Melancholic communities: trauma, neoliberalism and the rise of Chat magazine

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Weekly real-life magazines (RLMs) for women form a genre that has experienced sustained popularity for more than three decades and are constructed from claims to represent their readerships’ lives. Strikingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic where other magazines have witnessed a decline in sales and many closures, real-life titles have experienced continuous success. This article reads RLMs through a psychosocial lens as a symptom of an emerging social melancholia that began to form from the late 1970s in the United Kingdom. Through an analysis of Chat magazine, the article illustrates how the genre was constructed and argues that it resonates with a form of melancholia that has led to the creation of communities bonded through shared collective experiences that have found the semblance of resolution within this genre’s creation.

Abstract

Weekly real-life magazines (RLMs) for women form a genre that has experienced sustained popularity for more than three decades and are constructed from claims to represent their readerships’ lives. Strikingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic where other magazines have witnessed a decline in sales and many closures, real-life titles have experienced continuous success. This article reads RLMs through a psychosocial lens as a symptom of an emerging social melancholia that began to form from the late 1970s in the United Kingdom. Through an analysis of Chat magazine, the article illustrates how the genre was constructed and argues that it resonates with a form of melancholia that has led to the creation of communities bonded through shared collective experiences that have found the semblance of resolution within this genre’s creation.

Weekly real-life magazines (RLMs) for women form a genre that has experienced sustained popularity for more than three decades and are constructed from claims to represent their readerships’ lives. Strikingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic where other magazines have witnessed a decline in sales and many closures, real-life titles have experienced an increase in readership (Print Power, 2020). Yet despite their evident popularity, there has been no scholarship undertaken on this genre. In what follows, I argue that RLMs are important cultural texts that implicitly elucidate the social, economic and political effects of the neoliberal worldview. I read RLMs through a psychosocial lens as a symptom of an emerging social melancholia that began to form from the late 1970s in the United Kingdom (UK), arguing that the upheavals of the period, chief among which were the highest levels of unemployment in any post-war period (Baddeley et al, 1998: 24), produced a classed and gendered form of melancholia birthed from the excess of these experiences.

This article focuses on Chat magazine because of how it established the template for the genre of RLMs during the 1990s. Indeed, it continues to describe itself as ‘the original real-life magazine’ (Sinclair, 2018). A systematic analysis of Chat’s cover stories was undertaken to analyse how the stories have altered throughout its 36-year history and how the monetisation of readers’ stories became increasingly important. Additionally, content analysis from the first six months of each editor was performed to note how each editor moulded the worldview of Chat. This was followed by a random sample and content analysis of Chat’s social media page.

Lauren Berlant (2011) claims that once traumatic experiences occur, there lies the opportunity to gauge how the ‘affective impact takes form, becomes mediated’. I argue that the affect of social losses has found its form within the creation of the magazine genre and can be read as a substitute for what was lost during this period, namely a sense of community and voice within society. Real-life stories place an emphasis on an interviewee’s experience, and are shared through first-person narratives that encourage readers to engage with the narrative. Through an analysis of Chat magazine, its editors and social media page, I illustrate how the genre was constructed and argue that it resonates with a form of melancholia that has led to the creation of communities bonded through shared collective experiences that have found the semblance of resolution (but not necessarily actual resolution) within this genre’s creation.

Methodology

A random sample of 10% of Chat issues each year was taken, from the launch in 1985 through to 2000, any real-life stories that featured were coded as being either ‘traumatic’ or ‘not traumatic’, and their themes were logged and analysed. Issues were grouped into three periods for the analysis – the 1980s, the early to mid-1990s and the mid- to late 1990s – as these mark a shift in editorial policy. The analysis found that for the 1980s subsample (25 issues), the majority of covers (14 of 25) did not contain any real-life stories. Covers typically featured a mixture of celebrity stories/interviews, competitions and advice pieces. All sampled covers for the early to mid-1990s and the mid- to late 1990s (20 and 30 issues, respectively) contained real-life stories on the cover, and the volume of these increased over the two time periods. The average number of real-life stories for the 1980s subsample was 0.44 per sampled issue, compared with 2.55 for the early to mid-1990s subsample, and reaching 4.52 for the mid-to late 1990s subsample. The nature of the stories also changed. Covers in the 1980s mostly did not feature real-life stories and when they did there was only one story that was ‘traumatic’ in nature. In comparison, the majority of the covers in the early to mid-1990s sample (11/20) only featured ‘traumatic’ stories. Among the ‘traumatic’ stories, the most prevalent themes across the whole subsample were adultery, child death and murder. Also common were family breakdown, the loss of a child through removal or abduction, the death of an adult and extreme violence.

