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Taking It Personally
The David Hasselhoff and Yasmine Bleeth of newsletters is playing footsie with Channing Tatum and—watch out!—pontificating our bronzed buns off.
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.
This time last year we were gleefully shopping for popcorn—giant Costco crates of Pop Secret because, duh, the ’90s—in anticipation of Pam & Tommy, the limited series starring Sebastian Stan and Lily James as King and Queen of the sex tape. Now we find ourselves older and wiser and with a stomach ache from what turned out to be a fairly blech, overlong series—the supersized butter-flavored Pop Secret didn’t help, but mostly it was the animatronic pecker that did it—we’re embarking on a new Pam-centric journey: The one in which present-day Pam, who was not involved in last year’s show, takes. Back. The. Narrative. On January 31, Pamela, a Love Story, a Pam-produced documentary about her life, will bow on Netflix. That same day, Harper Collins will publish her memoir, the confusingly similarly titled Love, Pamela. While none of this fresh content can assuage our persistent grief over missing Pam’s Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in Chicago last year, we are happy to have the Baywatch queen back in our lives yet again. Pam, we thank you.
While we’re counting our blessings: We had a big leap in subscriptions last week—wahoo! Bienvenue, new arrivals. You have arrived on a particularly rant-laden week. If you dig it—and we hope you do—the way we show our love around here is to punch that little heart button up top. Mwah!
Rachel & Maggie
Hi, I’m Libby Epstein!
Welcome! Hi, yes, we are still talking about Fleishman Is in Trouble and will be until further notice—grab a glass of Grüner and settle in. The Hulu/FX limited series, adapted by Taffy Brodesser-Akner from her novel of the same name, zeroes in on my exact micro-generation; takes place in the exact place where I spent my formative adult years; and is narrated by one Libby Epstein, a former magazine staffer who, like yours truly, traded her obligation-free New York life for a more predictable family-centric existence in the suburbs. Here’s Libby: “I was heading into my second year of being a stay-at-home mom and my thirteenth year of marriage and my fifth year in a suburb and my forty-first year of life. But none of that changed who I essentially was, which was a magazine writer with no assignment. That didn’t stop me from pontificating all over the suburbs.” As my husband and I took it all in—from our four-bedroom house with lots of practical storage and a painful arborist bill—he, who is boppier than Libby’s husband but does have a similar bouffant of gray hair, looked my way: “That’s you. Pontificating. To anyone who’ll listen. All over town.” And in the Spread, I nodded. Yep, Libby est moi.
Libby is extremely well drawn. She’s also flawed in ways that feel achingly familiar. So this weekend, when author-turned-Substacker Laurie Stone published a no-holds-barred feminist takedown of Fleishman (by way of the fabulous Sari Botton’s Substack-homed Oldster Magazine), with Libby as the lynchpin of her argument—and followed by a barrage of mostly positive reader responses, vehemently agreeing with her screed—it’s fair to say that I took it personally. Which fits, given that Stone’s own newsletter, where it was also published, is called Everything is Personal.
First, a word on Libby’s flaws: She spent her twenties worshiping at the altar of men’s magazines, revering a certain kind of swashbuckling writer-hero whose chin-scratching prose oozed—as we all now know—misogyny. So did I. Like her, I believed that being the only woman invited to a meeting was a feather in my cap. I, too, was professionally rewarded for being “like a dude,” as one male boss put it. I’m not proud of these attitudes now, but like it or not, it’s how I thought. As Stone sees it, by sympathetically portraying a character with such a time-stamped worldview, Fleishman fails to acknowledge Libby’s feminist forebears: “From the perspective of this story, the women’s movement never happened. Women have never worked collectively to address the miseries heaped on women for being women. From the perspective of this story, every damn woman has to invent feminism on her own. From the perspective of this story, every generation of women understands itself as separate from the history of women working together.” Stone heaps shame on wanting to be “the only woman at the table,” shish-kabobing this mentality from Dorothy Parker through to Nora Ephron and now to Libby. But as I read, I kept thinking: Aren’t these problems in Libby’s makeup kind of…the point? Isn’t seeing the error of her ways part of her journey—something she must evolve past, however painfully? In my case, my illusions about the glories of “men’s magazines” were blown up by working at a women’s magazine, in exactly the kind of true feminist collaboration with other smart women that Stone writes about. Still, people with feminist blindspots, like me then, and Libby, do exist; how is showing them onscreen “erasure of the women’s movement”? And since when do feminist culture critics need their female characters to be so likable, anyway? Isn’t flawed—but still front and center in the story—what we’ve been advocating for all along?
