Marketing “Woman” to Women Online


Noy Thrupkaew

I

just couldn’t do it. I was shuddering at the thought of becoming a member of

women.com, one of a rapidly proliferating group of "women’s

websites," for the purposes of research for this piece. After spending just

a few days surfing women.com and iVillage.com, the only publicly traded websites

"made by and for women," I was already worried that I would turn into

the endlessly dieting, baby-making, big-rock-wearing, tamale-pie-baking,

husband-pampering creature that is "Woman" on many of the mainstream

women’s websites.

These

websites don’t sell themselves that way, of course. They attract women web

surfers with perks like surveys, online sex therapists, tax advisers, and chats

with famous folks. It’s sort of fun in a gross and bloated way, like

screeching over Angelina and Billy Bob while eating buckets of chocolate chip

cookie dough with your girlfriends. But after a while, it’s hard to take. Both

women.com and iVillage.com assault the web surfer with immense amounts of

feminized goo, from "Pecan Pie: The Southern Specialty," to the

helpful "Take some time to make yourself look good!" in an advice

column on Making the Transition From Housewife to Employee. It was a little

difficult to get to the articles themselves, though, because my attention kept

getting diverted by the shrieking ads telling me to subscribe to Cosmo, buy cute

shoes, and purchase "solutions for easy living."

I

had already exposed myself to this radioactive blast of "marketing for

women," so why not go the extra step and become a member? After all,

members of women.com and iVillage.com get a range of goodies from free email

accounts and live chat to pregnancy calendars, access to online women’s mags,

and a "wedding builder." But becoming a member would mean that the

websites could declare open season on my email inbox, sending chirpy

newsletters, special offers, and heavy-breathing ads for "women’s

stuff."

My

emailbox is already bursting with DO YOU LIKE HOT SEX?, LOSE 2-14 INCHES IN ONE

HOUR!, ACNE CURE & PENNY STOCK PICK!, MAKE $$$$ FOR NO WORK!, so the thought

of adding this new twist to what the cybergods already see fit to send me would

be too much. "Oh, not only is this person horny, chunky, zitty, and lazy,

but she’s a woman! She must be white, straight, and married, with two kids, a

dog, and an SUV! She must like to shop! And for woman things! Things for her

family! Because women are relational." This is actually pretty much the

logic behind women’s websites. Studies like those published in the past two

years by Jupiter Communications, the "worldwide authority on internet

commerce," fanned the flames with their predictions that women will be

spending $53 billion per year on internet purchases by 2003. Venture capitalists

and internet developers jumped on board, launching "women’s

websites" as part of a strategy to corner a previously ignored market.

Relationship Marketing — These folks turned to a bit of corporate philosophy

called "Relationship Marketing" to peddle their consumer portals. A

prime example is this inspirational nugget from Faith Popcorn, trend guru and

corporate consultant, who wrote a book on marketing to women entitled EVEolution:

"Marketing to women requires not just learning, but unlearning. Marketers

will need to create a rich series of connections and bonds rather than episodic

consumer collisions."

MLM

Talk Online, a resource website for network marketing professionals, exhorted

internet developers to cater to women’s "advanced social and people

skills. The current rage of `Relationship Marketing’ just puts a new label on

the tools that women have always used to build their business." Got that?

It seems that women are a whole different species from men–we are relational

and love community. This is not an unfamiliar concept to those who have indulged

in John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, or Deborah Tannen’s

You Just Don’t Understand to explain away all the difficulties between men and

women. (Carol Gilligan may have started it with In a Different Voice, but she

was genuinely on to something, and I don’t think she had Gray’s

intergalactic sexism in mind when she wrote her book.)

I’m

sure some differences between the genders do exist, but as Francine Prose wrote

in "A Wasteland of One’s Own," her scathing New York Times Magazine

essay on women’s culture and websites, there are probably not as many "as

there would be if this were a society in which men and women could casually

decide which gender wants to be president this term, and which one wants to take

care of the kids and Great-Grandma. Humans are adaptive creatures, and the

people who are responsible for the family tend to get interested in family

relationships."

