Can’t Even Slow This Down - Ten Years of Feminist Print with Shameless Magazine : Interviews with Nicole Cohen, Melinda Mattos, and Sheila Sampath

Elise Thorburn

Canada has a longstanding history of feminist print publications, many with longevity that rivals their mainstream/corporate counterparts. Toronto-based Broadside ran from 1979-1989, and the Vancouver Status of Women-funded Kinesis published 10 issues a year from 1974-2001. These magazines and several others were indispensable in driving a feminist politics in Canada through the 1980s and 1990s. They were a location for reflective politics – for considering and challenging the issues facing feminism in years defined by culture wars, the rise of liberal and cultural feminisms, the emergence of transfeminism, and the inevitable backlash. While these publications were important for the development of feminism within Canada, their era was marked by an indelible absence – a publication or project that worked with, spoke to, and learned from young people with the aim of deepening and developing feminist politics amongst teenagers. In 2004, with the emergence of Shameless magazine, this absence was filled. Shameless speaks to youth, tackling issues of feminism from an intersectional perspective, and centring debates about race, class, ability, and sexuality as core components of a feminist politics.

In a mediascape saturated by the digital, Shameless persists in print, making it in many ways an outlier in radical publishing. Print media is often posed as existing in opposition to digital media, an archaic holdover from a previous era. Contrary to these positions, it is important to understand print as a contemporary form mobilized by digital media. It demands a slowness and reflective politics often lacking in a hyper-mediated, web 2.0 world. Such reflections are necessary to developing feminist politics in a complicated world, as well as creating places where debates can play out and lessons can be learned. As a feminist print publication, Shameless is a place for youth to engage in autonomous and collective learning, a place to work out ideas and develop answers to questions. It has proven an indispensable project to creating intergenerational legacies of radical feminist politics. After ten years in operation, Elise Thorburn spoke to Shameless magazine’s co-founders Nicole Cohen and Melinda Mattos, and current editorial and art director Sheila Sampath.

Melinda Mattos is the co-founder and former co-editor of Shameless. After a decade in journalism, including roles at The Toronto Star, Eye Weekly, TVOntario and Strategy, she now works in the Communications Department of George Brown College.

Nicole Cohen is the co-founder and former co-editor of Shameless. She works as an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

Sheila Sampath is the editorial and art director of Shameless magazine. She is an artist, educator, and activist designer. Outside of her work at Shameless, she is the principal and creative director at The Public and an assistant professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

Tell me about the history of the project. What made you start a feminist magazine for teens? Why is it important to publish a magazine for teens or young people?

Melinda: Shameless began as a class project in our fourth-year Magazine Editing class at Ryerson University. The assignment was to develop a concept and prototype for a magazine that didn’t exist but should. My immediate thought was, “I want to make a feminist teen magazine!” Nicole and I had both been voracious readers as teenagers, but remembered feeling let down by the options available to us on the newsstands. We hated the way teen life was portrayed by the media as an endless series of embarrassing moments and attempts at nabbing a boyfriend. We were sick of how mainstream magazines fostered a climate of low self-esteem and then promised readers that this terrible feeling would go away if only they had the right jeans, or lipstick, or hair product – basically whatever was being advertised on the next page. We wanted to create a teen magazine that empowered and informed its readers – something to counteract the daily onslaught of media messages telling them to feel ashamed of their bodies, their minds, their sexuality.

Nicole: At the time, making your own magazine felt like a way to participate in the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture that was vibrant in the city – music, publishing, art. One aspect of that culture, which we were involved with, involved people in indie music starting their own record labels, making magazines (Spacing launched around the same time Shameless did), and putting on events in weird spaces. There was a spirit of doing creative projects with friends that helped motivate us to launch the magazine. Graduating from journalism school, even then, it felt like there weren’t a lot of options available to produce critical, activist-oriented journalism. By starting our own magazine, we got to participate in a vibrant DIY community and create the kind of journalism we wanted to read.

