Enter the Motherlode
The Cher and Sonny of newsletters is learning to fly. 🕊️
Diane, my darling, my Belgian queen, my divine chickpea,
As I sit here on the million-foot deck of our schooner, the Eos, gazing out over the glittering Aegean, I picture you—your multicolor chiffon caftan wafting in the breeze of our very own Little Island, your curls tousled just so—and realize I’d better come clean: InStyle, the magazine whose readers have single-handedly kept your label afloat, is about to walk the plank, baby…blah blah blah…
Your devoted Bar-Bar
It’s been a week of highs and lows in the wide world of women’s media. When news broke that a slew of magazines, including InStyle, Entertainment Weekly, and Parents, would cease their print publications in the wake of the merger of publishing company Meredith with Dotdash—the digital publishing arm of Barry Diller’s behemoth IAC—we found ourselves imagining Diller breaking the news to his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, whose clothes just seem so…InStyle to us. We mean this in the best way: Over the last several years, InStyle was at its celebrity-hobnobbing fashion-feminist best under EIC Laura Brown. We salute Brown, who quickly announced her departure, as well as the 200 other staffers whose jobs were eliminated last week. (Read the Insta salute Brown’s adoring fiancé posted about her dedication and brilliance here. Also, to all partners everywhere: TAKE NOTES. This is how it’s done.)
With each publication that slides off the iceberg comes a scary sucking feeling for those of us who long paid our mortgages with magazine paychecks, a kind of sympathy panic: Oh shiiiiiit, are we all going down with it?? But in the week that followed, we saw one reason after another to believe that women’s media as we define it here at the Spread—media for, by, and/or about women—is, despite appearances to the contrary, at an all-time high. Perfect Spread stories just kept piling into our text chains from all over the journoscape, especially the New York Times which is giving reigning Spreadie champ the Atlantic a run for its money for this year’s most prestigious award. While the Spread prides ourself on careful curation, this week we just did our level best to cram it all in—there was too much good stuff to leave any on the cutting-room floor. And then came another glimmer of hope in some out-of-the-blue news: The Wing, the beleaguered ladies’ clubhouse/coworking space, announced what you might call a “build back better” plan of its own, appointing a new CEO, Jen Cho. To be sure, the Wing has problems to fix—and Cho has her work cut out for her: The top two related searches on Google are Does the Wing Still Exist? and What is going on with the Wing?—but after two-plus years of limited face time (of the non-digital sort) and working from home in our “joggers,” boy are we ready for the kind of gathering space/meeting of the minds that the Wing once promised to be…and may yet become.
SPREAD your broken Wings, gentle readers,
Rachel & Maggie
PS: Like the Spread? Then like this post, please ma’ams!
For crying out loud.
Wesley Morris! Marry me? Adopt me? Allow me to adopt you? Come be my live-in au pair who does not a lick of childcare? Allow me to be your home chef and by chef I mean expert take-out-orderer who’s great company at meal time? Hell, I will learn to cook for you if you’ll have me! Morris, whose ailing Saab convertible I once offered to buy at a mutual friend’s Christmas party as a ploy to exchange phone numbers (it was after 3 a.m. when I made my bid; no digits were exchanged, but I did feel like I’d been hit by a Mack Truck the next day, which conveniently coincided with a seven-hour drive to our holiday destination, our two equally “motion sick” cats in tow—let’s say it together: marital low point!), never fails to deliver. But his new New York Times essay “A Good Cry” literally made me weep. This was clearly his intention, but I didn’t see it coming! Morris begins the piece as a tribute to/dissection of the waterworks styles of Hollywood’s finest actresses. “Viola Davis, for instance, cries the way I do: with everything she’s got,” he writes.
“But also with more than I have. And mostly with her nose. The tears in a Viola Davis cry can seem hazardously indistinguishable from snot. Not a weep so much as a gush. When a dam breaks on one of Davis’s characters, though, she maintains a balance between poise and collapse. The dam won’t break her. She knows what happens when she’s upset, and no amount of fluid shall derail a full expression of the heartbreak whose delegate is facial discharge.”
