Tag Archives: feminism

Multi-Level Marketing’s Feminine Mystique: A Reading List

Women attend a Tupperware party, 1955. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The commodification of female friendship began in the living room, often with a small party or a conversation between neighbors. Then the goods came out: cosmetics, vitamins, jewelry. The multi-level marketing scheme was a suburban phenomenon, a way for homemakers to earn some money among friends. In the 1960s and 70s, Mary Kay, the pink-hued cosmetics company, dominated the market; in the 1980s, it was the Pampered Chef, with its kitchen tools and cookbooks; in the 2010s it’s LuLaRoe, a clothing company with coveted patterned leggings that are sold primarily through social media.

Today, multi-level marketing is booming online, with entire transactions taking place in the comments sections of Facebook posts, and aspiring entrepreneurs dispensing tips on YouTube about unloading their inventory. The products may vary, but the tactics don’t. Products are displayed, promises made. And whether a woman calls herself a consultant, a retailer, a partner, or distributor, there’s always a thinly veiled sense of desperation beneath the pitch.

Women who participate in MLM companies make a hefty up-front investment. To profit, they’ll need to recruit others to invest, and once drawn in it can be difficult to get out. Take a look at any website for an MLM company, and you’ll see sparkling promises of wealth for women. They don’t just sell products; they sell fantasies of empowerment, control, and financial freedom. Thanks to the stories below, it’s easy to understand how and why these companies target women, and what happens when they do.

1. “How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire” (Jen Doll, Mental Floss, June 2017)

It’s easy to associate Tupperware with beehive hairdos and grimy leftovers, but the company—pushed to success by social networker Brownie Wise—set the stage for today’s MLM culture. Doll tells the story of how Wise grew the company from a food storage novelty to an unstoppable national phenomenon. Why did hosting home parties as a Tupperware consultant appeal to so many women? For many, it meant a chance to work again, after the loss of employment after World War II.

Most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands’ authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

2. “The Pink Pyramid Scheme” (Virginia Sole-Smith, Harper’s, August 2012)

For decades, Mary Kay has sold a two-sided promise to women: You can buy cosmetics for youth, but for actual power, you should sell them. When Sole-Smith became a consultant for the cosmetic brand, then nearly fifty years in business, she witnessed the revival-style tactics used consultants to recruit women. She also saw a flip side of the brand for women who found both friendship and financial peril in their new roles.

Lynne resigned from her directorship soon after, but she stayed on as a consultant. She had over $15,000 in credit card debt and a basement full of unsold products inching closer to their expiration dates. It took three more years to fully extract herself, paint over the pink wall, and get rid of the products. In 2011, her husband filed for divorce, citing as one of the reasons their “different attitudes towards money.” “He meant the whole Mary Kay thing,” Lynne said. “We just never got past it.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying. When her husband first began to talk about leaving, Lynne cleared every last Mary Kay product out of the house, selling much of it at a loss and throwing the rest in the trash. “I didn’t want him to see so much as a bottle of lotion and be reminded,” she said. “I didn’t want to be reminded either.”

But she hasn’t left Mary Kay behind entirely. The consultant who debuted with only two guests at Lynne’s party remains one of her best friends and is her son’s godmother. Lynne’s new career in real estate allows her to apply her sales knowledge, and the commission checks are at least bigger.

“Oh gosh, we were all so happy,” Lynne said as we looked at a picture of women in sequined cocktail dresses and layers of Mary Kay makeup smiling into the camera, their arms slung around one another. “I guess I didn’t know who I would be without Mary Kay to define me.”

3. “How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety,” (Rachel Monroe, The New Yorker, October 2017)

When Monroe embroiled herself in the wild world of MLMs that sell essential oils, she found that it meant more than money for its sellers. Part of the appeal of grassroots-style selling came from consultants’ belief in their products. And when it comes to essential oils, it could feel like a matter of life or death.

Lara distributed a handout that listed various ailments and their oil treatments: eucalyptus for bronchitis, lavender for third-degree burns, cypress for mononucleosis, rosemary for respiratory syncytial virus. Diffusion “kills microorganisms in the air which helps stop the spread of sickness,” the pamphlet read. Oils “repair our bodies at a cellular level so when you are not sure which oils to use, don’t be afraid to use several oils and the body will gain a myriad of benefits.” Lara told the people in the room that doTerra had oils that were “very antiviral” and could knock out bronchitis in twenty-four hours. She shared essential-oil success stories—her migraines gone, her friend’s rheumatoid arthritis reversing, a colleague’s mother’s cancer in remission. A blond woman at the back of the room raised her hand. “Cancer?” she said, sounding both skeptical and hopeful. She explained that her sister-in-law had recently been treated for breast cancer, and was taking a pill to prevent its recurrence, but the side effects were terrible. The blond woman was hoping for a more natural solution.

