Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Search for Teen-Friendly Media

Throughout this project, I've been asked by friends and press alike, "If teens shouldn't be reading Seventeen, then what should they be reading?" I've put some thought into this question, and the answer that I've come up with really isn't as cut and dry as a good answer usually is. There isn't a whole lot of teen-specific media on the market "getting it right" when it comes to providing teens with content that is entertaining, relevant, age-appropriate, and not entirely demoralizing. Seventeen makes an effort, but falls short of achieving this goal by addressing teen girls as a monolithic block of people with a unified interest in nail polish, dieting, and winning the attention of swoopy-haired boys. If the perfect piece of mainstream teen media did already exist, it'd be unlikely that I would have ever even found myself motivated to begin this project in the first place. There just would not have been a need.

In an effort to explore some less-mainstream alternatives to Seventeen that are available on the market, I put out a call a few weeks ago on my blog for information about teen-friendly media. Besides this phrasing, the only other qualifications for submissions that I required was that anything submitted must "get it" when it came to addressing teens and the teenage experience. This vagueness was intentional. In failing to define the term media, submissions ended up ranging from movies to music to books to innovative advertising campaigns. People also took liberties with the term teen-friendly, frequently submitting content intended for more general audiences, but that teens could also enjoy without feeling looked down upon or excluded. Ultimately, the amount of submissions that I received from everyone ranked somewhere on a scale between ridiculous and very ridiculous. I decided, for my sanity, to only include on this list things that teens might use in their life as a supplement to or replacement for Seventeen.

What this list is not is a pearl-clutching list of child-friendly fluff. The content included does not consider teenagers to be ignorant to world trends and complex ideas. Thus, if you are a parent or other adult, you may choose to preview this content before sharing it with the young person in your life, though it is likely that their knowledge of these subject areas exceeds your expectations.

I've organized everything loosely into categories for your browsing convenience. Each suggestion is attributed to the person(s) who submitted it. If there is no name, it is a personal recommendation of mine. Feel free to leave additional recommendations in the comments, and I'll add them in as I see fit!

The most logical direct substitute for Seventeen.
  • Shameless: As their website puts it, Shameless is, "Canada's independent voice for smart, strong, sassy young women and trans youth." As one Seventeen Magazine Project reader put it, "I've always thought of this as sort of the anti-Seventeen." (Submitted by Heidi, also Kim.)
  • Justine: If you find Shameless to be too progressive, but can't stomach Seventeen, then you might appreciate Justine, which includes real girls in its pages and focuses on careers and books as much as it does on beauty products. Not perfect, but a definite step in the right direction for younger teens. Link. (Submitted by Brenna)
  • Bitch: Though not specifically geared toward the sub-18 set, Bitch has plenty to offer bright, older teens who don't spend all day in their rooms inhaling nail polish fumes and gazing at photos of Justin Bieber (i.e. most of us). This "feminist response to pop culture" includes really interesting book, film, and movie reviews. If anything, this is the closest thing that exists to what I'd like to see Seventeen become. It's hardly high-level, and hardly radical-- just good content in an enjoyable package. (Submitted by Dominique, seconded by me)
  • Teen Voices: A really fantastic biannual magazine, Teen Voices tackles everything from sex trafficking to college essay writing to social networking. Articles are written by and for teen girls, which helps the magazine avoid coming off as patronizing, as content written for teens is wont to do. Teen Voices does a fantastic job of treating teen girls as a real, dynamic humans, not a flat set of stereotypes. (Submitted by Laura)
  • Sadie Magazine: Sadie deliberately positions itself as an alternative to the hair-and-makeup model of teen magazines. In their mission statement, they say that they strive to empower young girls, not train them to consume. I kick myself for not thinking of this brilliant way of phrasing things, and fully support this line of thinking. Even more awesome, their "centerfold" section actually features interviews with women who are out in the world doing kick-ass things. (Submitted by Anna, and others!)
  • Bust Magazine: Bust is a lifestyle magazine that treats its readers like they actually have a life. That is, Bust is full of interesting articles and fun activities with which to fill one's time, not just makeup tips and advertisements. While not technically for teens, I would say Bust's overall message is far less harmful than that which Seventeen sends. It really depends on what kind of parent you are though. I think I'd rather expose my kids to swear words and sex talk than the belief that their natural appearance is inherently flawed. That's just me though. (Submitted by literally everyone I know)
  • New Moon: This magazine has nothing to do with the Twilight series. In fact, I'm not sure if New Moon magazine's mission could be farther from that of the consumerist Twilight propaganda. New Moon is an ad-free magazine that challenges girls aged eight and older to confront cultural stereotypes of physical beauty and pursue self-discovery and creativity. I am not one for new-agey things, but this sounds incredible. I wish there was a version of this for teenagers, or even for women.
Like magazines, but on the internet!
  • The F-Bomb: A blog for teenage feminists, written by teenage feminists. What I particularly like about this concept, besides everything, is the fact that a number of girls contribute, so instead of a single party line, you get a complex discourse on the past, present, and future of feminism. (Submitted by Claire, also Miranda)
  • Women's Glib: More bright young women writing about feminism! Also, beauty, education, ageism, government, reproductive rights, masculinity, and a ton of other stuff. Reading this blog makes me so excited to see what my generation will accomplish.... I have no idea where you ladies live, but if you read this and are ever in Philly and want to hang out, email me or something! (Submitted by Miranda)
(books, online, and otherwise)
  • Scarleteen: Scarleteen offers facts about sex for teenagers of all genders and sexual orientations. That's it. No political or moral spin. No connotations. No partisan funding. The writing is casual and often funny. What I love is how the site treats sex as something neither dirty nor sterile, and still manages to communicate its consequences, a rarity in the teenage world.
  • TeenHelp: Like writing into a Seventeen for advice, except questions actually get answered, promptly, by non-profit volunteers. TeenHelp doesn't shy away from topics like disability, eating disorders, and rape, but you can also check the site out for general chatting about pets, sex, gaming, and hobbies. (Submitted by Imogen)
  • Savage Love Podcast: You can absorb the gospel of Dan Savage, the voice behind this podcast, in the form of a blog, a column, or an iPhone app, but personally I prefer the podcast. Newcomers beware, Savage's brand of advice is not for the weak of stomach or closed of mind. Uncensored and brash, he readily tackles any question thrown at him. On first thought, this may not sound ideal for teen listeners, but he frequently fields calls from the younger set, and what I like most about his responses is that he takes care not to talk down to us. Dan Savage tells it like it is, euphemism and sugar-coating free, a welcome reprise to the candy-coated, pinkified bullshit that is so often sold to us as teens.
Obviously, there is much more content out there that teens can look to for advice and entertainment than the few items included on this list. In lots of cases, what I would recommend is that teens look outside of the teen world entirely, and instead look into the world of interest based content. For instance, if you like photography, why not subscribe to Popular Photography? Into science? How about checking out Wired, a personal favorite of mine? I think that sometimes in their attempts to market to us, mainstream media tends to trap teen girls into a box, both interest and intelligence wise. The items on this list do a good job recognizing my peers and me as a diverse group among ourselves, but I'm not sure how bad it would necessarily be to sometimes allow us to just assimilate into society as a whole. I'm going to put some more thought into this, but sometimes I think that the notion of a separate teen culture is actually hurting teens.

Some favorites from this week!

Hey Mainstream Media!  I am...

Hey Mainstream Media!  I am...