Comment: Why the demise of Zoo Weekly magazine is no triumph for feminism

Zoo Weekly magazine Source: Zoo Weekly magazine

Zoo Weekly’s demise is not a scalp for the feminist movement. It’s a sign of the enormous shifts that have taken place in how and where young people consume their media.

Who will miss Zoo Weekly, which Bauer Media announced on Thursday would close due to “tough retail conditions in the men’s market”? Well not teenage boys, according to some recent focus groups I had the privilege of conducting in Australian high schools.

Young men don’t read magazines anymore. Though a bunch of younger ones were so fascinated by the Dolly magazine I passed around that I had to grab it out of their hands. “Dude,” said one, “This is an awesome insight into what chicks think”.

Dolly, of course, specialises in talking about what young women think, feel and need. Zoo specialised in bizarre anatomy – and I’m not just talking about the photos of people with odd shark-inflicted injuries. The breasts were way weirder.

But now we have this thing called the Internet, with plenty of breasts of all sorts and enough gross-out comedy to keep an entire planet of teenage boys happy.

So what do we make of the demise of Zoo? Is it a sign of the Feminist Apocalypse? 

Some feminists have spent a lot of time and breath campaigning against lad magazines, most recently with Collective Shout lobbying Woolworths and Coles to #BinZooMag. I understand why they have. But I don’t see the point.

Men – or at least straight men – are obsessed with breasts. It might be something to do with being fed by breasts at an early age. Which makes it even stranger that some of the same men freak out at the sight of a woman breastfeeding in public while they browse newspaper stands full of – well – breasts.

So what do we make of the demise of Zoo? Is it a sign of the Feminist Apocalypse? And should feminists make a big deal about media selling women’s bodies to teenage boys?

As a mother of two teenage boys myself I hedge my bets. I have a strict policy of lecturing them about women’s rights over dinner and then leaving them to roam the internet afterwards.

The boys in the focus groups I conducted were very clear that saying something outrageous or politically incorrect didn’t mean they had boofhead views in reality. 

The real frisson Zoo offered young men was the opportunity to escape and thumb their nose at women like me. Bossy, educated women who tell them to stop looking at breasts and start doing their maths homework.

Zoo, like Ralph, and a host of other lad mags spawned in the UK in the 1990s, was satirical about its own existence. Like People and Picture before it on the Australian magazine scene, Zoo made fun of its own nonsense.

Best magazine coverline ever? Picture magazine’s: “The News Without Underpants”. The writers and editors at these kind of publications never took themselves or their readers seriously.

Zoo was the same – it printed outrageous nonsense and cheesecake shots of girls with large breasts with a large wink and a nod towards young male readers. The tastelessness of the magazine – so often decried by commentators – was its stock in trade. It’s mirrored the conversations that the younger male readers have in the playground or at the footy.

As my colleague Professor Alan McKee discovered, when he conducted research into how to get good quality information about safe and consensual sex to teenage boys, gross out humour is their preferred medium.

The boys in the focus groups I conducted were very clear that saying something outrageous or politically incorrect didn’t mean they had boofhead views in reality. Over and over they made the point that there was an enormous difference between how some media, including pornography, portrayed women and how they saw and treated real women.

I found no evidence that teenage boys – or girls for that matter – are being brainwashed by popular media into regressive ideas about gender. On the contrary, both groups spoke out about the double standards surrounding boys and girls, which they saw as emanating primarily from the world around them and to which they largely objected.

Zoo Weekly’s demise is not a scalp for the feminist movement. It’s a sign of the enormous shifts that have taken place in how and where young people consume their media.

As a feminist myself, I think women would accomplish a lot more if we quit lecturing teenage boys and started listening to what they have to say.

Catharine Lumby is a Professor Media at Macquarie University. She researches and writes on young people, sex, gender and social media.

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