Beauty Tips and Politics
Over the past few months of prime-time pitching, you may recall seeing an ad that seemed surprisingly feminist in its attitude: a maternity ward of babies defiantly tossing off a shower of pink knit caps, to a slowly self-identifying acoustic-pop cover of "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar." As the song leads up to the lyrics, "I am strong/I am invincible," an infant extends its chubby fist, wrapped in a pink hospital identification band, and clenches it in a revolutionary salute. Even for media-savvy skeptics, it's hard not to feel your heart swell along with the music.
The advertisement is a pitch for Oxygen, the fledgling (and now faltering) women's cable network, for which a better slogan might be "I Am Woman, Hear Me Snore." While offscreen, Oxygen generates political advocacy projects, outside of the ad campaign its revolution isn't a televised one. Instead, the network offers the typical middlebrow roundup of celebrity chatter, fitness, business tips and heroine-heavy mid-1980s sitcoms and drama-dies--"by women, for women."
So why the feminist pitch? Oxygen's top brass has only needed to look at their competition to figure out the answer to the age-old question, What do women want? It is here that we see the real revolution in media, the news that advertisers and executives alike are hard pressed to deny. It turns out that women--in numbers too great to ignore--want hard-hitting reports on the issues that affect them, as well as international news about human rights abuses, accompanied by information on activist organizations to help them get involved. Mainstream outlets that augment their typical fashion, beauty and relationship coverage with this type of reporting are increasing audience and profits--forging what is perhaps an unlikely partnership with often fashion-shunning feminist groups. Consequently, as these outlets rake in the media dollars, the women's rights groups they introduce to the American mainstream have seen a blossoming of their funding and membership.
Lifetime recently rose to the top spot in cable--superseding CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the other leaders of the pack. Executive vice president Meredith Wagner cites its "theme" coverage of issues like domestic violence, women's healthcare and Afghanistan activism as key facets of its success. "If the vice president of sales had his way we'd have nothing but advocacy programs," she says. The network has linked this formula with its original dramas as well, hosting regular Washington brainstorming events with hundreds of women's rights advocates to talk about what issues they'd like to see featured in storylines. After each show, the network provides phone numbers and URLs for advocacy groups onscreen. When politics are served up in such an unexpected context, activist groups can vastly extend their reach: Women who would never dream of identifying themselves as feminists now get to light their scented candles and slip into a warm bath before they hear the soft acoustic jingle of a wake-up call. But unlike at Oxygen, you'd never know it from Lifetime's marketing campaign--an innocuous wash of pink and lavender--no political sloganeering here.
One striking example of the power of mainstream media is the effect of a spot featuring the women's rights organization Equality Now on the mothership of women-centric television programming. A mere thirty seconds on Oprah's show quadrupled its membership base. President Jessica Neuwirth says that its membership skyrockets through every media tie-in campaign. "We get a huge response each time, and they're people who stay with us--in many cases people who weren't aware of the issues, people we'd never reach otherwise." From large national organizations like the Feminist Majority to small grassroots supporters of issues like Afghan women's rights and amnesty for women in Rwanda, organizers report server crashes and hotline overloads when their groups are featured.
Lifetime has recently announced a plan to launch a print component of the network, which will take some of this material offscreen. But they will hardly be the first. In recent years, the magazine Marie Claire has matched their success by tossing edgy stories into their fashion and beauty mix. This cocktail of flatter-abs tips, orgasm secrets and feminist activism has furnished women's rights organizations with instant surges in membership. And nonprofits report that response is immediate as soon as an issue featuring them hits the streets. "We were totally overwhelmed after we were mentioned," says Masuda Sultan, board member and program coordinator for Women for Afghan Women. Nationwide, women e-mailed to see how they could turn a dinner party into a teach-in, and sorority social chairs called about bringing Afghan speakers for fundraisers.
It may be tough to imagine the visual coexistence of global human rights politics and celebrity makeup tips, but scan any glossy, cleavage-baring cover of Marie Claire, and you'll find a surprise at the bottom of the list. Halfway over Christina Applegate's hefty bosom, and under the tagline "Your Body: How Does It Compare?" you'll see "Afghan Girls Selling Sex to Survive"--an article that provides information on organizations like the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, which urges its readers to write the White House and Congress, and advises how to hold a community teach-in. The following month, brushing up against Sandra Bullock's slim waistline, under white type that cheers "Sexy Swimsuits for All Shapes and Sizes," you'll see "World Campaign: Stop War Criminals From Walking Free." This article suggests that readers contribute to the Coalition for International Justice's letter-writing campaign, or help sponsor a war survivor from the Balkans or Rwanda through Women for International Women. Strikingly, this all runs under the heading "What Women Want."
Just as striking--or perhaps evidencing the complex spectrum of "What Women Want"--inked near this battle cry against war-criminal rapists is an ad for Bloussant, a pill whose purpose is to "Increase Breast Sizes... Guaranteed!" Perhaps this is the true media marvel. Traditionally, it has been very difficult to run these stories in beauty-ruled glossies, because advertisers have refused to lie beside a story that isn't a suitably accompanying beauty pitch, whether it's a how-to column or an It-girl interview. "The error that we tend to make is that we think that women's magazines are what editors want and what their readers want--and thus are social indicators--when in fact they are what advertisers want," says Gloria Steinem. "They're just advertising indicators." Steinem says this is why she pulled all ads from Ms. Back in the day, Revlon was outraged at the notion that women would want to talk about human rights with mouths painted in their lipstick. Now, the ad pages that accompany domestic and international rights abuse stories are getting top dollar in Marie Claire, largely because readers polled say these are among the pages they read the most.