A Few Observations from the “Break Up”

1. It is incredibly interesting how many people cared enough to comment on my personal reading and recommendation habits. Obviously, this speaks to the bigger issue of gender representation in media, but I merely said I was “breaking up” with Wired and why. I didn’t ask Wired to change (although I appreciate that they chose to respond) and didn’t solicit a behavior change from anyone else (although I sincerely appreciate that so many people were in support of my position). As a journalism professor with a long background in business (check my resume, if you want), I understand the challenges magazines face. Wired can run its magazine any way they want. But I refuse to believe that they don’t have any other options for survival. It’s obvious that Wired has carved out a place in society where people have strong opinions and care about it, which is quite enviable for them as a brand.

2. I am much more troubled by the pattern of representation of women in Wired than I am by any one, isolated image. That point was lost on a few of the commenters. The breast picture, in the context of more balanced reporting on women on the cover/pages of Wired, would not have made me upset. I mean, if I was that offended by the human form, would I have included that picture in the blog post? It was the catalyst – the last straw, so to speak – of years of subscribing to Wired and seeing women objectified and not recognized.

3. While women may not have equal representation in the tech field, they aren’t completely missing from it. Tech, as an industry, is becoming a wider field with a broad range of companies learning their roles with digital media. There are women doing innovative and important things, but they aren’t being recognized for their contributions. This is as much about what Wired covers as it is about what they choose not to do. And this isn’t limited to women, although gender has been the main point of this discussion. People of color aren’t represented all that well in Wired either. You just don’t see them being objectified due to their color in images across the history of the publication. But their limited presence is also telling. If you want some stats, here you go:

Since Wired’s inception in 1993:
#covers featuring one or a group of men, for their accomplishments: 70
(I didn’t count jokey covers featuring Will Ferrell, Steve Carell or Stephen Colbert, etc. While I love them, they weren’t on the cover for their specific accomplishments in tech. They were introducing a theme issue.)

#covers featuring one woman, for her accomplishments: 4
I am counting Julia Allison (2008) for being featured for her self promotion skills – she does have a website – but this is a stretch. Is this the best we can do?; and Martha Stewart (2007), because she is extremely successful and deserving of a cover, although her feature was limited to a short Q&A that introduced the How To issue – so this is also a stretch; the other two are academic/author Sherry Turkle (1996) and musician/author Laurie Anderson (1994). So really – 2.

#covers that featured a mixed group: 2
One on Young Microsoft (1994) and one on Generation Equity (1999) – males outnumbered and were featured more prominently.

I didn’t count the covers where I felt women were objectified (my post has some examples; there are more), although there were three that highlighted nude females. Take a look at Wired covers and see for yourself. See which you feel portray women in objectifying or empowered ways.

And fyi, #covers featuring African-Americans: 4
Hacker John Lee (1994), Timbaland for an article on super producers (2003), Jason Kidd (2003) for an article on sports video competition, Jada Pinkett Smith for an article on The Matrix Reloaded (2003). The Young Microsoft cover also had a black man in the group.

And these are just the covers, but they are the window to Wired. Based on my years of reading Wired, I suspect a more detailed analysis would show that women and minorities are severely underrepresented in terms of their tech presence on the pages of Wired as well.

4. To get feedback (from Wired – both Chris Anderson and Nancy Miller, the editor who worked on the tissue engineering piece) that women in tech who are recognizable aren’t cover worthy because they aren’t doing anything innovative (or have already been covered by other media) AND that women who are doing innovative things aren’t recognizable enough for a cover is circular logic. These are just excuses. Find an angle that’s appropriate, innovative, interesting. I believe the Wired staff and their contributing writers are up for that challenge. There have been plenty of obscure men featured on the cover of Wired over the years. Has the average person heard of Shai Agassi or Gary Reback?

5. This is not about covering women just because they are women. It’s about covering women because there are women with important contributions in science and technology, and women should be respected for these roles.

