Wired's June cover story, "How to be a GEEK DAD," provides instructions on how to build hovercrafts, make electric play-doh, construct broomstick forts, and be the all-around "coolest father* on the planet."
Hey, what's that asterisk? It leads to "*or mother or uncle or grandparent." Meaning: dads are (or have the potential to be) awesome, robot-building, big kids at heart, while moms are — well, just moms, we guess, perhaps available to stand in if Dad isn't around.
Wired's editors don't go as far as to say that, of course, and we doubt most of them actually think that, either. (A fair number of women edit and write for the magazine, although few write features — not one of June's big stories was written by a woman.) But shouldn't a magazine that markets itself as a general interest publication — as well as a magazine that has come under fire for making sexist cover choices in the past — know better?
"Before I was a geek dad, I was a geeky kid — with all the classic credentials…But at that stage of our cultural evolution, geek was still an epithet. I didn't want to identify with such a blighted subclass," writes Ken Denmead, who has been the editor and publisher of Wired's GeekDad brand for over five years. "But raising geeks goes beyond teaching them the difference between Darths Vader and Maul. It means teaching them an empowering worldview. It means showing them how things work and that with a little research, determination, and trial and error, they can bend the world to their will."
That's a fantastic, worthwhile endeavor for all parents. So why does it have to be marketed towards dads? It's not just the title that makes us feel queasy: there's a sidebar on GeekDad toolboxes with "must-have hardware," but women get "De-Princessifying Your Daughter," which reminds readers that geeks "come in all shapes, sizes, and genders." Hmm, why do publishers seem confused that "girls can geek out too"? Maybe it's because of covers like this one! Adult women can geek out, too, which is why covers like these piss off some of the magazine's female fans. "Wired's How To Be A Geek Dad cover is its latest effort to tell me I'm not supposed to be reading the magazine," tweeted The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, whose husband writes for the magazine. "...they should know better, given the tensions around chick-geeks AND magazines."
Denmead told me he understood why women would be frustrated, but that gender stereotypes in media is a problem greater than the magazine itself. "Wired gets its money from advertisers who sell technology, who see statistics that say guys are making the tech buying decisions, so we focus our advertising and content on them," he said, citing GeekMom, GeekDad's sister site, which Wired contracted with for content this year, as an example that change is coming. "The evolution is slow, it's frustrating, but it's happening."
Last year, Wired's decision to put a pair of headless breasts on its cover drew widespread criticism, mostly from people who were less concerned about the photo and more with the fact that the magazine rarely showcases women. "We've been through this before," wrote Cindy Royal:
Your covers aren't all that friendly to women on a regular basis, and that makes me sad. There was naked Pam from The Office in 2008 (you thought you were so clever with that acetate overlay – I mean, how else would you depict transparency?). In 2003, you had the nice lady covered in synthetic diamonds. There were the sexy manga ladies and LonelyGirl15 and Julia Allison with their come-hither looks. And Uma Thurman, she's a lady, and she was on the cover… But wait, that was for a character she was playing in a film based on a Philip K. Dick novel.
Come to think of it, the last time that a woman was featured on your cover, because she was being featured in the magazine for an actual accomplishment, was way back in 1996 when it was Sherry Turkle, the academic and author. And, the only other time was in 1994, when musician/author Laurie Anderson was featured. Because since then, I guess no women have done anything notable in technology unless it had to do with their bodies? Really?
In response, Wired EIC Chris Anderson wrote, "This is an issue we wrestle with all the time, and it reflects a combination of things, ranging from not enough high-profile women in the tech industry who are recognizable to sell a cover (every month we cover test a list of names to see which ones people know well enough to want to read about them), to your sense that if we go outside the tech industry for women that this somehow doesn't count...In other words, suggestions please!" The controversy also inspired a Poynter live chat with a female Wired editor.
It's great that Wired is open to discussion and interested in making small changes such as partnering with GeekMom, but will we see a "Geek Mom" cover story next Mother's Day? Unlikely. A friend of mine who used to intern at Wired (Disclosure: I also interned at Wired) wrote to me, "My reaction to that cover was that it was a fuck you to MEN. I thought: "They're doing to dudes what women's magazines have been doing to women forever: How To Be A Woman/Mother The Right Way." Interesting point! But Wired isn't a men's magazine. It's a general interest magazine. Isn't it?