NOT THAT KIND OF WOMEN’S MEDIA
Women’s media is girly and pink and about abortion.
Don’t spit-take that beverage with wild health claims I imagine you drinking! The pink pregnancy-terminating stuff? It’s what I heard while producing an online comedy-news show for young women.
Here’s the inside on who said it, plus what I learned about making girly media.
Our webseries is known around YouTube’s edges as News Hangover. The videos scored a couple-thousand views.
The name describes that “never again” feeling you get from consuming too much drama from un-fun news sources. I myself have binged on — and created! — un-fun media.
I’ve been in journalism for 15 years. Notice how no one ever says “15 delightful years” of anything? TV’s “ER” ran that long, and the hospital drama entered a wilderness after Year Clooney.
So, after many long-faced years in an industry with non-stop layoffs, I put together a female-dominated team of journalists and performers. The deep-pocketed nonprofit First Look Media paid for everything.
And, from late-2014 to mid-2015, we built a funfair online. It had amusing-educational sketches. Thinky animations. And doc-style profiles of women who do war reporting, firefighting, labor organizing…you know, “men’s work.”
We had to do News Hangover.
Because women are the second sex when it comes to political knowledge. And when we asked young ladies about their information habits, we’d get sideswipes like, “News outlets don’t treat women seriously.” Or “I don’t follow the news.” Or “News is too sad and depressing.”
Sidebar: “The Fault In Our Stars”? The “cancer kid” romance where a lovable guy out-the-blue dies? That book was a tear-soaked bestseller. The movie earned more than $300-blubbering-million, carried on the delicate shoulders of young women, as Forbes noted last year.
The success of “Fault” made me think, Hey. Millennial gals aren’t dodging hard news because it’s depressing and filled with surprise deaths …
My thesis: Ladies want be deeply engaged, amused, respected, talked to in relatable ways. Maybe given a dose of absurd humor.
To prove this, News Hangover mixed news with rom-com elements, weirdness and whimsy. Of course, the 36 Questions To Fall In Love With Anyone could factor into a skit about student loan debt! Yes, a sketch about a bad date could show a list of unarmed black men killed by police in 2014!
In one webisode, two girlfriends brunch and discuss real laws about revenge porn. The fake storyline B is about an artist hiding his self-portrait nudes in the ladies’ rooms.
GIRLFRIEND 1: “Is he trying to elevate the dick pic?”
GIRLFRIEND 2: “I think we just met selfie Mapplethorpe.”
San Francisco was a recurring News Hangover character. The park from the opening credits of “Full House” graced our “Yo Mama Jokes (and Economics)” video. Cable cars and a real tourist dressed like little bo-peep cameoed our “She Crazy?” man-on-the-street about women’s mental health.
And, because our mission was to help young women make sense of the world through satire and sisterliness, female protagonists starred in everything.
The comedy-news genre runs things right now.
Highbrow America blasts air-horns-of-praise in its honor. Did you see The Atlantic piece that calls John Oliver and peers “the new public intellectuals”? It was like, “BBRRRR BRRR BRRRRT!!!”
Also comedy married with news is the easiest to understand and retain, say researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Comparing tribes of news consumers, they concluded that viewers of “The Colbert Report” (still airing at the time) had more political understanding than the dunces (maybe that’s the word they used?) who consumed CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, stiff news broadcasts, alarmist talk radio, dying newspapers &tc.
But here I am, like that bummer neighbor saying you guys need to keep it down. And I’m pointing out how male voices are loudest in comedy news. The format is still male presenter behind desk + Wolf Blitzer clips.
The audience for the original comedy-news shows has been dude-centric, too. I did some Googling legwork, and unearthed Nielsen numbers and media kits with demographics for Colbert’s old gig and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Their viewership was more than two-thirds dude.
Then I found a story that said Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” has the highest percentage of female writers of any comedy-news or late-night TV talk show. He used blind auditions — for a symphony that means musicians try-out behind a gender-obscuring screen. In Oliver’s case, he hid writer names on work samples/resumes to avoid any sex bias.
Sometimes you have to make an effort to include the ladies.
