An Open Letter to Wired Magazine

Dear Wired:
I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with you. I love you. You’re charming, attractive and smart, everything I could ever want in a magazine. My heart skips a beat when I see a new issue in my mailbox. Most of the time, you’re harmless, and I tell everyone I know how awesome you are. But every now and then, you slip, and you make me feel very bad, make me question my judgment.

When I noticed this month’s issue in my mailbox, I approached it with the same breathless anticipation that I do every month. I didn’t even mind the naked picture of Jennifer Aniston on the GQ subscription insert. I mean, it’s just advertising. You’ve got to make a living, right? Then, I turned you over to see what fascinating topics I would be delighted by this month. Boobs. Right there on the cover. A pair of breasts, no head, no rest of body… just boobs. Sure it accompanied a story on tissue re-engineering, so what other possible way might you visually represent that, but with a pair of breasts? No other possible way?

This isn’t the first time. We’ve been through this before. Your covers aren’t all that friendly to women on a regular basis, and that makes me sad. There was naked Pam from The Office in 2008 (you thought you were so clever with that acetate overlay – I mean, how else would you depict transparency?). In 2003, you had the nice lady covered in synthetic diamonds. There were the sexy manga ladies and LonelyGirl15 and Julia Allison with their come-hither looks. And Uma Thurman, she’s a lady, and she was on the cover… But wait, that was for a character she was playing in a film based on a Philip K. Dick novel.

Come to think of it, the last time that a woman was featured on your cover, because she was being featured in the magazine for an actual accomplishment, was way back in 1996 when it was Sherry Turkle, the academic and author. And, the only other time was in 1994, when musician/author Laurie Anderson was featured. Because since then, I guess no women have done anything notable in technology unless it had to do with their bodies? Really?

Martha Stewart in 2007 doesn’t count, and neither does Sarah Silverman in 2008, because those were both just jokey, thematic covers.

It’s not like we haven’t talked about this. In the 1996 book Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace by Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, the author Paulina Borsook details the woman problem in Wired in “The Memoirs of a Token: An Aging Berkeley Feminist Examines Wired.” That was 14 years ago! In 2005, I met one of your female editors, Rebecca Hurd, at SXSW. We had a nice chat, and she politely said that if I had any ideas about women that should be featured in Wired, I should send them to her. I went to the Web to solicit some input, and subsequently sent her an 11-page document of women doing interesting things with technology. I don’t think one of those ideas came to fruition on the pages of Wired.

Things were looking up a couple months ago when you published that great article on Caterina Fake of Flickr and Hunch fame. That could have been a cover… Instead you went with Will Ferrell… If you don’t believe me, see for yourself. Go back through your covers over the years. How exactly are young women supposed to feel about their role in technology by looking at your magazine?

You can say that if I have a problem with your covers, then I probably shouldn’t read GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Cosmo, Glamour or Rolling Stone or just about any other magazine on the planet. Well, I don’t read those magazines, and I don’t recommend those publications to my students, many of whom are female, as an important source of technology knowledge regarding trends and culture. You’re better than this. You don’t need to treat women in this light to sell magazines. You have the power to influence the ways that women envision their roles with technology. Instead, you’re not helping. Like Jon Stewart said (stealing his quote criticizing the now defunct TV show Crossfire), “You’re hurting America.”

So, I’m breaking up with you. As much as it pains me, really, deeply pains me, I can no longer stick around for this abuse. Had this been an isolated incident, a clever and provocative way to introduce an article, I might be able to forgive you and move on. But how many chances do I have to give you before you grow up? Or before I wise up? I’ve got the kids to think about…I’m doing this for them.

I still love you. I think I need you, and I’m not sure I can live without you. But you left me with no choice.

In sadness,
Cindy

Update 11/11/10: Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired, has taken the time to respond to this post. See his comments and my response in the Comments section. Now, we have taken the conversation to email, in which he has graciously offered to listen to ideas for improving the coverage of women in Wired. I am encouraged by his prompt response and this offer. If you have any suggestions for ways in which women can be more favorably covered in the pages of Wired, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email clroyal [at] gmail.com. Let’s use this as an opportunity to influence positive change.

11/11/10: BTW, I am approving comments on this post to keep things civil. So for the record, so far, I have approved all comments except for three, because of inappropriate language (like really mean name calling) or overt stupidity. It’s fine if you don’t agree with me, but I won’t be responding to most individual points. I appreciate the discourse that has been created around this topic.

