Who's afraid of the word "feminism"?
The publisher of a women's music magazine trashes "the f word" as
outdated, but she's the one who's out of touch
By Judy Berman
Mar 25, 2010
This morning, when music critic and "The Girls Guide to Rocking"
author Jessica Hopper tweeted, "Venus' new publisher sez feminism
'isn't relevant' to the new version of the mag, hires ed from Martha
Stewart," I wanted to believe she was joking. But then I followed her
link to a Chicago Reader article [see below] that confirmed it: The
magazine that began in 1995 as a one-woman, college-dorm-room project
with the mission of covering "women in music, art, film, fashion, and
DIY culture because not a lot of other publications do" is so over feminism.
Don't blame Venus' founder, Amy Schroeder: Although she doesn't
object to this new direction, she's been out of the picture since
September 2008, having stayed on as editor after selling the magazine
in 2006. Now, Venus is once again under new ownership, and its new
publisher is 47-year-old business consultant and former MCI V.P.
Sarah Beardsley. (Full disclosure: I contributed to the last issue
before the magazine changed hands -- but, in case you're wondering,
don't anticipate writing for it again.) When asked for her take on
feminism, Beardsley tells the Reader's Michael Miner, "That's such a
word fraught with interpretation and meaning." (Oh, jeez, anything
but meaning!) "We don't use that particular F word around here. It
just doesn't seem relevant." According to Beardsley, feminism is "an
old-fashioned concept" -- this from a woman who, Miner points out, is
still 13 years older than Schroeder and well outside Venus'
This is the detail that caught the eyes of the Broadsheet e-mail
list: That Beardsley thinks feminism is irrelevant to young women. As
Rebecca Traister (who has just finished writing a book about
feminism) wrote in an e-mail, "The people who are the most afraid of
the word 'feminism' are actually older women -- and by that I mean
women in their thirties and forties and early fifties -- who were so
forged by backlash bias that they still think of feminism as a scary
word. People who have almost no connection to the blogosphere or to
the youthful world in which feminism is bandied about like crazy
(albeit with different ideology and spirit than it used to be,
sure)." As Traister observes, feminism is all over the Internet, on
popular blogs like Jezebel, Feministing, Double X and, of course,
Broadsheet. It's on TV and in the movies, where celebrities who
identify as feminists include not only the usual suspects (Fey!
Poehler! Sedaris!) but also dudes like Andy Samberg and Adrien
Grenier and cover girls like Katherine Heigl and Eliza Dushku. It
literally has never been easier (or more fun) for teens and
20-somethings to access feminist media.
And yet, it's not difficult to understand why Beardsley may not see
that. It's true that reading Jezebel (whose tag line "celebrity, sex,
fashion for women," it should be noted, is not an explicit statement
of politics) or watching "30 Rock" doesn't look much like going to a
protest march or volunteering at Planned Parenthood. But they all
represent potentially meaningful encounters with feminist
consciousness and prove that young women are anything but allergic to it.
That's why it seems foolish for Beardsley to waste so much breath
distancing herself from "the F word." Like Jezebel, Broadsheet and
any number of other women-oriented publications, Venus' feminism was
always somewhat implicit. The magazine didn't hit you over the head
with "girl power!" or "fight the patriarchy" -- it profiled women
(and even a few men) who were doing interesting things in music and
the arts. I don't imagine that, unless Venus plans to entirely
overhaul its content (in which case maybe it should also look into
changing its name and demographic and -- why not? -- start courting
Axe body spray ads), its focus will change much.
So, if the magazine isn't doing a total 180, then it must be the
perception of Venus as a feminist publication that Beardsley wants to
shake. How will that work out for her? As Kate Harding puts it, the
thinking goes something like this: "Well, there's obviously a pretty
big market out there that either self-identifies as feminist or isn't
offended by the implication that they might, so talking about
powerful women and stuff is good -- but just think how much BIGGER
the market could be if we did the same basic stuff without using that
off-putting F-word!" Except, as Salon TV critic Heather Havrilesky
points out, it would be hard to do that without rendering Venus
somewhat meaningless: "The active distancing feels like the product
of a larger cultural/economic initiative to make sure to attract
EVERYONE to your product, even when that only renders it toothless
and devoid of charm or a strong voice. It's interesting how economic
pressures can create this constant search for broad appeal, even in
the very corners that are attractive because they represent the
antithesis of that."