The sample showed how covers tended to vie harder for attention in the later periods, with the use of capitals to highlight key words in cover stories emerging from 1995 and a greater use of exclamation marks. For example: ‘We watched our little boy DIE IN VAIN!’ (Chat, 1995b); ‘He RAPED me twice, then I had to face him in court!’ (Chat, 1995a); ‘I want that WHORE out of my flat!’ (Chat, 1995b); ‘Amie’s DAD wanted her DEAD!’ (Chat, 1997). The sample confirmed the link between the consolidation of the real-life genre and the increase in and emphasis on personal stories about harrowing ordeals such as murder, adultery, loss, grief and the abduction and/or death of children. Furthermore, a random sample of Chat’s social media page was taken from 2013 to 2019 to understand how the magazine communicated with its readership, and their responses were recorded.

The data demonstrate how, as the real-life genre was consolidated, traumatic experiences became the focal feature of the magazine and, relatedly, how this is linked to the increasing financial incentives that were offered as the decades progressed.

Women’s weekly magazines in the 1980s and the launch of Chat

While RLMs have not been the focus of critical reflection, the same cannot be said about mass-market women’s magazines, which have been the subject of academic research since Betty Freidan published the Feminine Mystique in 1963 (Friedan, as cited in Holmes, 2007: 510). Janice Winship (1987) documented the shift within the women’s magazine market during the 1980s through her work Inside Women’s Magazines and analysed how the change in society’s material conditions related to magazine production. Winship contended that women’s magazines were a site that ‘offered survival skills in order to collaborate with the dilemmas of femininity relevant to a specific period’ (Winship, as cited in Corbu et al, 2014: 278). During the 1980s, women’s magazines shifted their focus towards featuring emotional ‘success stories’, which emphasised relationships and family above all else (Winship, 1987). Chat was produced from within this contradictory climate and as the real-life genre became consolidated in the 1990s, ‘success’ stories were replaced with an emphasis on the personal and often traumatic experiences of the magazines’ readerships.

Chat magazine

Chat magazine was launched in 1985 and was the first mass women’s weekly magazine launched since 1958 (Winship, 1987). With the aim of being a hybrid publication between a newspaper and a magazine, Chat covered social and political issues, unlike traditional women’s magazines. The magazine was for the woman who did not have a lot of leisure time but wanted to read ‘a mix of columns on welfare rights, women’s issues and politics together with more conventional (for women’s magazines) stuff of fashion and food, marriage and sex’ (Winship, 1987). The demographic were women aged between 25 and 45 years old who were considered ‘older and downmarket’ (Winship, 1987). The launch editor, Lori Miles, wrote in her first editorial column:

You’ve probably already realised that CHAT is different from the usual run-of-the-mill mags. We’re really a cross between a newspaper and a magazine. Every Tuesday we’ll be giving you all the news that affects women and families, new ideas, money-saving tips and your favourite celebrities – in fact everything about anything that women today CHAT about … And all for just 18p. (Miles, 1985b)

Throughout the 1980s, Chat featured issue-led, newspaper-style articles such as ‘Don’t be fiddled out of Family Income Support (FIS)’, stating that ‘[t]he Government’s low-profile approach to benefits is short-changing thousands of families’ (Miles, 1985a). Chat created content that responded to the lives of its readership. However, the poor paper quality and layout of Chat differed from the glossy front pages of traditional women’s magazines. Winship (1987) linked this to social class, arguing that the ‘working-class are only given the opportunity to enjoy (or is it endure?) what those arbiters of taste would describe as visual disasters’.

That Chat looked ‘tacky’ and was aimed at those considered ‘downmarket’ foregrounds the implicit political agenda behind Chat’s launch. While Winship does not elaboratepon what exactly she means by ‘downmarket’, her observation has clear class resonances, with its implication that the readership was at the cheaper end of the magazine sector. Yet Chat did appropriate some tropes from traditional women’s magazines, such as a friendly subheading (‘Chat, your best friend out every Tuesday’) and its conversational tone, while discarding others like the glossy front cover. The elements included were directed towards different ends, such as news stories, that could directly affect the reader’s life. The magazine’s format and style remained consistent throughout the 1980s, but from 1990 onwards there was a notable shift in Chat’s content, reflecting the broader consolidation of the RLM genre as a whole.

Chat and the consolidation of the RLM genre

Chat magazine’s transformation exemplifies the emergence of the real-life genre of magazines. Real-life stories place an emphasis on an interviewee’s experience having occurred and are shared through first-person narratives that encourage readers to engage. Stories about traumatic experiences, rather than news articles or celebrity interviews, began to become the focal feature of the magazine and the number of these increased from 1990 onwards.