I find this kind of feminist-on-feminist (and now feminist-on-feminist-on-feminist, I suppose) debate fascinating. My first reaction to Stone is that she should get on board with Taffy; hell, she should congratulate Taffy, a suburban mom herself and recovering men’s magazine writer who created a book and now a show that’s fearless in its depiction of midlife—what an achievement. But that’s because I like Fleishman. Maybe instead I should appreciate the progress that allows Stone—and me—to disagree with and even rip apart works by other women instead of just patting them on the back for achievement in a man’s world. For that, thank you, feminist forebears!—Rachel
RB, I had a similarly visceral response to New Yorker movie critic Richard Brody’s read on the brilliant, arrogant world-renowned conductor Lydia (or, oof, Linda) in Oscar-bait Tár. Brody argues that the film cast doubt on “accusations of improprieties levied against Lydia” and “presents her as a victim,” all in an effort to “take bitter aim at so-called cancel culture.” Good lord, I thought, could I have gotten it that wrong? I’d walked away confident that at every turn, filmmaker Todd Field was building an intricately damning case against Tár; that she was a serial victimizer, not a victim in any sense. Rachel: Lydia Tár and Libby Epstein make unlikely bedfellows indeed! But like your take on Fleishman, I thought that revealing the truth about Tár—the ruthlessness that brought her to the top of her profession, and how her power allowed her to operate unchecked—was kind of…the whole point. And that’s why she deserved what she got! I was relieved to see Brody’s review was not the New Yorker’s last word on the film: Michael “Spread Bait” Schulman to the rescue! His must-read interview with Field, who finds himself at the forefront of this year's Oscars race after 16 years more or less on the bench, is the closest you’re going to get to the truth about whether Lydia is victim or perpetrator, and whether she should be canceled. It also notes a thing that just happened, roughly three lines ago: Even before the movie came out, “people started talking about Lydia Tár as if she was a real person.” Introducing: Spread spiritual coeditors, Lydia Tár and Libby Epstein!—MB
Additional reading: “The Suburban Identity Crisis Is Real” by Vivian Manning-Schaffel in the Cut, which you can find here.
Read, and see if you, too, are inflamed by, “Tár Reviewed: Regressive Ideas to Match Regressive Aesthetics” here.
Read “Todd Field’s Long Road to Tár” here.
Suddenly, I feel 10 years younger.
No, I have not re-upped my Botox (don’t placate me—I know you can just feel the depths of my “elevens” through your screen). But two old-school celebrity profiles were released into the world to soothe my harried soul and turn back the clock to the halcyon days of the early 2010s, when celebrities agreed to be interviewed by actual journalists and the newsstand brimmed with professionally structured, expertly wrought cover stories (and a writer could get paid top dollar…but I digress!). What I’m saying is: It’s a dying art. For Vanity Fair, best-in-the-biz Jessica Pressler rendezvoused with Channing Tatum, whom she initially interviewed for GQ, back when he was first striking it big. With these two jokey-flirty pros reunited for a Ghost-y pottery-making session followed by dual foot massages in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (check out the BTS scraps on Pressler’s Insta; if you have a thing for feet, well, brace yourself). Simultaneously, Vogue released its February cover, starring Florence Pugh, with an accompanying interview by Chloe Schama. As a Pugh superfan (have you seen 2016’s Lady Macbeth?), I gobbled it whole and now feel like I have downed Florence-made martinis with the Oscar nominee herself. Thank you, Condé Nast, for this healing dead-of-winter youth serum.—Rachel
Read “Channing Tatum Is Back for Magic Mike’s Last Dance” here.