With that in mind, it's hard not to wonder: By repackaging a
pro-woman magazine as something much blander and more common (and, in
the process, alienating the hell out of its loyal supporters) because
she believes that feminism is "old-fashioned," will Beardsley end up
with any audience at all?
Venus's Next Wave
The feminist magazine's new owner hopes to raise it to new heights by
rejecting its past.
By Michael Miner
March 25, 2010
Amy Schroeder was a 19-year-old women's studies major at Michigan
State when she created Venus in 1995. Feminism was the point of her
education, and it was the point of her fanzine. "Though I was
surrounded by conservatism, I started reading about the feminist
movement and Gloria Steinem while I was in high school," she told me
the other day in an e-mail, "and it excited me just as much as the
rock that was popular in the early to mid-90s.
"At that time there was a very positive, pro-feminist collective of
women making fierce rock and roll: Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Kim and
Kelley Deal of the Breeders, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, etc. In
addition, when I got to college, I learned about the Riot Grrl
movement, which was not all that prevalent in Michigan but it was big
in the Pacific Northwest. This was a very loud, in-your-face punk/DIY
women's movement, led by Kathleen Hanna, Bratmobile, and other bands."
Schroeder had a ready answer whenever she was asked what she was
doing. "Venus zine," she'd say, "covers women in music, art, film,
fashion, and DIY culture because not a lot of other publications do."
But Venus, a quarterly, did not stand still. As time went by,
Schroeder learned more about writing and editing and publishing, and,
her e-mail continued, "the more I learned the better Venus became,
and the better it became the more readers we got, and the more
readers we got the more I recognized how to grow Venusand that
involved making it more accessible, which was not just covering Riot
"If we kept doing the same things and covering the same people year
after year, we would have folded in the early 2000s. Many of the
bands we used to cover have broken up. It's similar with any
publicationif Rolling Stone had continued to focus on 1960s
Revolution Rock, it wouldn't exist today."
After college, Schroeder published Venus out of New York and San
Francisco, where other journalism jobs paid the rent. It wasn't until
2003, after she'd moved to Chicago, that she could work on Venus
full-time. In 2006 she sold Venus to Anne Brindle and Marci
Sepulveda, copublishers of Chicago Agent, a real estate trade
magazine, but she stayed on as editor until September 2008. She told
me she sees herself as the person "who gets things going," and that
she was reaching the upper limit of her magazine's 18-to-34
demographic, she was now teaching at Columbia College, and she'd
decided to move to New York. (She's there now, as a full-time writer
and editor for the Girl Scouts who's also helping HarperCollins
create a Web site to attract a community of aspiring teen writers.)
Brindle says Chicago Agent has thrived despite the collapse of the
industry it covers, but in 2009 it "demanded more of our attention"
and she and Sepulveda decided to unload Venus. They published their
last issue in September 2009 and in January sold the magazine to
Sarah Beardsley, a business consultant and former vice president at
MCI, for a price none of them want to reveal.
Beardsley thinks Venus is brimming with potential. She's not just a
new owner, she's a new generationthough, curiously, an older one.
She's 47, 14 years older than Schroeder is now and 28 years older
than she was when she produced the first issue in one night on a word
processor in her dorm room.
There was no winter 2010 issue of Venus, but the spring issue,
Beardsley's first, was given away at South by Southwest and it'll be
on the stands March 30. It carries a note from the new owner telling
readers, "You prove that smart, creative women are a force to be
Beardsley believes that there are a lot more women happy to raise
their hand to that description than Venus has ever reached, and she
hopes the allure of her new magazine's "incredible ability to spot
trends and spot talent" will draw them in.
In search of knowing assessments of Venus, I'd asked around, and what
I kept finding were smart, creative women who knew of the magazine
but rarely read it. "There are a lot of those women," Beardsley told
me. They are the market she intends to tap, an "extended community of
people who want to be part ofmovement's too strong a word, but
causesomething people believe in, an aesthetic being built from the
ground up. These are people who want to read about real people, who
want to see what real people are doing, creating, making happen."
Beardsley's audacious goals are to quickly turn the quarterly into a
monthly and jump its circulation from about 60,000 to 200,000. By
tweaking the editorial focus (for instance, turning up the celebrity
dial) and introducing marketing techniques that are second nature to
her, she expects to create that demand.