“There is an oil for that,” Lara said cautiously. “There is some research. It is an option. It would not have those side effects.”

4. “The Truth Behind Rodan + Fields (And Its Takeover of Your Facebook Feed),” (Lauren Lipton, Allure, September 2015)

Women can become involved in MLMs for both friendship and financial gain. But what happens when everyone you know is involved in a sales scheme? After all, there are only so many showcases and special sales a person can attend, and for some, it might feel like an entire friend group has morphed into eager saleswomen. As Lipton learned, not everyone is thrilled about those endless invitations and events.

There’s a fine line between inspiring and annoying, and not all Rodan + Fields consultants tread it well. In fact, if you sell Rodan + Fields and think your friends might be dodging you, they probably are. “This is the suburban scourge,” says Rachael Pavlik, a Houston mother and the blogger behind rachriot.com, who says she goes out of her way to avoid anyone trying to sell her anything. “At first I would buy all of their stuff because I was kind of guilted into it….What is that? That’s not friendship.”

Pavlik is more outspoken than most. Most women we spoke to can’t bring themselves to hurt their friends’ feelings, so they roll their eyes privately, secretly blocking Rodan + Fields consultants who clutter their Facebook feeds and deftly fending off clumsy come-ons. One East Coast mother says she’s been approached multiple times by everyone from the woman who does her brows to childhood acquaintances she hasn’t seen for decades. Last year, an old high-school friend asked her to lunch — for reasons that soon became all too clear: “It wasn’t long into the conversation before I realized that this was a thinly veiled attempt to make me join her team,” she says. “She’s not trying to be friends with me; she’s trying to build her empire.”

5. “Multilevel-Marketing Companies Like LuLaRoe Are Forcing People Into Debt and Psychological Crisis” (Alden Wicker, Quartz, August 2017)

Wicker’s deep dive into the business practices of retailer LuLaRoe finds women grappling with everything from disappointment to financial disaster. On its website, LuLaRoe hypes not a company, but a movement—one that offers retailers a happy ending complete with balance, flexibility, and personal fulfillment. However, Wicker finds that the ending can happen quite differently for most consultants.

When consultants wake up to the fact they’ve been hoodwinked, many don’t warn their friends to stay away. That’s because if you speak out against any of LuLaRoe’s rules or mishaps, the community could publicly shame and harass you for being negative. “I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian,” one retailer wrote to someone trying to sound the alarm. “Where is the Jesus in you? I have to block you due to your constant-gross-delusional-uneducated opinions of LLR.” If you reveal you are struggling to make sales, you might be told to stop playing the victim, that you’re not putting in enough effort, to be more enthusiastic, and, of course, to buy more inventory.

“Success as a retailer results only from successful sales efforts, which require hard work, dedication, diligence, leadership, and perseverance,” says a LuLaRoe spokesperson. “Success will depend upon how effectively these qualities are exercised. As with any business, results will vary. In addition to the factors above, retailer success is influenced by the individual capacity, business experience, expertise, and motivation of the retailer.”

In other words, it’s not the system that’s broken — you’re just not trying hard enough.

The Examination of a Playboy Bunny

The photographer Weegee sets up his equipment to photograph a Playboy Bunny in the 1950s (International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

Her nom de bunny was Marie Catherine Ochs, an old family name that Gloria Steinem thought sounded “much too square to be phony.” Marie went to high school and college, but “wasn’t a slave to academics,” dropping out after her first year of college to fly to Europe and work as a waitress in London and a hostess-dancer in Paris. After returning to New York to work as a secretary, she saw an ad in the newspaper looking for women who were “pretty and personable, between 21 and 24, married or single” who wanted to make between $200 and $300 a week — about the same salary as a Madison Avenue ad executive. When Steinem handed over Marie’s detailed personal history to the Sheralee, the Bunny Mother at Playboy’s New York Club, the hostess handed it back without looking at it.