Sheila: It’s funny, whenever we interview new volunteers we always ask, “Why do you want to work for Shameless?” 9 out of 10 people say, “Because I wish I had this when I was teen.” I can relate to that sentiment; there just isn’t a lot out there (as Melinda and Nicole said) that speaks to young people in a way that is more profound. Thirteen to eighteen is a pretty intense age to be. When you are young, you can often feel the weight of the world, but you don’t necessarily have the language or community to know what to do with those feelings, to build on them, or to transform them into something else. There isn’t a lot out there that speaks to young people and talks to them in an accessible way, as equals, about all the things they might be experiencing or feeling. Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc. are so much bigger and harder when you don’t have any autonomy or control over the world around you. Shameless, then, is trying to make knowledge available and accessible to young people, to empower them, to provide them with alternatives, and to point out to them the ways in which they can take action or reclaim control over their world.

What was the mediascape like at the time? Were there many digital projects? Why did you choose to go with print?

Melinda: Print was the only option that made sense to us. We both learned about feminism and politics through reading magazines. When I was a kid, my mom tore pages out of Ms. Magazine for me, and as a teen I fell in love with publications like This Magazine and Bitch. Nicole and I came of age in a print-based culture, reading zines and hanging out at libraries. In 2003, when we first decided to launch Shameless, there were websites and blogs, but the main social network was Friendster, and digital-only publications didn’t really exist. Nobody had a smartphone or tablet. The internet didn’t fit in your purse.

Nicole: You could still go to independent bookstores and discover new publications. It was really important to us that teens could discover Shameless in a bookstore or at a zine fair, pick it up, take it home, and share it with friends. We thought it was important to establish a relationship with an object, which reflected our own relationships with books, magazines, and other artifacts that connected us with culture and politics. One of our journalism instructors, Stephen Trumper (who was a champion of Shameless from the minute Melinda dreamed it up) told us to do a website. We insisted that we needed a print magazine to reach teens, to build a community. He was ahead of his time – things have really changed in 10 years, and I’m not sure it’s as vital for Shameless to be a print publication anymore. Sheila might disagree with me on this.

Who initially supported the project and where did funding come from?

Melinda: We fundraised enough money to print the first issue –  roughly $5,000. We held a fundraiser at the Tranzac, with performances by the Pomegranate Squad and the Creeping Nobodies. We had friends in the local music scene so the bands played for free. We asked MuchMusic VJ Hannah Sung to DJ for us. We had a kissing booth where a team of volunteers – myself included – sold kisses for $1. We also sold buttons and stickers that said “Shameless.” We raised about $2,000 that night. Another chunk of the money came from a one-time anonymous donor that I found through networking – so anonymous that I still don’t know their name! At that time, we were telling everyone we met about our efforts to start Shameless. Someone I talked to ended up speaking to someone else, who made the anonymous donation. It was incredibly generous, and surprising – we found a feminist angel, but couldn’t even thank them in person. From that point onwards, we’ve covered our printing and mailing costs through subscription sales, newsstand sales, and funds raised at launch parties.

Nicole: Our media and music scene connections (from attending Ryerson University and working in local media) certainly helped us tap into networks to fundraise and get the first issue published. I was working at The Toronto Star and Eye Weekly at the time, and used my contacts and knowledge from those jobs to help launch the magazine. The social capital that came with working in Toronto media, even alternative media, was critical for Shameless’s early success – we were written up in Adbusters and won an award from NOW magazine before we even launched! From then on, funding has come from selling subscriptions and selling issues in bookstores. There were several indie bookstores then that have since closed, like the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and Pages, where we were able to sell a lot of magazines. More recently, I helped set up The Hall of Shameless, which is the magazine’s sustainer program (an idea I borrowed from Upping The Anti!) where people give us $5 or $10 a month.

What were the main political foundations of Shameless when it began? Did you have a clear definition of feminism? Did you have a clear idea about what sorts of topics you wanted to cover? How did you develop content and what influenced your content?