These traumatic narratives form the RLM and while social class may not be explicit within stories, it is implicitly reproduced within the broader discourse of the genre. As former Chat editor, Paul Merrill (2001–04), states about the readership, ‘they don’t need any persuasion to sell their souls and tell us their life stories for a couple of hundred quid. Two hundred quid to them is two weeks’ wage’ (Monkey, 2002). Chat’s readership is women from a lower socioeconomic background (National Readership Survey, 2017) where some will sell their experiences and appear in the magazine. Merrill makes clear that financial hardship is a key incentive for those offering their story to the magazine. He is also in no doubt about the magazine’s demographic: ‘[B]y the time they are 18, most of our readers have three different kids by three different prisoners and have affairs with their stepdads (Monkey, 2002).’ Offering no compassion, however, Merrill suggests that Chat was aware of how its readership was positioned in class and economic terms (Monkey, 2002).

For Merrill, arguably, the reader is exploitable because of her problems and vulnerability. Under his editorship, he relaunches Chat to feature ‘MORE true life’ (Chat, 2001). The repetition of traumatic themes, however, forms a worldview that carries immense power because ‘we make sense of our lives through the narratives our particular time and place have made available to us’ (Crehan, 2016). The narrative readers receive about their lives establishes a strong link between (a lack of) agency and social class while, at the same time, positioning the real-life magazine as the voice available to them. RLMs’ narratives have been filtered through preceding socioeconomic and political structures that typically limit and caricature working-class women as having ‘no taste; are physically excessive (big bottom); immoral; have no shame; are vulgar; fecund and without responsibility’ (Skeggs, 2016), suggesting a classed divide between those whose experiences are exploitable for the magazine’s profit and those outside the readership who albeit may have similar experiences but do not sell them, at least within RLMs.

The socioeconomic and political context for the development of the RLM genre

The arrival to power of the Conservative Party in 1979 initiated the economic transformation of Britain and its orientation to a neoliberal model. Margaret Thatcher was clear that this transformation would be social and cultural as much as economic, and would do nothing less than ‘change the soul’ of Britain (Harvey, 2005). Like other post-war Western economies, Britain had developed a strong welfare state grounded in the principles of social democracy. But in the late 1970s, the Conservative Party introduced neoliberal free-market policies that aimed to dismantle or restructure much of what had gone before. These policies were intended to encourage strong entrepreneurial initiative and roll back much of the existing state intervention. The ensuing economic transformation would also have social consequences as life for millions of people was dramatically altered, unemployment rose from 1.2 million in 1980 to 3.2 million by 1983 and continued to remain high until the mid-1990s (Baddeley et al, 1998). The social disempowerment experienced had the consequence that a large proportion of the traditionally working-class population were no longer able to contribute nor participate within society and led to a society where ‘so much that people depend upon, that had been fought for over generations, even the fragile and previous matter of being alive in a certain way, had been assaulted, uprooted, vicariously and irresponsibly crushed by a violently destructive force’ (Frosh, 2014).

These forces restructured society and replaced discourses of care with individualism and competition, alongside a notable reduction in social provisions. Working-class women were particularly affected because they wield less power politically and socially than their middle-class counterparts and therefore cannot exert influence easily. Their voices are frequently silenced by dominant and historical power structures concerning not only their gender, but also their class. Neoliberalism entails that ‘everything can in principle be treated as a commodity’ (Harvey, 2005). However, not everything or everyone is. While the boundaries might have become blurred since the success of talk shows that have appropriated the second wave of the feminism slogan ‘the personal is political’, this post-feminist appropriation ‘personalises the political’ (Gill, 2007), subsuming and thus restraining the political or social specificities of the experience through individualistic narratives. Alongside an increasing rich/poor divide within Britain, working-class communities similarly became fragmented through the all-encompassing dispersal of a neoliberal worldview. Chat articulates this starkly by offering lucrative financial incentives to the readership for their experiences.

The psyche and the social

A psychosocial approach sets out to understand social phenomena by drawing on psychoanalytic perspectives and ‘attempts to study psychic and social processes, as always implicated in each other, as mutually constitutive, co-produced, or abstracted levels of a single dialectical process’ (Frosh, 2018). If social and material losses were internalised and have affected a subject’s psychic life, how do these losses materialise externally? The wider socioeconomic and political climate that produced Chat arguably has psychical ramifications and the commodities birthed during a specific period hold the potential to account for ‘the psychological, cultural and political complexities of contemporary cultural experience’ (Bainbridge and Yates, 2014). A psychosocial account of Chat emphasises the role performed by the media in responding to a subject’s unconscious. RLMs’ interviewees are women from a lower socioeconomic background, making the magazines powerful purveyors for the dissemination of these voices. Selling traumatic experiences to Chat may offer a platform to be seen and heard within the media and this may potentially pacify or at least satisfy some of the feelings depicted. Repeatedly the editors of Chat from 1990 onwards highlight that readers can receive financial rewards if they have an experience deemed sellable. As Gilly Sinclair (editor from 2005 to 2019) puts it:

Your extraordinary stories never fail to amaze me! Occasionally a mate will say to me that a story is so amazing we must have made it up – no way! I’ve always known that fact is stranger than fiction and reading Chat proves the point. Don’t forget we pay for your true-life stories, so if you want to make a few quid before Christmas, you know what to do! (Sinclair, 2005)

The rhetoric here is directed towards ‘you’, the reader who ‘knows what to do’ if they need money. If this is troubling, it is because only through selling a traumatic experience can the reader earn money; but in doing so, she also generates far more profit for the magazine than the fee she receives.

