About two weeks ago a foul-mouthed, dirty-minded friend of mine (if you are reading, you know who you are) sent me an e-mail that read, “Have you seen the latest cover of STEP magazine? Think ‘pussies’ when you see it.” I had not seen it yet. Knowing that the issue was about women and predisposed to find something relating to female genitalia — I can do an inventory of the images I expected to see but I will spare you — I was less than riveted when I saw the grid of kittens with women designer names labeling each of them. “Cute,” I thought. And moved on.
Earlier this week, Drew Davies, an author on Be A Design Group, wrote — in the spirit of naive controversy — a post titled Female Designers are Pussies, in which he revels in the irony and ambiguity of the cover to claim foul on the possible misrepresentation of women through the use of kittens. He goes on to explain that Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler of Number 17 designed the cover, then deconstructs STEP’s Editor, Emily Potts’ introduction, proclaims the cover to be aiming for “shock value” and warns that “at the risk of sounding like a prude or a fuddy-duddy,” but ultimately admits, “I’m a bit troubled by the cover.” I suggested some late-night Cable TV watching and shrugged off the whole discussion as a moot one. After a few e-mails with others, it seems that there are some questions about the cover. So, I went out and bought the damned thing to see what the fuss was all about.
It is interesting to me that no one is talking much about the issues raised in the magazine. As much as I enjoy critical debate on design there is room for us to explore other cultural and personal issues. Last summer in Aspen I had a chance to spend time with Cheryl Towler Weese who was featured in the article. Cheryl is the mother of twin girls, runs a successful design firm, and has given countless hours serving on the AIGA board of directors. Her experiences as a young mother and designer touched me deeply. I came away with a new respect and profound appreciation for Cheryl and her generation of great women designers. I applaud Emily Potts for providing a forum for women to discuss design and the consequences of personal choices we make in our lives.
Ann Willoughby / Willoughby Design Group
As a guy who enjoys looking at kittens in sinks, and pitting kittens against each other in battles of cuteness I was more entertained by the kittens themselves and the choices made on each kitten to represent each woman — which may be more subconsciously effective than a session at the shrink — than any sexual undercurrent or any implications on the demeaning of women as defenseless, cuddly felines. Again, I smirked and proceeded — more on the cover in coming paragraphs — to the inside where I was pleasantly surprised by the kitties’ pounce. Men beware.
In The Establishment, Emily Potts interviews the women that “represent the cream of the crop of the design world.” The list includes Ann Willoughby, Lynda Decker, Bonnie Siegler, Ellen Lupton, Louise Fili, Paula Scher, Jennifer Morla, Kim Baer, Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt, Cheryl Heller, Jeri Heiden, our own Debbie Millman, Sharon Werner, Cheryl Towler Weese, Robynne Raye, Jessica Helfand and Emily Oberman. As with any list, or edition, or feature on women, women are (perversely?) subjected to comparisons against their male counterparts — a tradition that I would assume would be inane in the year 2005 — and this string of interviews is no different. In a series of questions, the women respond candidly and honestly, providing a glimpse at their lives at work and at play and sometimes at their wishes and regrets. However, things get comparative midway. Potts asks, “Do you think you approach projects differently than men?” Jessica Helfand responds, “My sense is that men in meetings want to win. They want to dominate, to show they are in control, to be the smartest person in the room.” Then, in contrast, “Women are more subtle, on average, and better at handling several things at once, including the egos of the men they’re in meetings with.” To the same question, Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt offers, “I think I am probably more intuitive than my male counterparts,” and adds, “emotion and intuition are more pronounced in women.” Slightly uncomfortable, I adjust myself in my seat and slightly raise my right eyebrow.
I don’t quite understand what all the hoopla is about. The Number 17 cover is quite brilliant: witty, smart, ironic and furry cover all the important bases, and I find it sad that I need to jump in and defend it. I had to ask myself when was the last time I laughed out loud when a magazine — design or otherwise — arrived in the mail?
Anything open to interpretation has potential for many views whether good or bad. That’s what makes art so wonderful — or books versus movies. If you attempt to censor or condemn because of the way you interpret a particular piece, then we are sucking out all potential for creativity — both from the creator and the viewer. If the cover was so direct and obvious that there was clearly one primary interpretation and it was inherently negative or destructive, that’s one thing. But it’s sad when we are offered a chance to be creative as viewers and knock it down because of how we personally choose to interpret it. Then we all lose. I think that forcing design into such a restricted space is boring and I’ll never do it.
Robynne Raye / Modern Dog
Potts further probes, “Why do you think men tend to be more successful? Are the reasons behavioral or systemic?” Bonnie Siegler thinks, “… if we were men, we would be paid more money for the same work.” Scientific research still to be presented, your honor. Kim Baer attributes this to businesses responding well to “alpha dogs — people who are comfortable projecting their sense of leadership and self worth.” While women can surely project a sense of leadership and self worth, I really doubt Baer is calling any woman an “alpha dog”. Jeri Heiden proposes that “Male ego and a sense of entitlement, mixed with societal approval” is what makes men more successful. Cheryl Towler Weese offers, “My business partner [Kathy Fredrickson] and I tend to be less bombastic and aggressive than many of our male peers….” At this point I am strongly starting to wonder what if men were making similar statements about their female counterparts? Chauvinistic, sexist, macho, men…Inescapable adjectives. I read on.