Melinda: When we developed the first prototype of Shameless, we broke it down into editorial sections – so there was a news section, a technology section, a food politics section, a style section, a health and sexuality section, a section on language, a section for long-form features, music and book reviews, an advice column, and so on. As much as possible, we wanted to capture the breadth of teen experience, covering art and activism and everything in between. Some of the specific stories we included were topics we felt personally passionate about. Others were pitched by writers, or inspired by conversations we had with our teen advisory panel.

Nicole: As far as politics, I don’t think we had a unified vision of what Shameless would be, other than ‘feminist.’ We didn’t have long conversations about what that meant, we just knew that we wanted to make an accessible space for teen girls (the magazine was not as oriented to trans* experiences then as it is now) to think critically about gender and to introduce broad ideas of feminism to them. We aimed to be inclusive of people of colour, but didn’t have explicitly anti-racist politics developed. We made space for anti-capitalist politics to be introduced, but that wasn’t the clear focus. We did a lot of sex- and body-positive features, alternative takes on relationships, school, and jobs, included queer-friendly content, and tried not to be a magazine just for white girls: we worked to include contributions from women of colour, we tried to ensure photographs and images were diverse in their representation of gender identity, sexual orientation, and race (for example, our alternative prom photos featured queer teens who were members of our teen advisory board), and we tried to profile women of colour contributing to arts and culture. The magazine was aimed squarely at teens, so it covered typical teen magazine topics but with a feminist slant. We had an advice column, for example, but it tackled issues like coming out to your parents, dealing with parents who are spying on you, or what to do about a creepy boss.

Was it challenging to connect with young people and youth-driven movements? How did you do this?

Nicole: We worked hard to connect with young feminists and activists in Toronto when we developed and launched the magazine. We set up a teen editorial collective that advised us on the content of the magazine, who helped us get Shameless into high schools and teen networks. This was 2003, before social media and smartphones –  you couldn’t get a teen to post something on their Facebook page and reach all their friends. We met young people (we read about young activists in the news, others contacted us), took them for coffee, talked about politics, school, and what was important to them.

Melinda: Because we weren’t teenagers ourselves, it was important for us to have a group of teen advisors who would keep us on track and ensure the content of the magazine was relevant to their lives. We held regular meetings with them to discuss story ideas and to get their feedback on previous issues. They also got involved in other ways, like participating in photo shoots, helping out at launch parties, and introducing Shameless to their friends. We’ve kept in touch with a lot of them, and have had the pleasure of watching them grow up to become successful journalists, artists, novelists, social service workers, scholars, and more. Many have also remained activists.

What are the main political differences between now and when the magazine first began?

Sheila: As I understand it, Shameless has gone through three major phases. The first, when Melinda and Nicole started it, happened in the wake of the demise of Sassy Magazine, and Shameless was envisioned as a fresh alternative to typical teen magazines. When you look back at those early issues, it really does seem that way – an alternative magazine written by your much cooler, sassy older sister. By 2007, Nicole and Melinda were feeling burnt out from juggling full-time work with Shameless, which can often feel like a full-time job in itself, and decided it was time to move on. Two new women took over, one as publisher and the other as editor-in-chief. The magazine was incorporated as a non-profit and Melinda and Nicole stayed on as board members.

In 2010 I inherited the magazine as editorial director. I spent a long time thinking of what it means to have a feminist magazine for teens. To be consistent with the feminism I practice, a feminist magazine doesn’t only talk about gender, but about race, class, ability, etc., while also remaining critical and mindful of the fact that feminism has and does hurt people when it isn’t intersectional. Saying we are feminist is not enough, because in the end we don’t all agree on what that term means. So asking what is meant by ‘feminist’ and how do we practice ‘feminism’ at the magazine was, and is, really important to me.