A different account, however, can be heard within Chat’s social media page when readers are asked questions about their lives. For example, Chat asks: ‘What annoys you more – people who fiddle their benefits or massive companies avoiding paying their tax?’ A response from reader Natalie Smith (all names have been changed) states: ‘Those who fiddle make it bad for other people who genuinely need it! My partner lost his job when we just had our baby and we had to go on benefits for a while and it made me feel ashamed because people would sit and slate people on benefits.’ Diane Stuart similarly responds: ‘People who fiddle their benefits annoy me more as it’s closer to my life than big corporate institutions’ (Chat Facebook, 2016). Chat also asks: ‘If you could ask the Prime Minister one question, what would it be?’ The responses such as ‘Why do you hate the poor so much?’, ‘Why pick off the weak you can make them stronger’ (sic), ‘Why do you penalise people who actually bother to work!’ and ‘Would you like to live of my esa for 2 weeks and see how far it doesnt go’ (sic) (Chat Facebook, 2014a) are suggestive of the losses the move to neoliberalism has created. Feelings of being penalised, demoralised, hated and punished by the government are prevalent among the demographic. Chat also asks about readers’ emotional experiences such as: ‘Are you or have you ever been unemployed? If so, what’s the toughest thing about it – feeling judged, struggling financially, worrying about your kids?’ (Chat Facebook, 2015) In response, reader Jenny Stevens states that:

Being unemployed and a single parent makes you feel very judged with society looking down their nose at you thinking and believing this is how you planned your life to be and how you want to stay forever. Society sees you as a number, a statistic, rather than a person. It’s difficult to handle the rejection of job applications, hard to find a suitable job that fits in with your circumstances when there is so much pressure on you to get back into work it hurts when there is no support or guidance to help you through. (Chat Facebook, 2015)

This post had more than 70 responses articulating similar sentiments. Feelings of judgement, dehumanisation and vulnerability against the effects of power are pervasive and highlight the hardship of life for those receiving state welfare. The neoliberal discourse around this dependency and individual accountability for often structural and systemic failings is heard within these responses. Exclusion from advanced global capitalism is a form of emotional and social abuse, as this is heavily valorised within contemporary society. Minsky (1998) states that:

If some people are denied access to ‘goods’ available to most people because of low pay, unemployment, job insecurity, like the child who is emotionally neglected or abused in the family, they are turned into outsiders with poor self-esteem and few means of participating in culturally accepted means of bolstering identity.

This in turn creates ‘widespread feelings of anxiety, insecurity, disconnection, lack of self-esteem and helplessness’ (Minsky, 1998), something echoed within Chat’s social media page, as we have seen. The discourse between traumatic narratives that feature within the magazine and the daily life experiences of the readership on social media is notable. Therefore, to what extent is the magazine responding to and/or articulating the lives of this vulnerable demographic? Clearly there is a strong awareness of the challenges faced by readers, at least since 2010, when Chat’s social media page was created. However, this does not seem to be reflected within the magazine.

A feature of neoliberal society is that it is characterised by an ‘inward’ or ‘domesticating narcissism’ (Harkins, 2009) where the emphasis on personal narratives comes to saturate the media and also contains the effects of growing social inequalities within a familial and patriarchal narrative. This domesticated narcissism is the valorisation of individual experience within popular culture that emphasises the domestic sphere as the site of containment and resolution for the far-reaching and all-pervasive social affects. Arguably, Chat magazine replaces growing social inequalities with personal experiences and contains the distress caused by those inequalities within a familial narrative. Doing so is another means by which RLMs can be seen to depoliticise and personalise what could be viewed as the effects of an increasingly fragmentary and isolating society.

Melancholia

The movement towards a neoliberal society was arguably traumatic for millions of people and these periods, according to Julia Kristeva, create the psychical conditions for melancholia to arise. For Kristeva (1989, emphasis added):

The periods that witness the downfall of political and religious idols, periods of crisis are particularly favourable to black moods. While it is true that an unemployed worker is less suicidal than a deserted lover, melancholia does assert itself in times of crisis; it is spoken of, establishes its archaeology, generates its representations and its knowledge.