But

internet developers aren’t so radical, so relationship marketing–"build

a relationship with women so they buy things for their relationships"–and

"women’s culture" is what we get. They try to trick us with

solicitous advice, sympathetic polls ("The hardest part about dieting and

weight loss is a. hunger, b. unappetizing food choices, c. eating out, d.

getting off the couch, e. all of the above"), helpful suggestions and tips,

and wise experts to guide us through our harried lives as wives and mothers.

(And no, there’s no room for divorced, unmarried, single parent, young, old,

disabled, queer, darker than lily, or poorer than middle here. We are Woman.

Resistance is futile.)

But

lurking behind all of the handholding are the twin evils of relationship

marketing and the co-option of the noble idea of women’s space. It’s much

like being invited to dinner at your best friend’s house, only to have her

shake you down for all you’re worth once you’re behind closed doors.

There’s

something even more insidious behind all the relational talk, however. At Oxygen

Media, home to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, cable-TV network, and website,

chairwoman Geraldine Laybourne says women "are pushed and pressured in such

amazing ways that they deserve to have a place where they can take a deep

breath." Of course women need their blissful solitude. We rarely get any

help with or credit and financial compensation for the work of care and

mothering–work that has been demeaned through the centuries as "women’s

work in the home." Add to that the work outside the home that many women do

and what do you get? That old Calgon-take-me-away commercial, which was all

about the incredible wear and tear of an "average" woman’s life. But

does this mean that that woman should never get up to fight the larger forces

that sent her scuttling to her bathtub in the first place?

Cleaner

Homes, Smurfier Lives? Or Something More? If one chooses to buy into this, one

can gain a little happiness, I suppose. We can buy the products to make our

houses cleaner and more efficient, our families happier, our work lives

smoother, our home lives smurfier–ignoring the fact that all this buying will

create a cycle of more exhausting work that necessitates another deep breath at

the end of it. We can indulge in what I’ll call "My Home-ism"–the

belief that if our homes are spotless and full of gadgetry, our work is going

well, and our families are perfect, our work as human beings is done. We can

also tone, trim, dewrinkle-ize ourselves until we’re perfect. Our worlds can

get smaller and smaller, so we never have to think about all those bad things

out there–imbalances of power, sexism, racism, homophobia, inequity, and

economics–and we can escape in our pinker than pink cyberworld.

But

I’m not sure that will happen, despite all the doom and gloom I felt after

examining the marketing strategies behind the sites. Both iVillage.com and

women.com have seen their stocks plummet after an initial stratospheric

take-off, even though nearly four million women visit their sites each month. It

turns out that not enough of the web surfers actually click on the ad banners

that can bring the sites some revenue. This is no surprise to some shoppers,

especially the ones who like to get all up in a potential purchase, try it on,

frown, fuss, fidget, take it off, leave, and come back and try it on again

before buying it and returning it the next day.

But

more than that, women are actually building their own communities, real

communities–with each other, and not with sponsoring corporations. Take Peg

Gray of Maine, for example. As a breast cancer survivor, she felt alone because

support groups were an hour’s drive away, according to the Boston Globe. She

turned to anonymous iVillage message boards and chat groups. "I lurked for

a while, reading things that the ladies were saying to each other, and finally

mustered enough courage to post something myself," she said. "The

depth of compassion and empathy and the love and concern for others is

unequaled. . . . It felt like family from the beginning." She now spends

two hours a day on the website as a volunteer discussion leader.

Even

the fact that some of the websites might draw women online can be a great thing.

Oprah’s Oxygen Media group was especially proactive about getting women

online, creating a TV series, "Oprah Goes Online," whereby Her

Oprah-ness and best friend Gayle King go online in twelve sessions. "From

email to chats to search engines to home pages, the two women will explore their

options and experience firsthand how the Web will change the way women look at

money, shopping, education, community, technology and themselves." Although

the priorities of the series are a little messed up–money and shopping come

first, of course–who’s to say that women won’t feel they can handle the

internet more comfortably? That we won’t level that loudly lamented but

not-acted-upon gender gap in technology even starting from such a

capitalistically minded beginning?

We’re

already getting some kind of message out, it seems. By logging on, but not

buying, by creating our own communities on the "women’s websites" or

by making our own sites, we’re saying that we are more and want more from

women’s websites than we’re given credit for. That we are finding a way to

make the internet a place of our own.

 

 

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