One of the first things we did at that time was to re-write the editorial mandate of the magazine to be more explicitly political and to clarify the politics of the project. Our mandate now explicitly states that we are an intersectional, anti-oppressive magazine that talks about race, class, and ability alongside sex and gender. With this mandate we were able to define our own feminism, and to define it as being about something more than gender. It’s a loose statement, but it gives us something to aspire to and something to take into account when bringing people onto the project. We engaged in a hiring process for new volunteers at that time, and had an overwhelming response. Many people who joined our team 2010 are still with us now.

Shameless has gone through three phases: an ‘alternative’ magazine for teen girls, a bit of a difficult adolescence as it tried to define its own voice, and a magazine rooted in principles of social justice and anti-oppression. This new phase is built on activism, intersectionality, and all of the things that make up feminism for the communities we are accountable to.

Do you see Shameless as a political project? How so?

Sheila: Yes, Shameless is a political project. To relate it back to my own experience as a young person, I didn’t grow up in a politicized household so I didn’t have the language or skills to name the manifestation of systemic politics I was experiencing. I was lucky enough, as a young person starting out in activist work, to meet people who were really helpful and patient in explaining things to me and giving me space to define my own activism. A lot of activism doesn’t do that; activists can often be angry and impatient with beginners. I get that; I feel that anger a lot myself. But when we are talking to young people or to people new to social justice work, that anger is not accessible. It blocks people, it scares them away and it keeps them from joining. I’ve seen this happen so much, in a real call-out culture. Taking on that anger and resentment is hard on a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old, a 40-year-old, but it can be devastating for a teenager. I see Shameless as trying to create entry points for youth, to engender a sense of learning in an environment free from hostility and anger, although possibly still born from those places. We’re trying to create an open learning environment that is patient, safe, and accessible, and allows people the time to develop the knowledge and language that can carry them forward. As a result, many of our readers aren’t necessarily teens – but they may be new to activism and find Shameless to be a source of accessible radical information.

I think that Shameless can serve as a point of critical and political thought for adults and long-time activists as well. Thinking about how we communicate ideas and politics can help us identify how exclusive and hurtful our ‘inclusive’ politics can sometimes be. Some of our politics come from real places of pain and trauma, but when we are trying to build movements this alone can be an obstacle. Honestly, I think as activists we don’t often have a sense of building intergenerational movements; we don’t remember our younger selves, what it was like before we felt we had all the answers. We don’t relate to these younger selves because we don’t even remember what it was like to not have the language and tools we may have now. Sometimes I think we have a tendency to frame activism as an identity, but for me an activist is not a thing to be, it is a process to commit to. Politics is a practice and when we forget how to talk to young people, we forget what makes a movement grow.

The magazine helps me to see how we can build movements with love, and directing our conversations towards youth makes this much easier. At Shameless, we work to create loving spaces to explore these radical ideas without presumptions, to build a culture of calling people in instead of calling them out.

People aren’t born with solid politics. We live in a world that is completely socialized by capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. We have to simultaneously learn and unlearn so much. Shameless is a space where it is okay to ask questions, to say “I don’t know why this is wrong,” or “I didn’t know this before,” or “these are the things I need to learn.” Internally, having the space to have these conversations is really important, but we also make it public through the pages of Shameless. We are going through this process too and making it transparent models that it is ok for youth to be going through it as well. Having people make that process transparent can be transformative. My contribution to Shameless has largely been this: to acknowledge that we are not perfect, even as the makers of this magazine. Fucking up is a part of learning and we are trying to nourish a culture where it is ok to learn. We are committed to trying to get it right but also, sometimes, we are going to get it wrong. When we do, we want to engage in a process of growth and learning, in a way that builds, shamelessly.

During your time working directly on the project what sorts of changes took place? Did your experience of working on a print publication for teens alter the politics of the project as you had initially envisioned them? How did your understanding of the project, and of feminism, evolve through your time putting out a print magazine?