6. Most people are civil and understand the power of media, particularly the role and responsibility that an influential publication like Wired has in our culture. Most people understand that media have a responsibility to seek out balanced coverage. My main responsibility is to my students. When I recommend a publication or resource, it should be respectful to a diverse set of perspectives. It shouldn’t perpetuate stereotypes that I am seeking to refute. When it does, I may use it as a learning opportunity and point of discussion. If you don’t think this is important, take a look at the statistics presented in the review of the book Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine. (Many thanks to my friend Lanie Tankard for sending that article my way)

7. I chose to express myself about this in a public manner, because I needed to go on the record for the countless students and others to whom I had recommended Wired in the past (always with the caveat that I didn’t appreciate their representation of women). They needed to know why I was not renewing my subscription. But I was really encouraged by the thoughtful comments, both pro and con, that were generated by this post. There were many (feel free to peruse), too many to respond to and acknowledge directly, but one comment particularly hit home. It was from Betsey Merkel, Co-Founder and Connector, The Institute for Open Economic Networks (I-Open), someone I did not know previously who connected with me on Facebook. “You’ve just added a lot to what’s acceptable and what’s not about women, behaviors, value, and ultimately a lot of women’s paychecks.” This comment clarified things a bit, and I sincerely appreciate that sentiment, for whatever small role this discourse may play in accomplishing those lofty goals.

8. The bottom line is that I am an avid, enthusiastic fan and longtime subscriber of Wired, not someone who got angry just because she saw the breast cover on the stands. I get a lot of enjoyment out of reading and recommending it, but this problem became so clear that I felt it necessary to take this tact. I did sincerely feel that I had been disappointed for the last time by someone I loved, thus the “break up” metaphor. I mean, I wrote a “break up” letter to a magazine. It was meant to be playful with a point. I used my blog to demonstrate the power of social media and online interaction to my students, which I would say has been successful well beyond what I could have imagined. Hundreds of comments from diverse perspectives, including the publication’s editor, that led to other media coverage and interaction, all within a span of about 48 hours – this exercise couldn’t have turned out better. The fact that Wired has chosen to respond to this criticism, regardless of the outcome, shows dedication to their readers, and that is encouraging. And the fact that so many of you took the time to make your views known is probably the most promising aspect of all. This has gotten people all over the country and the world (this post has had more than 18,000 visits from readers in 105 countries) – in living rooms, newsrooms and classrooms, and of course, online – talking about gender representations in media. And, it hasn’t hurt that this exercise has brought a great deal of attention to the Wired brand, even if it has been in the form of criticism. To that, I say, “You’re welcome.”

So, I’m still breaking up with Wired. Wired will be fine without me. This hurts me more than it hurts them. But I’m not ruling out the possibility of reconciliation in the future 😉

Many thanks to the countless friends, family, colleagues, students and complete strangers – both men and women – who supported my position on this.

3 thoughts on “A Few Observations from the “Break Up”

  1. Thank you for including my comment Cindy. From my perspective in Open Source Economic Development, technology is the keystone to local, national, and global economic innovation and prosperity. Transformational solutions will evolve not from any one of us but from what we do together. It’s pretty essential men and women work side-by-side from respected positions of strength based on what each can offer so we can create those quantum solutions. With 15 million people out of work in the U.S. alone, it’s imperative we remain focused on answering some very serious questions: How are we going to use web tools to innovate in education, economic, and workforce development – quickly and wisely? and, How will these new tools aid us in responding to the unexpected exponential consequences of social, economic, and environmental issues? Nurturing cultures of transparency, value, creativity and collaboration is paramount and we haven’t a moment to waste. Thanks for starting and sharing an important conversation to us all.

  2. Geno Hildebrandt says:

    As the father of an adult daughter and student at Texas State University I am especially pleased and gratified at the stand you have taken, drawing attention to the wide-spread problem of the objectification of women in media. While this is an age-old problem which is not likely to go away, it is important to continually push back against our culture’s embrace of such damaging practices and the attitudes that support them. You have pointed the way for many on both sides of the gender divide–and in my case at least, gained a new fan. Thanks.

  3. Mark Jamail says:

    I second the comments of Ms. Merkel and my friend Mr. Hildebrandt. In an October column in the Miami Herald, (although this was about “citizen journalists”) Leonard Pitts Jr. said something that would most certainly apply to the Wired feature: “Journalism is obsessing over nit-picky questions of fairness and context.” From observing your blog, and the fact that you have been a long-time subscriber, I support your objections.

Comments are closed.