actress as opposed to a marketing machine.

Duff is relegated to a small insert on the top right corner of the cover, and (aside from a “Got Milk” ad) receives only a single paragraph write-up as one of the Twenty Coolest Girls in America. Duff is bestowed with this honor thanks to generously donating money she has been paid for doing birthday parties appearances ($100 grand a gig) to various charities. The other nineteen (which also includes Bynes) are an interesting montage of academic, sport, and political achievers.

Unfortunately, that’s about the best within YM’s pages, which is otherwise a barrage of fashion and beauty tips, advice columns, and a five-pager on seven of the “cutest boys we could find this month.” (There wasn’t one I’d want my daughter to show up with.)

Even with less priority on celebrities, the “ordinary people” in this issue are all stylized, bronzed, and buffed to the max. Only in the aforementioned “Coolest Girls” article do we see some faces without pounds of makeup and bodies more likely to be found on your street.

The only other worthwhile mention is a two-page piece authored by a 17-year-old in North Carolina about how you can have guy friends “without benefits” (meaning, a non-sexual relationship). I applaud the idea, but it’s a sad time when we have to remind our young women that you can have a relationship with a guy and still keep your clothes on.

Seventeen – Volume 62, Number 11 – November 2003
Circulation: 2,409,289
U.S. Ranking in circulation size: #27
Advertising—(number of ads from each category appearing in this edition)
Beauty (Cosmetics, hair care, etc.): 23
Fashion: (Clothes, jewelry, etc.): 1
Celebrities & Entertainment: 3
Other (Anti-drugs, cell phones, food): 12
Editorial —(number of articles from each category appearing in this edition)
Beauty (Articles about makeup, hair, etc.): 7
Fashion: 5
Celebrities & Entertainment: 5
Other (Horoscopes, embarrassing moments, boys, truth or dare, cool comebacks): 11

The queen of the adolescent newsstand, Seventeen has achieved cultural icon status. Its huge circulation puts it in the ranks with O, The Oprah Magazine (#25), Redbook (#28) and—ironically—ahead of Parents (#33). But what is this seasoned lady, with 63 years experience in dishing out young female advice, telling your teens?

Between the pages upon pages of cosmetic ads, Seventeen’s editorial content is somewhat more diverse, reflecting an ever-so-slightly older audience. Offerings span from cheap ways to Decorate Your Jeans (“Dark Angel: Glue black lace trim to the pockets and waistband. Then wear with a simple white tank.”), to a feature on Jessica Biel (the star of WB’s Seventh Heaven who had a well-publicized fall to earth after seductively posing for Gear magazine) in which the 21-year-old actress confesses her priorities, “I was going to join a girls’ soccer league, but Sex and the City comes on at the same time. That’s a conflict for me.”

A penchant for all things sexual seems to be the recurring trend in Seventeen, where editorial copy floats terms like “hook-up” (meaning a casual sexual encounter) with the same significance as a warm good night kiss. One article titled The Not-Quite Boyfriend has a female author stunned that her non-committal man, whom she frequently shares a bed with, has been seeing someone else under the sheets… and never confessed. In the end, the author admits she is still attracted to this guy.

Another advice column answers the question of whether it’s okay to “hook up with a guy friend’s roommate?” After discussing a few idiotic consequences like: “You wake up in your friend’s room in the clothes you wore the night before”, the reply concludes, “But that doesn’t mean it can’t work. I’ve hooked up with friends’ roommates—it was kind of fun to wake up in my friend’s room, like a slumber party!”

Upping the sexual agenda even further is the magazine’s “Real Life” column and this month’s entry: My Father is an Internet Pervert. Expecting the typical tragic story of a dad who is addicted to cyber-porn, I was amazed to discover the boldly pictured 18-year-old was the victim of a hideous incestuous relationship in which her father posed as various predators on the Internet with the purpose of luring his own daughter. Unnecessary details of his sexual activities with her are included, along with her name and picture. While Internet safety is a valid concern, this tale borders on exploitation.

What is good within Seventeen? If you make it to page 137, tucked in the back recesses just before the classified ads is a heart wrenching story of a Bronx mother who attempted to break up an altercation in her neighborhood, and lost her life in the process. She may not be modeling material, but that’s the face that deserves to be on a magazine’s front cover.

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