Can Aspirational Women's Media Ever Be Inclusive?

Can Aspirational Women's Media Ever Be Inclusive?

To the casual reader, sites like Man Repeller, Refinery29, and Cosmopolitan were making strides to correct an outdated image of women’s media. Man Repeller, which began as founder Leandra Medine’s personal fashion blog in 2010, had expanded in recent years as a staffed website, posting articles on plus-size fashion, LGTBQ issues, and black haircare. Refinery29 began as a fashion blog but has since become a self-proclaimed “modern woman’s destination,” and Cosmopolitan swapped sex position tips for guides on how to donate to Black Lives Matter.

But as employees began to speak out about the racism they’ve experienced within these publications, much of that inclusive content seemed to be just for show. This month Leandra Medine, founder of the website Man Repeller, stepped down from the site and apologized to her readers following accusations of racism within the company. Refinery29’s global EIC Christene Barberich stepped down as well following detailed reports of the company’s racism and toxic work culture, which kept employees essentially chained to their desks churning out content. And former Cosmopolitan employees, including former Jezebel senior reporter Prachi Gupta, began sharing stories about racism at the magazine, including accusations that the title wanted to publish politics content but not alienate Trump supporters from their readership. Employees at the fashion and beauty website Who What Wear contradicted the website’s public support for Black Lives Matter as black employees spoke up about not being given the same opportunities as white women.

“I know it won’t work if I myself don’t make an unwavering commitment to amplifying Black and POC voices as part of our mission,” Leandra Medine wrote in her apology. “To encouraging that your stories be told, faces be seen, and hearts feel welcome because I am committed to harboring space and safety for you-as-you-are to feel accepted here.”

But Man Repeller’s origin story wasn’t inclusive to begin with. Medine built a following with photos of herself as a New School student in her early 20s in Theory blazers and Isabel Marant sandals, shot from her parents’ Upper East Side apartment. Even though her personal blog was framed as an antidote to traditional fashion media, Medine’s blog and her displays of extreme wealth weren’t that different from what you’d find in the pages of Vogue. And despite the sprinkling of content that seemed to suggest the site had moved on from its roots, its content in recent years was still largely anchored to Medine’s vision of cool: white, wealthy, luxury fashion-centric. “I’m sorry, but MR can never be inclusive,” one commenter wrote on Man Repeller. “Capitalist-driven exclusivity is your core and base, there’s no changing that with a bit of reading.”

Fashion and lifestyle media is built on the same exclusivity that made Man Repeller successful, as was the case with Refinery29 and Who What Wear. But at some point in the last 10 years, fashion magazines and websites that glamorized and glorified consumption became “women’s magazines,” and women’s magazines somehow became referred to as “feminist” as they added a minuscule amount of plus-sized models in photo spreads, political coverage, and included black celebrities on covers. “All I know is that over the course of the 2010s, magazines and blogs suddenly started to seem more diverse, more representational, more like real life,” Rebecca Jennings wrote for The Goods. “Or at the very least, it seemed like they were trying.” But front-facing representation was where a commitment to diversity seemed to end, as employees at publications that uplifted people color on the pages of their websites allegedly derided them internally, failed to promote them, or didn’t seek them out to hire to begin with.

But as the commenter at the Man Repeller wrote, it’s hard to know if these places can ever be truly inclusive. How do websites that have sold aspirational content for decades suddenly commit to writing for women and not just selling to them? Hiring black writers and paying them equally or beyond their white colleagues is one thing, as is the move to unionize to secure better working conditions from the ground up, as Hearst and Refinery29 have done. But women’s media that is entangled in the fashion and beauty industry–often submitting to it by selling its wealthy fantasies to audiences rather than critiquing and correcting them–is exclusive by definition.

“There exists not a single mainstream women’s magazine that does not rely on money from the fashion and beauty industries,” Jo Livingstone wrote in 2018 for The New Republic, after reported accusations that Refinery29 was severely blurring the line between sponsored content and real journalism. “All these magazines compromise their editorial freedom to maintain relationships with their advertisers.” Vogue may publish stories about Black Lives Matter and insist that women can care about both things, fashion and politics. But within the scope of the publication and many others like it, the topic is an outlier focus, as pretty clothes and socialites that keep advertisers happy take center stage.

These publications were born of a media industry that has always privileged white, wealthy, “beautiful” voices over others. But it will take more than inclusive hiring processes to change these websites to reflect the lives of women readers they purport to speak to. No matter how many “feminist reading lists” a publication pumps out, or how closely editorials resemble Colors of Benetton ads, if the women within the machine of these so-called “women’s sites” are forced to churn out dozens of stories a day for little pay and are seen as an extension of fashion and beauty PR, these sites do not actually have the interests of women at heart. Now that the employees and readers of color that these publications have excluded and silenced are finally speaking out in unison, the hope is that these companies will actually listen to them and reimagine a women’s media that actually gives them the wheel and not just a passenger’s seat.

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