In spite of the rain, the Word on the Street festival site in Toronto buzzes with local readers and writers looking for a good deal on magazine subscriptions, someone to publish their opuses or perhaps an autograph from a favourite CBC personality. On the eastern curve of the Queen’s Park roundabout, where the festival is held on the last Sunday in September, Shameless magazine attracts a steady stream of interested browsers. One flips through back issues of the magazine, her meticulously applied nail polish sparkling against black and white pages. She flashes a furtive smile to the women watching from behind the table and drifts on, mom in her wake. Others hang around laughing loudly at ironies, pinning Shameless buttons onto jackets already clacking with political identifiers and stuffing back issues of the feminist magazine “for girls who get it” into their backpacks. Several women volunteer to write for the magazine.
Nicole Cohen, one of two co-editors, has just come back from her apartment where back issues are stored, and is replenishing supplies of the briskly moving stock. She’s annoyed. In fact, the 26-year-old student, enrolled in the Joint Graduate Programme in Communication and Culture at York and Ryerson Universities, is way too annoyed for anyone to mention the rumour that Shameless might not be around much longer. She makes it very clear she’s too busy to chat, but is able to comment on her definition of success: “For me,Shameless has been an absolute success in terms of fulfilling its mandate, winning awards and recognition, and being able to touch the lives of young women. We’ve been able to make important contributions to discussions of feminism and alternative media, as well as counter mainstream notions of what it means to be a teenage girl.”
Since Cohen and Melinda Mattos launched Shameless in Summer 2004, it has garnered international attention and a subscription base of nearly 700 – not bad for a mag with few ads, no grants and a volunteer-run production staff operating out of their homes. A small stack of awards and nominations from the indie press boosted Shameless into the spotlight in its first year. Last year it won an Utne Magazine award for Best Personal Life Writing and was noticed in almost every major Canadian mainstream and alternative newspaper.
But now, with the second anniversary issue on newsstands, industry observers seemed to have stopped noticing its good work. Doug Bennet , publisher of Masthead magazine, is glad to hear the magazine is still publishing but says he doesn’t know Shameless well enough to comment on content. He’s more interested in how publications running on volunteer-power stay in business. “You have to have a sugar daddy or an angel or family money or government grants to keep it going,” he says. His colleagues at the industry watchdog were equally unfamiliar with the magazine.
Judy Rebick, feminist scholar and publisher of the political website rabble.ca likes Shameless for its “third-wave feminist sensibility,” but admits she doesn’t really read magazines.
In Shameless, readers of Bitch magazine will find a comfortable familiarity. Like its American counterpart, the three-times-yearly publication offers a feminist perspective on popular culture in its features, with topics like an analysis of the motives behind the Dove soap “Campaign for Real Beauty,” a day in the life of a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and how community radio is giving girls a voice. But where Bitch spreads its “feminist response to pop culture” throughout its pages, Shameless launches into any arena where women tread. Features also cover women in global political life (“Skirting the Issue,” “Pretty in Parliament”), vaginal reconstruction surgery (“Making the Cut” ) and virginity myths (“Saint or Slut?” ).
Sections like Geek Chic, Sporting Goods and DIY offer reviews, profiles and directions for cool websites, girls in sport and instructions on how to makes bowls out of old LP records, respectively.
In the current issue, Summer 2006, DJ Morales, a “five-foot-tall slam poet” from Ottawa, is the subject of “She’s Shameless,” a regular feature of a model Shameless girl or woman. It offers a refreshingly positive parallel to similar profiles like “Miss Seventeen” in Seventeen magazine. Morales offers “props to girls who get it: the girls who are reading book who are spending more time at activist rallies than concerts. People will try to stop you because that’s not what girls are supposed to do. But don’t let anybody stop you.”
