When dozens of women express some variation of “WTF did I just read?!” while sharing an article on social media, it’s a guarantee that some media outlet has successfully played us. I call such controversial pieces “Clickbait Crimes” — the result of media outlets intentionally publishing exploitative, bigoted, or sensationalistic content to generate outraged eyeballs for advertisers.
This week’s example, headlined “Staying Hot For My Husband Is ESSENTIAL To A Successful Marriage,” comes from Your Tango, a love and relationships site with a business model that often seems to involve trading tired, anti-feminist tropes for anger-based traffic. The thesis of the piece? Every successful heterosexual relationship is based primarily on a woman’s sex appeal, so you’d better not “let yourself go.” (No link to the piece because #starvethetrolls; like the class bully, Your Tango needs to be deprived of attention sought through bad acts.)
“When we were married a few weeks ago in front of our families, friends and a Rabbi, I vowed to stay hot for [sic] husband,” blogger Amanda Lauren writes, boasting about how happy her husband is to check out her butt on her way to Pilates, listing the fact that his friends “acknowledge he has a hot wife” as a mark of her marriage’s success, and classifying maintaining a hot bod and a makeup regimen to stun a Sephora salesperson as “doing the work I need to do for the sake of my relationship.” To lend legitimacy and universality to her argument — and to justify her glorification of classic societal beauty myths — Lauren quotes a “relationship and etiquette expert” who insists that “it’s incredibly important for women to maintain their looks” because “men are visual.” Based on platitudes from this lone “expert” (and failing to acknowledge that biological, behavioral, and social scientists disagree on how visually motivated men are individually, and as compared with women), she presents her quest for peak attractiveness not as a lifestyle choice but as a responsibility: “If men can’t help but be visual creatures, I need to oblige.” How so? By staying as sexy as possible forever and ever amen, because a lack of sex can break a marriage and “if my husband wasn’t turned on by me, we couldn’t have that essential intimacy.”
Because straight men are only turned on by their partners’ bodies, not their confidence, humor, intelligence, sensuality, or even their talented tongues? Because a straight, cisgender woman’s only route to sexiness is her ability to be male-gaze-approved? Because intimacy is only about boning? What a pity some of you poor saps think emotional, mental, and physical connection are more essential to a healthy and lasting sex life. As Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and meddling aunts everywhere have always informed us, men are only attracted to women who meet a very limited set of externally sanctioned standards: young, thin, big rack, small everything else, light skinned, straight-haired, hyper-feminine. The fewer of those criteria we meet, the less “hot,” the less valuable, the less lovable, we’re told we are.
If Lauren’s essay was framed as just one young woman’s preferences, I wouldn’t waste my time critiquing it. If the author loves to greet her husband with his favorite cocktail when he gets home from work (as she says she does), bully for her. Shaken or stirred? Dress up like Miss Moneypenny and deck your dude out in a James Bond tux if that’s what does it for you. I’m a media critic, not a therapist; I’m not in the business of publicly weighing in on anyone’s personal relationship or beauty preferences.
Here’s the problem: Your Tango packaged this piece (peppered with several “see? I really am hot!” glamour shots of the author) as an implicit and sometimes explicit guideline for how all wives should behave, what all women should be valued for, and the supposedly sad romantic prospects of women who don’t devote themselves to a lifelong quest to be as beautiful and alluring as humanly possible. “I’ve always wondered why many women let themselves go in relationships,” Lauren muses. “The decline of your physical appearance can also reflect your relationship . . . If you stop trying then you aren’t holding up your end of the relationship.”
Implicit in the article’s premise is not just “this works for me” but “BE like me.” Underneath Lauren’s breezy conversational tone is an unstated yet ominous threat: Do as much as you can, at all times, to be as traditionally “hot” as you can approximate . . . or else. Or else when your marriage fails (and it likely will, you poor, ugly, lazy sow), it will be your own fault. You don’t want your man to leave you, do you? So what are you waiting for, get thee to the treadmill and don’t you dare forget your sweat-proof mascara. Besides, Your Tango tells us, even Gloria Steinem, “of all women,” is “80 and in better shape than many women a quarter of her age.” If an outlet uses one of America’s most iconic advocates of women’s political, economic, social, reproductive, and sexual freedom to support its argument, it can’t be sexist, right?
Ever since the 1970s, corporate media have been hungry for culturally and politically retrograde arguments by women about gender issues, which they could package as “feminist” to kill two birds with one stone: continue advancing conservative anti-feminist ideology, but do so in a woman’s voice to mask the misogyny underlying this backlash to the perception that women are making political progress. I wrote about this extensively in my book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. Two decades prior, Susan Faludi documented this phenomenon in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. The ideas at the core of Lauren’s piece are the same as those of old-school etiquette guides that jockeyed for societal control of women, and of the beauty and fashion advertisements that have commercially exploited women’s psyches since the early 1900s.
