Sexism

Is Newsweek’s ‘Red Heels’ Cover Image Sexist?

It was supposed to illustrate a story about sexism in Silicon Valley, but the magazine’s cover, showing a cursor lifting up a skirt, has come under fire for being offensive itself.

01.29.15 8:45 PM ET

If the goal of any magazine is to spike newsstand sales by cutting through the clutter and provoking the chattering classes, then Newsweek has scored big-time with the cover of its latest issue.

Astride the headline, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women”—a 5,000-word article on the creepy, sexist culture of the tech industry—is the cartoon of a faceless female in spiky red heels, having her dress lifted up by a cursor arrow.

The image has prompted widespread outrage and disgust, along with shrugs and kudos.

“I think it’s obscene and just despicable, honestly,” co-host Tamron Hall declared on Thursday’s Today show, which devoted a segment to the controversy. “Especially given that this is a serious topic,” Hall continued. “The article is said to be well-written. I can’t wait to read it. But you want to rip that cover off.”

While Matt Lauer sat quietly beside her, Today’s Savannah Guthrie offered a mild defense: “I think it probably did what they wanted it to do, which was to get people to pay attention to the article…It got people talking…They might say, ‘If we just put a story about sexism on the cover, no one would read it.’ ”

To which Hall retorted: “If we go to the lowest common denominator to sell something, we could all use that excuse. Sometimes you just gotta take the high road.”

But—as NBC’s Today and its morning-show rivals regularly demonstrate—sometimes you just gotta not.

Newsweek’s James Impoco—who became editor in chief of the newsmag a year and half ago, after it was sold by IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company—is clearly reveling in the hoopla.

 “We came up with an image that we felt represented what that story said about Silicon Valley,” Impoco told The Daily Beast. “If people get angry, they should be angry.”

 But not at Newsweek. Impoco argued the rage against the magazine has been woefully misdirected—though he didn’t sound terribly upset about that. “It was clear to me that people hadn’t read the story,” he said, “and were just responding to the image.”

If there was a problem, Impoco added, it was that the cover leaked without the story—or, for that matter, without any warning to Newsweek’s PR team, which had planned to release the cover package at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Impoco said tech writer Michael Learmonth, who works for International Business Times, Newsweek’s sister publication, happened to stroll by the cover image in the downtown Manhattan office Wednesday afternoon, snapped a cellphone photo, and simply tweeted it under the comment “Nice cover.”

Thus a twitterstorm was ignited.

Among the angry tweets from both men and women:

“That Newsweek cover still pisses me off. Bc the first thing I think about women in tech isn’t marginalization; it’s towering red heels?”

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“Go home @Newsweek you’re drunk/desperate/inappropriate/offensive.”

“I don’t know what’s worse: what Silicon Valley thinks of women or the way @Newsweek decides to portray that on its cover.”

But some tweeters counseled calm:

“Fuss over Newsweek Silicon Valley cover is ridiculous. It’s trying to highlight BAD attitudes.”

“Why are people getting mad about @Newsweek cover on Silicon Valley and women? Yes, it’s unsettling. That’s the point. Read the damn article.”

That sentiment was seconded by Nina Burleigh, the author of the cover story, who passionately defended the illustration and lashed out at Newsweek’s critics.

“It’s provocative,” Burleigh emailed The Daily Beast, “because it quite powerfully and accurately depicts the disgusting behavior and attitudes toward women that dozens of women in tech described to me and that tens of thousands more must navigate on a daily basis, to the detriment of their professional advancement. It is unfortunate, shallow, and frankly, petty, that magazine cover critics seem more upset about an image than the actual behavior that permeates Silicon Valley culture.”