During the Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite period in the UK, losses remoulded and restructured society and, by extension, subjective experience. At the same time, those losses were not granted full expression within the public domain. Instead, repeated was the pervasive neoliberal rhetoric that silenced the effects of the structural changes through placing blame and responsibility on those communities and individuals who failed to secure employment and depended on state support and labelling them as ‘scroungers’.

Once a loss has been experienced socially but barred from symbolic expression, it creates the psychical conditions for the production of melancholia to assert itself, to speak. I would suggest that the numerous social losses triggered through neoliberalism have not been mourned, and this phenomenon can be elucidated through a return to Sigmund Freud’s notion of melancholia. In Mourning and Melancholia (1917) (Freud, 2005), melancholia manifests when the full extent of a loss remains unknown to consciousness. The same conditions that often lead to mourning can instead result in melancholia. As Freud notes, melancholia can develop not only in relation to the loss of a loved one but also through ‘an abstraction taking the place of the person, such as fatherland, freedom, an ideal, and so on’ (Freud, 2005, emphasis added). What Freud makes clear is the innumerable causes where, instead of mourning, melancholia arises. Freud (2005) argues:

It is difficult to see what has been lost, so we may rather assume that the patient cannot consciously grasp what he has lost. Indeed, this might also be the case when the loss that is the cause of the melancholia is known to the subject, when he knows who it is, but not what it is about that person that he has lost.

Melancholia then becomes the unconscious acting out of this loss and can not only illuminate the effect of loss on the subject, but also offer a framework to understand how far innumerable social losses have affected subjects within society. This is because losses of a more ideal kind not only affect just an individual but also reverberate throughout society. The attack on dependency also robbed those most vulnerable of a voice within the media. From a psychoanalytic perspective, these losses could resonate with earlier, primordial losses that simultaneously are needed for survival but also denied through the course of subject formation. As Judith Butler (2018) notes: ‘We are all, in the present, born into a condition of radical dependency.’

The care and protection offered through embedded liberalism, often malevolently referred to as the ‘nanny state’, unconsciously meet these early human needs through identification. The removal of systemic support may have been experienced not only socially but also psychically, as these ideals resonate with an infant’s earliest needs.

For Freud, identification is a means to avoid loss and mourning; but at the same time, this failure of separation leads to self-reproach. Indeed, feelings of low self-esteem are reported from the readership on social media, with comments such as: ‘I struggle constantly to think of something good. The bad stuff is easier to believe’ or ‘I find that ive [sic] been told bad things about myself so never see any good in me’ (Chat Facebook, 2014b).

Freud suggests that this is a classic symptom of melancholia: ‘[F]illed with self- reproach, he levels insults against himself and expects ostracism and punishment’ (Freud, 2005). It has clear social resonances with Chat: readers do report experiences of ostracism and punishment within society and have internalised ‘bad things’, Freud continues that the loss of identification in melancholia can activate ‘other repressed material’ (Freud, 2005) and that, through the internalisation of the lost ideal, a battle commences psychically between ‘one part of the ego and the critical agency’ (Freud, 2005). Freud sees two ways in which melancholia can be resolved: either it is played out within the unconscious or its ‘object has been abandoned as worthless’ (Freud, 2005). However, until then there is an ‘insistent talkativeness [that takes] satisfaction from self-exposure’ (Freud, 2005).

Chat exemplifies this trope of talkativeness precisely through the way in which the real-life genre has been created from interviewees who voice their personal, predominately traumatic, experiences. Melancholia is generative through the unknowability of what has been lost to the subject’s consciousness, namely the identification with a benevolent state exposing earlier repressed losses. Freud (2005) states that, in melancholia, losses may have activated ‘other repressed material’. Therefore, if an event has been prohibited from exposure (a requisite for the process of symbolisation to begin) then the psychical effects will persist within the unconscious. This repressed loss will arguably form and structure the symbolic necessity for restaging the event through whatever sublimated means are made available, behaving like ‘an open wound, drawing investment energies to itself from all sides’ (Freud, 2005). In effect, we can see Chat magazine as an important vehicle for the manifestation of an already forming social melancholia. It gave form to the ‘open wound’ needing to be spoken about, repeated and displaced each week, yet never finding (or giving) fulfilment. The readership’s expulsion from society may have led to the internalisation and redirection of that violence against their sense of self-worth, suggestive in readers’ comments. In turn, that made them vulnerable to the seductive rhetoric of RLMs.