“If you are as successful as male counterparts,” continues Potts, “do you think your experience is typical of women designers? Why?” In a final blow to men, Sharon Werner responds, “I think men are successful because they tell people they are successful, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think women tend to just keep working and don’t really look up long enough to talk about it.” As I said earlier, the interview is engaging and thoughtful and the above comments represent around a tenth of the content, yet it is telling of the shift that has happened in the past decades — as more and more women are in high-stake corporate positions or successfully lead small firms — wherein it is okay for women to flaunt their achievements… and, well, condescend men. In the same manner that they felt condescended upon before. Men call women soft, passive, emotional, whiny. Women now call men — to their faces, because they can! — egotistical, aggressive, power-trip-happy and insensitive. Fair assumptions on both sides, with their exceptions as disclaimers, of course. Again, I picture a Men of Design issue — the cover are, what, monkeys? Dogs? Weasels? — where we are painted into a corner with questions that compare us to women and we were to respond honestly. I don’t think we would get out alive, unscarred from accusations of machism. It is a shame that this stigma still exists and that we have to make an issue (pun intended) out of it, time and time again.
I felt both relieved (knowing Bonnie and Emily did it meant it was ironic, and we can all use more irony in our lives) and anxious (because I suspected, rightly as it turned out, that it would ruffle a lot of feathers.)
Sadly, to most people, kittens aren’t great metaphors for women, period. But maybe we should all lighten up about it: if it brings a lot of attention to the magazine and more people read it as a result, then this is good for business, right? I would have been much more upset if we’d been pictured as, say, strippers. A little provocation isn’t altogether a bad thing, so long as nobody’s being humiliated. Kittens may be cute and fuzzy and even mindless, but they’re not humiliating.
Then again, I’d have been much happier to be pictured as, say, Einstein or Michaelangelo. Better yet: Nigella Lawson.
Jessica Helfand / Winterhouse Studio
In her introduction, Potts talks about putting together a list of judges for the upcoming STEP competition, Design 100, and realizing that there are no women on it, leading to the idea for this issue. (If you are wondering, Jilly Simmons is the only woman judge in the pool of five). I am always surprised how regularly this question comes up: Where are the women? On Speak Up, for instance, there are three women authors among over a dozen manly men — Rebecca Gimenez, a former Speak Up author certainly questioned the trend; twice. In all three editions of Stop Being Sheep we have featured no more than three women per volume and the way we do the process is we look at comments, not names, so there is little gender bias. On Design Observer it is two women out of seven authors; BADG is all men. In this year’s AIGA National Design Conference only five of eighteen main stage presenters were women. The venues and platforms are there, are we really that stubborn that we turn to men for our design needs? Or is it that women need to step up to the task more aggressively? And isn’t it interesting that some of the most popular design publications are headed by women? Joyce Rutter Kaye at Print, Bryn Mooth at HOW, Emily Potts at STEP, Julie Lasky at I.D., Susan Szenasy at Metropolis, are all Editors in Chief. Is it time to drop the Men vs. Women argument or can it still go for another decade? Until we have a woman as Commander in Chief? Can’t we all just laugh about the kitten cover? Or are we still going to giggle about the “pussy” puns?
The problem is not about the cover, but about the (unresolved?) relationships and interactions between men and women in the workplace and through cultural and societal values and interpretations — and it is this diminishing, yet ever-present, friction that is responsible of our constant struggle with the distincion (if any) between men and women and its many visual manifestations.
For more than 40 years women have been the vast majority of students — in some schools 70 percent — in undergraduate and graduate design programs across the country. And finally a cover, “Women Rock.” With kittens. Why do women have to be objectified and infantalized? In 1981, I was thrilled that my firm was going to be featured in CA. Until I read the first sentence: “Ellen Shapiro knew she wanted to be a graphic designer since she was a little kid… ‘I have pictures I drew in the first grade ‘Our Trip to the Train Station’ with the company logos in the right colors on the airplanes and train cars.’&rfquo; Yeah, those were facts I told the writer, Rose DeNeve, in answer to her questions. But did they have to be the lead of the article? How would it sound to open a profile with, “Massimo Vignelli knew he wanted to be a graphic designer since he was a little boy?” Not that I’m of his stature, but it points out the absurdity of statements about women (that still seem perfectly normal to many people).
How do the featured women feel about the cover? Do they prefer their names matched to little kittens, or the earlier concept, the rocks as breasts? Hey, here’s an idea: pioneer women in little bonnets driving covered wagons.
After all this, I’ll probably go out and buy a copy. So on that level it’s a success.
Ellen Shapiro / Shapiro Design