As if this writing wasn’t breathtaking enough, Morris shifts into a meditation on the human need to cry—inside and outside of a movie theater—movingly writing of his first experience sobbing at the cinema (while watching E.T. with his mother). Morris then builds upon this feat by pulling in our collective need to mourn, to let loose our tears, on the pandemic—on the thousands of lives lost. And then he lands a triple axel of the human-writer spirit variety, allowing himself to crack wide open, grieving the death of his mother and the tears that have poured from him since the moment of her passing. As a whole the piece is a triumph that swells and crescendos until you realize there are tears dripping off your chin. Or at least mine. Now get reading; I’ll pass you a tissue.—Rachel
Read “The Power of a Good Cry” here.
You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser. You gotta be strong, you gotta be hard, you gotta, you gotta, you gotta…
At first it felt like we got a double shot of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” espresso in our cultural latte this week. First, Brach’s, maker of Conversation Hearts—those dusty, crunchy tradable treats from your Valentine’s Day inbox of yore—got its hand slapped for daring to update its messaging (this in the wake of that M&M debacle). “Don’t tell me I ‘GOT THIS,’” snapped Washington Post columnist Christine Emba, decrying hearts that read “HIGH FIVE” and “CRUSH IT” as corporate speak, just another load of “toxic positivity” telling her all she needs to succeed is more rah-rah hard work—and perhaps forgetting that the target demo for Conversation Hearts are third graders, who might find “GO TIME” easier to navigate than that age-old “KISS ME” heart. Oof, that one used to trip me up!
At the same time, we got word of a new book, Confidence Culture, in which a pair of British academics take issue with the barrage of messaging in magazines, newspapers, ads, apps, etc., that tell women all we need is a little extra chutzpah. Fake it till you make it! You do YOU! [Insert cheeseball tank-top slogan here.] In an interview by Valeriya Safronova in the New York Times, Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad argue that “Confidence culture lets institutions, organizations and wider structures off the hook, because if women are responsible, then we don’t actually have to make any fundamental changes.” I confess my first read on this one was defensive, or at least…irritable. Among the things Gill and Orgad find fault with is “love your body”-style marketing from the likes of Dove, Nike, and L’Oréal. Call me a corporate stooge, but while there are always missteps (some egregious), I bristle when critics reflexively take down companies’ attempts to do better. You may argue that it’s cynical to use messages of empowerment and feminism to sell women products—and I get that. But this is America, baby! Companies gonna sell body wash! Let’s not pooh-pooh imperfect attempts at progress, especially when it means a wider range of bodies and skin tones are being celebrated in the advertising images young girls now grow up with. That said, the heart of Gill and Orgad’s argument does resonate with me, and deeply: Confidence culture tells us that we should feel great about ourselves, our bodies, all the rest of it—the implication being that if we don’t, or can’t, then the fault lies with us. This seems like a subtler read of the body-positivity movement, which I cheer from the sidelines but can never quite claim as my own, that is long overdue.—Maggie
Read “Is Confidence the Secret to Success? Not Exactly.” here.
Read “In Defense of Conversation Hearts” in the Cut here.
One of my favorite genres is Paris-based New Yorker writer Lauren Collins on domestic life. Take “The Underrated Pleasures of Eating Dinner Early” (holds up!) and “Notes from a Baby-Names Obsessive” (I think about this one weekly). How we document our family lives has become a fantastic Collins subgenre, starting with her profile of a personal-photo curator last year and continuing with her new consideration of the cause and effect of how mothers seldom appear in family photos. In my own family, this motherless-photo phenomenon is well-trodden to the point of being something of a meme; there are few photos of my mother when my sister and I were kids and even fewer of her mother when she and my aunts were kids. The why is obvious: Mom is always behind the camera; she is a workhorse, not a show pony. I’d kind of accepted this fate for myself as well—a useful fate, to be honest: I could hide behind this excuse because I don’t love the way I look in photos during this body-as-a-vessel-for-other-humans stage in life anyway. But Collins is making me rethink the whole thing once again. My new strategy is this (I think): Learn to take a good selfie with my beloveds. That way I can control the angle, the lighting, and what does and does not (mostly does, let’s be real) end up in the trash. Maggie, What’s your feeling here? As a good feminist who deserves to live on in posterity, do you pile in among your boys for photos on the regular?—Rachel
Rachel, Cultural anthropologists could do a deep dive of our family-photo record and find no evidence of my existence. Something about the Kim K-endorsed era of the selfie made me even less inclined to be in the photo? That and, ya know, baby weight and bad angles. I’ve consciously been trying to fix this for the last few years, or so I thought—but when it was time to make the Christmas card this year I realized there were maybe two acceptable shots. Million-dollar idea: Someone should invent an app where you can drop a (pre-approved) picture of mom into any photo!—Maggie
Read “The Hidden Mothers of Family Photos” here.