Melancholic communities

Chat mobilises a rhetoric of care: the readers are listened to, and potential (economic) sustenance is provided for the interviewee. In the short term these elements may provide the emotional empathy and financial support that many have lost with the turn towards neoliberalism. This could be the reason why the interviewees/readership participate in the magazines and purchase them, as they offer a platform where this demographic appear to be listened to, cared for and provided for. In effect, the magazine becomes a replacement for the lack of community readers experience as a facet of neoliberalism (or put another way, a simulacrum of that lost community). A sense of this comes in particular from Chat’s social media page, when it asked how much of a sense of community there was where readers lived. Out of 30 respondents, only eight wrote that there was a community. Reader Danielle Christina’s answer is typical:

No sense of community by me everyone’s just out for themselves I get on with one neighbour and make little chit chat hi etc with a couple but I’d rather stay out of their way as there’s always arguments and fights between 2 households and everyone tries to get involved I’d rather keep my kids inside so they’re safe and unaware how these people act (Chat Facebook, 2017a)

Another reader, Brandi McDonald, states: ‘There’s not any most of the time everyone walks around like zombies or they look like they are seizing.’ These responses suggest the isolation caused by the political agenda of neoliberal individualism. As Danielle Christina puts it, ‘everyone’s just out for themselves’. There is no response from Chat, nor a deeper analysis on why there is little community. Nor is there further engagement from other readers with the respondents, unlike in other posts. This is striking and is suggestive of a shared feeling among the readership that these experiences are now ‘common sense’ as the readership experience this ‘as already existing, self-evident truth’ (Crehan, 2016). This does not mean that there is not a real need or desire for that connection of community; but it does suggest that, within advanced global capitalism, this can only occur through capitalist modes of production and the formation of commodities, to meet these real human needs and desires. A further example of the need for community that these magazines and their online counterparts respond to is when Chat asks what readers were doing that evening. Reader Krista Smith states how lonely and upset she was awaiting an operation. Her plan for that evening was to cry. After posting this, readers offered words of comfort and support, even though they do not know her:

Krista Smith:Crying that this is my last weekend of life with both legs. I’m having my left one amputated because of cancer next Friday. My friends haven’t called, my partner is going to work like any other time. I’ve honestly never wished more for death.
Debbi Tanter:So sorry xx
Emma Louise Bruice:Sending hugs xx
Kathryn Cairns:☹⎕☹. Sending you a hug 😍
Tania Flint:I am so sorry Krista. Have you got any family near by that could come round. I hope everything goes well for you. Take care. ❤❤
Angela Rosan:Sending hugs and kisses ❤❤❤
Jean Trana:Bless you, please find someone to talk to, you shouldn’t be feeling like this alone, my heart goes out to you and hope your true friends rally round when you are recovering. (Chat Facebook, 2017b)

This example is suggestive of that need to speak and be heard during periods of emotional pain. It also suggests that the expression of Krista’s upset prompts a reaction from readers and forms a sense of community, online. Through Chat magazine an identification can be forged with the readership that leads to an engagement on their social media counterpart where a community can form online, particularly for those who experience social exclusion and low self-esteem. Facebook can be a means to bolster social capital for those who experience these feelings in their offline life (Antheunis et al, 2015).

The emotions shared through Chat’s social media page suggest that readers engage with the experiences of the interviewee/user in the magazine and this promotes an engagement online with readers’ comments. This can be seen in the affection the readers offer Krista in the virtual ‘hugs’ and ‘kisses’ they send to her. There is once again an element of performativity, characteristic of melancholia, in this exchange. Krista responds from a lack in her life, and she notes this in relation to her friends, her partner and the operation to amputate one of her legs. These losses propel Krista to speak and this creates an emotive response from within readers to reply. This process arguably leads to the creation of social bonds and by extension to a sense of community.

The rhetoric of RLMs constantly asks the reader to identify with an emotional experience. For example, Chat states: ‘How would YOU feel?’ Underneath are three stories ‘My Mum, raped as she lay dying’, ‘My bloke killed by a kid’ and ‘The Murderer slapped on the wrist’ (Chat, 2003). The reader is asked to emotionally identify with the protagonists of these stories and their experiences of loss and injustice. In a similar way, Krista’s impending loss propels her to speak and this creates an urge to respond from the reader. The process arguably leads to the creation of social bonds and by extension to a sense of community. Studies have shown that when an emotional experience is conveyed it prompts social sharing and by emphasising the emotional ordeal of a story over social, economic or political realities, the RLM secures a sense of community within the readership. Emotional experiences tend to be shared more frequently as means to create bonds with others (Rimé, 2009:60) and, arguably, the interviewees’ emotional experiences create the desire to share with people and form connections.

