Inside the Feminist ‘Onion’: The Satirical Bite of ‘Reductress’
The sharply witty ‘Reductress’ site doesn’t just satirize the sexism women face, but also the inadequacies and failings of feminism itself.
Such were just a few of the headlines on Friday’s homepage of the satirical website Reductress, the ‘Onion’-made-feminist.
Its mocking tone and incisor-sharp humor are signs of radically changed cultural times. As recently as five years ago, most female-oriented content in media came from women’s and fashion magazines, style websites, and hipster mommy-blogs.
Jezebel was one of the only websites that tackled women’s issues from a modern feminist’s perspective. Some mainstream news sites had designated verticals for feminist content, like Slate’s “XX,” but most couched pro-women pieces in their “Lifestyle” or “Sex & Health” sections.
Today, in addition to a scourge of mommy blogs, there’s a staggering amount of feminist content on the web.
From Vogue and Cosmopolitan to People and Refinery29, popular feminism has flooded media with varying levels of complexity. Feminist debates and hashtag activism frequently generate viral content on social media. Female celebrities and pop culture icons are vilified if they don’t align themselves with the movement.
In April 2013, around the time that Beyoncé finally declared herself a “modern-day feminist,” comedy writers Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo came up with an idea for a satirical website for women.
Feminism online was already flourishing with so many diverse voices that they assumed a feminist equivalent of ‘The Onion’ already existed.
Two years later, Reductress remains “the one and only fake women’s news magazine,” a stinging satire of the media’s portrayal of women. Pappalardo, 30, and Newell, 29, have grown their team from a two-women, Kickstarter-funded project into a popular satirical website rivaling Clickhole and—yes—The Onion.
Their office, in New York’s Flatiron district, is a crowded room that they share with several other companies.
Newell, Pappalardo, and Reductress’s associate editor Anna Drezen have installed themselves and their laptops at end of a long table, huddled together with a tray of snacks. We meet in a small, sound-proofed conference room on another floor.
The women are dressed casually in jeans, T-shirts, and slip-on shoes. Newell has an 8-month-old baby and recently moved to Westchester, accomplishing her “lifelong dream of owning a washer and dryer.” Pappalardo lives in Brooklyn with her “lovely girlfriend and very intelligent cats.”
Much of the content in women’s magazines and websites recycles the same gimmicky advice and “how to” tips they’ve always solicited (recently on Refinery29, “How Makeup Got Me Through a Breakup”).
Reductress spins those relentless self-help tropes into stories like “How to Give Fellatio Like a French Woman with Low Self-Esteem,” How to Write From Your Heart So Your Professor Will Fuck You and 6 Superfoods to Help Fight Isis.
When Reductress first launched, most of their content satirized beauty tips and style articles. But in the last two years, popular women’s magazines and websites have tailored their content to the mainstreaming of feminism.
“All of a sudden the magazines that we were parodying are talking about feminism and taking it seriously,” says Pappalardo. “Sometimes they get it wrong, but at least they’re talking about it.”
Reductress has adjusted accordingly, producing more stories that parody what Pappalardo refers to despairingly as “sad attempts” by these magazines and websites “to be relevant in feminism and co-opt the movement, while still propagating the same messages that make us feel inadequate.”
On Reductress, her eye-rolling despair translates to humor in advice columns (“How to Make a Man-Friendly #YesAllWomen Post.”), confessional personal essays (“I LIVED IT: I Lost 20 Pounds By Running After People Holding the Door Open”), and breaking news stories (Girl Launches New Line Of Distressed Bear Teeth On Etsy).
The site occasionally aims its satire at feminism itself: “So-called ‘white feminism’ or mainstream feminism, for example,” says Pappalardo, “and the naiveté that comes with not understanding your privilege but still waving the feminist flag.”
Somewhat reluctantly, she cites Patricia Arquette’s controversial Oscars speech this year.
“That’s the kind of well-meaning, but misguided feminism that doesn’t really acknowledge race, class, and gender-intersectionality,” she says. “But the people who dogpiled on her are part of the problem!”
“Misguided” or “non-inclusive” feminism is a common grievance among modern feminists, who are determined to make the movement more representative of minority and underprivileged voices.
Ironically, many of those attacking white, privileged feminists are themselves white, privileged feminists. Some are righteously—remarkably—unaware of this irony, believing themselves to be better feminists because they’re inclusive.
But Pappalardo and Newell are quick to distinguish themselves from this camp.
“With Arquette, the conversation steered more into demonizing her than offering a teaching moment for the mainstream,” says Pappalardo.
Newell clarifies that they make fun of themselves on the website as much as they make fun of Patricia Arquette’s speech and the media’s response to Patricia Arquette’s speech.
Newell sees a wealth of material for satire in “knee-jerk, reactionary feminism” from activists on social media, and in hot takes on female-related news.
She points out that comedians—both male and female—have been heavily scrutinized and frequently pilloried by feminists in the past year for making “offensive” or “sexist” jokes.
“People are so quick to call things out now, and we’re like, ‘Hey, we’re not the enemy!’ A lot of comedians are out there fighting for you,” says Newell, noting that the so-called ‘offensive’ jokes aren’t offensive but simply unfunny.
Indeed, Reductress satirizes the movement’s contradictions: feminists who crucify celebrities who eschew the f-word and then criticize those who adopt the term for misrepresenting it in some way; and feminists who rail against body-negativity in the media but perpetuate it with “skinny-shaming.”
“Body image seems to be the low-hanging fruit of the day,” says Pappalardo. “Everyone’s going for it!”
Newell adds, “Everyone’s always trying to paint the world in black-and-white and good and evil instead of looking at motivations.”
They both attribute this partially to the exhausting pace of media—to the Twitter slot-machine and news alerts clogging your inbox—and pressure for mainstream websites to produce content.
“I think everyone’s first inclination is to be mad and blog about it,” says Pappalardo. “So much of our workday is spent being pissed before we can even make a joke about something. There’s always going to be that in-between period when we’re like, ‘Fuck, the world is terrible!”
Just when you think the world couldn’t be worse—when your Twitter feed is spinning with updates about states pushing anti-abortion laws and women not having equal pay until 2058—Reductress pops up in your feed, tempering the gloom and doom with “Next Level Braids To Earn the Workplace Respect You Deserve.”
Newell and Pappalardo hope to produce more video content in the future, but for the time being the effort isn’t worth the payoff. Instead, they’re focusing on growing the site and writing “Reductress” comedy shows.
Janeane Garofalo recently starred in their “Brotherhood of Women” show at The Bell House performance venue in Brooklyn, which included an “incantation and an oath in the beginning that involved a bunch of stupid lady things,” says Pappalardo.
“Even now it feels like we’re constantly auditioning ourselves for the public,” she adds, “so we’re trying to grow but not lose sight of our original vision and constantly hit that as hard as possible.”
While a majority of their readers live in large cities, their social media fan base is extending into smaller cities and towns.
“Soon we will capture the hearts of all Americans!” vows Pappalardo.