Crossing the Rubicon
The Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart of newsletters is entering our media mogul phase. (Please?)
What would make the perfect women’s magazine? Juicy yarns, big ideas, deeply personal examinations of women’s lives—and none of the advertiser obligations. Welcome to the Spread, where every week two editors read, listen, and watch it all, and deliver only the best to your inbox.
Dear Super Spreaders (we mean that as the highest of compliments),
In last week’s issue, Rachel was at the mike, pumping up Maggie for the release of her book with the fervor that only a born #hypewoman can bring to the task. (That hot-pink two-lb baby is doing just fine despite the long and difficult labor, thanks for asking, and Maggie is almost back to sleeping through the night.) The moment felt so…right, in 2023, the Year of the Hypewoman. Maybe you’ve heard? Maybe you are that hypewoman? According to PureWow, the august publication that made that declaration—yes, we fearlessly quote an online outfit called PureWow; the Spread is nothing if not well rounded—it was the vibe shiftheard round the world as Jamie Lee Curtis fist-pumped Michelle Yeoh’s win at the Golden Globes, “help[ing to] crystallize the deep-rooted benefits of [women] loudly and proudly lifting each other up.” (At the Oscars this past this weekend, the pair continued to do a lot of winning and even more hugging.)
We like to think of the Spread as a hypewoman, celebrating the smartest ideas from our favorite writers, but also celebrating you, our readers. We are your Jamie Lee, our faces perpetually twisted in a grimace of pure (wow) love. Thank you for coming on this journey with us. We sincerely hope we provide both an escape and a useful service to you.
Are we dropping hints? Yeah. Enough with the throat clearing. We’re excited/nervous/blahhhhh! to announce that starting today, the Spread is officially asking you to pay for this newsletter. Much as we’ve enjoyed 18 months of providing the public service of free gossip and unsolicited opinion on top of must-read journalism, the day (pay day?) has come: Please consider ponying up for what you read here.
Because we respect you, we will not resort to the arm-twisting tactics commonly deployed by fellow newsletterers. We will not, for instance, try to guilt you about all the mouths that we working mothers have to feed (a combined six hopefully college-bound progeny) or the hours we spend slaving over every issue (do you even know how long it takes to insert all these links?) or the combined years of professional expertise we bring to bear on this project (rough estimate: 148). And we won’t even start on the overqualified copy editor—also a woman—who every week from the get-go has kept us from grammatically falling on our faces...for free.
We will not remind you that today is Equal Pay Day and we are a couple of WOMEN who have hitherto been giving the milk away for free. Nope, we are above mentioning that! Instead we will just say: Do you like the Spread? If so, please think about upgrading to a paid subscription today. Now let’s get on with the issue!
Have we told you how pretty you are?
Rachel & Maggie
PS: Whether or not you decide to woman up and fork over actual dough, you can—at no additional cost to you!—press that little heart button. In addition to functioning as a much-needed pat on the back, “likes” make us look good to the Substack platform.
Being the bigger person.
Self-described “professional fat person” Lindy West is at her rant-y best in the Guardian, going hard against The Whale on the eve of Brendan Fraser’s night of reckoning at the Oscars. West, in my book, is not the most poetic essayist. That’s not a dis. Because what she is, is sometimes better: A blunt, uncompromising verbal pugilist—one with a knack for identifying ugly truths about society and human nature, and offering her audience no escape from our own culpability in them. The Whale, she argues, did nothing to humanize fat people, as its director, Darren Aronofsky (and many critics, and obviously members of the Academy), has extensively argued. On the contrary, West writes: “People respond positively to The Whale because it confirms their biases about what fat people are like (gross, sad) and why fat people are fat (trauma, munchies) and allows them to feel benevolent yet superior….Look at me, Mom! I’m doing empathy on the big greasy monsters! Thin people hate us so much that this is what it looks like when they’re trying to like us.” For my part, I have had serious doubts about Aronofsky’s ability to humanize anything, ever since he produced a 121-minute siege of torture porn starring his then girlfriend (and my spirit animal) Jennifer Lawrence. But I do find West’s complete dismissal of the progress we’ve made as a culture to embrace or empathize with fat people depressing. After all, she’d know.—Maggie
Maggie, With all of The Whale ruckus during the Oscars—especially its win for hair and makeup (goodness gracious, voters!)—and its lead-up (thanks, Lindy!) fat was on the brain. Then, as part of a very strange mid-Oscars ad for Disney’s new live-action The Little Mermaid, in walked either Chloe or Halle (who’s to know for sure), who’ll star as our be-finned Ariel…and the magnificent Melissa McCarthy, who’ll star as the hands-down best Disney character of all time period, her majesty, seawitch Ursula. In what felt like a big-bang moment, I was reminded by a friend of Carmen Maria Machado’s breathtaking 2017 Guernica essay about the fantastical glory of the big-bodied woman vis-à-vis UrsulaFraggle Rock—and the way it tragically collides with…our culture’s royally botched relationship with fat women in real life. This essay, which achingly wraps in Machado’s own experiences, many sexual, as a fat woman, is a masterpiece in personal pop-culture criticism. Do yourself the favor of taking up as much space as physically possible and digging in.—Rachel
Read “The Whale is not a masterpiece—it’s a joyless, harmful fantasy of fat squalor” here.