Read “Florence Pugh’s Radical Self-Acceptance” here.
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
That’s pretty much been my philosophy when I see women in the culture doing something that seems to set back the rest of womankind. For instance: that skinny blond flashing her thong for her 3.5 million IG followers (most of them girls) isn’t the problem—she is but a reflection of the problem. The real problem is the culture she was raised in, which taught her that that curvaceous rear is where her true value lies. Also, she’s just loving her body! Being sex positive! Body positive! Positive positive! (Ok, Ok. Let’s allow that sleeping Pandora’s Box to lie, just for one day. Also, hoo boy, I am mixing up idioms like Florence Pugh’s martinis over here today!) The point is, I have tried hard not to blame women, and to instead blame the forces that shaped those women. But this weekend, flipping through Instagram, which I should never do on an empty stomach, I stumbled across a clip shared by Bella Hadid: It shows the model off-duty, traversing a crowded beach, in a microscopic black bikini that hugs a body type that—unless you’re born that way, which past pictures of Hadid imply she was not—I do not believe can be achieved by any means other than starvation. I’m not criticizing the body; I’m talking about the decision to advertise it. All I saw was a walking advertisement for body image issues, possibly worse, beamed out to 57 million followers. (I’d rather not give this more eyeballs, but it is here if you must.) At the time, I was already fired up by another video, posted by one Gwyneth Paltrow—a woman I try so hard to like!—of herself in a one-piece swimsuit, in a sauna, advocating body-brushing “for just 15 minutes a day” for, ya know, “wellness.” The real point being: GP does not have a single fat cell! Buy this firming Goop so you won’t either! What I’m saying is Bella is far from alone here; if anything, she is one of so many, it feels almost unfair to single her out. But she is also, I think, more culpable than some of her ilk: Hadid didn’t post that video as a “face” of Dior or Versace. She posted it as the CEO of Bella Hadid, Inc., a multinational conglomerate with 57 million followers. A brand that, evidently, upholds radical thinness as a tentpole value. She was not “discovered” in some remote village in outer Mongolia; she’s an American-educated, 26-year-old member of the pop culture establishment, a genius of self-promotion who rose to the top of the fashion heap (besting so many doubters) by sheer will and determination. In other words, she is someone who knows. Because everybody knows exactly how this kind of “thinspo” can ricochet around the mind of a girl. Bella, Gwyneth, et al.: You know how bad this kind of stuff can be for your fellow girls and women! Spreaders, what do you think: Yeah, we hate the game. But is it also time to hate—or at least, to question—the players who knowingly and flagrantly perpetuate it? Is it “feminist” to simply write off Hadid’s posts because she’s just a symptom, not a root cause; a mere cog in the machine of sexism? Or does that deny her agency, not to mention seriously sell her short as a savvy professional who knows exactly what she’s doing—and who should care more about what impact it has on the girls who are clocking her every move?—Maggie
“The influencer who influences all the influencers.”
Maggie and I spend countless hours per week consuming copious amounts of media in order to serve you, dear Spreader (Instagram scrolling? Honey, I’m working!). So I was astonished that the Wall Street Journal knew about Melissa Wood-Tepperberg before I did. But because I am classy, I will make like an institutionalized Maria Wyeth and play it as it lays. In the Journal’s much-discussed profile by Chavie Lieber, we learn that Wood-Tepperberg, 40, is a former Marquee waitress/fit model whose company, Melissa Wood Health (MWH,) now has 100,000 (that’s one hundred thousand) subscribers who pay $9.99 per month for access to her short and special workouts (a blend of yoga, Pilates, and other stuff—which sounds to me a lot like every workout since Tracy Anderson—but with a gentle spin…ahhhh). I gently caution you not to do the math on her earnings, lest you gently blow a gasket. Wood-Tepperberg, who preaches that your workouts needn’t be grueling to get results, is also a master of the brand extension, with a podcast, a product line, and a million-follower IG presence. The article consists of many a 30-something praising Wood-Tepperberg and her method (and for about thislong I even considered maybe thinking about possibly signing up) but the best part—and you can just feel the writer looking for the other side of the story…aaaaand…checkmark!—is when Giulia Forlini, 29, says that MWH isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: “I think it’s for people who are lean and tall and get muscles easily.” Thanks for letting skeptics everywhere off the hook, Giulia!—Rachel
Sometimes it's hard to be a woman selling woman-products.