And, one final point of clarification. By “breaking up” with Wired, my intent was to not renew my subscription and severely curtail my enthusiastic endorsement of Wired to students and others who attend presentations or just ask in general. Sometimes I describe my love/hate relationship with Wired to students, and I shouldn’t have to do that. When you describe a relationship with a person as love/hate, it is typically dysfunctional, and I have no room for that in my life.

11/12/10 Update: I did a Poynter chat on the topic today, joined by Nancy Miller the editor who worked on the tissue engineering image and story, and Rachel Sklar, editor at Mediaite. Click the link to replay the chat.

This post has now been reprinted at MsMagazine.com and Mediaite, with coverage and/or links to it on the Washington Post Blog, Nieman Journalism Lab, Huffington Post, All Things D and Slash Gear. And it was included as Ad Age’s Best Writing of the Week. The post received overwhelmingly favorable response, and even those who dissented were mostly civil, except for the comments on Huffington Post, which makes me wonder if those readers actually clicked through to read the entire article. I am extremely grateful for the discourse created around this topic.

283 comments on “An Open Letter to Wired Magazine

  1. Mitch Nov 17, 2010 1:31 am

    Breasts are a part of the body that people frequently try to modify so seeing a PG rated picture of breasts on the cover of a magazine containing an article a on tissue engineering doesn’t seem so inappropriate.

    I know that some women are pretty, some women are smart, some women are both, and some women are neither but still have value as human beings. I like to look at pretty women and I like to read what smart women have to say.

    Graphic design is more about visual appeal than it is about ideology. Pretty women are visually appealing and seeing them on a cover of a magazine is not at all offensive to me. If I recall correctly Wired has had pictures of visually appealing men on the cover, too.

    I couldn’t care less what a magazine has on it’s cover, as long as it isn’t something like a racial caricature of a picture of mutilated kittens. The only thing the cover of a magazine says to me is “This is what their design staff thought would look good on the cover.”

  2. Amelia Nov 17, 2010 3:39 am

    As a fellow tech woman, I totally agree with you Cindy. Great letter. But that’s not the reason for my comment. I am totally blown away by the amount of discussion this topic has generated. Period. This wasn’t a blog about “Dancing with the Stars” or “Lady Gaga”. It’s a smart conversation about the responsibilty (or irresponsibilty, in this case) of media in our society. Thanks, American public, for showing me that you give a damn!

  3. dunc Nov 17, 2010 5:42 pm

    I know I’m late to this party, but geez. Take a quick look at the wired cover browser:
    http://www.wired.com/wired/coverbrowser/

    Just a moment while I get PISSED OFF that wired doesn’t feature SERIOUS MALE TECH GUYS on their cover. All they feature is comedians, actors. Can’t they do better?

    Bill gates doesn’t count because he’s not new, everyone knows him, there’s plenty of up and coming tech guys who would be completely relevant, but just look at this list from the past 4 years, when they put men on the cover its invariably (except when it’s not) a comedian or actor. What does that have to do with tech?

    Yeah, that’s irony. You’re “breaking up” with Wired over their covers? Really? 1 cover a year on average that features a woman/woman parts ;) . Considering the adage that sex sells (because in case you missed it, it does), Wired is the very picture of restraint. Especially with an 80% male readership, at least 20% of whom are interested in sex! lol?

    alec baldwin – actor
    bill gates/zuckerberg – wow actual tech
    sergey brin/google/stylized pixelized head shot, very come-hither, oh sergey!

    truth about cancer/anonymous woman, sexualized
    brad pitt
    craig newmark/craigslist – tech!
    baby

    ray ozzie/microsoft – tech!
    julia allison – how to get famous, demonstrating how she got famous
    steve carrell comedian
    sara silverman comedian

    martha stewart
    heroes guy with a sword
    The Office woman
    comedian guy from the i’m a mac ads

  4. DaveBNYC Nov 17, 2010 7:19 pm

    As the father of an 18 year old strong and intelligent woman who rather dislikes technology except when it works and is easy to use, and as a CTO-in-recovery, I had several reactions when I came to this blog from a link in huffingtonpost.com. I agree with Amelia that it’s great to see the general level of the discussion. These are important issues at the intersection of corporate capitalism, cultural values and the processes (and people) that support technological innovation. I let my Wired sub expire a year ago because I got tired of being a target for the plethora of high-end consumer gadget crap advertising that fill its pages, and its breathless adulation of people who take out more than they put in. Put a naked picture of Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds on the cover (or a fully clothed one of ladyada Limor Fried) and maybe I’ll re-up, as long as I can get it for less than a dollar an issue. Meanwhile if I hear of anything significant appearing in the magazine I’ll look for it on wired.com (Hey, especially now that the Audit Bureau of Circulations has allowed Wired to include its digital edition in its circulation numbers! -Click on *that*, iPad users, and don’t forget to click on the ads!). I understand that Wired’s market is rich male geeks and that sex sells to this market. What I don’t quite get is why anyone would expect Wired to take any cultural leadership supporting women in technology while the advertising is its real purpose and content, not the editorial text. If Chris Anderson wants to make the world a better place, he’ll have to leave his current job.

