That tabloid newspapers demean women in a variety of ways is not news. The Sun's Page 3 has been around since 1970, and the sex- and scandal-loaded headlines shrieking from it and Daily Mirror, the Daily Express, and the rest prove that the commodification of women's bodies and sexuality proceeds at a steady clip. But one stands out from the rest as uniquely offensive, and it happens to be the publication with the highest proportion of female readers.
Here is how I encounter the Daily Mail most days: I edit a women's publication, and inevitably as I'm trawling the web for news, I find myself interested in reading
about new research on, say, birthrates among educated Gen X women or the finding that sons of men who cheat are more likely to cheat themselves or a study showing that women who lose their virginity early may be more likely to divorce later on.
And so I find myself on dailymail.co.uk. If this happens to you, too, on occasion, and if you happen to be a woman, you know what a perplexing experience it is.
To the right of every story on dailymail.co.uk is a list of stories headed "Femail," a cheeky name for what, one would reasonably guess, are articles from the Daily Mail's women's section.
Here are some recent -- and typical -- headlines from that list:
(The lede for that last one: "Never mind the hours spent choosing new clothes, applying make-up and getting your hair just right: if you care what other women think, the priority should be squeezing in your waistline. That is the first thing your rivals will be looking at when they size you up.")
Every day headlines like these cascade down the page, calling women out on bodily imperfections, criticizing their life choices, or recounting all of the ways are supposedly, inevitable horrible to each other.
If you're like most women, you write all of it off as vaguely evil and not worth your time, read the article you came for (which may or may not be reported in a responsible, well-sourced way) and click away as quickly as possible.
But when you come back, which you probably will for the same reason you came the last time - as an intelligent person seeking information -- you'll see that right rail again. And at some point, it may occur to you that someone is producing that content, intentionally. And then, if you're like me, you may start to get a little angry.
This isn't just boobs and sex tapes. It's a news organization peddling information apparently directed at intelligent women and simultaneously, just inches away, delivering content that insults those same women. It's yet another case of women being assured that they are taken seriously and shown in a variety of ways that they aren't.
The Daily Mail certainly isn't alone in this game - women's magazines invented it. But even most women's magazines don't make being female out to be quite as terrible as Femail does.
Womanhood as prison is conveyed nowhere more prominently than in Liz Jones' daily contributions to the Mail. The American blog Jezebel has kept a faithful chronicle of Jones' greatest hits, so I'll just mention a couple of the more painful here.
On the breast reduction she had in her twenties, a procedure she claims she had done upon reading that women in Paris were doing the same in order to look better in designer clothes, Jones reflects, "I do regret what I did, just a little bit. I looked great in a Helmut Lang androgynous jacket (designers are hopeless at accommodating the female form, even the best of them), but I was rubbish at life."
And here is the message she drew from the recent movie Bridesmaids (in an article strangely allocated to the "Debate" section rather than Femail):
The reality of the modern woman in Milwaukee or Birmingham hasn't changed much since Pride And Prejudice's Lizzie Bennet had to walk to visit her sister because she couldn't afford a carriage. Female companionship. Dreary, endless chores. Poverty and a pensionless, uncertain future.
The self-loathing evident in almost all of Jones' columns, usually tied to the fact that she is female, echoes the message conveyed in the Femail headlines, that to be a woman is a punishing experience.
But that message isn't the worst part of reading Femail. What's really upsetting is the degree to which women are complicit in this portrayal of their lives.
I don't mean that women are to blame for the business model that finances most women's content. That was devised my men, and it usually goes something like this: In order to survive, women's publications need to attract certain advertisers, the kind who buy ads alongside apolitical content that often suggests ways that women might improve themselves. Probably more often than anyone wants to admit, the editorial mission adjusts to accommodate that content. As a result, the abiding goal of some women's publications can feel not so different from that of early 20th century ladies magazines: to train women's minds on a limited set of approved interests and ambitions.
But somewhere along the way, women adopted that model and now actively perpetuate it. The editor of Femail, Tobyn Andreae, is a man, but Anna Dunlop, a member of the Daily Mail's editorial staff, said by phone that the rest of the Femail staff of around 40 consists almost entirely of women. Beyond the Mail, Clare Fitzsimons edits the more innocuous Your Life section at the Daily Mirror. From 2003-2009, Rebekah Wade edited The Sun, including Page Three. And to widen the lens a little further, virtually all major women's magazines in the UK are edited by women.
Why do we put up with this? And more importantly, what can we do to change it?
The answer to the first question, I think, is that it's inherited. Jones' succinctly delivered "reality of the modern woman" rings of something someone's mother told her after a lifetime of disappointment. We pass on this terrible inheritance in women's publications because we think it's necessary for those publications' survival, because it's the kind of thing women's content has always entailed (though not to the level of outright misogyny Femail embraces).
Letting go of that inheritance is trickier. An essential piece of it is convincing advertisers to seek placement in publications that portray being female as an opportunity rather than a sentence. Give it a fair shot, and those companies may find that happy women like buying stuff just as much as those being told they are wanting in every way.
And in the meantime, we -- female readers, editors, and writers -- have to refuse to produce or consume anything resembling what Femail generates. We can all do so much better.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named a woman as the editor of Femail.
Follow Margaret Wheeler Johnson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mwjohnso