Any bonding that this commodity may prompt needs to be considered in relation to power. This can be seen through the subject position granted to the interviewee within these magazines. The lack of objectivity through the use of first-person narration prevents the necessary grieving (socially) that could result in a more objective analysis of the situation. The magazines’ inability to allow social grieving through Chat magazine’s focus on individualism means that melancholic performances will continue to circulate endlessly within the public sphere. The lack of community and isolation caused by deindustrialisation have exposed the human need to connect. Within late capitalism this now has a price. Feelings can be captured, commodified and adopted as a psychical defence against dependency from an increasingly punitive state. Women who claim welfare have described more often than men that their experience was degrading (Dean and Taylor-Gooby, 1992). If these observations can be applied more generally, then the individual emotion featured within Chat masks the experiences of loss and the sense of social violation that many women may now feel. These women do not have a voice within mainstream media to listen to their experiences, but they can buy a magazine and also connect with other women from their own demographic online. Whereas many may have felt isolated because of neoliberal policies and the rhetoric of individualism, not every person has a story the magazine deems profitable. Chat nurtures community through the emotional engagement it encourages, which leads to social sharing online. The failure publicly to acknowledge the magnitude of these losses has meant that the grieving process necessary for closure could not begin. If there is no public acknowledgement of political and ultimately social losses, then melancholia can manifest itself and become a productive force in the creation of specific group formations (Eng, 2000). We see this dynamic in play on Chat’s social media page.

Melancholia became the socially productive force behind Chat and the real-life genre because lost identifications with an object or ideal can lead to the exposure of other repressed materials that may be more ‘constitutional’ (Freud, 2005). Through the repetition of readers’ traumatic experiences, the genre has been productive in the creation of a melancholic community. What exceeds signification through the story binds reader and interviewee through their shared historical and social experiences otherwise prohibited from exposure within the media.

The losses experienced during the 1980s were not only individual but also had political and social ramifications. The affect produced through social change is both individual and historical (Brennan, 2014) and the experiences of reader/interviewee are determined both socially and historically. How the reader incorporates or responds to the interviewee’s experience is formed from her own perception of the social world. At the same time, experiences of trauma are productive for RLMs’ target demographic not only because these subjects were most affected by the loss of previous social ideals and policies but also because the expression of that loss was prohibited within the public domain. Moreover, such were the radical nature and lasting effects of the social transformations introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s that RLMs have sustained their popularity and commercial viability across three decades. What exceeds the interviewee’s experience of loss, and because the full extent of the loss is unknown to consciousness, it has become the productive force behind the creation of RLMs. Symbolically RLMs can be seen in many ways as the antidote to what was lost (voice, money, community), or perhaps more accurately, its simulacrum.

Conclusion

RLMs constantly repeat the traumatic and emotional ordeals of their interviewees. The women featured have been identified as belonging to lower socioeconomic categories and therefore how they are represented must be analysed in relation to dominant power structures. The social ideals and identifications lost during the 1980s were quickly replaced with an all-pervasive neoliberal rhetoric making the work of mourning harder to achieve. Melancholia became a psychical model for group formation because the extent of these losses remained unrecognised within the public sphere. As such, it became materially productive as a response to the social and political climate.

Through charting Chat’s history and the consolidation of the real-life genre, it has been argued that initially Chat did respond to its readership and produced content that spoke to their needs, for example by informing them about changes to legislation affecting social security benefits. However, from 1990 onwards, Chat began to transform and started to offer financial incentives for real-life stories, commissioning traumatic experiences that had occurred in the readers’ lives. The magazine incentivised readers by stating how much they could ‘earn’ from appearing in Chat and this was when the real-life genre was created. Through the expression of an interviewee’s story the readership are encouraged to identify with her feelings as speaking to their experiences of life within neoliberal society, suggested in the responses received on Chat’s social media page. Feelings of punishment, hatred and sadness are prevalent in these responses. Instead of these losses being mourned and eventually overcome, melancholia has become manifest as there was no public platform, let alone a language, to account for nor mourn these losses. The experiences and the loss of identification with a benevolent state that supported those who needed it resonate with Freud’s (1917) argument in Mourning and Melancholia. Freud suggests that lost identifications can expose formerly repressed materials that may be more constitutional in nature, such as dependency and care (Freud, 2005). The emphasis on traumatic experiences, constitutive of the genre, encourages social sharing as through emphasising emotional ordeals of a story over social, economic or political realities, a sense of community is forged with the readership who turn to Chat’s social media page and respond to the questions about their lives, commenting, comforting each other and sharing their experiences of life. During the COVID-19 pandemic when many magazines have struggled, the real-life genre continues to be successful, suggesting the psychical demands exceed any immediate use-value. Chat may have maintained its popularity precisely through its transformation in responding to an emerging social melancholia that continues to haunt, incessantly seeks exposure, but fails each time, thereby keeping the psychical wounds alive.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Antheunis, M., Vanden Abeele, M.M.P. and Kanters, S. (2015) The Impact of Facebook Use on Micro-Level Social Capital: A Synthesis. Societies, 5(2): 399419. doi: 10.3390/soc5020399

