For those of us who are deeply invested in finding a nude lipstick that perfectly complements our eye color, it is often confusing to navigate the murky waters of media ostensibly catering to our interests. For every useful makeup tip, there are a dozen articles reminding us that if we don't buy $20 pink razors, we will be alone forever. Cue Reductress--the website that satirizes not only women's magazines, but also everything from the sexism and whiteness of corporate culture, to the shockingly low expectations we sometimes have for our male friends and partners, to the hypocrisy of mainstream conversations about rape. Subverting the same biting tone of websites that tell us we have to be blonde before anyone will desire us, Reductress headlines include, "I Anonymously Reported My Rape for the Anonymous Attention", "Woman Thanks Boyfriend For Putting Up With Her Totally Reasonable Behavior", and "'I Can't Believe The Country Is So Racist', Reports Employee of All-White Start-Up." We sat down with Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo, the founders of Reductress, to talk about the intersections of social justice and comedy, the way we reduce women to either icons or failures, and the frustrations of critiquing liberals who don't see their own biases.
You recently ran a comedy writing workshop. Could you tell me about that?
Sarah: We do a workshop once a month or once every couple months to teach the basics of satire writing. We both come from a sketch background. Beth used to direct and teach sketch at the Magnet Theater, and we [run the workshop] to bring it to people and for existing writers to bone up on their skills.
When I look at comments on articles on Facebook, I will often see that people share or comment on them having read only the headline. How do you think about the headline versus the body of the article when writing for Reductress?
Beth: For us, the headline basically is the content. We try to make the articles as funny as possible, obviously, but it's very important to us that the joke is in the headline and that people know what they're clicking on, otherwise they really won't click on things if they don't know what they're in for.
Sarah: Buried leads don't really work in comedy. They don't really work anywhere, but especially in comedy, so we try to make sure that we prioritize headline first. But even still, people misunderstand headlines and think they're real, and we get crazy comments.
I read an interview where you spoke about the "inspirational blogosphere" and how it extends beyond just magazines catered towards women. I'm curious what other areas within the inspirational blogosphere you think are important to critique?
Sarah: You know, there's always that self-help stuff. Mommy bloggers. It's a lot of ego and people's insecurities rapped in the veneer of a useful article.
Beth: I think any of the stuff in the self-help vein or the inspirational vein that reads on the surface as empowering, but that's just there to sell you stuff and prays on your insecurities.
Sarah: And then there's the other trend of people being paid $40 to tell their worst, most traumatic life story thinking that it will get them some kind of exposure when they're clearly being exploited for sharing. It's the Internet equivalent of reality TV. You're not being celebrated for your talent or your creativity, you're just being sold for your story.
Yeah. I read an article about the rise of the first-person industrial complex, and it addressed that issue. On one hand, it can be empowering for people to write about emotions and trauma and to capitalize off their experiences, especially for women who are often expected to perform uncompensated emotional labor. At the same time, to write a really good personal essay, writers need self-awareness and distance from the event, and it's hard to have that if, to make a living, they're constantly churning out articles based on their own pain. At some point it can also become emotionally draining to make a livelihood of revisiting and sharing traumatic events.
Sarah: That's the thing--it's not all bad. Clearly, people have done it for years and years and have written amazing memoirs that we want to read because they have that distance. But you can tell with some publications, you can sense in reading it that there is no distance, and that's when it feels so exploitative. So it's hard to just throw out the whole genre. Sometimes just the way it's being used really sucks.
In the past, I've freelanced for a number of gossip sites, and I'm always frustrated by the obsession with positivity. Once, I was asked to write the headline, "Chelsea Handler gets REAL about rape- she says women who don't report are weak, and THAT'S why she's our feminist icon." And I was like "Whaaat...? Just because Chelsea Handler speaks on a topic relating to women, it doesn't automatically mean that she's a feminist icon."
Beth: There's a real lack of nuance in the cultural portrayal of feminists and politics in general right now where [media] wants everyone to either be a feminist or be a feminist failure, [but] these are all complicated people who are good in some ways and flawed like the rest of us in other ways.
Sarah: We love to prop them up almost against their own will, and then chop them down as soon as they do something wrong. I feel like we're just as beholden to that--it hasn't happened yet, but [in response to] something we never expect, people will be like, "They weren't the feminists we thought they were." And you never know what that's going to be.
How do you critique publications that play on women's insecurities without critiquing the women themselves who consume that media and who may have internalized the messages? Or do you think both are worthy of critique?
Beth: Everything's worthy of critique, but we try to be really specific in who and what we are critiquing. Usually we are critiquing the way media speaks to women more than we are critiquing women themselves.
Sarah: But sometimes it is hard to separate the two because we are creating it and consuming it, so there are blurred lines. But in spite of our best efforts, we still have directives coming down rewording our headlines to prey on insecurities that we were born with and steeped in since forever.
