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February 14, 2018 

HAPPY HUMP DAY!

This week, we spoke with Alana Levinson, who currently works as as deputy editor of MEL Magazine. One of the best parts of this newsletter is asking Excellent Media Women questions that we haven’t seen them answer before. From women in power (or not) to dick coverage to the time her ex’s dad commented via Facebook on her piece about their breakup (!) — Alana had us teary-laughing on the phone from L.A., as she often does on Twitter.

Alana has written for men’s and women’s publications. Way back, she started Stevie Zine, written for and by women. She now edits a men’s outlet, started by Dollar Shave Club, giving her a driver’s seat view on the future of gendered coverage.

We tried to make this less long but, per our Gchat last night, “it’s not our fault she only says good shit!”

Happy reading,
D & N

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Q&A with Alana Levinson

ND: What magazines did you read while you were growing up?

AL: The funny thing is, I actually didn’t grow up reading magazines. My parents grew up lower middle class on the East coast. I don’t come from an intellectual family. When I first moved to East coast, I was really struck by people who came from like a legacy of New Yorker readers.

For me, my interest in magazines really came from the digital side where I started reading websites and blogs and became like very obsessed with the websites of magazines. So right now I work at a magazine that has no print element. I don’t really make that distinction. Maybe you guys don’t either. For me, I really feel like a magazine is way more an approach to storytelling and way less of the actual form.

DF: Especially when you look at how magazine websites run these days. It’s very similar to Jezebel.

AL: Exactly. I think in grad school, one of my professors was like, “You read the news to know what’s happening, and you read magazines to know what to think and how to feel.” 

"There’s such room for women and men having authentic conversations and that manifesting in a magazine, which is kind of MEL."

DF: I want to talk more about the “aspirational brand” aspect you mentioned in the Badass Ladies post about STEVIE. Would you say the “aspirational brand” presented by mainstream men’s magazines — Esquire, GQ, Men’s Health — is fundamentally different than women’s?

AL: Yeah, I actually think it’s worse. I think that men’s magazines haven’t changed or adapted with the times at all. The reason why I came to MEL, and what was so appealing, was the EIC’s whole perspective is, “We don’t have any of the answers about how to be a man.” Whereas GQ, Esquire — their whole thing is, “We know exactly what and how to be a man.” It’s all about what suit you should buy and how you should shave and what music you should listen to. And our approach to the magazine is very much like, we are trying to figure it out. How can we learn and take different lessons from different people and places and things that actually has nothing to do with what you wear or superficial stuff? 

I think that people go to magazines to be like, “How should I be, how should I act?” Things like mental health. Even like Men’s Health is focusing all on like the physical aspect of the body like six-packs. I think men need a lot of help in other areas, like mental health.

DF: YES.

AL: It’s interesting that you bring up that interview because I hadn’t thought about it in awhile. In a lot of ways, all my work has been kind of working against the idea of what an aspirational magazine is. Magazines are aspirational, but they should be realistic. And aspirational shouldn’t just be about money and what you can buy. It should be also be about being a better person. I think Jezebel and websites did that. Jezebel’s whole thing was about teaching you how to be a smarter woman — informing you with different opinions and perspectives on things that were happening in your life. It wasn’t like, “buy this cream.”

DF: One last thing, I actually used to work at Men’s Health. Facebook commenters used to constantly be like, “Why is this woman here telling us what to do?” and “Oh, is this a women’s magazine now?”  You touched on it in your really fantastic piece in MEL on “The State of Gender Divide,” but I want to talk a little more on what it’s like to be a woman at a men’s publication. Because I feel like we never ever question when there are men at women’s publications.

AL: I love this. This is like my favorite question. People don’t understand how it is not typical for there to be female editors at men’s magazines. Yeah, they always have one or two. I don’t want to speak on the gender divide at GQ. I feel like they told me at different times but it’s like not even close to equal. It’s because it’s a men’s magazine, so the idea that “men know what men want and should staff our magazine.” I’m pretty sure all of their sex coverage is done by women, and all the other stuff, the reporting is mainly male writers. The idea with MEL, which was kind of revolutionary, [was] actually women know better how men should be and what they need to fix. Having a lot of women and gay men on staff is a core mission of it. That’s really made a difference here in terms of what we make. It can be isolating. We’ve had a ton of conversations like, is this just a woman’s magazine? Why would a man want to read this?

