Q&A: On Friday, the founders of Reductress bring their wit — and new book — to L.A.
The first book by the satirical website Reductress, “How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having It All — And Then Some!”(HarperOne, $22.99 paper) pulls no punches. With chestnuts including “How to Love Your Body Even Though Hers is Better” and “Empowerment Exercise: Embody a Man,” “How to Win at Feminism” unearths — and then skewers — the hidden implications and doublespeak embedded in women’s media, the rebranding of feminism to be “on brand.” The book is funny, provocative, and ultimately on-point.
Reductress’ merciless irreverence has prompted comparisons to a feminist version of “The Onion.” I spoke to founders and co-authors Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo over the phone about satire, mansplaining and more. They’ll be signing “How to Win At Feminism” Friday at Skylight Books in Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Some of the funniest passages in the book come in the form of “Advertorials.” “Lumps Gym” sends up the rhetoric around women’s fitness: at Lumps Gym, “it’s not about changing your body, it’s about changing your whole self.” What was the inspiration?
Sarah Pappalardo: The inspiration for the advertorials came in part from the ads you find in women’s magazines, especially the kind where the “storytelling” aims to absolve women of their guilt for living in a developed world and with the degree of wealth and privilege. It’s everything from these kind of well-meaning companies that don’t always do very much to actually to change the world, all the way down to the “empowerment marketing” that we see used to sell lotion or tea or chocolate, these “gendered” products. The “Lumps Gym” advertorial is a good example of where we used as much doublespeak as possible. There’s this trend of, “You need to love your body no matter what, but you also need to be healthy, but you also need to love your body,” ad nauseam.
Beth Newell: No matter how empowering certain media is it’s still telling us that we need to change something or buy something. It’s always preying on our insecurity, even when it’s in the guise of female empowerment.
Pieces often begin on the edge of plausibility then escalate to full-blown absurdity. You both come from comedy backgrounds. Can you talk about that sense of escalation in regard to structure?
Pappalardo: I don’t want to mansplain here, but there’s a term for that and it’s called heightening. Whoops! I just mansplained.
Like Reductress, “How to Win at Feminism” feels of-the-moment not just in content, but also in tone, toggling between references to Instagram, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, selfies and bell hooks. Did you have a millennial audience in mind?
Pappalardo: I think it’s a very millennial book. We do have a few Easter eggs in there for people who may be of the, uh, older persuasion. (They’ve made a lifestyle choice to grow old, but I don’t know why.) We reference a lot of second-wave feminism, things that our mothers dealt with and that we now take for granted. That was a big inspiration for us as well.
Newell: One of things that’s exciting for us to cover is the ways that women interact with feminist issues in their daily lives, today, in 2016. A lot of people have a tendency to think that feminist issues have been resolved, and we’re shining a light on what’s still going on out there. What the book and the site are doing is allowing us to laugh at ourselves.
Do you consider writing satire a political act?
Newell: Satire is a more cathartic, palatable way of getting the news you already get — it doesn’t necessarily change any minds. The only place where I could see satire really affecting change is when it comes to young people who are just entering the political conversation and trying to educate themselves about the forces at play. Otherwise I think it reinforces our perceptions of the world.
Pappalardo: We’re not necessarily going to change minds, but we do hope to highlight the things that people take for granted in terms of subtle messaging and micro-aggressions aimed towards women. Satire allows us to make a statement through both form and content, as opposed to just saying ‘Hey, this is a problem.’ But if you don’t agree with the same premises that we do when we’re constructing satire, you can read a satirical piece entirely differently than intended.
Do you have any concerns that the title, or even the book itself, might be read that way – “differently than intended?”
Pappalardo: It’s already happened.
Newell: A man at a book fair told us that we were the reason that Trump was getting elected. We don’t really know what his thought process was.
Pappalardo: I know! I mean, it was a comedy book fair! Regarding the title, we wanted it clear that the title undermines the genuine goals and tenets and feminism, which is that feminism is for everyone. We wanted to go in direct contrast to that, so that you see the title and think, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s not right.”
French is a writer in Los Angeles.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.