Beth: That's why it really helps to be specific. That's a goal in comedy writing to make your jokes very specific, because any joke, if you water it down, you're basically just saying "women dumb," so you want to have something smarter to say than that.
When mainstream media created for women is so exclusive, how do you think about intersectionality in your work?
Sarah: It's definitely a challenge. It's one of the most challenging things about what we do because we can only react to the soup we've been given. It's very heteronormative, it's very white-centric. Every once in a while we can comment directly on it by using a stock photo of an interracial couple and being like, "Look at this interracial couple," and same thing with the heteronormativity. I think we're at [a point] in mainstream women's media where being queer is still an other. It's now an accepted other, but it's still othered, so now I'm personally [thinking about], "What's weird about how we're using and talking about queerness in a mainstream way? Is it good? Is it bad?" I don't really have an answer, nor have I written a perfect piece on it yet, but I don't want to be criticizing the fact that queerness is now being brought into the conversation, so it's hard.
Beth: Pursuing intersectionality is much more difficult than people want to believe it is, and I think it's something that we have to keep trying and failing, and hopefully having enough success and building on that slowly. But I think we need to be willing to fail at it a little bit and see our failure and see why we're having that failure.
Do you see the content or mission of the site changing after Trump's election?
Sarah: Within the office, we consider a Trump presidency to be a women's issue, and we think that's what's giving us license to talk about these topical, very specifically political issues that are affecting us that maybe we wouldn't have dived into three years ago. I think this is the wave and we're either going to ride it or ignore it, and we want to be a part of this conversation because it's a conversation that needs to be had.
Beth: We were already pushing a lot of feminist content before and during the election, and now unfortunately we have been given much more material to work with, almost more than we can deal with because it's hard to pinpoint the specifics of what's wrong when there's so much wrong. We're feeling overwhelmed but also inspired.
Sarah: We have a job to do.
Trump almost satirizes himself in how extreme he is.
Sarah: That's why we don't really touch him too much. We touch the topics that are around him.
Beth: I was saying for the last year that he's such a cartoon. It's almost too easy to go after him. I would rather go after some white liberal people who are part of the problem and don't realize they're part of the problem, because then at least if they see these articles, they might get something out of it.
It is true that when I'm talking about race with my "good white liberal" friends, they'll always be so quick to say, "But we don't see you as any different! I've NEVER thought of you in that way." It's really frustrating to try to convince them that there are experiences that they might not know themselves.
Beth: You just want to shake liberal people and say, "You ignoring this problem is just as bad as the people who actively perpetuate it!"
Sarah: And also, like, "This isn't about you! Oh my God, stop making it about you!" It's amazing how where privilege and liberal ideas intersect comes this incredible defensiveness that comes before everything else.
It's often paired with guilt. You're told it's bad to have privilege, so you try to minimize your own privilege instead of accepting that you have it. There's this notion of racist or sexist people being those who say explicitly, "I don't like women" or, "I don't like people of color." But really, it can be much more complicated and subtle than that, but because we understand racist and sexist people to be only those with such extreme hatred, people totally shut down when you tell them that they might be acting on ingrained prejudice.
Beth: It's such a maddening conversation because it always starts out where someone says, "You're being subconsciously racist or sexist" and the person is like, "I'm not consciously racist or sexist." And you're like, "No, that's not what I was saying. I was saying subconsciously."
I thought it was amazing when you made your whole front page a commentary on how we speak about rape and rape survivors in mainstream culture. Sometimes, comedians complain that they can't joke about anything anymore or someone will get offended. But I thought your approach showed that comedians can address rape and other sensitive topics, they just can't use a joke to perpetuate a preexisting power imbalance. I'm curious how you feel when you hear comedians saying social justice limits comedy?
Sarah: That guy is just mad that half his material is gone now. That's the kind of malicious guy who is an idiot. But there is also a more insidious type of guy too who is just so uncomfortable with the idea that rape culture is a thing he has to face that he'll make shitty jokes, like maybe even making fun of the rapist, and there are still so many simply unfunny joke because there's a lack of self-awareness.
Beth: [Those jokes] miss the point about how serious the issue is. We were seeing it around the Bill Cosby rape event. All these guys on Twitter would be making jokes laughing at Bill Cosby saying, "Haha I got him- We win!" and it's not like their jokes weren't sort of funny in a way, but they sort of just diminished the importance of the issue and the incredible trauma that these women experienced. No one "won". He got away with it.
Sarah: Don't try to make jokes about things that aren't your experience. At the crux of what we're doing when we make a joke is gaining power by making people laugh. It's one thing if it's a disempowered person shedding some perspective on [a sensitive issue] and empowering themselves, but it's so weird when a guy who already has power is trying to gain more power by exploiting someone else's trauma.