Is it progress when a company comes up with a new way to fill a “white space”—and that space happens to be both exceedingly personal in nature, and occupied exclusively by women? We’ve had this debate before: I, for one, applaud and resent the “menopause gold rush” in equal measure. Yes, I want the medical establishment (and private companies!) to pour money and brainpower into women’s health issues, and I want products that are tailored to my needs, and yet I’m wary of women’s health as a “market.” Now, on to the news:
In Insider, Chelsea Hirschhorn, the founder of infant and postpartum wellness brand Frida, discusses her plan to sell intimate products packaged for women who have had abortions or suffered miscarriages. Hirschhorn has had four kids, but has also had two miscarriages, after which she required some of the same supplies she’d needed post-childbirth, like peri bottles and jumbo pads. Her idea is to sell the same stuff, but in less cutesy-hopeful packaging. Which is a good idea…right?
Elsewhere in ladyproduct land, yesterday it was announced that Thinx, the company that guaranteed—ironically, it now seems—to “absorb period worries” via its supposedly “organic, sustainable, and non-toxic” period underwear, just settled a major class action suit. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the case has been stretching on for ages. As of this week, those of us who bought Thinx between 2016 and 2022 can submit claims for compensation. Why? Multiple claims and independent research claim the company’s products “contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS,” otherwise known as “forever chemicals” (yeesh) that have been “linked to fertility issues, environmental pollution, and certain cancers,” writes the Cut. Read their explainer for all the details. This graph alone was enough to send me straight to my lingerie drawer to give my own pair the heave-ho: “While it’s unclear how much PFAS can be absorbed through underwear, studies from the Environmental Working Group suggest PFAS exposure through skin can be as harmful as oral ingestion with the vaginal area particularly vulnerable to chemical absorption. One California-based lawsuit against the company alleged that some customers developed irregular menstrual cycles, urinary tract and yeast infections, and unexplained infertility as a result of wearing Thinx underwear.” I pinged a law professor friend—who declined to be referred to as the “legal eagle that the Spread keeps on retainer” since apparently that’s untrue—to ask what to make of “settled” in this case, i.e., if they’re paying people off instead of fighting the claims, is that basically an sign of guilt? Well, no. “What the settlement means is that Thinx did a cost benefit analysis and decided $5 million was cheaper and less damaging than fighting,” he told me. But it is “a little notable that Thinx settled instead of, for example, filing a defamation lawsuit.”—Maggie
Read “I’m the Founder of Frida” here.
Read “What to Know About the Thinx Class-Action Settlement” here.
Book of the Week!
Introducing the Spread’s new column, featuring—you guessed it—a new book we’re excited about reading this week.
After getting divorced, Monica Heisey—a Schitt’s Creek writer whom you might recognize from New York’s Strategist, Glamour, British Vogue, or the New Yorker’s Daily Shouts—went on a personal journey to find humor and joy in her new life. Heisey’s new novel, out yesterday from HarperCollins, Really Good, Actually, is about a young woman who goes on a personal journey to find humor and joy after getting divorced. Hmmm…
Buy it in the Spread’s lil Bookshop here.
Dear Friends, Have I got a hot tip for you! Because I am not biased at all—I don’t even know anyone named Maggie, is that an actual name? Maggie?—I am here to tell you that Vogue just named Maggie Bullock’s The Kingdom of Prep (out March 7, Dey Street Books) one of the Best—and Most Anticipated—Books of 2023! You can pre-order it here or here. Love, Rachel
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