Offender: Cover story “Spanking Goes Mainstream” by Katie Roiphe in the April 23/30, 2012, issue of Newsweek magazine
Media Outlet: Newsweek and The Daily Beast
The cover photograph shows a woman who is styled to look like a high-fashion model. She is blindfolded with a large black sash tied i
n a bow at the back of her head. Her bare shoulders and the top portion of her chest are visible. The caption says: “The Fantasy Life of Working Women | Why Surrender is a Feminist Dream.”
NOW’s Analysis: Media outlets have a long history of glamorizing women’s submission. Typically the fashion industry is guilty of this practice, but news outlets aren’t afraid to employ the same strategy. Under the theory that titillation sells magazines, combined with the belief that objectifying women makes you seem edgy, consumers end up with junk like this on the newsstands (and the Internet).
It’s hard to tell what’s more offensive. The haute couture style of the cover photo, which presents the blindfolding of a woman as elegant and refined. Or the accompanying article, which uses the popularity of the book “Fifty Shades of Gray” — which Katie Roiphe describes as the “skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism” — to speculate that women are not comfortable with power and might even find it boring.
Roiphe considers whether women are exhausted by the “relentless responsibility” of their modern lives. She proposes that women are rebelling against “the pressure of economic participation” and their own “strength and independence and desire” — that’s why they’re drawn to the idea of “sexual surrender.” The article attempts to support its premise with the not terribly precise estimate that “between 31 percent and 57 percent of women entertain fantasies where they are forced to have sex” (according to Psychology Today).
Picture for a moment a mainstream magazine arguing that men feel there is something “basically liberating about being overcome or overpowered.” Imagine a male author positing that men have an “incandescent fantasy of being dominated.” And try, just try, to envision that cover with a blindfolded male model.
Is it paranoid to suggest that Newsweek and Roiphe intentionally portray women as fearful of equality in order to grease the wheels for rolling back their rights? Is it too extreme to suggest that the cover image and the article work together to convey the message that women want to throw in the towel on being in charge of their sexuality and their lives in general? Would it be going too far to characterize articles like this as contributing to a cultural environment where it’s not so bad when men physically assault women, even rape them, because that’s what women really want?
Roiphe argues that feminists are “perplexed” by the persistence of dominance/submission fantasies, but when Gloria Steinem tries to explain it, Roiphe shrugs her off, writing that “maybe sex and aggression should not, and probably more to the point, cannot be untangled.” Sure sounds like a writer with an agenda that’s hostile to women’s empowerment and safety. Not to mention the fact that Roiphe never asks why men might want to dominate and hurt women, and what that might say about them.
That this magazine rolled off the presses just as advocates are struggling to get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized in Congress should make even the most trusting person stop and think.
This post is part of the #HERvotes blog carnival on the Violence Against Women Act.
Lisa Bennett, NOW Communications Director