"You have some serious fucking reckoning to do."
Anna Graham Hunter was already a #MeToo silence-breaker herself—she had recently accused Dustin Hoffman of sexual harassment—when she found out her friend, former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, stood accused: Two of Schneiderman’s former girlfriends told the New Yorker that he had “repeatedly hit them, often after drinking, frequently in bed and never with their consent.” Hunter believed the women. She was appalled, enraged. And yet she emailed Schneiderman: She was furious at him, but she wouldn’t turn her back on him. What she really wanted was for him to get it—to see what he had done wrong, to ask for forgiveness from his victims. Thus began three-plus years of long, often fraught discussions between Hunter and Schneiderman—the evidence of which (plus in-person interviews) were shared with BuzzFeed’s Katie J.M. Baker. The resulting story is a helluva read: Baker carefully lays out Schneiderman’s wrongdoing, his one-step-forward, two-steps-back awakening, and the infuriating tension between when he finally “gets it” in private—admitting wrongdoing and even penning a letter to one of his victims asking forgiveness—but still goes on to argue in court (to keep his law license) that the women enjoyed their “dominant-submissive” sex lives, despite what they later said. Baker’s story raises questions, still unanswered, about what we’re supposed to do with these men after they’re accused: Should they ever be let back in the fold? Is Schneiderman only sharing this story to gain public redemption?
Most curious to me was the consciousness-raising feminist reading list Hunter and Schneiderman worked through together, “discussing challenging work by writers from New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister to philosophers Kate Manne and Ken Wilber. They read Moira Donegan on why she started the “Shitty Media Men” list and Tarana Burke on #MeToo’s origin story. They cast a wide net, covering the Black women left out of the suffrage movement, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church…” And in a meta twist, the former AG says Chelsea G. Summers’s writing about Schneiderman’s own predilection for rough sex—she argues that outwardly progressive men use kink as a cover for abuse—made him feel “seen” in a way he never had before. Way to make an impact, Chels.—Maggie
Read “Eric Schneiderman Says He’s Changed. Is that Enough?” here.
Friends like these.
Like the rest of the Twitterverse, Rachel and I both herald news of a new Jennifer Senior article like a gift that is being delivered especially unto us. Senior is the veteran journalist whose 2010 New York cover story about child-rearing (later expanded into a book of the same title), “All Joy and No Fun,” provided an off-referenced slogan for this segment of my life—and arguably normalized a new level of outspokenness about maternal ambivalence for a significant segment of the chattering classes. As in, “How’s it going, Maggie?” Weellllllll. It’s not what I’d call fun, exactly, but there sure is some joy some of the time! This time around, Senior, recently installed as a staff writer at the Atlantic, turns her linguistic prowess and her knack for identifying a zeitgeist-y emotional undercurrent, to the subject of friendship, with another work whose title says it all: “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart.” After the pandemic forced us all to prune or at least reprioritize our relationships, at least in terms of who we actually see, she’s writing about why friendships naturally wax and wane, and all the reasons we shed friends in midlife—after our thirties and forties, in which we are so relentlessly, “stupidly” busy (hello!) with jobs and kids and spouses and all of it—and why those losses hurt. Senior, who has a decade on me, talks about a moment that I haven’t hit but often think about: Who will I be when my kids move on? (Or, in darker moments, “What will be left of me by the time my kids get a life?”) “Then one day you look up and discover that the ambition monkey has fallen off your back; your kids are cheerfully indifferent to your company; your partner may or may not still be by your side. And what, then, remains? With any luck, your friends.”—Maggie
Maggie, It’s true that glimpsing a fresh Jennifer Senior byline atop several thousand words sends me into a schedule-clearing frenzy. Another writer whose name has the same effect is New York’s Lisa Miller, whose biography of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez covers the latest issue (it’s an excerpt from New York’s new book about AOC, the timing for which strikes me as a little random, but hey, I will gobble up any Adam Moss-adjacent project at any time). The profile is a write-around, but like all of Miller’s work it has juicy secondary interviews and also a heavy dose of wisdom from Miller herself. Taking a page from Kim Kardashian, I announced to my family that I would be choosing myself for as long as it took for me to absorb these two articles (which total about 15,000 words), shut the door to my bedroom, and achieved nirvana. The power of journalism!—Rachel
Read “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart” here.