  5. Addie Broyles Nov 17, 2010 7:23 pm

    The Feminist Kitchen approves. Thanks for standing up and saying something, Cindy.

  6. Pär Larsson Nov 17, 2010 11:28 pm

    Karin (nice name btw, both my sister, my mom and grandma had/have it):

    “The money making-argument is all well and good, or had been if it weren’t for the fact that Wired are now losing money because they objectify women. The gratuitous boob shot has cost them subscribers and recommendations to future subscribers.

    I don’t know if the people who were drawn in by it will make up for it. If they bought the issue because “sex sells”, they probably won’t stick around for the reading pleasure of Wired but rather buy a different type of magazine.”

    I take issue with:
    “…the FACT that Wired are now losing money because they objectify women.”

    You don’t know that unless you have market research data to back it up. Your intuitive ‘feeling’ that this is the case is a sample size of exactly one. The people who reply to this post already have an axe to grind. The people who will increase their sales numbers due to this, won’t be posting on here. (…I personally don’t buy magazines, period. So leave me out of it.)

    “The gratuitous boob shot has cost them subscribers and recommendations…” – why, certainly, I’m fairly sure that’s true. How about – the opposite is also true? As in people now are more aware of the magazine, and find out the quality of writing inside it, and are more likely to buy subscriptions? Again – you confuse your own heated emotional response for an as-yet unquantifiable total market effect. Please understand that not all people think like you. Respect them and maybe they’ll respect you for your opinion.

    Blah blah “…probably won’t stick around…” – again, your opinion, while valid, is just an opinion. Neither you nor I have an idea how this is going to play out. Wired might die and go down in flames from a firestorm of female indignation – or go on to become the world’s most influential geek magazine, attracting hordes of Pulitzer-prize-winning journalists and investigative geekdom reporters while setting record subscriber numbers for years to come. Apparently some people in the Wired leadership think they’re better off going this way, and estimate the risk to be in their favour with this approach. I’m guessing they have more experience running Wired magazine than you have. I’m guessing they have more experience running ANY magazine and a finger more on the pulse of their readers than you. But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong. Reasonable people might disagree.

    For more reasonableness see http://reasonablydoubtingnews.blogspot.com/

    Have a nice boob day! Don’t forget to save the boobs with “Barbells for Boobs!” and save the balls with “Movember”!

  7. Katie Nov 18, 2010 6:01 am

    Glad to see so many women joining Cindy in her protest. Should you see overtly degrading, sexist imagery in political magazines or political blogs, vent your anger and frustration at http://www.nameitchangeit.org, founded by the Women’s Media Center & female political candidates from both parties.

  8. Just me Nov 18, 2010 6:25 pm

    Thank You for Taking a stand. Get it together, Wired! Women deserve better than this.

  9. David Nov 20, 2010 2:40 am

    What an effective cover. People are actually talking about WIRED again for the first time in years. That’s a remarkable achievement.

  10. JH Nov 22, 2010 5:46 pm

    Well-put. I’m still keeping my subscription (WIRED’s one of my favorite magazines), but I’m getting annoyed at their treatment of women. I don’t agree with discounting Sarah Silverman/Martha Stewart, though–a fair number of men featured on the cover of WIRED are also there just for comedic theme issues. The rest of your critique is spot-on, though.

  11. phio gistic Dec 06, 2010 1:13 am

    Oh I liked Wired once upon a time, too. I admit that I did a double-take when I saw the cover in question on a news stand at the airport. I supposed I should not have been surprised that, being a magazine about technology, it had a giant pair of naked disembodied breasts on it.

    As Chris Anderson points out, the article is indeed about using stem cells technology for breast augmentation. Since according to the article, breasts “aren’t very necessary” (except for selling magazines), they can be used to experiment with this new technology to rush it into mass-money-making status without all those pesky decades of research and regulation. As the article put it, using the new tech for breast surgery is “a strategic way to move the patented technology out of rats and into people as soon as possible.” That’s plenty creepy in itself.

