Women’s “news” has become all about selling ads that promote very specific kinds of women: Women are strong because they use TRESemmé for sleek, luxurious hair — not necessarily because they make a stand.
News sites like Gawker, The Awl, Vice, The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail, have sections and offshoot websites devoted to women — Jezebel, The Hairpin, Broadly, Women’s Voices, and Femail, respectively. The buzz is that Vice’s feminist channel Broadly will finally “get women right.”
The history of news “for women by women all about women” goes back to 1971, when Ms. Magazine was started as an insert in New York Magazine, where Gloria Steinem was working at the time.
Steinem and Dorothy Pittman-Hughes formed Ms., in part, as an alternative to the ladies’ magazines of the day like Ladies Home Journal, which were controlled largely by men and which focused on motherhood, marriage, fashion, cooking and other work attributed to women in the home. Ms. wanted a platform, created and run entirely by women, that addressed the issues women faced and to expand women’s voices into spheres of society and politics.
While it was entirely run by women with content written by women, the primary funding came from New York Magazine editor Clay Felker, who went on to run Esquire for a few years. Felker, described as having a “Gatsbyesque drive, a zest for power,” was committed to New Journalism and gave Steinem her first “serious” assignments.
Ms. was a trial, as were the other new feminist magazines coming out at the time like NOW and New York Radical Women. Everyone involved was unsure the magazine would have an audience at all, and they called the first solo issue a preview, in case things did not sell well.
It did sell well.
Ms. has changed ownership many times since, but is still in the business of feminist news. They still do not run articles about recipes or popular fashion unrelated to social or political issues. Though, magazines with recipes and fashion, like the Ladies Home Journal, are still around too.
The very specific, isolated, assumed needs of women
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently wrote a small pamphlet called “We should all be feminist,” based on a speech she gave. In it she says, “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.” She writes about the ability of women to be their full selves, comfortable and confident and not dressing or acting in singular ways they believe society expects. A real woman does not need to be confined to a few interests inside or outside of the home. And being a feminist means seeing that gender discrimination exists and being willing to fix it. Inasmuch as that is the definition of feminism, there is not a fully feminist magazine or website for all women by all women.
“Women should have the same kind of media aimed at them that is aimed at men,” said Broadly editor in chief Tracie Egan Morrissey, who also at one time edited Jezebel. But I am not entirely sure what that statement means. Women are not men; women have specific needs that men do not have; and Broadly absolutely sells ads directed at women that would not be aimed at men.
In interviews Morrissey has claimed that Broadly would not cover trending items, however it featured a prominent article on an audioerotic trend on YouTube and why it is capturing the attention of so many men. This, despite her claim that she does not “care what men think or how they feel.”
Of course, Morrissey does not have to hate men to run a women’s magazine, but the content produced by a legitimate news organization should more closely align with intent than with advertisers. Instead, she is saying that the site is bucking trends while actually encouraging them.
A marriage of convenience
On June 23 at Cannes, Unilever CMO Keith Weed announced that his company would be teaming up with Vice to launch Broadly. But Unilever is not simply a sponsor. The companies have a deal to co-create content.
Their Vaseline advertisements, he said, proudly sponsor the new female-focused site “for women who get the power of healing.” Their Degree ads are “for women with the confidence to move.” These product advertisements from Unilever are created to “become a part of people’s lives,” Weed said at the announcement.
The advertising itself is not the problem; content co-created by sponsors is. And which content is co-created is not exactly clear. Broadly supposedly wants to remain above advertising influence, while the site shows countless images of women rubbing Vaseline on their hands and wearing Degree deodorant on their smooth armpits — juxtaposed with articles about women’s bodies, including photos of blow-up dolls and advice on how to love your own vagina. (Because it is just assumed that all women don’t?) Nearly every other article is about some kind of eroticism that women need to know about — relationship advice with burritos (because, how funny — burritos), holding séances and how identifying as witches is helping trans people.
I mean, witches.
And of course horoscopes.
Paying women fairly to write without giving in to the advertising machine
In the First Ms. Reader, a collection of articles and essays from the first issues of Ms. Magazine, the editors note in the introduction that “because the authors involved wanted a populist book, too … they agreed to smaller amounts [of payment per piece] than usual.” The time of women accepting less for positions and work equal to that of their male counterparts has not exactly passed us.
Jezebel blatantly asks readers to purchase advertised items. And sites like The Hairpin, with smaller budgets, are even less immune to sponsorship buzz. There must be a space for women between sponsored advertorials on news sites and low-paying (or unpaid) journalism with purpose. And given the historical importance of women in news, it is necessary to fill that space. I believe there can be a news outlet that really does “get women right.” Giving advertising dollars too much control over content will not achieve that goal.
The leadership of women’s news sites today could learn a lot from Steinem’s experiences. She once said, “You know, I have made lots of mistakes all on my own, and I have done all kinds of things that I would like to change, but most of all, I would like to take back all the time I spent trying to sell advertising.”