Like many Americans, Sarah Pappalardo and Beth Newell—creators of the satirical women’s media site Reductress—were shocked the morning after Election Day, but in the back of their minds, there was also a lack of surprise. This is the culmination of the reality they knew well enough to create a site about. They knew the faux-empowerment of ad campaigns and magazines geared towards women who were starting to embrace feminism just wasn’t enough, and Trump’s election proved that.
One of the most dismaying statistics after Donald Trump’s victory was that 53% of American white women had voted for him, despite curiously quieted rape allegations and public misogyny directed at Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell and countless others. If a leaked tape of him infamously proclaiming he “grabs women by the pussy” to Billy Bush didn’t stop him, what could?
Pappalardo and Newell, along with co-author Anna Drezen, had just released Reductress’ first published book, How to Win at Feminism, a fake self-help guide that takes aim at the various empty and conflicting platitudes of surface-deep women’s media, but suddenly, everything their often-hilarious website had succeeded at felt much smaller in the grand scheme of who was winning the war. Still, the book is a clever holiday gift for any family member who thinks Beyoncé invented feminism, and Paste spoke to the website’s creators about how there’s so much more work to do.
Paste: We postponed this interview because it was going to take place after the worst day ever. How do you contextualize this satirical, humorous book you just put out after the country betrays women that way?
Beth Newell: It’s very sobering.
Sarah Pappalardo: Very.
Newell: The day we were supposed to have a call, we were each respectively paralyzed for a while.
Pappalardo: Like an angry fog.
Newell: It feels trite and weird to hop in a flight that day to go to L.A. to sell a book, when literally the worst thing that could happen to our country just happened. But all that said, it’s kind of a reminder of what our jobs really are: to really talk about this stuff and get to the nut of the problems that we’re facing and that we’re gonna face.
Paste: What Reductress is satirizing is already somewhat specialized. Was there a feeling like, now it’s apparent that even fewer people get it than we already thought?
Newell: Our perception of the country has changed a little bit, but not much. I mean, we did win the popular vote. We already knew liberals were not 100% feminist or against structural racism.
Pappalardo: Half the country isn’t even speaking the same language as us to understand what we’re satirizing. That hasn’t changed in the past few weeks, it’s just more of a sobering reminder that there are so many different levels of progress and so many people that just aren’t even… aware of what is or isn’t a problem yet.
Paste: Do you ever feel that something about your satirical approach needs to be altered due to the calls for a Facebook crackdown on fake news sites?
Pappalardo: They’re pretty aware, as far as I know, of the difference between satire and fake news. If people thought one of our pieces, “If Donald Trump wins I’m moving to Alaska” was real, that’s not changing anybody’s mind, if you’re the type of person to believe that person really exists.
Newell: Yeah, I’m not worried about our headlines swaying elections or anything.
Paste: I think Reductress helps by pointing out the ridiculousness of things that people might not have considered ridiculous.
Newell: It seems a little bit indulgent of us to point out such “small” feminist issues like mansplaining or men talking over you in the workplace when there’s so much bigger problems out there. But I do think it takes a lot of little steps like that to show people the reality we live in as women is different.
Pappalardo: There are all kinds of different problems but they’re all on the same pyramid. Little microaggressions are small and insignificant if they’re taken in isolation, but if you look at it as a pattern of aggression and oppression, it fits in the narrative of rape culture and all the things we’re seeing play out on a national level right now.
Paste: That there are so many publicly known perpetrators of these microaggressions now makes it easier to have a national conversation about the patterns.
Newell: I think the election really brought a lot of stuff to the surface that we had been trying to describe for a long time, when it was right there in front of us, staring us in the face. So hopefully it makes it harder for white straight men to deny that it is happening.
Paste: It was also really disheartening seeing that 53% of white women voted for Trump. But all of it’s disheartening.
Pappalardo: And that’s where the whole issue comes back to what we’re commenting on with the book. A lot of people who say they’re for equality are coming from a degree of privilege they’re not even fully aware of. And that’s where you get people not seeing the problem with making a gendered insult toward Hillary or something. So we really tried to comment on the mainstreaming of feminism and how it’s getting watered down in various ways.
Paste: I really like the “Lumps Gym” section in the book because it pokes fun at how the weight-loss market has shifted from fear-mongering to cognitive dissonance: “We’re all body-positive and we all want to change our bodies!”
