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Laurie Penny on the death of More magazine: a price worth paying for a better media

Do we need to mourn every lost job without further comment, even in an industry that’s becoming toxic?

More is no more. For 25 years, the magazine specialised in the sort of wacky diet advice and anatomically implausible sex position tips that occasionally allowed you to re-use the same root vegetables. But it announced last week that it would be suspending publication because of what its chief executive described as ‘challenging economic conditions’ and the rest of us like to call ‘the internet’.

More isn’t the first such title to close its doors. Just17, Sugar and many others have also gone the way of the Rodrigues day gecko in the past few years. The lady-media industrial complex is changing forever - and with it, the way we write and speak about women’s experience is changing, too.

Reactions to the demise of this vaguely-beloved title have been mixed. The Vagenda team, of this parish, were attacked for celebrating the end of More on their Twitter feed. Rhiannon and Holly, whose stated mission is to challenge the organised, monetised misogyny of ‘women’s’ magazines, were accused of failing to show sympathy for the journalists losing their jobs. They later retracted the tweet and apologised for any offence caused - but the issues raised are, to mind, a little more complex than that. Job losses are always unfortunate, but does that mean we need to mourn every lost job without further comment, even in an industry that’s becoming toxic?

As writers and journalists, even more than any other creative work, our understanding of labour rights has to be precisely situated - because we are engaged in cultural production, and sometimes that cultural production can be harmful, and we know it. It’s rather like the tense discussion that comes up in activist circles whenever the police go on strike. Is every job worth fighting for? What about when the people working in those jobs are paid to prop up state power and pick on young people, poor people, black people and activists? Are we really going to stand on a picket line with cops when those same cops might well be smashing up our own pickets the next day?

In the case of More, it’s even more complicated. Journalists who produce sexist content designed to sell women products they don’t need to fix physical deficiencies they don’t have are engaging in an exploitative mode of production for pay, for sure. But writers are always more at risk of producing bad content when we have bad bosses, when we have editors and managers who exploit us, or encourage us to exploit ourselves in our turn.

Labour and gender issues intersect in media more than many other industries, and pay and representation aren’t just perennial problems in women’s journalism - they change its nature. They mean that in order to make a living, female journalists can find ourselves forced into precisely the kind of exploitative cultural production we most despise. Even if what we truly care about most is fashion and fucking, we will find ourselves dismissed for writing about those things. Our efforts are rewarded with scorn and professional ghettoisation. If you want to liberate the means of cultural production, you have to acknowledge that there's not a small risk that that process of liberation will leave many of us penniless, if we aren't already.

The women who churn out those endless pieces on how to get a ‘bikini body’ aren’t dumb, or taken in by the weary rhetoric, any more than you or me. I’m good friends with a number of them, and it’s far from an easy job: even if it weren’t actually pretty hard to write about a hundred slightly different shades of nail polish without your brain melting and flowing out of your ears like this season’s oyster grey*, there’s always been a price to pay in terms of being taken seriously. One day you’re writing about A-line skirts because that’s what you care about and you’ve a gas bill to pay, and the next day you’re stuck writing about A-line skirts for ever, because women who care about hemlines can’t possibly also know about climate change or stock market futures.

The class and gender issues behind this have been brewing for years. In a media industry staggering under the one-two punch of the internet and the recession, women are the last hired and the first fired. Certainly we are the very last to be promoted or fairly paid, as too many angry private rants from my contemporaries have lately reminded me.

Unless you already work in media, you’d probably be stunned to learn the real salaries paid to even well-known women working in traditionally male outlets - particularly if they are young, non-white, or both. I could list several female writers whose names, if you’re a follower of my work or my Twitter feed, you will certainly recognise, who are living hand to mouth, struggling to make rent, bullied into working unpaid overtime with no prospect of promotion by bosses who are almost exclusively male.

The traditional press - the tech and political and cultural press, which has its own money and platform problems right now - still remains a man’s world, struggling with the violence of a cornered creature to stay relevant and in charge. That’s before we even get on to issues of gender representation, on which the stats speak for themselves: in a recent analysis of nine British newspapers, 78 per cent of the content was written by men.

Women’s magazines are not wholly evil. If they were, it’d be easy to dismiss them outright. What makes them so goddamn compelling is the sense that they are for us, that they are written by and for women without the mediation of men.

Another word for this is ‘trash’. We are encouraged to think, and to talk about, issues that mainly interest women as ‘trash’, as cheap and awful gossip, as well as the only really reliable employment for a woman who wants to write for a living. Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that women who read and write for these magazines understand that they’re being manipulated:

Most commentators, like this Private Eye satirist, ridicule women’s magazines’ “trivial” concerns and their editorial tone: “Women’s magazine triteness . . . combines knowing chatter about blowjobs with deep reservoirs of sentimentality.” Women too believe that they transmit the worst aspects of the beauty myth. Readers themselves are often ambivalent about the pleasure mixed up with anxiety that they provide. “I buy them,” a young woman told me, “as a form of self-abuse. They give me a weird mixture of anticipation and dread, a sort of stirred- up euphoria. . .