The answer to that is already on the internet. There are so many bro websites. We call them bro-tent — bro content. Bro Bible. The Chive. Barstool. You could go on and on. I think there’s such room for women and men having authentic conversations and that manifesting in a magazine, which is kind of MEL and what that piece was about. We had so many uncomfortable conversations. If that had been a room of all men, they honestly just wouldn’t have covered harassment. They wouldn’t have done it. It took the women on staff saying, "this is a really important thing and this is how we should cover it. I think the only solution is you need to have more women on staff at men’s magazines. 

AL: I don’t mean to rag on other men’s magazines. I think they are great at tons of stuff. I think part of the problem is like there were so many women’s websites — in reaction to Vogue and all the glossies — that popped up. There is a Jezebel. There is a Bustle. With men’s sites, it was like there are bro-y sites, and then there’s like the glossy metrosexual magazines. There’s nothing in-between. Our ideas of what it is to be a man are so limited, and that’s totally manifested in the magazines available to them.

ND: I didn’t think of it that way, but it was like two extremes. Really.

AL: We have a website for every type of woman. The Hairpin, RIP, but there was a Hairpin vs. Jezebel vs. Bustle. You can think of a million, but with men you can’t really.

ND: What motivated you back in 2014 to start Stevie Zine?

AL: It feels so ancient. When I was in grad school, which is when I worked on that project, the byline gender gap was such a big thing. It’s crazy to think that it’s only that long ago that the conversation around how women aren’t represented in media just started. The race conversation hadn’t even really started yet. That’s how far back four years ago was. It was kind of a novel idea at that point to be like, “I think I should start a magazine which is only just women writers.”

There weren’t very many at the time. I think there was Veda. [Stevie] was like my solution to that problem. Now I feel like that seems quaint to me. Now I would have so many other questions about representation, but that was kind of the original idea.

ND: I think you and the other publications we talked about... have carved your own path because you were kind of disappointed with the existing infrastructure. I was just kind of thinking about the fact that fighting as a young woman in an industry, especially now where we see all these conversations about #MeToo and powerful men finally losing their jobs, it can be really exhausting. And also just doesn’t leave a lot of extra time for the creative outlet we thought we were getting into in the first place. So under what conditions is building an alternative just better?

AL: We talk about how we’ve come so far, and [then] there’s the Shitty Media Men list and there is the binder count. But at the same time, I’m 29 years old and I’ve had almost all male bosses. It’s still mostly men in power in media. Unless you work at a women’s publication, they are the ones with hiring power. I feel like we’ve kind of lost sight of that. For me, being on the tech beat, being on the politics beat and then specializing in start-up media, it’s literally been all men.

The first job I had I was like the second woman on like a 30-person team. Even now my boss is a man. His boss is a man. I don’t think any brand has given a woman money to start a magazine. I was thinking about this the other day. And Megan Greenwell being the EIC of Deadspin is really a big deal. As far as we’ve come, seeing women in positions of power is really rare, and I think originally why I started Stevie Zine is I thought starting your own thing and having this only women collective was the solution. I think it can be. I don’t know if it would ever be truly profitable, A. But, B, I also think we need more women in those positions of power that men would have.

Does that answer that question?

ND: I think so, yeah.

AL: I think in some ways a utopia of all women-run magazine is great, but is that magazine ever going to be a part of mainstream media? Probably not. I think now at this point in my career, as I’m in more of managerial role, I am more interested in just like seeing more women being given VC money to start their own media companies. Seeing more women in high up editorial roles at men’s magazines. Or at magazines on beats that are predominantly male.

ND: We wrote about [The Wing's magazine] No Man’s Land in a previous issue, and we actually mentioned a Ringer piece that included MEL, on if start-ups are going to be the future of journalism. We’ve been thinking about that too, if the entire model needs to burn down and we’ll restart somewhere else with VC, with capital.