Pappalardo: People ask us a lot, “Are you saying that we just shouldn’t advertise like this? Is empowerment bad?” It reminded me of this Subaru campaign in the ‘90s where they just realized just like, a lot of lesbians were buying their cars. And they just started a quiet campaign to support what was already happening. You never saw any press releases like, “Subaru is championing queer women.” They never made a thing about it the way Dove has made body positivity the cornerstone of their ad campaign, which is so disingenuous. I would love to see different-colored and -sized women in advertising without having to point it out and used for capital gain.
Paste: A helpful theme of Reductress in general is how you take on conflicting advice in women’s sites and magazines.
Pappalardo: Feminism is kind of caught in this funny tipping-point stage where you can be criticized for not being feminist enough, and you can also be criticized for being, I don’t know, too much? Look at Lena Dunham or anyone in that position, where you’re being criticized from both sides. Which can make for a lot of mixed messaging.
Paste: Do you think people putting this stuff in the context of humor helps infighting feminists through differences they wouldn’t be able to argue past each other on?
Pappalardo: I hope so! I think we feminists do tend to take ourselves pretty seriously, and we do want to take it past that cliché that feminists don’t have a sense of humor about anything. We can criticize each other in a way that isn’t just dismissing them altogether. We can have a conversation without completely shutting people out of the movement or alienating them.
Newell: Hopefully it’ll make people think about picking their battles or at least moderating their tone about their reactions to certain things. Not every crime deserves the same level of outrage as another. I do think we suffer from a lot of internalized sexism that makes us when we see one of our fellow feminists do something wrong, we jump all over her to a degree that we haven’t even done for a white man doing the same thing.
Paste: There are patterns in the sphere of popular music, where you can see personalities who are women being discarded sooner than the men, or they’re less likely to make a comeback. Did either of you follow what happened with Lily Allen when she put out her last album? Her entire press campaign kind of tanked after she put out an iffy video for a song that only had one really objectionable line.
Newell: I think we as a culture will forgive men for the most misogynist lyrics ever because we know that’s like, all that’s out there? And we want to listen to music? But a woman does a much lesser version of that and we’re like, “Oh my god, I’m never buying her albums again.”
Paste: A lot of the jokes directed at Taylor Swift and Beyoncé in your book, the read that I get from them is that the kind of worship that blinds Trump supporters can be detrimental in any movement.
Newell: I think sometimes people confuse someone being a very positive example, with the idea that we have to be exactly like that person in every way. A lot of people end up turning to Beyoncé for feminist insight without reading any feminist authors.
Paste: How long had the book idea been brewing for?
Pappalardo: We wanted to do a book from the get-go and we were trying to figure out what the angle to take was. By 2014, feminism was hitting the mainstream media and marketing in such a huge way, it became such a household issue in a way that it hadn’t before. And we really wanted to focus on how feminism was being reduced to these oversimplified messages within advertising and the problems that could come out of that. So we tried to make a manual on how to be a feminist from the point of view of a women’s magazine that had just discovered feminism.
Paste: What was the most difficult obstacle in translating what you do to a book?
Newell: We’re so used to writing individual articles that sometimes it was hard to articulate overarching themes of certain sections. We were sometimes like “What was the whole theme here?” Or knowing what the idea is and make sure we were getting it across and that the sum total of the book added up to that message.
Pappalardo: I feel like what took the longest surprisingly was the artwork? We’re used to pumping out a lot of written material pretty quickly, but when it came down to reducing sections to a single image, and even the book cover was a surprisingly long part of the process.
Paste: Are there ever any times where you’re using the Reductress voice to declare war on something you find particularly abhorrent? The section about banning the word basic struck me as more of a real opinion than satire.
Pappalardo: It was satire. [Laughs.]
Newell: I think we were more commenting on the idea of banning words than anything else.
Pappalardo: Who’s making these decisions? It’s always some blogger from the Huffington Post.
Paste: What is your favorite Reductress headline?
Newell: We love “How to Be a Lady in the Streets and a Haunted Clock Tower in the Sheets.”
Pappalardo: “Why I Stopped Meditating and Started Screaming.”
Newell: You learn a lot about a person from their favorite Reductress article.
Paste: Have any celebrities made themselves known as a Reductress fan?
Newell: No one major.
Pappalardo: Yeah, they’re all dudes. [Laughs.]
Dan Weiss lives in New Jersey and plays in the band Dan Ex Machina. He was the first male-identified person to be shot nude for Adipositivity and once had to explain his Jason Derulo review to the singer’s face.