  12. Alissa Clough Dec 14, 2010 9:36 pm

    I noticed that, too. Not having seen Wired for a while, I was struck by how many of the ads were about new and interesting ways to shave, watches, or other forms of machismo, while the copy seemed to assume that I was male. At one point, I tried chiding myself that after all, razors were gadgets, too, but then…watches? Most people I know don’t even have *one* watch, since a cell phone works just as well…or else have a cheapie from Wal-Mart since there’s really no difference in timekeeping between an expensive battery watch and a $10 model.

    I realize that they’ve got to make their money somehow. I know that Mondo 2000 (a magazine I wholeheartedly respect) used to have at least one photo of nearly-naked ladies modeling “futuristic fashion” per issue. But the other tech magazines I deal with (Make is a good example) are excellent at showcasing the talents, not only of women, but small children, seniors, and all sorts of people who don’t happen to be wealthy, or live in San Francisco/New York. (I don’t like their Future Retirement Home either. To me, a really futuristic one wouldn’t have recognizable wheelchairs, people who look old, or, probably, an actual retirement. That brain in the jar is just mean.)

  13. Stephanie Dec 23, 2010 6:05 am

    Just wanted to point out the inconsistencies between explanations about why women aren’t featured in Wired:

    From the chat: nancymiller:
    Cindy: I want to address that we don’t cover high profile women in tech. The examples you give are of women who are veterans in tech culture: Whitman, Fiorina–even Marissa Mayer–are well covered by NY Times, Forbes etc. They may be well-known figures, but what is the story there? Our job at Wired is to find what’s new, what’s next, what’s compelling–and I don’t think those women really pass that litmus test.

    From Chris Anderson’s comment: So when we put women on the cover, it must be only be for serious profiles? Okay, then I could use some help with suggestions. We love up-and-comers, but they don’t sell magazines if they don’t already have a relatively high profile and are leading a company people want to read about.

  14. phio gistic Dec 27, 2010 10:49 pm

    Great catch Stephanie. Maybe Wired just thinks women are boring, except for the occasional use as linkbait. Like breasts aren’t very important to the scientists in the article, except for their owners’ usefulness as a research pool that can be convinced to pay to be experimented on.

  15. Ninja Dec 29, 2010 9:56 pm

    And of course the boob article was written by a woman so that makes it all right. Right? Nope.

  16. Warven B. Jan 01, 2011 2:48 am

    I love what you’re saying – with one exception. You said “You’re hurting America.”

    Americans think everything is about how it might affect America. For the rest of humanity, that is false. And this particular issue is *not* about America. It is about women and relations globally. Something that hurts women is not local to America.

    Other than that, right on!!

    Thanks!!

  17. Michele Buchanan Mar 19, 2011 12:36 am

    Just read this article and replies.
    I’ve been doing tech since I was a kid. i grew up looking at my dad’s wiring diagrams. Later I taught computing, back in the 80s. When I was growing up, I thought tech was just about machinery and wires. No one taught me that cooking is tech- it’s about chemistry and physics. With that in mind, innovative chefs (many of whom are women, and many of whom are using chemical reactions as the basis for their work) could be on the cover of Wired. Later when I went to grad school, I was reintroduced to tech again through Professor Rayna Rapp. She’s doing amazing work in anthropology on reproduction, and has worked with medical doctors in the field. This might not be the tech of gadgetry, but it’s certainly interesting, even if it doesn’t involve hours in front of a computer. Instead, the time is spent in a lab.

    Technology is not just about machinery. Technology is found in kitchens, in non-office workplaces, in hospitals, everywhere. Women and men of all nationalities and colors are involved in tech- for instance, I’d love to see an article on how moving customer service centers to India is changing the roles of women in families, and moving India as a nation into the future. I don’t think wired has ever done an article on how Japanese office and tech culture has made some of the smartest women in that country pursue jobs outside the country, or how modern technology is changing the ways in which we imagine the future, when everything we though was ‘future’ now seems to be real. There’s never been an article on topics like hyperbolic crochet, in which crocheters (who are mostly women) are creating models of the fourth dimension in yarn. (wwwtheiff.org) Or, how about an article on how smartphones could possibly change the way we understand what constitutes knowledge and who has access to it (what’s interesting about smartphones is the access/knowledge gap between the poor and the less poor- libraries, which were once the great leveler, are disappearing).
    Many of these topics would lead towards white women and people of color being on the cover. Please don’t use the old saw on how ‘(female) sex sells’ to cover for a distinct lack of imagination.

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