Taking on feminist issues for the younger crowd.
Most magazines written for teen girls would never start a fashion article with the sentence “I’ve been fat and hairy my whole life,” but Shameless isn’t trying to be like most teen magazines. What started as a journalism project 10 years ago has transformed into an independent magazine for, and often by, the kind of young women who don’t often see themselves in the pages of mass-marketed magazines: people of colour, of disability, of non-binary gender representation, and more.
Julia Horel began as a Shameless blogger several years ago, and after stints as the magazine’s web director and blog editor, has been in the publisher’s seat since February 2014. Originally from Saskatoon, Horel came to Toronto six years ago after earning a Masters in Publishing from Simon Fraser University. She’s now the general manager of a book publishing distribution collective, and her knowledge of accounting, distribution, and the Canadian book and magazine landscape dovetails neatly with Shameless‘s needs. Like everyone involved with Shameless, Horel is a volunteer, but “I’m the business leader of Shameless, so my goals are more about the organization. The main goal is to make the magazine sustainable enough that we can afford to pay our staff and contributors.” Shameless is now in its 10th year of publication, a milestone it’ll be celebrating later this year with a gala fundraiser.
Our interview with Horel—about feminism on the internet, the challenges of working solely with volunteers, and the power of a good proof-reading session—is below.
Torontoist: What exactly does an independent magazine publisher do?
Julia Horel: Shameless is a bit unique, partly in that it’s completely volunteer-run. We publish only three times a year, so our cycle is a bit longer than magazines that publish monthly or every other month. Some of the things I do include taking care of all the financials, like paying the bills. I manage the team that handles circulation and advertising, and the team that handles events. We have launch parties for every issue and a gala fundraiser every year, so I oversee the team members whose roles are to organize those things. Shameless is also a non-profit, so some of our mandate is about serving teen girls and trans youth specifically, and the social justice community in Toronto and Canada more broadly, so we also have tables at events, we try to have a presence at things like Word on the Street and more specific social justice activism space like the Toronto Queer Zine Fair.
We are maybe less focused on money, which sounds kind of funny, but at the moment we’re just trying to get enough money to keep the magazine going. Most magazines have funding, but we don’t. We don’t have any grants; part of my job is to explore possibilities of grants that we might be eligible for, but it’s actually really hard to get grants as a magazine in Canada. There are a lot of criteria for the major granting bodies, our circulation is too low, and we just don’t qualify. There aren’t a lot of emerging-magazine grants, and to qualify for a lot of those grants, we have to pay our contributors … but we can’t pay our contributors because we don’t have any money. It’s kind of a chicken and egg situation. It’s hard to get ongoing operational grants, and the grants that we can get are often project-based, so we have to come up with extra things to do to get money to supplement what you’re already doing—but then you have to do those things, too! [Laughs]
How did Shameless’s mandate become to speak with and about young women and trans youth? It seems like such a clear response to mainstream teen media.
You’re absolutely right. The magazine was founded in 2004 by two journalism students, Nicole Cohen and Melinda Mattos. They’re both still involved in the magazine and sit on the board now, and they founded it as a journalism project for school and then decided to carry on with it after they graduated. It was a direct response to their feeling that there were no magazines that spoke to young people that didn’t just talk about how to wear your hair and attract boys. Our mandate has evolved over the years to become much more explicitly trans-inclusive. That’s been really important to us. The makeup of the collective has changed, and we’re much more focused now on being really intersectional in terms of race, class, gender, identity, disability and those kinds of things. We want to be speaking to teens who don’t get to see themselves in mainstream media.
The magazine was founded for young women. The founders, as they were conceiving of the magazine, were using an inclusive definition of the word “woman,” so they were absolutely considering trans women to be women. Over the years, as more people have joined the collective who are more politically aware, who have worked in and are part of various communities, and they’ve brought their influence into the magazine. It’s really important for us to speak to all youth who aren’t seen in mainstream media, and that includes youth who are gender nonconforming, and youth who are trans, or transitioning, or youth whose gender presentation doesn’t fit the mainstream. It’s just as important for us to include youth of colour or disability. It’s something that we’re constantly working on.
How do you go about producing feminist content for a younger crowd? What changes and what stays the same?
Our style assumes that teen readers and youth are intelligent and are just as curious and eager to learn as adults. We write and produce material that is accessible—that is, someone who is new to it can easily jump in and understand—but that doesn’t talk down. It’s not necessarily a 101, and we hope that no matter where people are on the feminism spectrum, they can jump in. It’s part of the reason we had, and hope to have again, a youth advisory board. It can be hard because none of our team are in their teens, and we try to remember that teens are just as smart as adults, and they care about the same things. We also include teen voices, like our “Talking Back” column, which is always in the magazine and which is always written by teens, and a lot of our web content is now being written by youth.
The feminist presence in the media seem to have expanded since Shameless was first launched, and there are now a lot of different voices: Jezebel, The Hairpin, The Toast. How have you seen feminist media change in the last decade?
I think it’s changed a lot. We have to thank or blame the internet—probably thank—because it does have a way of democratizing media a little bit. But just because there’s a platform for voices doesn’t mean they’re the ones who are getting heard. Way more people have heard of Jezebel, for instance, than have heard of Racialicious, which is an incredible site by and for people of colour. It’s changed, and it’s great that there are more women, but it’s the same voices that are still being amplified the loudest. It’s still often a particular type of voice and woman: white, American, middle-class women, and people who can afford to write for free, which is limiting. There need to be more women of colour, more trans folks, more people with disabilities.
How do you manage an all-volunteer team?
It’s hard, because the type of people who volunteer to write for a feminist magazine are also the type of people who are really busy doing a lot of different things that they’re really passionate about. This isn’t anyone’s only thing. The biggest problem is time management, but everyone who’s doing this is there because they really believe in the project, and they love the community and the work. We can offer people a title and some training, but people aren’t working at Shameless because of mercenary reasons. The best part is working with the team and learning from everybody. Even the conversations we have about semantics during proof-reading sessions teach me something. We lean incredibly heavily on Sheila Sampath, who is both our editorial and art director and many other things. She manages just about every aspect of the magazine except the business side. We set deadlines way in advance, and we start to plan the next issue before the next one is put to bed, and that helps a lot. But really, it’s a lot of follow-up and a lot of commitment from people on the team. If someone is going to leave, they usually finish up the current issue, and we can get someone to shadow them and take on the next issue. That helps a lot.