Are you a cool girlfriend? Are you a diva? Are you college material? In a stunning display of hot colors, cool fonts and hard-hitting journalism, the October issue of Seventeen magazine asks its readership all three of these tough questions.

Paul Wong
Aubrey Henretty

You’ll have to forgive my cynicism. It’s just that I bought this magazine instead of dinner Sunday night, swallowed my pride and coughed up $3.99 because I wanted to see what Seventeen’s editors had to say about my own humble University, which they ranked number 10 on their list of The 50 Coolest Colleges. I was hoping to find evidence that I’d been wrong about Seventeen all these years, that it and other magazines of its ilk were not products of a vast teeny bopper industry ploy to make a lot of money making little girls dumber.

I can’t say it looked promising. Reese Witherspoon was staring sultrily at me, surrounded by promises of the latest on Josh Hartnett’s college years and outfit suggestions for college interviews and hot dates. Lots of capital letters. Not exactly The Princeton Review, but I was willing to give it a chance. Maybe the content of the article would make up for the presentation. I mumbled something about the pursuit of knowledge to the bookstore clerk as he dropped my receipt and my penny into my outstretched hand. He nodded politely.

I have to digress for a moment here to explain why people should care about what makes it onto the pages of these magazines. They seem innocuous enough, offering bright colors and hip quizzes to the girls who love them. Young teenagers and preteens are generally selfish creatures. In most cases, they don’t lose sleep over anything that will actually matter to themselves or anybody else 10 years down the line. They don’t read Seventeen for college advice.

But this is the first contact many of them will have with periodicals and the printed word and what they read at this level has the power to shape attitudes and expectations more than we or they like to think. So any nudge in the direction of higher education is good for the nation’s junior female population, right? Wrong. What even I forgot in my eagerness to give Seventeen a chance is that presentation is everything. Girls (boys, too, I suppose) this age will care about what they think they’re supposed to care about; these magazines teach them to confuse substance with style.

Here’s an example: “We couldn’t find a college survey aimed at girls,” the table of contents said, “so we did our own, based on what matters to you.” Already, we have two false assumptions: First, that girls want or need their college surveys to be printed on scented pink paper and second, that what matters to them is not the same as what matters to boys searching for the perfect college. These assumptions respectively discourage ambition (i.e. ’tis better to wait for a hand-written invitation than to show up with a notebook like everyone else) and re-enforce existing perceived divides in the way boys and girls think.

The eight-page feature itself was beset on both sides by page after page of advertisements. “We won’t bore you with the math behind The 50 Coolest Colleges,” swears a statement between the list and the “Are you college material?” quiz. Because math doesn’t matter, girls! What matters, it says, are boy-to-girl ratios and quality of mass transit, proximity to shopping opportunities and financial aid programs and access to co-ed dormitories.

Wait a second. I was skimming. Did that say financial aid and mass transit? Like, scholarships and buses and stuff? I’m confused.

Since the editors didn’t want to bore her with the math, a girl can only assume they assigned equal importance to her statistical chances of snagging a future doctor/lawyer/engineer boy and the number of miles to the nearest Abercrombie and Fitch outlet. I guess I can see why this would be important to a magazine whose primary purpose is to sell products, but for actual girls looking to further their educations, these are pretty worthless factors to consider. The problem with placing them next to things that might really matter is that Seventeen’s readership might be too young to know the difference or care. The magazine’s editors don’t have a responsibility to educate their readers, but they also shouldn’t pretend that’s what they’re doing; framing college in terms of designer dorm accessories and dressing to impress is a self-serving, sponsor-friendly sham. My advice? Skip the magazine. Get dinner instead.

Aubrey Henretty can be reached at ahenrett@umich.edu.

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