Around Christmas, News Hangover hired a Stanford designer to lead audience research. She did deep interviews with a handful of ladies nationwide, and discovered their love of “Ellen.” They’d binge-watch old episodes on YouTube, sometimes multitasking while Ellen DeGeneres wide-boogied over a coffeetable. A 35-year-old said she loved Ellen “because she’s nice and she’s hilarious.”
About those deans of comedy news, one respondent said: “Jon Stewart and Colbert are always interrupting and making the interviews about them.” To her, they portrayed self-centered maleness.
I made a mental note to not appear egotistical. Or male.
“Gender neutral” is what she called News Hangover.
It was nearly spring at Saint Mary’s College of California, a quiet campus decorated with redwoods and Catholic symbols. Our final shoots were fast approaching, and we were screening a few episodes for feedback.
There’s a saying that a shepherd should know the smell of his sheep. And we liked getting close to ladies, to get a strong whiff of their brains and make the show more enjoyable for them.
News Hangover had already hosted a women’s roundtable and identified the word “feminism” as a troublemaker. We had a focus group disguised as an improv show where gals got in free (guys paid $7 per testicle) and shared their worries about economic inequality.
At Saint Mary’s campus we presented a segment called “Kick-Ass Women.” Some dating-themed sketches. And the one about a ridiculous lunch lady that I now regret making a nice actor crossdress for. (Crossdressing hasn’t been funny or sensitively portrayed since “Bosom Buddies.”)
Sometimes our host — the black woman writing this essay — would sign-off with, “OK ladies, that’s News Hangover.”
Still, a female student said we felt like gender-neutral media. That, from the work we’d shown, our audience could not possibly claim the she-pronoun. Because, “stuff that’s geared toward women is more pink. Girly.”
I could argue News Hangover was sometimes breathlessly girly-girl, like an issue of Prom Guide Magazine praising Taylor Swift’s “chic, trendsetting, and dramatic styles.”
Once a crewmember threw shade when I came to a park shoot on a cold day wearing a Bebe minidress. “You shoulda worn a hoodie,” she eye-rolled.
But we also stayed composed enough to talk about criminal justice. Do you know how California’s new lighter sentencing for non-violent crimes impacts women? Check our “Date With the Facebook Shamer” episode.
I thought we Xed our lady-boxes.
Yeah-no, another student said. The show needs to send stronger made-for-women signals; maybe embrace more obvious lady-topics?
“If it was about abortion…” she began.
There were reasons we didn’t register high estrogen.
Our soundtrack featured male rappers. In HeForShe style, we showed men that were supportive. Sometimes, they were benign props on a woman-heavy stage, like that quiet man surrounded by women in our “Inside the Comedy Writers’ Room” epy.
“The tone of News Hangover doesn’t destroy guys,” our marketing guy said. He meant we weren’t gynocentric; showing only the virtues of women and the vices of men.
But that college screening got me grumpy.
Were we told that, in order to exude a sense of female identity, our costumes and sets should look more like a princess party? Be pinker, so the girlfriend gang would recognize our affiliation? That we should get into the uterine battles like errbody else?
Later, when I was on the phone with the director of a women’s media center, she groaned about how hard it is to fund-raise for women’s issues other than reproductive rights and breast cancer. I read something similar in “What Women Want,” by Stanford professor Deborah Rhode.
And — I’m probably going to catch heat on this — to improve the lives of women, would it be OK to branch out beyond our best-known campaigns? Can we? My heart knows women’s health is important. And my head says there are other lady-problems at the dance, being overlooked, with their backs up against the wall while “Love Me Harder” dramatically plays.
I have no problem with media that codes female in a big way. “Diva” and “Wives” can be the TV show title of every campy, guilty pleasure, that’s fine.
But there are reasons to make more media that doesn’t fit inside a pink silo.
Like 1.) if you make media for women, and your aesthetics crossover to the other gender identity side, you could recruit them as allies. Or at least put a scare in them about jail time they’d get for sharing your nude pictures without consent — aka revenge porn, something women are mostly the victims of.
“That was the first time I had heard it called this,” one guy said after watching our “Revenge Porn” episode. “It never dawned on me that they have a term for it now, and they’re taking it to court.”
Also 2.) the way I live challenges orthodoxy about what is womanly. Let’s talk about my “manly” traits: I like cars. Whiskey. Sports documentaries and samurai cinema. Rap. The Tomboy Style blog. And my hair’s short and my best friend is a man.