Melinda: The politics of the magazine have shifted over the past 10 years. While Nicole and I always sought to produce a magazine that was feminist, inclusive, and empowering for readers, we probably spent more time talking about organizational logistics – like, how do you produce a newsstand-quality magazine with no money, no office, and a bare bones staff of volunteers – than we did about organizational politics. When Sheila became editorial director we re-wrote the mandate (with a small group of people, new and old team members) to better define the kind of feminism Shameless wanted to reflect and to make the magazine more focused on social justice, anti-racism, and trans*-inclusivity (the magazine’s tagline evolved from “for girls who get it” to “talking back since 2004”).

Nicole: The magazine has rightly evolved with the people who get involved, and it’s taken a lot of hard work on Sheila’s and the team’s part to re-envision the magazine into a project with a different focus. We launched Shameless as aspiring media workers and sometimes media activists, and Melinda and I edited the entire magazine ourselves. The magazine has grown to become a political space, an explicitly activist project, and is put out by a community of people – a large team of volunteers and contributors who have articulated anti-oppressive feminist politics that I have come to appreciate as being critical for a vital feminism. I also learned over the past 10 years that a feminist magazine is not defined by the content in the pages of the issue, but by the process of producing media as a collective project.

What is the structure of Shameless now?

Sheila: We follow a pretty traditional magazine structure. We’re hierarchical, but based on collective principles. Our associate editors have a large degree of autonomy. We are accountable to each other and we all support each other as we navigate challenging politics and logistics. We meet once a month and plan issues collectively. We brainstorm together and pick ideas together – although the associate editors have final say over what ideas they want to pursue. The associate editors then have the whole group and myself to support them in seeing these ideas through.

While technically, we’re not a collective, we do function as one. We follow the good parts of being a collective without the more frustrating parts of doing collective work. While we may re-visit this structure in the future, at this moment, it seems to be working. Bringing collective experiences and principles to a hierarchical environment means that even though there is the possibility of making unilateral decisions, in general we don’t. Of course, this dynamic could easily get thrown off if someone decided they did not want to abide by our unwritten collective processes, but I think we avoid this by doing intensive hiring processes. We spend a lot of time interviewing people, we do anti-oppression trainings, and we talk a lot about how we make decisions and how much time, energy, and commitment our processes take. Everyone is welcome to give input or to opt out of input for every part of the magazine depending on their time and interest, but more importantly the person in charge of a particular article, section, or piece takes on and gives important consideration to the ideas and thoughts that are given to them. Because our collective elements are not formalized, we have to be careful in our hiring and explain all of these processes so that we can ensure the people we hire won’t change the dynamic we’ve constructed for the magazine in negative or problematic ways. I’ve been involved in a lot of feminist organizing groups and I think that Shameless is one of the best I have been involved in. It’s a wonderful community and a place of support.

How has organized anti-feminism, like Men’s Rights Activists MRAs) for example, affected the way you develop content?

Sheila: Not at all. I get that fighting Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) can be important work, but it is also kind of like fighting racism by fighting the KKK. It can be very performative and dramatic and it looks really great, but statistically speaking, this is a pretty small minority of people and I don’t think they have a lot of sway. I don’t want to legitimize them or their movement by giving them a lot of space.

Activism in general can be so reactionary, and so many activist agendas seem to be set by people who are not on our side. I don’t want MRAs to set our agenda. Sure, I don’t want them to exist, but I also would rather spend my time providing an alternative to their shit rather than trying to shut them down. At Shameless we’ve not (yet) been targeted or attacked by them, so maybe if we were my thinking around this would change. In general, though, I don’t have time to try to reason with unreasonable people; I’d rather focus on movement building, on building more allies, and bringing more people in. Right now, it seems like a counter-productive use of already stretched resources that I’d rather put towards creating radical, healthy alternatives.