We accept that manipulation because the glossies kid us into feeling part of a private sisterhood, a breathe-easy world of womanity whose content appears undetermined by men, where writers we’ve never met really do want to advise us and help us to be the best selves we can possibly be - fun, fearless females.

Today, though, we no longer have to rely on women’s magazines for that secret sensibility that costs so much of our pride to access. Thanks to the internet, we no longer have to guess what other women and girls might be thinking about sex and social justice and the cutest top to wear on the day you take your boss’ corner office. We can find out, in detail, on endless forums, without the explicit mediation of advertisers and editors with one eye on their bottom line. We can find it all out, and more.**

Of course, it’s not as though the internet is free from commercial influence. This isn’t about network good, hard copy bad. If I want to make, for example, a private post on my Facebook wall about how I can fit into my ‘skinny’ jeans for the first time in months, I’ll have to do so next to a banner advertising “one simple trick to a flat belly”, unless I download specific software to block those ads. Nor can I be sure that the blogger advising me, in the breathy tones of a fantasy best friend, to ditch my date and curl up with some starchy snacks and a japanese sex toy isn’t being sponsored by the makers of the Hitachi Magic Wand. Although if she is, I want her job.

Online intimacies are not always what they seem. They can be monetised just like everything else. One only has to look at a website like XOJane, which consciously positions itself as the future of ladymedia, as opposed to media which women merely create and consume. XOJane is all about the whispered confession, the dirty secret, and it’s one of many such sites that routinely underpays its contributors, or solicits content for free in exchange for publicity the satisfaction of a platform, which you cannot eat, and believe me I’ve tried. It Happened To Me: I opened my heart to the world for bus change. Speaking about women’s intimate experience will always be important, because the personal is political - but as in meatspace, so in cyberspace, the political is forced to collapse into the personal to the point at which it can be streamlined and sold off for money, and not much money at that. We will henceforth refer to this process as XOJanification.

Nevertheless, the network still does what the dead-tree press attempted to do for women far better, and far more honestly. The mainstream media hasn’t found and attempted to make money off, for example, the endless tumblrs comparing and sharing women’s real lived experience of sex, power and violence, or the co-created projects bringing together pictures of how breasts and bottoms and bellies actually look. There aren’t many ways to financially exploit women from queer, politically non-standard, working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds talking about what it’s really like to be female outside the ‘aspirational’ fantasy of magazine-land, because advertisers remain uninterested in speaking to those people. But we’re talking about it anyway, and we’re changing what women’s collective writing means in the process, and many of us, yes, are turning that impulse into paid work.

Jobs for women writers aren’t disappearing - they’re just diversifying, becoming more individually determined as the network demands more content that is not determined by what editors think will sell.*** It’s not always glamorous, or marketable, or even fucking grammatically coherent, although it can be all those things. But it’s compelling, and it’s growing year-on-year in a way that the old media stooges haven’t even grasped yet. Big business finally woke up to fan fiction with Fifty Shades of Grey - but only in the most superficial of fashions, failing to really plumb the murky depths of Harry Potter porn forums and alternate-universe co-writing kink projects, where suspicious lumps of sexual and literary innovation float to the surface of an endless well of pixellated filth. If the real marker of equality is that women of mediocre or dubious talent have as much chance of success and employment as mediocre men, then the internet might be more of a leveller than we anticipated.

It can also be a frightening place to be a woman. In 2011 I wrote that an opinion is the short skirt of the internet, in that having one makes you fair game for any amount of ugly sexist abuse - but part of the violence of that backlash has come about precisely because the internet allows women to express and educate ourselves without men’s mediation in a way that simply wasn’t possible before, and some guys just can’t handle it. The difference is stark. Online, 33 per cent of opinion articles are written by women, as opposed to 20 per cent of print-based opinion pieces, according to the Poynter institute. It’s not equality, but it’s a 65 per cent improvement on the dead-tree press.

The modes of cultural production to which women’s work and experience are relegated remain toxic, but the internet is shaking it all up. We’re not done yet, and we may never be done. But digital writing is making the old lady-media industrial complex increasingly irrelevant, opening up opportunities for women and minorities to create and influence discourse. It’s a good thing. It’s one of the few things that makes me hopeful for my industry. And incidentally, it’s the reason I’m a writer. For me, and for many, many other women journalists, writers and readers, the implosion of a few antediluvian glossy mags is a price worth paying.

*Those of you who were paying attention will notice that this is, in fact, one of this season’s most popular nail colours, and it legitimately looks awesome.

**Further evidence of just how ridiculous the internet makes the old ladymag formulas look can be found at cosmarxpolitan.tumblr.com. Best line: "Shocking truth: is constant unceasing class warfare ruining YOUR skin?"

***Not that I’m knocking editors as a species; they do a vital job, and one of them worked with me on this. But it’s worth noting that after a lag-time, the best commissioning editors now understand that curating content for the web is a brand new task, with a different breed of reader; if you’ve been following the evolution of the New Statesman website over the past three years, you’ll see what I mean.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”