This kind of talk excites Schroeder, who is paying attention. "Venus
definitely has its roots in indie lady culture, which is awesome,"
she says, "but we're not living in the 90s anymore so it needs to
change." She knew I was skepticalI'd told her so. "Why is it you're
concerned about Venus changing?" she challenged me. "What is
antifeminist about covering successful women? Am I supposed to be on
the defensive, or is Sarah supposed to be on the defensive for
setting big goals? Or is Venus supposed to be this small magazine
that doesn't get beyond a certain point? I live in New York now, and
one of the things I think about is Chicago does a really great job of
helping indie projects take off, but sometimes it's hard to progress
beyond a certain point. Not that there aren't a number of resources
there, but there's a great sense of staying indieand if you try to
move beyond a certain point, people don't like you anymore."
Why was I skeptical? A little knowledge can be dangerous, and I knew
one or two things about Venus already: Women who were familiar with
Venus tended to be fiercely loyal to it, readers and writers both. (I
once had the young editor of a community paper in Chicago tell me how
exasperating it was that she couldn't afford to pay the same writers
who wrote for Venus for free because they shared its vision.) So I
wondered if Beardsley, in going after big numbers, was putting
something vital at risk. What's more, I'd heard from one of those
loyalists who'd interviewed for the job of editor in chief, and when
she found out what Beardsley had in mind, she ran the other way.
"There are people out there who see this as being one of the few
places where women making music can get a fair shot," the writer (who
asked not to be named) told me. "There aren't a lot of magazines like
that. And she seems hell-bent on changing the magazine to something
else. She told me she's not a feminist and feminism is what hindered
the magazine in the past. It's fundamentally a feminist music
magazine [but] she wanted stuff more mainstream. One of the things
that made Venus cool was that it was a female staff and things were
written from an understated feminist perspective. It wasn't overt, it
wasn't politicalbut it knew its history. And it came from the
knowledge there are inherent struggles to women making art.
"She wants to make it more broad-based," the loyalist continued. "If
she wants to make it an Oprah magazine for hipster ladies, maybe all
power to her." The editor Beardsley eventually hired is Jill Russell,
who'd been an associate editor of Martha Stewart's Body + Soul
magazine in New York. Schroeder has talked to her and says "she seems great."
I asked Beardsley about Venus and its commitment to feminism. "That's
such a word fraught with interpretation and meaning," she said. "We
don't use that particular F word around here. It just doesn't seem
relevant." She called feminism "an old-fashioned concept" and
explained that "it doesn't enter into our discussions about what
we're going to cover and what have you." She said, "We're much more
into discovering trends, talent, whatever they are, and they can come
in all shapes, sizes, genders, and forms."
Feminism has crashed across America in what are today called waves.
These waves have been largely generational, and women who rode one
wave might think they disagree fundamentally with women who rode
another. But has feminism, like liberalism, become a set of values
that dare not speak its name? I called Schroeder back.
"That's the unfortunate thing about feminism," she said. "People are
scared of the F word. I think when a lot of people nowadays think of
feminism they think of sort of the 1970s version of feminist women
burning bras and being very intense and setting up lots of rules and
structures. I have a great deal of respect for all the feminism
movements. It was a very strong political movement and a lot of good
came out of it and it took years and years for that good to occur.
But I don't know that people make a direct correlation between that
and their doing feminist thingslike working." She laughed. "And
getting an education. Today more women are getting educations than
their male counterparts.
"In my time at Venus, my goal was to make feminism acceptable. When
there's a day when women get the recognition they deserve in the arts
that will be a wonderful day and maybe Venus will no longer need to
exist. But until then Venus does need to exist."
Would it be accurate, I asked, to say that Venus still needs to
exist, but not necessarily as the old Venus?
"That's good!" Schroeder said. "Maybe we're getting closer to the day
when Venus doesn't need to exist."
To Schroeder, that's progress. To Beardsley, it's a message she has
no intention of sending to the 140,000 or so readers she doesn't have
yet. Schroeder says she began Venus as a "niche publication," and
feminism was the niche. Beardsley will be marketing Venus as a vital
enhancement of its readers' already rich and vibrant lives; and to
those readers feminismwhich it goes without saying will go without
sayingis a done deal. There's no going back to the magazine's roots,
when it was created to be essential.