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.
The marketability of tough stories in leisure magazines has been bubbling up for quite some time. Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal recalls sitting next to Glamour‘s breakthrough editor Ruth Whitney at an ERA luncheon in 1980, where she asked Whitney why she was starting to see more serious journalism in the magazine. “I asked if it was altruism, and she said, ‘No! It’s because of our readers that we have to do this,'” says Smeal. “She said essentially that as women get more power, they demand different things; they demand this. ‘The handwriting is on the wall,’ she said.” When Glenda Bailey, who edited Marie Claire in England, brought the French-born magazine to the States, she was determined to find success in its tradition of covering international women’s rights stories each month. And in doing so, the magazine’s publishers at Hearst learned that it certainly wasn’t just altruism but a market-developing identity.
But Marie Claire is hardly trying to pitch feminism as part of its image. The word “feminism” will never make the cover, nor the inner depths of the magazine, according to the current editor, Lesley Jane Seymour. Seymour describes herself as a feminist, but says that the word has become too isolating. The folks at Lifetime toe the same line. In fact, they won’t even agree that their advocacy campaigns are political. “We want to be inclusive, not exclusive,” says Rick Haskins, who holds the Orwellian title of executive vice president of the Lifetime Brand. “We’re not out there to be radical. We want to be a friend and confidante.” And it’s clear that no matter what the messages might be in their ads, they won’t fall under the heading of “feminism” at the network. “Quite simply, we want to reflect the best of women,” says Debby Beece, the president of programming for Oxygen. “I don’t think women think of themselves as feminists.”
Of course, women who do–proudly–think of themselves as feminists take issue with Beece’s estimation. And some, like Andrea Dworkin, object as well to the notion that concepts of feminism–no matter what you call it–can be used to sell television programming. “I don’t think that feminism has anything to do with marketing anything other than ideas. And when I say ideas, I mean like the ideas of Nietzsche, real ideas,” she says. Dworkin also represents a sliver of women who object to the fashion and beauty coverage that forms the bulk of women’s magazines, whether those titles run activist-oriented stories or not. “Progressive content is fine,” she says, “but I don’t see the same concern for men–that they’re worried about their eyebrows being too thick or the jowls under their chin.”
But many women, from lipstick-and-lycra-shunning old-school activist types to fashion-forward Third Wavers, think the coexistence of beauty coverage and political coverage reflects the interests of real women. Says Equality Now’s Neuwirth of what she calls “an apparent schizophrenia,” “this is the conflict I think people have in our lives. It’s not artificial.” And this duality is beside the point, says Tamara Sobel, who heads up the Girls, Women + Media Project. “We don’t help out the situation at all when we think about the debate in terms of talking about showing-your-navel-is-bad versus not-shaving-your-legs-is-good. Most women–most feminists–don’t fit squarely into either of those camps. We’re complex, and media reflect it.”
Perhaps the biggest problem is that while coverage of serious issues in mainstream media may expose women to subject matter they would not have otherwise encountered, the stories usually fit squarely in the women’s media formula: largely sensational profiles of women who are under sexual duress (stories targeted to the 18-24 magazine market) or familial duress (stories targeted to Lifetime’s audience of mothers). These outlets are not a proving ground for ideas, but for shocking narratives. No surprise here: Seymour at Marie Claire has the résumé of a beauty editor, not a news one, and while her recent appointment at the top of the masthead has led her to chair Equality Now’s recent anniversary celebration, it’s certainly a new partnership. You know Seymour doesn’t have revolution on her mind when you listen to her explain why it’s truly radical that Sandra Bullock is wearing a beaded gown on the cover of one issue, rather than a monochromatic dress that matched the magazine’s turquoise backdrop.
Still, there’s much to be said for meeting people where they are, and guiding them firmly past that point. Since women’s magazines and television have generated the expectation of sensational, emotional language and narrative, one could argue that they are effective because they squeeze issues into this formula. Women who haven’t considered, say, breast cancer legislation or female genital mutilation may respond to that familiar, just-girls tone. And so women who might never dream of marching or chanting find themselves calling and e-mailing organizations and websites listed next to these stories, engaging in letter-writing campaigns, starting up petitions, organizing teach-ins and beginning to look for other sources of women’s news.
The hunger for this information raises the question of why more serious magazines for women have failed in the mainstream–norm-testing publications like Mirabella and Sassy, or the recent struggles of Bust to stay afloat. Perhaps the answer comes back to this question of marketing, the dichotomy of pitching resistance versus providing it. Perhaps these failed publications dug their own grave by communicating the concept that they catered to the Smart Set, not the Girls-Just-Wanna-Have-Fun mainstream. Perhaps, chillingly, magazines and networks are getting it right when they contort themselves to avoid the language of feminism. Perhaps this critical mass of educated women isn’t interested in significant content in their media, but merely a shake of educated-identity-enhancing wheat germ on their Frosted Flakes.
But widen the lens, and there’s great potential for great news. In the first and second waves of the women’s movement, it was activism first, not media saturation, that led women to embrace feminism. If mainstream media outlets can expand the current wave by introducing their legions of millions of readers and viewers to activism, the mainstream circulation of ideas–“like the ideas of Nietzsche, real ideas”–may very well follow.