“We don’t like our girls to have any background,” she told Steinem, who was going undercover as a Playboy Bunny for Show magazine, “we just want you to fit the Bunny image.” Steinem kept meticulous notes as she completed each stage of the interview, as well as the job itself, and she collected these notes in a day-to-day account that was published in May 1963 as a two-part series “A Bunny’s Tale” which was later collected in her 1985 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

Part of Steinem’s training involved the fitting of a skin-tight uniform in two colors, the application of false eyelashes, and a physical examination with a doctor, which she recounted in detail.

Read more…

Gloria Allred’s Personal Crusade

(Frederick M. Brown/Getty)

In her first print feature for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino profiles iconic anti-discrimination lawyer Gloria Allred, who is currently litigating major cases against Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump and has played a key role in changing attitudes and legislation regarding rape and sexual assault. Allred came by her conviction for that work very personally, after being raped in the early 1970s.

During her first year in California, she went to Acapulco for a vacation. One night, a local physician asked her out to dinner. He had to make a few house calls first, he said, and they stopped by a motel. He took her to an empty room, pulled out a gun, and raped her. She didn’t report the crime to the police, fearing that she wouldn’t be believed. Soon after returning home, she discovered that she was pregnant.

It was seven years before Roe v. Wade, and abortion was illegal in California. She made an appointment for one and went alone, as instructed. She began hemorrhaging after she got home, and the man who had performed the procedure declined to offer guidance. Allred was afraid to go to the hospital. She sat at home, feverish and bleeding; eventually, her roommate called an ambulance, which took her to a hospital ward filled with other women who had had illegal abortions. She didn’t realize until later that patients around her had died. A nurse told her, as she was recovering, “This will teach you a lesson.”

Read the story

Ursula K. Le Guin, Literary Legend and Cat Blogger

Photo by Dan Tuffs / Getty Images

Writers gonna write. Fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin may have given up publishing fiction in her ’80s, but that hasn’t stopped her from writing: she’s been blogging since 2010. Internet citizens may want to know: does she write about her cat, Pard? Why yes, yes she does — while examining the human condition, of course. Robert Minto writes about Le Guin’s blog at New Republic.

A running theme is the life of her cat, Pard. Between each of No Time to Spare’s four topical sections are essays entitled “Annals of Pard.” Devoting such time and interest to the observation of a cat might seem to represent the commonest impulses both of internet culture and old age; but, as always, Le Guin wades into her new genre to deepen and expand it. When Pard brings her a living mouse to and drops it on her bed in the night, her solution is to lock them together in the kitchen until the mouse disappears (whether through elusion or ingestion, she doesn’t know). She reflects on the ethical implications and possible reasons for her resistance to intervention:

I want to say clearly that I do not believe any animal is capable of being cruel. Cruelty implies consciousness of another’s pain and the intent to cause it. Cruelty is a human specialty, which human beings continue to practice, and perfect, and institutionalize, though we seldom boast about it. We prefer to disown it, calling it “inhumanity,” ascribing it to animals. … Wild cat and wild mouse have a clear, highly developed, well-understood connection—predator and prey. But Pard’s and his ancestors’ relationship with human beings has interfered with his instincts, confusing that fierce clarity, half taming it, leaving him and his prey in an unsatisfactory, unhappy place.

Read the story

I Was a 9-Year-Old Playboy Bunny

neyya/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Shannon Lell | Longreads | September 2017 | 9 minutes (2,345 words)

 

My first sex partner was a homemade three-foot-tall Raggedy Ann doll lovingly stitched together by a distant relative. She wore a tangled mess of red yarn hair sewn in loops around her head like a halo. A cornflower-blue smock hugged her stuffed body in all the right places. Her undergarments were bloomers made of white fabric with eyelets and lace at the bottom. When stripped naked she was smooth, supple, alabaster cotton. She had adorable black button eyes and a sewn-on smile: permanently enthusiastic. I may have preferred Raggedy Andy — it’s hard to tell when you’re 8 — but he belonged to my big sister. I was left to love the one I was with. Full disclosure: At some point I did have a tryst with Andy. But under his denim overalls, confusingly, he and Ann were anatomically identical. Like many girls who played with dolls, this would prove to be my first disappointing encounter with male genitals.

I shared a room with my sister until I was 14. That’s when my parents could afford a bigger house. For 12 years our family of five — parents, sister, brother, and me, the youngest — lived in a modest three-bedroom home in a cookie-cutter neighborhood on a street called Serene. Our family was the median of every statistic: middle class, middle America, moderately educated, mildly religious.

