SXSW 2013 Q&A: Margaret Wheeler Johnson

Allison Eve Zell   January 31, 2013

 

The Breakdown: In this week’s SXSW Q&A, we talk with Margaret Wheeler Johnson (@mwjohnso), Editor of HuffPost Women, about her panel “Is Women’s Media Too Girly?” Along with a stellar group of panelists, she will explore the rise and implications of “girly” media.

Scatter/Gather: How do you define ”girly” media? 

Margaret Wheeler Johnson: When we ask whether women’s media has become “too girly,” we’re referring to content we’ve seen more and more over the past few years on sites targeting adult female audiences. I’m thinking of stories about nail art and frozen yogurt (HuffPost Women has published at least one), odes to Ryan Gosling (we’ve run several), puppy cams, essays about breakups and fighting with your BFF — content that would also be at home on a teen site.

I don’t think it’s bad for women’s sites to publish these stories — obviously, since we’ve done it as well — but I do think it’s interesting.  Our panel will discuss whether this phenomenon undermines women by making them seem superficial, or gives voice to tastes and aspects of being female that we were once afraid to acknowledge because women are still fighting to be taken seriously.

S/G: You have gathered an impressive group of panelists. Tell us a little background about them and what we can expect from the panel.

Margaret: Our panelists are impressive, indeed, and we are lucky to have them.  Anna Holmes (@AnnaHolmes) is a journalist and author and the founder of Jezebel.com, arguably the most influential women’s media project in the last 10 years.  Deb Schoeneman (@debschoeneman) literally wrote the book on our panel topic. Her Kindle single “Woman Child“ explores the idea that women are embracing more childish interests and personas to find common ground with each other. Rebecca Fernandez (@ParksFernandez) is the editor-at-large for HelloGiggles, a unabashedly girly women’s site founded by “New Girl” actress Zooey Deschanel, Sophia Rossi and Molly McLeer.

When I asked the panelists for their perspectives on our topic, Anna told me that while she’s very aware of the ways young women’s issues have been unfairly dismissed for ages, “there is a cult of perpetual girlhood among some adult women that I find very exhausting, perplexing and sort of ridiculous.” Deb, on the other hand, said she thinks ”it’s empowering and progressive that women’s media can be girly.” And according to Rebecca, “the real problem isn’t media being too girly, it’s being judged for being true to yourself, no matter if you like to wear high heels or play baseball or listen to Taylor Swift or study biology. We’re all girls and we should all be celebrated no matter how we look on the outside, how we ‘decorate’ ourselves, or what our hobbies include.” I want to dig into what it means that so many women’s sites have embraced girlishness, and what statement the women who create and enjoy “girly” media might be making about their lives and the culture at large. So that’s what you can expect from our panel.

S/G: Are there topics you think women want to read about online, but are not readily available? 

Margaret: I think most women can probably find online content on the topics that interest them. It’s the Internet – there’s something for almost everyone. That said, the way online media outlets cover women varies widely. Like print magazines and TV programs targeting women, many women’s sites still start from the assumption that any woman’s major goals in life are to get married, get pregnant, lose the baby weight, make fast, perfect, nutritious dinners and have multiple orgasms all night long.

I think women want what men want online: information and entertainment. But in my experience women in particular want community as well. A huge part of community is being spoken to, and spoken about, in a way that makes you feel like you belong, like you are interesting and complex and deserve to be heard, not belittled or sequestered. It’s possible to write about both entrepreneurship and nail polish in a way that makes women feel respected and understood — or not. It’s up to media companies to decide which approach they’re going to take.

S/G: Name three female media or content creators who have inspired you and why. 

Margaret: One is definitely Anna. With Jezebel, she exploded the myths about women that so many media outlets perpetuate. From the beginning, Jezebel’s bloggers welcomed controversy, didn’t even entertain this idea that feminism is a bad word or a dusty 70s relic, and their humor, intelligence and willingness to call bullsh*t was addictive. Anna paved the way for our site and every other popular women’s site that has a distinct mission and voice.

The second is Lena Dunham. I can never get over the fact that in an era when I’ve so often felt that it’s all been done before, Dunham assumed that her vision could be realized and that her voice was worth hearing. She assumed that other people would want and need to hear what she had to say — about body image, privilege and how scary and unglamorous being a woman in your early 20s can be. I think Dunham lives a message so many young women need to hear: that they don’t have to wait for permission to create something meaningful, that their stories and experiences are valuable and should be shared.

The third is, collectively, the mom (and dad) blogosphere. I had the privilege of working with many parenting bloggers when I was an editor at Babble, and they never ceased to amaze me. By writing openly about the very personal and challenging experience of raising a child, they formed a powerful, enduring and lucrative online content network – also without asking anyone’s permission.

S/G: What are you most looking forward to at SXSW 2013?

Margaret: HuffPost is developing exciting new products internally all the time, but at South By you get a sense of how many ideas and tools are being hatched beyond your immediate horizons. I’m looking forward to my second dose of that this year. I also think that at big conferences, you’re lucky if you get to really connect with one or two people whose vision impresses you. Last year for me that was Intel social innovator Ekaterina Walter (@eKaterina), whose passion for what she does left me energized for days after.

South By is also great because it gives us an opportunity to share what we do at HuffPost Lifestyle. I’m excited for executive lifestyle editor Lori Leibovich‘s panel on Toddlers and Technology, and a panel on Keeping Working Parents In & Innovating from our senior columnist for life, work, and family, Lisa Belkin. Both will talk about a goal at the center of our editorial mission: to find a better balance between the roles of family and technology in our lives. And I’m obviously excited about HuffPost Women’s panel, which is very much in line with the kinds of conversations we have on our site. With HPW, we’ve created a place for women online that’s inclusive, informed, fun, honest and smart. Most importantly, it reflects our commitment to the idea that there is no one right way to be female and that everyone’s story matters. I’m very proud of that.

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Dice.com
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki

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