AL: Since I worked at multiple startup media enterprises, I do think that there is so much potential there. When a really rich tech guy gives a woman a bunch of money to start their in-house magazine, I will roll over in my grave. You know, Audrey Gelman who founded No Man’s Land, like that’s great because she’s a woman. But most tech founders are men, and they are going to hire a man to do it.

I might be wrong but when I was at Medium, they had five in-house magazines, and not one had a women editor at the head of them. So that’s an example of that problem. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized everything trickles down from editor-in-chief. That is the most important job at a magazine. It sets the culture. It sets the tone. It’s pretty much everything.

ND: We’ve talked about newer media, older media. Obviously Medium is such a different beast, but why do you think zines have long been such a medium for women?

AL: I’m sorry, memes?

ND: I’m sorry, zines. We can also ask you about memes.

AL: I think zines have always been counterculture and they are more about creating a community around a thing, and that is really appealing to women. I think that’s why something like Rookie has been really successful. It’s in part about the content they make every day, but even more so about the community of women that contribute to it and read it. Zines are all about join in, anyone can share this. A lot of times they are free.

DF: Before you started at MEL, you’ve written before about advice to men, like the Please stop manthreading piece. Did you ever expect you’d end up at a men’s magazine?

AL: No, and everyone thought I was insane. When I told my brother I was working for a men’s magazine, he was like, “Have they read your work?” [laughs] And I was like, “I hope so!” Basically, I think what happened is, writing for the feminist internet was very exhausting for me. A big part of it is about preaching to the choir, and I think that that was very useful for a time period when a lot of women were learning about different things and like again forming community. But writing and reading about how men hurt us and having women just read about that constantly, I felt a little bit helpless. Glad all the people who have no control over how this is shitty, like, now know how shitty it is.

The idea of getting to go to a men's magazine and actually talk to men was intriguing to me — like the call is coming from inside — and maybe I can brainwash them. [laughs] I think part of that was knowing very specifically the men’s magazine I was coming to. I don't think I would have gone to any one.

It's also been really hard in a different way. It isn’t a women's magazine,  so finding a way to phrase things that are going to be digestible to a man about how men should change, is super different from saying how men should change to another a woman. If you were talking to another woman about something a dude did and how it sucked, it’s kind of easier than telling a dude why their friend did something that was bad, or why they did something that was bad.

DF: Even when I was at Men’s Health, I was glad that I was in the room in case anything would have been brought up that like shouldn't be in the magazine.

AL: Of course there are pros and cons. There are some days when I wish I could just be writing on a feminist blog. But then there are other days when I remember doing that and being like, "is this actually changing anything?" So it's a fine balance, but I actually now love the man beat. I like it more than I thought I would. There's just so much uncovered territory because a lot of people don't approach coverage of men with any curiosity or depth. Even just dicks. People always joke about our dick coverage, but if you think about it, the way Jezebel or a woman's website would cover the female body is very extensive. But no one has really done that with parts of the male body because, I don't know why? We’ve now just investigated everything you could want to know: smelly dicks, foreskin. It’s ruined them for me but it’s been interesting.

ND: Amazing. You’re doing the lord’s work.

AL: Thank you! I don’t know if this magazine has ruined men for me and dicks for me, but maybe it did. It’s all just a story now.

DF: Your foreplay is just like scientific facts now.

AL: Exactly.

DF: Off of that, there are a lot of pieces in MEL that wouldn’t seem out of place in a women’s publication. I loved, loved Arabelle’s piece on women wearing men’s deodorant. It was a weird moment where I felt very seen, but technically I’m being seen by a men’s publication. So I was just wondering how you decided that piece had a place at MEL.

AL: That was actually an assigned piece. I came up with the idea because I love wearing men’s deodorant and I know a lot of people who do. Yeah, again, there are these things that I feel like maybe had been among us, but because they’re in the men’s magazine category, maybe they haven’t been addressed. I think a lot of people who read MEL are women, and that’s okay.  A lot of the people who read Jezebel are men.
I think the idea of a gendered publication only being read by the gender they’re catering to is very weird, because there’s that whole cliche of men reading Cosmo at their girlfriend’s house. The opposite gender has always been really into reading the opposite gender’s magazine. I think of it as a sign that we’re doing something right, that women like MEL. 

