Nicole Rodgers and Hugo Schwyzer discuss whether or not the Huffington Post’s new ‘Women’s Section’ does good or harm for women and men.
In August the Huffington Post officially launched a new Women’s Section, prompting me to write an article for Role/Reboot asking when categorizing topics as “women’s issues” benefits women and when it’s simply a convenient excuse for the rest of the population to ignore our concerns. I asked Hugo Schwyzer, a Gender Studies professor and Sex and Relationship editor at The Good Men Project, to weigh in on the pros and cons of gender-segregated content.
HUGO: When you saw that the HuffPo was starting a “women’s section,” what was your reaction?
NICOLE: Apprehension. In all fairness, though, my reaction had to do with how I learned about the new women’s section. The backstory is that I’ve been a HuffPost blogger for a while and had previously published my work under a section called HuffPost “Living.” Then a few months ago I submitted a piece to HuffPost on marriage, which argued that, as a result of some major demographic trends underway, men and women must learn to think about “appropriate” marriage prospects differently. When I submitted the piece to the HuffPost “Living” section as usual, they said they had decided to hold my piece for a soon-to-be launched women’s section instead. I was admittedly confused. I didn’t think of my topic as a “women’s issue.” It wasn’t about the perfect wedding dresses or finding a good OB-GYN, after all—it was about a cultural shift precipitated by real demographic changes in men and women’s education and income levels. How is that only a “women’s issue?” Last time I checked, men were still half the equation in heterosexual marriages.
That’s when I began to really question how gender-segregated content influences our thinking about the differences between men and women and reinforces the idea that these differences are natural or innate. For instance, if a man was to read the Women’s Section of the HuffPost what assumptions do you think he’d make about women?
HUGO: He’d get the impression that women are intensely interested in relationships and body image. Despite the articles about careers and finances, the bulk of what he’d find would be focused on family, sex, and intimacy. And he might conclude that once again, these are things women are supposed to care about more than men. But, of course, as the question implies, men DO read women’s magazines (and the women’s section of sites like HuffPo). Men are much more curious about relationships (and how women feel about them) than we let on.
It’s also telling that the articles about sex and pleasure are in the women’s section—the man might conclude that women are more interested in writing about (and reading about) sex than are men. And that reinforces the myth that men aren’t as thoughtful about sex as women. It reinforces the false notion that we’re much simpler than women.
NICOLE: I think that’s a fair analysis. It’s interesting that you say that men do read women’s magazines, sites, etc. My boyfriend tells me he had a stealthy male roommate in college who worked in entertainment and used to take home stacks of women’s magazines because he wanted insight into what women were thinking. I guess I tend to assume those men are aberrations, but maybe reading or watching content marketed to women is just one of those things men don’t talk about out of fear of being emasculated? So assuming that’s true, then here’s a thought experiment for you: what is a “women’s issue”?
HUGO: The intent is to refer to a problem or a concept that disproportionately impacts one sex. Reproductive justice matters to everyone, but since only women get pregnant, women have more “skin in the game” as it were. But the fact that women are biologically more invested in issues around pregnancy and childbirth and contraception doesn’t mean that men aren’t interested and shouldn’t be concerned. Like women’s history month (of which I’ve never been a fan), I think this tactic of creating a separate space for talking about women’s issues can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows people to start conversations that often don’t happen elsewhere; on the other, it allows some very important issues to be marginalized by the assumption that they only appeal to a select group.
NICOLE: I agree. Women’s History Month is a great example since the argument against it is that it marginalizes women’s contributions and achievements rather than acknowledging and integrating them into all months of the year. To me, that is the exact analogy to a newspaper having a women’s section. I guess my reaction is: Hey, do you really want more women’s voices and perspectives? Then HIRE MORE WOMEN to write in all news sections, from politics to sports to lifestyle issues! Now that’d be progress. I think it’s critical to distinguish between when categorizing things as “women’s issues” or “men’s issues” benefits us collectively as a culture, and when it’s simply a convenient excuse for the “other sex” to ignore our concerns. Though there’s not always a clean line between the two, the difference seems to be between self-selecting into male or female-specific affinity groups and being segregated into them.
Here’s what I mean: If you visit The Good Men Project or any feminist site, you are presumably choosing to identify with a certain type of ideology or worldview. You know the tone and the “bias” as it were, and you seek it out. But if you go to a general “internet newspaper” (their term) like HuffPost, then what do you make of a “women’s section”? Does it mean the rest of the site isn’t for women? Is the default reader male?
Let me be clear: I have no problem whatsoever with men or women choosing to identify with or participate in all-male or all-female groups. Personally, I really enjoy and value time alone with groups of women. There are also many great ways that women can connect in gender-exclusive spaces that build their power (off the top of my head these include things like single-sex colleges and support groups). But having women’s sections in newspapers seems more likely to marginalize women than empower them, since it suggests that men needn’t be bothered with the things that matter to women. And considering how much traditional gender roles have been upended in recent decades, it seems insanely regressive. Do you agree? I know it’s not a perfect intellectual exercise, but am I wrong in thinking there is a difference here?
HUGO: I agree. The intention is right, but if it’s not rooted in a desire to ghettoize these kinds of articles, it’s rooted in something equally problematic: the belief that if these articles (on relationships, sex, parenting, or whatever else gets the “women’s section” label) were to appear on the general site, they might get lost. It’s a variation of the old Bush line about the soft bigotry of low expectations: the well-intentioned but misguided belief that these pieces can’t compete as central parts of the conversation, and thus need to be given their own little niche where someone might pay attention.
NICOLE: Great distinction, Hugo. Because honestly, I don’t think that malice or misogyny drives the creation of women’s sections at all. I also see it as a more insidious assumption that certain topics (all stereotypically feminine, often relationship-oriented) just can’t compete with the “mainstream” topics.
That said, given the existence of a HuffPost Women section (and a HuffPost Black Voices section and a Latino Voices section, for that matter), should there be a HuffPost Men’s Section? Is there a stronger argument for getting rid of all these sections or in trying to offer every demographic a slice?
HUGO: For the short term, having demographic sections makes sense. And yes, having a “men’s section” makes sense—particularly if the writing is going to move beyond the “beer, babes, and gadgets” crap that constitutes the core focus of too much of what is aimed at men.
What I’m frustrated with, though, is the assumption that men and women are so fundamentally different that they rarely want to read the same things. But that perception isn’t rooted in who we are; it’s one that’s created for us and maintained by the very media that insists they’re only giving us what they know we really want. More men actually read women’s magazines (for a host of reasons) than people realize; we have a very high percentage of female readers at The Good Men Project. The data doesn’t support the continued division of these categories.
I’m curious, Nicole; do you agree that men and women are much more alike in terms of their reading and cultural tastes than the media and other institutions would have us believe?
NICOLE: Defintely. I think folks have a tendency to massively underestimate the importance of socialization/culture in shaping men and women’s tastes and preferences. That said, I certainly don’t think men and women are exactly the same. But I’m sure that if men were exposed to as much content as women are on a regular basis about sex, relationships, or balancing work and family, for example, they would read it and feel more invested in certain issues. We’ve reinforced a “seperate spheres” mentality that has naturalized very lazy thinking about what men and women care about and want to read about. And it has permitted us to ignore and dismiss each other’s issues and concerns rather than seek greater compassion and understanding.
—Photo jono dot com/Flickr