Backlash media is deeply destructive. The clickbaity stories that Your Tango and other media outlets run about how it is a woman’s responsibility to “stay hot” for her husband not only play into knuckle-dragging MRA fantasies and echo Phyllis Schlafly-esque right wing women’s playbooks — they also acutely reinforce the fears of many girls and women who believe they are irrelevant and worthless based on deeply ingrained cultural conditioning around beauty ideals. Some women starve themselves trying to live up to ideas like this. Other women stay in abusive relationships because they have been made to believe they are not beautiful enough for anyone but their abuser to want them or love them. Pieces like this are none too good for straight, cisgender men either, essentializing them as unthinking oafs with no emotional range, no ability to think with anything other than their dicks, and no interest in true partnership. All of this is done for the profit of very canny media companies that know that producing substantive journalism (which takes time and resources) is less lucrative than publishing intentionally sensationalistic crap guaranteed to piss off online feminists.
Don’t worry, though, because this piece isn’t actually anti-feminist or old-fashioned. How do I know? The author made sure to tell us so. “Before you label me anti-feminist or old-fashioned, please understand that when I look good I feel more confident in myself,” which “allows me to be a better, happier and more considerate partner,” she writes. I’m sorry, but language doesn’t work that way. Words mean specific things. “Looking good” and “feeling confident” are not the definitions of feminist. When your proscriptive essay resembles a 1950s bridal manual or a 1930s Camay soap ad about “the beauty contest of life,” you can hardly blame anyone for considering your advice “old-fashioned.” Especially not when you open your piece by declaring you have “a more traditional marriage than most millennials . . . it’s kind of Mad Men, but it works for us.” (Quick, someone remind Your Tango that Mad Men spent seven densely-written seasons deconstructing the damaging sexism of traditional, mid-century marriages and the way strict gender roles held back both women and men in the private and public spheres.)
As Bitch magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler writes in her new book, We Were Feminists Once, just because a woman chooses to do something doesn’t make that act inherently feminist. Feminism is not simply about what an individual woman feels, it is a movement dedicated in part to eradicating gender-based double standards that constrain women’s and men’s lives — not reinforcing those biased strictures, as Your Tango too often does.
Let me be clear: I don’t assume negative intent on the part of Amanda Lauren, a newlywed who has not yet had to navigate the toll that age, motherhood, financial problems, and other stresses take on our appearances, and on the time we have to tend to them. It’s easy to see how a young writer, fairly early in her career, would think of an essay like this as an innocuous snapshot into her bridal philosophy with no wider relevance, especially if she has internalized societal messages about her own worth from a lifetime of movies, TV shows, music videos, magazines, commercials, billboards, and — yes — websites like Your Tango. I don’t think Lauren meant to cause women harm, although her article already did so on a macro (advancing reactionary ideas about gender roles in relationships) and micro level (several dozen women have written in social media discussions that they felt bad about their bodies or themselves after reading an essay reminding them that to the dominant culture, their looks make them unworthy of long-term love).
Your Tango, on the other hand, knew exactly what it was doing. In fact, it’s done this before — running the similar “I Think It’s Important To Stay Skinny For My Husband” in March. Yep, you read that right: Your Tango apparently has an actual beat related to making women readers feel disparaged and unworthy of love based on their looks. As I wrote in November about a particularly egregious Daily Caller listicle on “Syria-ly hot” refugees, media outlets regularly stoke the “Outrage Industrial Complex” by “troll[ing] feminists or progressives with intentionally odious headlines and bigoted content designed to generate angry clicks.” To wit, that “skinny for hubby” piece was not pitched by but assigned to the author, another young writer whose lifestyle and ideas were cynically used as grist for the site’s page views. Both Lauren and the author of this “Stay Skinny” piece are adults with agency to choose which articles to write and which ideas they want their bylines to extol. But the majority of accountability for these stories must come from the power-holder: the outlet that chooses to publish them, and the editorial process that recruited and highlighted these messages.
It’s no secret that women are published less often and make less money than male writers. Yet there’s always an outlet eager to throw a bit of cash at any woman willing to bang out some “[whatever outrageous thing I choose to do this week] works for me, so let’s make a huge logical leap and pretend this is true for and about the female half of the population” confessional essay. According to another freelancer who prefers not to out herself to a potential editor, Your Tango solicits articles from a large pool of bloggers by sending out emails chock full of potential headlines and topics. Some recent prompts have included, “I dumbed myself down to see if it attracts guys more,” “I abstained from having sex with my husband as punishment,” and “I’m only attracted to ugly women.”
I don’t expect a fluffy lifestyle and relationship site to read like Simone de Beauvoir or Kimberlé Crenshaw, but I’m going to need Your Tango to cut this crap out. Since that’s unlikely, here’s my counter-offer, direct to writers: If you don’t want to do harm, don’t write for Your Tango or sites that want to use you for clickbait. Just like friends don’t let friends drive drunk or date Trump supporters, I’m here to tell you that there have never been more outlets out there eager to publish engaging, insightful content about women’s lives. The Establishment, Bitch Media, Bust, Mic, Women’s Enews, Ms., Essence, Ebony, and even glossies like Elle and Cosmo now regularly run opinion pieces that respect women — and some of these sites pay more than Your Tango, too. You’re welcome.
Lead image: flickr/Jean L.