Read “Adrift, Broke, and Disillusioned” by Lisa Miller here.
“The Times have [sic] sunk to a new low.” Hallelujah.
Like a sunny day in an otherwise ice-crusted February, Allison P. Davis has lavished on us a piece of her sex writing after a lengthy drought (for us, not her: We hear she’s been busy finishing her upcoming tome on horny women for Avid Reader Press!). Here, her task is a book review—of the new erotic-fiction anthology Anonymous Sex—and her publisher is the New York Times—which means Davis puts a slightly more buttoned-up spin on her raunchy talents, and the effect is a ball. For instance, instead of describing in more gory detail how a passage turned her on, she says she had to “cross her legs” while reading it. Despite many gemlike turns of phrase from Davis, the best part of the piece may just be the comments section. Let’s just say that even her more judicious mode, Davis is a little extra for Times devotees. Don’t miss their responses, which range from arguing with Davis’s take to slamming the Grey Lady for publishing such smut to admitting that her writing had them crossing their legs right back at her.—Rachel
Rachel, I can’t resist pointing out that we knew Allison P. Davis when. She came to Elle as an assistant fresh out of grad school, long before she found her calling as a provocateur: I love reading her now and picturing the hilarious, sometimes bawdy, occasionally awkward, perpetually laughing twentysomething—we loved her, but geez, we never knew she had this in her!—Maggie
Read “In ‘Anonymous Sex,’ No String—and No Bylines” here.
“Dance like no one is watching; email like it would one day be read aloud in a deposition.”
It’s a banner month for, in the words of Cher, gypsies, tramps, and thieves. Wait, Maggie, are we allowed to say that anymore, even if we’re quoting Cher? No? OK, taking it from the top! [Clears throat. 3-2-1.] It’s a banner month for scammers, grifters, and cons of all stripes. Unless you’ve been living under a rock or in solitary at Rikers, you’re well aware that Inventing Anna, Shonda Rhimes’s series about socialite-fraudster Anna Delvey based on Spread goddess Jessica Pressler’s 2018 New York magazine story (“Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It”), has hit Netflix, spawning a fresh round of coverage of both the journalist and the scammer. And in an attempt to top itself, New York has come out with another doozy from the land of Scamalot, a profile of Danielle Miller, the Horace Mann grad who was literally taken under the weirdly accented wing of Delvey herself when they were both getting an education at Rikers Island. The profile is a wild ride (Miller casually explains how she found Warren Buffet’s Social Security number without lifting a finger as an aside), and its success is owed to writer Gabrielle Bluestone (great byline, right?), who was in the class behind Miller at Horace Mann—and who is a licensed lawyer and who wrote a book called Hype (about internet scammers!) and who can now count me as one of her fans.—Rachel
Read “I More So Consider Myself a Con Artist Than Anything” here.
And wait, there’s more!
We promised you the motherlode, but because the Substack platform will only let us write a few thousand words before cutting us off (what’s your beef with #longform, Substack?), we’ll keep these brief.
Think about Barry Diller often? For better or worse, he and his enormous power-footprint have been on our minds since we read this bonkers piece about his court battle with Tinder cofounder Sean Rad (he of the over-the-top manse recently featured in Arch Digest and the Spread). And now this! We’ll always remember you, InStyle and EW.