If anyone is a superpatron of that giant library called the Internet, it’s me. What heaven! A global library that never closes!
Last year, I logged more than 1,000 leisure hours online. That works out to about three hours a day visiting sites to read, bank, buy, track, map and research–and that’s not counting the hours online I put in at work. I didn’t, however, spend two seconds at any of the large commercial sites aimed at women, such as iVillage, WomenCentral, Oxygen.com or Women.com.
Why should I? What do these sites have to offer me? Fashion tips? No thanks. I have a teenage daughter. Parenting advice? I turn to coworkers who’ve been there, done that. Dating dilemmas? I phone a girlfriend.
Millions of women visit these sites. I don’t know any of them.
Although they promised us a revolution, these sites are a devolution, hosting content that harks back to the worst June Cleaver-ish prefeminist tripe.
The question that drives me nuts is why. Why in 2001, after decades of feminism, countless books, articles, lawsuits and marches, are people–many of them women–pouring millions into building sites that insult my gender’s intelligence and portray us all as dimwits? At a time when women compose 50.4 percent of the online population and make the majority of all household purchasing decisions, can’t these people think of anything better to offer women? Better than all the old-fashioned junk that used to go into the “women’s pages” in your daily newspaper: horoscopes, fashion tips, recipes and advice to the lovelorn.
One of the reasons these sites are such wastelands of retro fluff is they want to be women’s sites without being labeled feminist, says Henry Jenkins, the director of comparative media studies at MIT and teacher of a course on gender, sexuality and pop culture. “There’s the notion that if you take a more progressive stance about femininity, you’re going to alienate the most conservative segment of the marketplace,” he says. “When they put themselves in that ideological trap, they end up going back to prefeminism and suddenly we’re in Betty Crocker-land.”
Is it really that bad? Is it really Betty Crocker-land? Perhaps I’m overstating the case. Perhaps these sites aren’t as backward as I think they are. Maybe I should take another look.
Dumb And Dumber
It’s 9 p.m. when I arrive at Women.com (“Where women are going”), and the lead is “Get Fiscally Fit.” Even genderless topics like finances are translated for women who, it is assumed, will be able to understand the rocket science of balancing a checkbook only if it’s presented in the language of body image. “Do you need to put your debt on a diet? Shape up your investments? Check out these tips from our financial expert, Cash Flo.”
The question of the day at Women.com: “What’s your favorite cardio machine: treadmill, stairmaster, elliptical machine?” “Vote!” the button exclaims as if it’s 1920 and women have just won the franchise.
I arrive at iVillage.com, once the hottest IPO on the Nasdaq, now a poster child for the dotcom roller coaster. The Hey-Honey-I’m-Home headline asks, “What’s for dinner?”
But what’s this–iVillage is promoting “technologies tailored for women”? That sounds promising. What are these 21st century applications? Let’s see. There’s the Baby Name Finder, a Mothering Style Quiz, a Soul Mate Oracle, the Fragrance Finder, a Mr. Right Quiz and–be still my heart!–a Makeover-o-Matic where you can manipulate photos to try on a new look. While the nation is churning over Roe v. Wade, federal funding for faith-based social service organizations, military spending, missile reduction, tax cuts and even Eminem’s feud with Christina Aguilera, the burning question on iVillage’s Speak Your Mind forum is, “Are you high maintenance in the ’getting ready’ department? How long does it take you to get ready for everyday life and special occasions?” Answer: One second to click and get outta here.
Over at Oprah.com (part of Oxygen Media), the site’s tag line is “Your Best Life.” But there’s nothing about your life here–it’s all Oprah, all the time. Count it: Oprah’s name can be found on the splash page 17 times. And on every page there’s a phot-O of Lady O. Here, in O-land, there are more makeovers than you can shake a lipstick tube at: Glamorous Makeovers, Body Makeovers and Lifestyle Makeovers (for women “who feel lost” or who’ve “lost themselves”). Evangelist Oprah also exhorts her Web audience to be on The Oprah Show–send a friend an “O to Go” audio e-card (with Oprah’s own voice) and e-shop at the Oprah Book Club. The site’s pages are sprinkled with italicized, positively O-prahtic quotes: “OK–I’m sitting here pouring my guts out on the stage.” OK! Enough! Get me out of here before I pop an O-ring.
All of these sites are overflowing with patronizing banner ads that are as bad as the content. On iVillage, for example, obnoxious ads are just a click away from headlines like “Burn 300 Calories Just by Shopping!” Or take this condescending ad for Cheer laundry detergent: Clothes are: a) something you wear; b) a reason to shop; c) really important to you. Well, that’s a silly question.
Thinking Inside The Box
Silly me, it’s now 11 p.m. After surfing all these “women’s” sites, I need one of iVillage’s “21st century solutions”–one of “365 answers to women’s everyday problems,” that is. To be precise, I need 21st century solution number 329: How to conceal undereye circles. I’ve got bags under my eyes from eyestrain after glaring at my computer monitor in amazement and disgust at classically backward home-ec curricula repurposed and regurgitated for the Web. They propagate the stereotype of women as not-so-bright creatures who are terrified of anything with a keyboard, squealing Barbielike at the sight of a computer mouse, “Computers are hard!” Yep, we’ve come a long way, baby.
The good news is that these sites are dying a slow, agonizing, well-deserved death. It turns out you can go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, especially if that public has two X chromosomes. Women.com and iVillage are hemorrhaging cash and staff, and Oxygen.com is barely breathing. In a desperate attempt to stanch the bleeding, iVillage recently acquired former rival Women.com in a deal that company officials say “creates the most comprehensive destination to meet the everyday needs of women online.”
But no matter how many iVillages they think it takes, it’s impossible to create a site that reflects all women. “It’s the same problem with all mass media as network TV claims to represent all humans,” Jenkins says. “All women don’t want anything; specific women want a variety of things.”
So which website would I build if it were up to me to create “the most comprehensive destination to meet the everyday needs of women online”?
Why, I think it already exists. It’s called the World Wide Web.