Before my parents could afford to give us our own beds, and during my late-night love sessions with Ann, I took to sleeping on the floor for privacy. It felt like the right thing to do. And besides, my sister was always brooding for a fight.

Read more…

It Takes a Village: A ‘Village Voice’ Reading List

(Drew Angerer / Getty)

Say goodbye to those red sidewalk boxes — and a slice of American literary greatness. Since 1955, the Village Voice has been a ubiquitous part of New York City culture. In a half century it was transformed from a counterculture rag to a longform powerhouse rooted in the character and the color of the city.

This week, the current owners of the Voice announced the end of the era: The free print edition of the paper is finished. Once available on every street corner, it will now be online only. In their write-up for The New York Times, John Leland and Sarah Maslin Nir mourn the paper’s once inescapable presence: “Without it, if you are a New Yorker of a certain age, chances are you would have never found your first apartment. Never discovered your favorite punk band, spouted your first post-Structuralist literary jargon, bought that unfortunate futon sofa, discovered Sam Shepard or charted the perfidies of New York’s elected officials.”

The Village Voice was the first paper you grabbed on the way to the subway, the last thing you grabbed at night for the long ride home. It redefined the alt-weekly and introduced readers to a new kind of journalist and critic. If the Voice was the first place you were published, then you were on the way to a brilliant career. Here are some of our favorite moments of brilliance.

Read more…

Joss Whedon and the Feminist Pedestal: A Reading List

Jason LaVeris / FilmMagic / Getty Images

I don’t remember when Joss Whedon went from being a garden-variety household name to being someone I refer to on a first-name basis. I quote Joss, I verb Joss, I adjective Joss. As a woman who was once a teenage girl who grew up with Buffy, I’ve internalized more than my fair share of lessons from Our Lady of Buffdom. For the better part of twenty years, I’ve known Joss Whedon as the creator of a feminist hero.

For the better part of the same twenty years, Kai Cole knew Joss Whedon as her partner and husband. He was just Joss to her, too — far more intimately Joss than to any of his first-name-basis-ing fans.

This weekend, Cole wrote about her divorce with Joss in a post on The Wrap. She writes about how, on their honeymoon in England in 1995, she encouraged him to turn his script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer — which had just been misinterpreted as a film — into a television show. Joss apparently hadn’t wanted to work in television anymore. I repeat: As of 1995, Joss Whedon “didn’t want to work in television anymore.”

Yet on March 10, 1997 — two years after their honeymoon — Buffy aired on The WB.

According to Cole’s post, Joss had his first affair on the set of Buffy, and continued to have affairs in secret for fifteen years. I believe Cole. I believe that when she quotes Joss in her post, she is quoting him verbatim. I’ve quoted him verbatim, too.

(Or have I? I wonder, knowing more now than I did then about writers rooms, whether every line I attribute to episodes credited as “Written by Joss Whedon” were, in fact, written by Joss Whedon. Every time Jane Espenson tweets credit for specific lines to specific writers on Once Upon a Time — or retroactively to Buffy quotes — I wonder. Every time I watch UnREAL, a show co-created by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon that sends up how often women are discredited in television, I wonder. I don’t doubt that Joss was responsible for the vast majority of what I’d call classic Joss dialogue. I’ll just never know which lines weren’t actually his.)

After I saw Joss Whedon trending and read Cole’s post, I scrolled through other longtime fans’ and non-fans’ reactions on Twitter. Many were not surprised. I texted friends about my own lack of surprise, punctuated with single-tear emojis: “I almost can’t even call it disappointed. As though it would be actually inhuman to expect something else.”

Cole quotes a letter Joss wrote to her when their marriage was falling apart, when he was “done with” lying to her about the truth of his affairs. He invokes the inhuman in his confession, too — or, as is so often the case with Joss, the superhuman: “When I was running ‘Buffy,’ I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet and I can’t touch it.”

Was it superhuman for Cole to expect her husband to resist that kind of power? Would Joss have been running Buffy, if he hadn’t married Cole? “I was a powerful influence on the career choices Joss made during the 20 years we were together,” Cole writes. “I kept him grounded, and helped him find the quickest way to the success he so deeply craved. I loved him. And in return, he lied to me.”