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Baddeley, M., Martin, R. and Tyler, P. (1998) Transitory shock or structural shift? The impact of the early 1980s recession on British regional unemployment, Applied Economics, 30(1): 1930. doi: 10.1080/000368498326100

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bainbridge, C. and Yates, C. (2014) Media and the Inner World: Psycho-cultural Approaches to Emotion, Media and Popular Culture, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berlant, L. (2011) Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Brennan, T. (2014) The Transmission of Affect, New York, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Butler, J. (2018) My life, your life: equality and the philosophy of Non-violence, The Gifford Lectures, University of Glasgow, 1 October.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chat (1995a) 11(5).

  • Chat (1995b) 11(21).

  • Chat (1997) 13(36).

  • Chat (2001) 14(1).

  • Chat (2003) 13(1).

  • Chat Facebook (2014a) If you could ask the Prime Minister one question, what would it be?, https://www.facebook.com/page/111281175568022/search/?q=claiming%20benefits.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chat Facebook (2014b) Why do some women find it so hard to saying something nice about themselves? Do you think it’s to do with self-esteem problems, or the worry you might be seen as big headed? We’d love to hear your thoughts, https://www.facebook.com/page/111281175568022/search/?q=self%20esteem.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chat Facebook (2015) Are you or have you ever been unemployed? If so, what’s the toughest thing about it – feeling judged, struggling financially, worrying about your kids? And finally, do you feel there’s enough support for job-seekers out there?, https://www.facebook.com/page/111281175568022/search/?q=benefits%20street.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chat Facebook (2016) What annoys you more – people who fiddle their benefits or massive companies avoiding paying their tax?, https://www.facebook.com/page/111281175568022/search/?q=claiming%20benefits.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chat Facebook (2017a) How much of a sense of community where you live?, https://www.facebook.com/ChatMagazine/photos/a.111303368899136.13142.111281175568022/1740716315957825/?type=3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chat Facebook (2017b) What you up to tonight?, https://www.facebook.com/ChatMagazine/photos/a.111303368899136.13142.111281175568022/1754513937911396/?type=3.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Corbu, N., Popescu-Jourdy, D. and Vlad, T. (2014) Identity and Intercultural Communication, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

  • Crehan, K. (2016) Gramsci’s Common Sense Inequality and Its Narratives, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

  • Dean, H. and Taylor-Gooby, P. (1992) Dependency Culture: The Explosion of a Myth, London: Simon & Schuster International Group.

  • Eng, D. (2000) Melancholia in the late twentieth century, Signs, 25(4): 127581. doi: 10.1086/495560

  • Freud, S. (2005) On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia, London: Penguin Classics.

  • Frosh, S. (2014) Temporal vertigo: mourning, loss, and survival response to Lynne Segal: Thatcher’s legacy, Psychodynamic Practice Individuals, Groups and Organisations, 20(1): 204. doi: 10.1080/14753634.2014.872876

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Frosh, S. (2018) Rethinking psychoanalysis in the psychosocial, Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, 23(1): 514. doi: 10.1057/s41282-018-0072-5

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gill, R. (2007) Gender and the Media, Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Harkins, G. (2009) Everybody’s Family Romance: Reading Incest in Neoliberal America, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Harvey, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Holmes, T. (2007) Mapping the magazine, Journalism Studies, 8(4): 51021. doi: 10.1080/14616700701411714

  • Kristeva, J. (1989) Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

  • Miles, L. (1985a) Don’t be fiddled out of FIS, Chat, 5 November, p 5.

  • Miles, L. (1985b) Hello, Chat, 22 October, p 2.

  • Minsky, R. (1998) Psychoanalysis and Culture: Contemporary States of Mind, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

  • Monkey, M. (2002) What Chat editor Paul Merrill said about his readers, The Guardian [Online], https://www.theguardian.com/media/2002/nov/01/mediamonkey.pressandpublishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Print Power (2020) Print Power lean magazines, https://www.printpower.eu/insight/lean-magazines.

  • Rimé, B, (2009) Emotion Elicits the Social Sharing of Emotion: Theory and Empirical Review, Emotion Review, 1(1): 6085. doi: 10.1177/1754073908097189

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sinclair, G. (2005) ‘Chat’, Chat magazine, 17 November, p 3.

  • Sinclair, G. (2018) The original real-life magazine, Chat, 28 June, p 1.

  • Skeggs, B. (2016) Class: disidentification, singular selves and person-value [published in Portuguese as classe: disidenificacao, selves singulars e valor da pessoa], http://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/18996.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Winship, J. (1987) Inside Women’s Magazines, London: Pandora Press.

  • 1 Independent scholar, , Scotland

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