What reads as “womanly” can be a limitation for cis and trans women both. Jon Stewart nailed what was wrong with appraising Caitlyn Jenner’s beauty and appearance only. It’s classic woman-as-object sexism.
And 3.) young women are suspicious of lady-boosters.
Some hear you shouting “Women’s Business Only,” and tune you out. They dismiss pamphlets saying “For Women, Take One,” assuming they already know what’s inside.
When News Hangover organized a roundtable, we could barely wrangle up any double-X millennials. We sent e-invites to college groups, journalists, aestheticians, actresses … offering them free mimosas and a chance to unpack lady-issues.
The only people who turned up were a former coworker, the sister of a friend, and a current coworker.
Gender equality was appealing, this mimosa-drinking trio said, but they were turned-off by “feminism” — a word that happened to be on our invite. It probably deterred others, they guessed.
If I had to sum up resistance I’ve heard to that term, it’s that older feminists made the brand too exclusive, and white feminists made it tone-deaf to people-of-color struggles. You’ll find different explanations over on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, where women hold up signs saying, “I’m not a feminist because I love my boyfriend.”
So how do you deliver impactful news and support to an audience that resists your message and help?
“Feminism needs a rebrand,” was what the graphic designer at our roundtable suggested.
Meantime, women are bumping up against lady-centric media and mimosa party invites and saying, “Wait. This isn’t for me.”
Let me rewind. Some of the Saint Mary’s students had totally gotten our lady-cues. At the screening, the show’s host caught one girl’s attention.
“It’s a female in our same age group.” (I’m so not.)
Another was surprised: “Usually it’s old white dudes.”
Someone else piled on the wows: “A woman, and a woman of color? Makes me almost root for the host.”
“She was on a date, that makes it seem like it’s targeted to women,” my favorite brunette said. “It’s relatable.” And she liked the rap music.
Let’s say you get into the comedy-news game because it’s too man-driven. Then your target audience says you should read more womanish. But you’re prone to making long-winded arguments against being stereotypically feminine. What do you do?
For our last videos, we visited a battleground for women. The workplace.
News Hangover’s video editor/co-producer Kate Elston moonlights with an SF comedy troupe. And she led a group of us writers on the script for “Lady Pep Talk (aka When ‘Lean In’ Goes To Far).”
This 3-minute slice of social commentary asks, “Must all women always be hard-charging Sheryl Sandbergs? What about when it comes to taking the lead on ordering a pizza for the staff?”
In another episode, we dug into how women are treated at work.
Called “Your Workplace Training Video,” it looks like 1980s VHS footage. And it depicts everything I know about office struggles: The mild racism. The sexism. The adulterous, handsome coworker creep you should avoid at all cost. Underneath this confessional is an explainer about “pay secrecy” — a work policy that helps maintain the wage gap between men and women.
So. In the end News Hangover portrayed men as mistress-cruising, casual bigots who only power-share when it comes to ordering staff lunch.
I think men will survive.
Did we achieve a deep enough answer about how to make news accessible for young women? I can confidently say, “Sort of.”
We built our lady-audience from scratch. And found creative solutions to connect them with news.
Other high points: We got some HuffPo press. The “Workplace Training” episode got into the San Francisco Black Film Festival. That “Lady Pep Talk” video was our most shared and viewed ever. So far we’ve done five screenings, and heard live laughter that sounded a lot like learning.
Today, News Hangover’s out of money. The team’s already fanned out like the baby spiders at the end of “Charlotte’s Web.” Some are trying comedy in NYC and LA. Others are making documentaries or working in digital newsrooms.
Reflecting back now, I realize how thrillingly complicated this adventure was.
At a recent “save-the-journalism”-type conference, Max Fisher from Vox said, “The people who are succeeding in journalism now are the ones that completely re-think formats. Just like painters did.”
I went into this project thinking we’d bust up the comedy-news format. Make it look less like a boys’ club.
I’ve come out wanting to make more women’s media, and comedy. And I want you to explode the conventional female point of view along with me. We’re more than pink. Maybe we’re all the colors.
Keli Dailey is a Texas native hanging out in San Francisco’s cafes. In 2016 she’ll teach a class at Saint Mary’s College of California about understanding and making comedy news.