Bitch. It is, hands-down, the best title--ever--for a magazine. And its tagline, "feminist response to pop culture," seals the deal. A sassy quarterly with a thoughtful edge, Bitch takes issue with the issues. It has the audacity--what some in the Fourth Estate would call an obligation--to challenge the status quo.

Clearly, intelligent debate vs. name-calling and fear-mongering is a hallmark of a free society. Just ask any Third World despot his views on dissidents. Hallmark doesn't make a card with his response.

, which has been kicking butt for 10 years, is serious, thought-provoking and appreciates the ironies that define pop culture. By culture, it means politics, arts, entertainment and society--and no less an esteemed institution than Duke University houses it in its archives.

Happily, the pub escapes the stench of earnestness that can envelop do-gooders. Sure, it's preaching to believers, but so is Rush Limbaugh. The difference is its take--and take it from me, Bitch isn't strident or a left-wing apologia. For openers, it notes that feminism is complex; women often disagree--intensely--on its mission and tactics.

Plus, Bitch is a nonprofit magazine. According to its Web site, ad revenues count for less than 10% of the budget. In short, its survival is hard-won.

The magazine does not justify any particular ideology; it critiques mainstream culture. And it made me think about topics or viewpoints I hadn't previously considered. Be honest — how often does that happen? Most people read magazines that tell them what they want to hear. Opposite view? Perish the thought!

The polarity in current political discourse, never mind the venom spewed on talk shows, is enough to convince the most obstinate: Discussion is a lost art in America. (That's why I love The Week: one topic, myriad views.)

Given its quarterly status, Bitch's articles are deliberately long. Like New Yorker-long. They are often compelling and well-written, though I still subscribe to architect Mies van der Rohe's dictum: Less is more.

Yet the piece on "Miss Interpreted--Beauty Pageants Meet Their New Ideal" made important points about the history of such contests. For instance, some Miss Americas have used their terms to promote public policy, such as hospice care. The 1973 winner was the first to use her scholarship for professional education (law school) and lobbied to add an interview portion. Ms. Wheelchair American is judged on public-speaking abilities and knowledge of disability issues, not beauty. Miss Earth promotes eco-awareness, albeit alongside the swimsuit competition.

Apparently, the environment in question is, as Walt Whitman put it, "the body electric." My favorite pageant is Miss Gay Metropolitan Tokyo, featuring male-to-female transsexuals. I'd like to see Bob Barker emcee that one. Whether pageants are a cheesy, outdated idea isn't the point. Bitch takes an insightful look at a cultural icon.

Similarly, "Bare Necessity" addresses the hot topic of porn in a Q&A with Carly Milne, the author of Naked Ambition--Women Who Are Changing Pornography. I was taken aback by Milne's casual tone — porn has its down side, but she says it's not degrading women, it's — wait for it — "sex positive." Tell that to Linda Lovelace!

I can't claim — thankfully, my mother would kill me — a stint in the porn industry to research a book. (It gives new meaning to getting in bed with a subject.) Nor do I trust the author's overly breezy explanations. But she did raise provocative, unsettling points.

For music fans, the discussion of Dolly Parton and Madonna was downright smart. Madonna's obsessive reinvention, which skirts class, gender and race, is juxtaposed with Parton's busty blonde personae. Both have flirted with kitschy versions of themselves, but Parton's artifice is seen as authentic.

By contrast, the Material Girl's authenticity rests on her chameleon-like abilities. When she decides she's no longer a Kabbalah devotee and morphs into a voodoo priestess who only wears brightly patterned hemp and speaks in a Haitian accent, will any of us be surprised? I, for one, will be disappointed if she doesn't.

In short, Bitch is a big-picture magazine, be it features on a child-free life or a reproductive-rights reading list, which reviewed five books that took both a scientific and historical approach. The section gave a synopsis, and an informative "good/not so good" appraisal. The FDA should be this detailed.

Yes, it's another hot topic, but if we separate myth from reality, science from politics, we approach a loaded subject with knowledge and understanding. We don't have to agree; we do, however, have to agree to stick to the facts.

Finally, cheers to the copywriter who came up with this gem on the subscription card: "Bitch, because your brain is your most important body part." Anna Wintour, are you listening?

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