For me and my understanding of feminism, I think that it is easy to call out things that are terrible when they are obviously terrible. But feminism is so much harder and a lot more significant when it’s more nuanced than that. It involves things like being a good friend or a loving partner. It involves all this really hard but way less glamorous stuff – stuff that doesn’t get you noticed or lauded like a high profile Twitter fight with some MRA dude. Feminist work isn’t glorious and most of the time it isn’t recognized as even happening. So much reproductive labour that we do as friends, as lovers, in relationships, as allies in movements – this labour is rarely ever celebrated as feminism. Instead feminism seems increasingly (in the public discourse) like this thing that involves yelling at someone on the internet or organizing your Twitter followers to shut down an MRA event.

Ultimately, the feminist work I value is the work that is far less glamorous but, in my opinion, much more important. Like, supporting other women and trans* folks in a world where we are trained to be shitty to each other. This is feminist work for me. But how do you quantify this work? How do you put it online and call it ‘feminist’? How do you get people to notice it? In the end, I’m not really interested in the performance of feminism and more interested in the actual practice of being feminist. To be a feminist has to be more than a lifestyle.

At Shameless, we don’t use the word feminist or feminism very much, in fact, because it’s a label that has been used to hurt women of colour in the past. So I don’t really care if you identify with it or not. I use it sparingly, most of the time, and my use of the word is totally dependent on context. For me, committing to that politics, living and enacting that politics – that is what feminism is. And that is what Shameless tries to do.

What are the main struggles of doing feminist print media in the current media climate?

Melinda: This is a challenging time for anyone trying to create and sustain print media, feminist or otherwise. As someone who spent ten years working in print journalism (not only with Shameless, but at major newspapers, a local alternative weekly, and a trade magazine) before moving on to a more secure line of work, I can attest to how precarious and disheartening the current media climate is. Independent feminist publishers face additional hurdles. While most mainstream magazines for women and teens rely on advertising revenue from big cosmetics and clothing companies, that wouldn’t be appropriate for Shameless. We’ve always had strict policies that any advertising must align with the magazine’s mandate and values. This means any ads we do sell are often for small progressive businesses with very limited budgets. Another challenge is that there are fewer and fewer places to sell the magazine. Many of the independent and feminist bookshops that used to put Shameless front and center on their magazine racks – like the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and Pages – have gone out of business over the past ten years.

Nicole: I don’t think it makes sense for anyone to launch a print publication now. It just doesn’t make sense financially. There are so few places left to sell print publications and it’s so expensive. Where do you keep all of those boxes of magazines? The exciting activist media projects that are working on sustainable models that pay contributors are digital (Ricochet and The Media Co-op come to mind). The trick is to figure out how to get people to give you money when you’re not giving them a print artifact, something physical to hold. The question for media activists has always been, “How do you make alternative or feminist media sustainable?” I think the current climate makes it more difficult in some ways. Maybe it’s fast and cheap to set up a new media project because the overhead is low, and maybe social media helps spread the word, but the question of sustainability remains. How do you pay people? How do you build a lasting community? How do you fund the project in the long term? Activist and alternative media has always been reader- or supporter-funded, and now that funding all culture, including capitalist and commercial culture, has been offloaded onto readers/viewers/consumers, alternative and activist media have a lot more competition for funding. If you pay to access news articles, pay Kickstarter to fund movies, give monthly so that a podcast or a video game can be produced, what’s left over to support activist projects? That being said, I am excited to see what new models and ideas young feminists come up with.

Sheila: I agree that print media is challenging, for all the reasons above. I also think it’s valuable to ask what opportunities come from publishing in print. I teach research methodologies at a university level, and I see the ways in which print media is privileged and seen as more valid than online media, more valid than oral histories, for example. The same barriers to access in producing a print magazine lend to its perceived validity and ‘official-ness’ when it is consumed. Print media still exists, but there is a stratification that’s happened between print and online – we see very privileged voices in print, and we see voices of colour, women, trans* voices, and queer voices online. For me, it’s a radical act to overcome these barriers and to take up physical space in a media landscape that is designed to silence us. I think it sends a message to young people, and to marginalized people that our stories matter, that we matter.