As Marianne Eloise notes below in Dazed, it remains to be seen whether Cole’s letter will impact Joss’s career, most notably as director of the upcoming Batgirl. In the meantime, his fans are left to resolve tense, charged questions, none of which have easy answers: How do we come to personal decisions about whether or not we can separate the art from the artist? Will consequences come in the form of a public fall from feminist grace, or cost Joss professional opportunities he’s been enjoying for decades as a self-proclaimed feminist artist? Do feminists, male or female, need to be perfect to count?

In “Lie to Me” — Season 2 Episode 7, “Written by Joss Whedon” — Angel asks Buffy if she loves him. Buffy answers, “I love you. I don’t know if I trust you.” For fans and collaborators who are working through hard questions about love and the loss of trust this week, here is some guided reading on feminism, fandom, and fidelity for Whedonverse enthusiasts:
Read more…

Serena Williams on Returning to Tennis and Embracing ‘Power’

Serena Williams at the Met Gala on May 1, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images For Entertainment Weekly)

Serena Williams is planning on returning to the Australian Open next year to defend her grand slam title a mere three months after she gives birth. “It’s the most outrageous plan,” she told Vogue’s Rob Haskell from her home in Florida.

Williams has also learned to embrace what it means to be a powerful player on the tennis court:

Power—it’s a word that has clung with a sometimes unsavory vigor to Williams over the years, perhaps as a dismissal of her prodigious technical skill or, worse, as a proxy for her race. And it’s a word she has only recently come to embrace. “I think I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the idea of power,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t like it when they said that my sister and I were power players. I thought, I don’t hit as hard as a Monica Seles. In Australia last year, I read that Maria Sharapova’s backhand and forehand are as good or better than mine, and that the only reason I win is that my serve is bigger. I was like, wait a minute, please. I place my serve. And what about my volleys? My speed? I’m the player who’s hitting angles. I’m the player who moves you. I use my brain, and that’s really why I win. Not only me, but women in general sometimes feel that power is a bad word. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to feel differently about it. Power is beauty. Strength is beauty. So now on the court I want people to think that I’m powerful. But I also want them to be shocked at how I play. I want people to expect something, then get something different.”

Read the story

Femme (Fashion) Fatalities

(Mad Men / AMC)

Tabitha Blankenbiller was in line for a ride at Disneyland when the woman in front of her decided to criticize her ’50s-style dress, telling Tabitha, “We fought for years so you didn’t have to dress like that.” She describes the incident and its aftermath in an essay in The Rumpus. It may be just one incident in a lifetime of appearance-shaming, but it was one she hasn’t forgotten.

Just like I have never forgotten the coworker that said my cat-patterned high heels were “too much to stomach,” or the random woman at the Portland farmer’s market who marveled at how “tacky” I looked in a Halloween-themed skirt while I was just trying to bag some artisanal Fuji apples.

I want to give these women the benefit of the doubt, a courtesy they failed to extend to me. It could be terrifying, after all, to be in Frontierland with its shooting gallery and racks of cowboy hats, dirt paths, wooden sidewalks, and canyon sight lines obscuring Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and Space Mountain, while the president and his administration were steamrolling women’s rights back to the 1860s. She may have just finished reading about Oklahoma Republicans passing legislation requiring that women secure a man’s permission to obtain abortion services when she found herself lost in the Old West. A woman in line wearing opening day throwback attire may have been too much to handle.

“Or maybe she was just a bitch,” Matt said.

And yeah. Maybe she was just a fucking bitch.

Read the essay

Manspreading Writ Large: Rebecca Solnit on Space

(Richard Yeh / WNYC)

In Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit explores space and boundaries: Who has access to what spaces, with what limitations? What does this mean for those who are excluded, and what does this exclusion mean for society as a whole? How do we claim the space to which we have a right without falling victim to the self-importance of entitlement?

Almost twenty years ago, while taking care of a friend’s dog, I took the animal out for a stroll. Along the way, three tall young men came walking directly toward us, a situation in which I always give way, step aside. But I had a pit bull on a short leash. I walked right through those men like Moses parting the Red Sea. I never tried that again, but I never forgot what I learned in that moment: So deeply had I known who owned the sidewalk that I’d always yielded, without even noticing. Since then, I’ve read accounts of trans women who found, after their transition, that they were constantly bumping into people or being bumped into—as women they no longer owned the right of way.

… It’s easy to see how readily this feeling of urgency could become a sense that everyone else is in your way, that your rights and needs matter more—could become, ultimately, the sort of self-absorption that renders others invisible. To believe that my important business is more important than others’ is the path of entitlement, the antithesis of any ideal of equality.

Read the essay