Shameless is a feminist delivery system of advice. In its guidelines for writers, the publication seeks “fresh, witty writing that engages and entertains. Frenzied ranting is strongly discouraged. So are over-the-top attempts at sounding young and hip. (Hint: Shameless is not Seventeen and “omigawd” is not a word.) Remember, you’re the reader’s trusted co-conspirator, not her cooler older sister. Let your natural voice come through.” But the biggest strengths of the magazine – passion, conviction, talent – may also contribute to its weakness. Ironically, in the vision of what it is to “get it” espoused by Shameless, some readers sense that the depiction of women is too narrow and confining. “It tells girls they have to be a certain way and not at all a girly-girl,” says Charidy Johnston. The 27 year old says when she reads magazine she prefers titles like In Style because she wants to relax and not be scolded that she’s not doing enough to change the world.
Perhaps it’s harder to change women when they’re age 27 than when they’re impressionable teenagers. Twenty-five-year-old contributor Thea Lim thinks Shameless does a good job appealing to young women and older girls. The die-hard volunteer says the magazine tries to “provide literary space, but neutral space and to be supportive of teenagers.”
That is, supportive of a certain kind of female. Rather than appealing to teenagers broadly, as both Lim and Cohen claim, Shameless targets that one girl in your high school class. You know the one – smart, informed and involved in everything. Teachers love and hate her because while she raises the bar on class discussions of A Tale of Two Cities by remarking on the objectionable labour practices in Dickens’ England and notices the sexist perspective of the narrator, her word is usually the last. Classmates who may have thought about mentioning how the title is like, a metaphor or something, or that they loved Chapter 10, wait for the bell instead. But from those girls across Canada that do “get it,” the Letters section regularly runs exclamatory thanks such as “Super-duper!” and “Life-altering.”
Although the magazine doesn’t appeal to all young females, newsstand sales of the magazine in Toronto bookstores are consistently high for a teen magazine. Book City, Toronto Women’s Bookstore and Another Story Bookshop all report selling at least half, often closer to three-quarters of the copies they receive. While that means just four or five copies at Another Story, both Book City and TWB receive 45 or more copies of each issue. Alex MacFadyen , a buyer for TWB, says Shameless was “extremely popular as soon as it came out and now has sales comparable to Bitch and Bust“. At his store, the magazine sells 25 or 30 copies each issue. He compares its success to the rise in zine culture and finds that Shameless contains certain identifiable elements of the zine – photos arranged in an overlapping, pasted-on fashion, the logo designed to look hand-inked – and the community it creates. “Doing actual work and outreach, going to where people are and selling your stuff is very like zine culture,” he says.
“Community building” is a big part of the Shameless newsstand business model. The magazine depends on newsstand sales, subscriptions and fundraising events for almost all the money it needs to keep the magazine going. Bennet says the model is “fraught with peril” because low revenue means a volunteer-powered publication, “which is great but not sustainable.”
Without the usual major advertisers like Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal that aim their products at young women, the magazine’s message is unfettered and uncompromising, but also chronically short of funding. When asked what she might do if approached by a conglomerate, Cohen dismisses the question outright. “We’re not a magazine conceived to deliver a mass audience to advertisers,” she advises, “so we haven’t had large companies that use questionable images of women in their advertising knocking at our door.”
Back at the Shameless booth at Word on the Street, über-volunteer Lim spends the afternoon selling promotional buttons and back issues, trying to keep dry whenever the blustery day turns rainy. Lim writes for both the print and online versions of the magazine. She likes the positive working environment and the sense of community she receives. It’s certainly not for the money. When asked about the lack of payment, she’s unconcerned about the optics of providing free labour to an organization that cares about feminist social justice. She beams, “I really believe in Shameless so I’m happy to contribute.” Then she adds, “Of course, I won’t be able to do it forever.”
Forever is a long time, especially when you’re worried about tomorrow. When she’s finally asked to comment on the rumour that the magazine might fold after publishing two more issues, Cohen writes back in an email, “Publishing an independent magazine run by volunteer power alone is a challenging (but rewarding!) experience that always comes with a degree of uncertainty. Our plan and goals for Shameless have always been to publish the best magazine we could, filled with interesting, engaging content you can’t find anywhere else, and get the message out to as many young women as possible. It is a process that is constantly in flux, as we have a high turnover of volunteers and our own lives are continually changing. At the moment, we are taking things one issue at a time.”