ND: A lot of your work has been about the internet, and also your relationships and your love life and how that relates to how you use social media. I think women’s magazines have always given women some tools — and of course the stereotypical “X tips to please your man” — but also shown we want to have good relationships and be able to communicate. But I’m wondering at this age, having written publicly about your relationships over the last few years, how’s it gone for you? Do you want to keep doing it?

AL: Oh, it’s such a mixed bag. Maybe you’ve noticed, but I’ve really scaled back. It had such negative effects for me that I kind of just stopped doing it. It sucks because I was always very interested in first-person. It was what I focused on in grad school and I think it's a very valid form. Men have been doing it forever, and women, have especially only recently with the explosion of the internet, started doing it. It's come with so much baggage that have just made it really difficult. People think I reveal a lot, but actually what goes into that is only a really small sliver of what has happened. And I always tell people when I’m going to write about them.

One big piece I wrote was about Snapchat being hell for the brokenhearted. The guy who I was dating, who the piece was kind of about, his dad read the piece. The whole piece was about the relationship being over too soon — and [the dad] left a comment on the Fusion Facebook page. The piece was all about how I didn't get to go on this family trip because we broke up, and I was brokenhearted. The dad left a comment, like, “Oh, this is a beautiful piece, I wish you had gotten to go on the trip. Thank you for respecting our privacy. This piece was very respectful but also I wish I got to meet you.” I just read that and cried for like two days, just thinking this is so weird. This interaction was never supposed to happen. I still can’t get over that. I love that dad. If he’s reading this, I love you.

Yeah, there's this issue that it's not real and you’re putting out this version — and I told the guy what I was going to say — but you can’t really control for that kind of stuff. And hey, the people who reach out to you when you write pieces about yourself, either negatively or positively, it’s always a super emotional thing. People who love it and people who hate it. People will email you, and when it's about you, it's very intense. I was like, I can't keep doing this. It's very emotional and intense. But in the end, my first piece ever was about my dad being a drug addict. So my whole career, I’ve been doing this. And I still get emails about the piece, of people saying, “I can’t find pieces about parents being drug addicts, and this is the one piece I could find.” That kind of makes it worth it. The key, I think, when you're putting yourself out there on the internet is: does it have a value to other human beings? And what is tat value? If it doesn't, you shouldn’t write it, or you shouldn’t do it.

ND: In one of our past interviews, we talked about the “state” of womanhood with Jezebel’s now-former deputy editor Kate Dries. And she said the main task of women’s magazines will be redefining what it means to be a woman in 2018, since it’s not at all as easily defined by maybe sexuality or gender as in the past. So in your work at MEL, and in general at more gender-specific publications, what might it mean for audiences who visit these publications expecting to see content oriented by gender?

AL: The problem is there are so many answers to that. And even taking on that question is different because a lot of gendered publications just don’t. They kind of ignore it. They’re like, “This is what a man is!” And they’re basically telling you, based on stuff that was established like 50 years ago, what a man is. And to take on that question today — what a woman is, or what a man is, which is the central question of our publication — is so complex. And you'll constantly have competing stories. So people will point that out.

Well, of course our publication is schizophrenic — have you met men today? If we’re being true to what men are like today, we’re going to have an insane, insane magazine, that’s all over the place. Part of it is embracing that. Every single day, I get competing opinions: MEL is too feminist. MEL isn’t feminist enough. MEL isn’t queer enough. MEL is too queer. That’s how I know we’re doing something right, because there is no one way to be a man, and your magazine should reflect that even if it takes your coverage all over the place.

ND: Yeah. Kind of like the uncertainty piece ["Certainty Is The Enemy"] by Stella Bugbee. I’m not even sure if it was addressing this question, but it was articulated really well.

AL: Exactly. Even going back to the media question, it's super hard as a magazine where the entire premise is: you know. No one else knows, but you know, and you’re going to tell them. And I think the current Good Media People are like: I don’t know, but I’ve been exploring it, and offer different perspectives. As opposed to pretending I understand exactly what a man should be or a woman should be. Anyone who pretends they have an answer to that question is just lying, or in denial.  

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