Read “The Trash Heap Has Spoken” here.
Last night I stayed up past midnight reading “Agnes Callard’s Marriage of the Minds,” about the University of Chicago-based philosopher, by Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker. Spreaders, I am still reeling! Without giving too much away (not that I could do the ideas justice here—they are complex), the profile traces Callard’s romantic relationships, which she sees as inextricable to her work as a public philosopher of ethics, as she falls in love with her PhD student, divorces her longtime husband and father to her two sons, marries the PhD student and has a third son with him, and lassos the six of them together (the two men, three boys, and Callard) as a happy family who all live together in the same Chicago apartment. And that’s when things get really heady (and, depending on the state of your own union and/or personal philosophy of marriage, harrowing). For those of you who, like me, are in constant search of stories that examine the interior, domestic, sexual, and intellectual lives of women: jackpot! The profile also confirms with fireworks my suspicion that Rachel Aviv can do literally anything and everything: swashbuckling international exposés, uniquely American accounts of poverty and abuse, unflinching investigations into the cracks in the social safety net, thorny legal profiles, and now, this philosophical-marital tour de force. (I’m sure also record-time Ikea furniture assembly and complicated tax math.) Bowing down.—Rachel
Read it here.
Now serving: Magic baby elixir.
We’re doubling down on New Yorker stories because how could we not, what with Molly Fischer reporting on the science of artificial breast milk—brand name, Biomilq (raise your hand if that word instantly conjured the creepy robo-babies in Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers?) In a world in which ChatGPT seems to be gunning for my career and my eight-year-old is already begging for an “AI headset” (WTF?), I find some small comfort in the fact that—even with the help of lab-cultured human mammary cells, eek—it is really super hard to replicate milk naturally produced by the human body. Silicon Valley can replicate our minds, but our milk ducts? Not quite! Fischer provides all the necessary (and fascinating!) context: the ongoing debate about whether breast milk really is better than formula; the nuts and bolts of how the body produces milk. And other complexities: Breast milk, the liquid, can’t replace breast feeding, the bonding exercise. And the biotech version can’t replicate a mother’s antibodies, her gut bacteria, or—get this—the “characteristic variability” of her milk, “the way its chemical composition changes over the course of months, days, even a single feed—and its ability to respond (through the mechanism of infant backwash, some suggest) to the nutritional needs of a particular baby.” Whoa! Stuck in my head: Who will be able to afford this wonder milk? While its founders insist that accessibility is a priority, it’s easy to imagine Biomilq becoming the Snoo of infant nutrition—priced well beyond the reach of 99 percent of Similac moms—and thus adding yet another layer of privilege to the already-fraught hierarchy around breast v. formula.—Maggie
Read “Biomilq and the New Science of Artificial Breast Milk” here.
The careerist through 20/20 vision.
In a surprising twist (to me, at least), the new New York magazine’s cover is devoted to the one and only Barbara Walters, two and a half months after her death at 93. The story, written by Irin Carmon (on a sentence level, some of her best writing ever, I think) is an assemblage of assessments of Lady Wa Wa by her peers (Jane Pauley, Connie Chung), mentees (Lisa Ling, Katie Couric), and successors (Joy Reid, Tamron Hall). These women all give much credit to the hyper-ambitious Walters as the Trailblazer for their careers as broadcasters. They also pull zero punches as they reminisce about the grand dame, a fiercely competitive and cutthroat workaholic. The package is a blast and serves as a fascinating snapshot of the history of women in TV journalism while also doing the incredible service of painting a portrait of an icon, without airbrushing her. It’s got tons of juicy tidbits about Walters stealing major interviews from other women, delighting in gossip, and strategically maneuvering on The View. Snaps to New York, and photographer Brigitte Lacombe, for the sheer number of boldface journalists booked, interviewed, and photographed—17 in total, also including Gayle King, Christiane Amanpour, and Deborah Norville. There were one or two news icons conspicuously absent, including her supposed archrival (starts with Di-, ends with -awyer), which in its way felt more telling than another quote or two. Am I reading too much into this, MB? Maybe so, but I’ll call it an homage—I’m sure the scoop-thirsty Walters would speculate the same.—Rachel
Read “Let’s Talk Barbara Walters” here.
