Soft as a plush toy and as edgy as the advertorial for “Highlights for Children” magazine it for all intents and purposes is, “44 Pages” captures the venerable children’s magazine as it prepares to put out its 70th anniversary issue back in the summer of 2016.
Tony Shaff’s dull, conflict-free behind-the-scenes look at the family-owned magazine still found in doctors and dentists’ offices across America, is seen through the lens of the magazine’s own motto — “Fun With Purpose.”
Colorful, with sparkling illustrations and artwork, puzzles, regular features such as the good choice-teaching “Goofus and Gallant” cartoon, features on crafts such as art and cooking, poetry by famous adults and kids who have submitted their work, fiction, a little science — “Highlights” is aimed at creating kids who are “kind” and “curious.
A parade of Honesdale, Pennsylvania editorial staff talk about the history of the magazine, which debuted in 1946, and its ongoing mission — showing kids “how the world could be and should be.”
They are, editor Judy Burke smiles, “People who love kids, people who love to read.”
They spend a lot of time vetting the pieces for accuracy and “sensitivity,” publisher and heir Christine French Cully smiles.
Everybody smiles at “Highlights,” in the quaint, old small-town mansion that houses editorial, at the vast Columbus, Ohio business offices, where marketing and accounting and the new online version of the venerable publication is housed.
They smile as they speak, very quietly, of the “wholesomeness” and “goody-goody” labels they try to avoid, and the “bubble” they acknowledge they all live in. Redesigns and a new “Highlights” app to reach kids online don’t obscure the words the many employees avoid most assiduously — “conservative, old-fashioned, dated, fusty.”
Headquartered in tiny, rural Honesdale (population under 5,000), it’s a magazine setting the agenda for childhood in America and what kids should be, seemingly trapped in an America that hasn’t existed for 50 years.
The illustrations show black and brown faces, the published poems are always five by girls, five by boys and no picture of a child on a bike is without her wearing a helmet, no image of a family in a car fails to show the proper use of seat belts.
It has the feeling of CYA political correctness, tokenism and a fear of doing anything that will challenge anyone in the towns most like Honesdale, ages 6-12, or more exactly, the parents of their target audience.
The milieu, even editorial meetings, is “Mister Rogers” quiet and soft-spoken. No voice is raised, the endless tinkering and editing away the rough edges raises no ire — even with the contract workers doing a lot of the writing and rewriting, photographing and illustrating.
But avoiding issues of race, religion, environment, “evolution” and “controversy” in general cannot be easy. The occasional staff member glances over her shoulder and almost whispers when talking about everything they and their freelance writers, illustrators and others must dodge — violence, sex, guns, etc.
And looking at all these faces, you understand that they’re not just proving that publishing doesn’t have to be an urban phenomenon, with city sophistication. You see the good-faith effort made to make the magazine look like its readers.
It’s all the more amazing when you notice — as you must — that the entire enterprise is staffed by a sea of white, suburban women, hired from all over America — ages early 30s to late 60s. It’s a self-sustaining monochromatic matriarchy where, seemingly, If you’re not white and not a woman, you need not apply.
They pay all this lip service to children growing up in a very different world from the physical and metaphorical Mayberry this 44 pages-plus-cover/no advertising is still created in, while working in one of the most jarringly racially pure echo chambers in American media.
A trio of white men — art people and the science editor — have small roles and keep their voices down in what is otherwise a high-functioning matriarchy. The magazine, its earnest effort to promote sweetness and light and avoid ruffling any feathers — ANYwhere — reflects that — nothing to offend the sensibilities of little old ladies.
“44 Pages” shows its a jungle in there, a fallopian jungle.
The fact that it’s enduring in print in an era when dead tree publications are withering and dying underscores that they’re doing something right, or that doctors and dentists are slow to abandon subscriptions of a magazine that they believe keeps little kids occupied while waiting for their appointment.
In an age when men keeping women down is a running theme of the zeitgeist, especially in the media, here’s an exception that proves the rule. The descendants of educators turned publishers Garry and Caroline Myers are running a civil, genteel and most feminine workplace trapped in 1955.
It doesn’t help to think too much about how they maintain this, the “psychological profiles” the staff alludes to having to pass before they join the whitest, most feminine institution this side of the Salt Lake City Garden Club, circa 1939.
There’s a reason media companies — save for Fox News — pursue “diversity” in editorial hiring. You’re limiting your connection to many of the people you’d like to reach when you all look alike, think alike and sound alike.
Filmmaker Schaff, whose documentary “Hotline” was about suicide phone banks, psychic call centers and the like, didn’t create “The September Issue” (about Vogue) here.
There’s zero conflict and zero effort by the filmmaker, off-camera, asking questions and prodding his interview subjects into interesting lines of questioning, to challenge the slow-to-change nature of “Highlights” and the culture that created it, depicting the world kids grow up in, their growing sophistication and Highlights as a bulwark against the real world.
There’s implied back-pattiing all around when “Highlights,” in the closing credits, is revealed to have shown an LGBQ family in its pages — in 2017 — decades after say, PBS Kids touched on it.
Shaff’s movie seems to be doing the loudest back-slapping of all.
There’s no addressing the monoculture this mag is created in or how that limits its scope. They bring in focus groups of kids to market research each issue before it hits the stands — little white kids from this not-that-diverse town that they publish it in.
I’d have appreciated even the (film’s) editorial suggestion of how surprising it is that “Highlights” seems to cover itself in political correctness despite its reluctance to embrace the real world it now exists in. That would have been more interesting than this celluloid press release from “Highlights” corporate.
Whatever the stated higher purpose , however earnest the apparent good intentions by all involved, Shaff was obligated — on behalf of the film audience — to question the official line pitched here. He just cheerleads, or more to the point, lets the staff cheerlead.
Is there no skeptic — academic, publishing, educator — to question the “Highlights” way, their numbers, their editorial slant? Look at America today, and ask yourself if “Highlights” has succeeded in its 70+ year mission of creating “kind” and “curious” kids. Ask yourself how a lily white enterprise like this might deserve a little credit where it doesn’t it.
Shaff has made a movie that skims the surface, like a “How Magazines are Made” video for kids that no kid will want to sit through and will keep few adults awake.
MPAA Rating: TV-Y7
Cast: Judy Burke, Christine French Cully, Lisa Schnebly Heidinger
Credits:Directed by Tony Shaff. A Gravitas/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:30