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Cleo’s closure and the future of feminism

Cleo, brainchild of Ita Buttrose, has closed after more than 40 years in print. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Cleo’s closure and the future of feminism

Last Wednesday, German publishing group Bauer Media confirmed speculation that it would close production of the iconic Australian women’s magazine Cleo, after almost 44 years, with the final edition to be released next month.

Although perhaps best known (and satirised) these days for its “7 ways to blow his mind in bed” attitude, Cleo exploded onto the scene in November 1972 with a provocative nude centrefold of actor Jack Thompson.

A product of the sexual revolution and born into second wave feminism, from its inception Cleo placed a strong emphasis on sexual content. Indeed, founding editor Ita Buttrose recalled in 2011 that she and her editorial team “wrote about sex as if we had discovered it”.

While such racy content led to Cleo’s first edition being a sell-out success, the magazine carefully straddled the divide between female empowerment and traditional femininity. In the editorial of the first edition in November 1972, Buttrose wrote:

Like us, certain aspects of Women’s Lib appeal to you, but you’re not aggressive about it. And, again like us, you’re all for men – as long as they know their place!

This combination of empowerment rhetoric – within certain limits – and a firm commitment to heterosexuality would come to define Cleo throughout its lifetime. Having spent the last few years poring over nearly 3,000 pages of Cleo, from its inception to the present, I have drawn two overarching conclusions.

First, despite the linguistic, behavioural and societal transformations identifiable within the content of Cleo since the 1970s, its commitment to heterosexual monogamy as women’s ultimate goal endured well into the 21st century.

The content might have shifted from advice on “How to catch a bachelor” in the early 70s, to debates surrounding the relative merits of dating app Tinder in recent years. But despite such social and discursive evolutions, the underlying premise that young, female readers were heterosexual and looking for a long-term relationship with a male partner remained consistent throughout the magazine’s lifetime.

This presumption that its readers were heterosexual endured despite Cleo’s self-conception as a progressive, tolerant publication. The provision of content in recent years, which made nods towards marriage equality and the struggles of LGBTQI people, failed to destabilise the dominance of the heterosexual paradigm within the magazines, and lesbianism was never truly established as a viable alternative for young readers.

The second key finding that emerges from an analysis of Cleo’s lifespan is that changes to its content appear inextricably intertwined with the currents of the feminist movement.

In the 1970s milieu of radical social change and the height of second wave feminism, Cleo’s content was quite distinct from its contemporary format. Social commentary pieces such as “Rape - and how women can stop it”, “Lesbian mothers” and “Jewish women in the 70s” were commonplace, delivering well-researched and in-depth discussions of important social questions of the time.

Sexuality was often broached as a social phenomenon and frequently focused on women’s power in relationships.

Yet, moving through the decades towards the 21st-Century, the feminist standpoint of the magazine melted away and its sexual content changed notably.

The penultimate edition of Cleo hit newsstands earlier this month. AAP Image/Paul Miller

Between the 1980s and the early 2000s, many feminist theorists documented the disappearance of the feminist movement. Over the same time period, feminism all but vanished from the pages of Cleo and social commentary articles evaporated.

At the same time, the sexual content of the magazines underwent an anti-feminist shift. Content became more centred on male satisfaction and sex began to cohere around technical tips and tricks, rather than the mutually respectful, explorative pursuit of sexual pleasure.

At the same time, women were increasingly encouraged to individually regulate their minds, bodies and sexual encounters to manufacture their own and other’s happiness, and the notion of a collective women’s experience dissolved.

Yet in the second decade of the 21st-Century, these anti-feminist trends began to reverse. With the pop feminist renaissance led by celebrity figureheads such as Beyoncé and Emma Watson, Cleo began to re-embrace feminism.

Social commentary and feminist concerns returned to its pages, albeit in smaller numbers, including an exposé on the gender pay gap and a federal parliament “fantasy cabinet” composed entirely of female leaders in their fields. A concomitant improvement in the tone and content of sex and relationship advice saw a reduction in the emphasis on male needs and the glimmer of a return to a social understanding of sexuality.

That the magazine should fold at this interesting juncture in its history is ultimately unsurprising. It is no secret that print media are struggling to compete in the digital age, and Cleo’s circulation had been dwindling for years.

From a feminist perspective, the loss of Cleo may not be much of a loss at all: as recently as 2013, the magazine explained that feminism hadn’t “been cool since the 70s” due to its:

ugly connotations of man-hating women with icky underarm hair – when we love make-up, romance, high heels and men, of course.

But feminists suggest that the cries of a utopian, democratising future heralded by some proponents of the primary alternative – digital media – should be met with caution. The venomous abuse of women online and the opportunities for trolling and surveillance make the digital future of women’s activism uncertain.

With the death of Cleo, we lose a fascinating pop culture litmus test and witness the end of an era in Australian publishing. What the future of the print media landscape looks like and what such changes mean for the burgeoning feminist revival remains to be seen.