The New York Times Magazine has a beautiful essay by Hillary Brenhouse that’s ostensibly about embracing the idea of the old wives’ tale, but is really about the value of women sharing and passing down wisdom throughout history. It’s the kind of woman-focused piece that would have been highly unlikely to run in this kind of publication ten years ago but that now—praise to the media gods—is no surprise to find in its pages. The surprise instead comes from the colorful details and riveting writing.
Read “The Subversive Wisdom of ‘Old Wives’ Tales’” here.
From the mouths of funny babes.
Two installments in a row, the Cut’s How I Get It Done column has hit my own personal sweet spot, with as-told-to’s with Casey Wilson and Jessi Klein—comedy-world gems who have written and performed two of my favorite audiobooks in recent memory (The Wreckage of My Presence and I’ll Show Myself Out, respectively.) Wilson goes into great and tender detail about recently having a daughter by surrogate and how she’s trying to reconcile a new-to-her kind of maternity leave (she has young sons, too, the births of whom resulted in serious postpartum depression) and her career priorities. Klein, for her part, starts the column off with a bang, announcing she’s separated and has her son 50 percent of the time (she and her husband were together at the end of her book, which published last year); this new dynamic informs the rest of the piece, which she tells with her signature side-eyed charm.—Rachel
Read “How Actor, Podcast Host, and Mom of Three Casey Wilson Gets It Done” here.
Read “How Writer and Comedian Jessi Klein Gets It Done” here.
Today, the student body of Wellesley College voted on a nonbinding referendum over whether or not the college should admit trans men. The institution’s current stance is to admit “anyone who lives and consistently identifies as a woman.” In today’s New York Times, Vimal Patel writes, “The vote is in some ways definitional: What is the mission of a women’s college?” Is the mandate to educate—and, to a degree, to protect—women, or is it to serve students of marginalized genders, in which case trans and nonbinary students would be all the more central to the cause? Plus, how do you bar trans men, when plenty of them already attend Wellesley: Many transition after they get there—a phenomenon that the Times Magazine reported on, in a fascinating (though now, of course, dated) article from nearly a decade ago, “When Women Become Men at Wellesley.”
Letter to the dudeditors.
Two weeks ago, we declaredGQ our favorite women’s magazine of the month. Well, things move fast in the hot world of men’s media: This week, the artist formerly known as Gentleman’s Quarterly is making us tired and sad and a little vicariously banged up. As lifetime lovers of women’s magazines, we’re programmed to be unable to resist an article on the latest in cosmetic procedure. But why is it that when men’s magazines take on this lady-mag subgenre, they’re not talking about where to get a little filler: It’s all about BREAKING BONES AND GETTING PUT BACK TOGETHER! The latest in GQ is an article about how miz guys are paying tens of thousands of dollars to have their jaws LITERALLY BROKEN and then rebuilt into something that resembles the glass-cutting mandible of a leading man. The whole “trend” is wrapped up in the dankest corners of the misogynist internet, and is eerily similar to the piece the same magazine recently did on…men having their legs LITERALLY BROKEN and then lengthened to make their height closer to what they perceive to be leading-man height. Despite our fatigue, we can’t help but click on the latest in Fight Club Plastics when it comes across our feed. Make it stop, GQ! Save us from the manosphere, save us from ourselves!
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“She was crowned with a shock of white hair, heavy-lidded with blue eye shadow, adorned with red lips and a beauty spot. Her breasts were pushed up and spilled out and moved every time she did. Often, she came toward the viewer, quick and filling the frame—shimmying her bosom, splaying her tentacles obscenely, showing off her elbow dimples and double chin and large teeth.”
“A voluminous mound of sentient garbage and compost and leaves, who had a cherry-red cat-eye lorgnette and a banana-peel fascinator set at a jaunty angle. From the tippy-top of her head, she only spread outward as you went down. She didn’t spill from anything because there was nothing to spill from: she was boundless.”