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The Score is Still Uneven: Lucky Peach’s “The Gender Issue”

“Anyway, this issue is a shot at evening the score a little: it’s been divided into men’s and women’s parts. This half is FOR WOMEN; flip it over and you’ll find Lucky Peach FOR MEN. They meet in the middle with SEX..”

-Rachel Khong, letter from the editor, Lucky Peach Issue 8: Gender, Summer 2013

I didn’t add those caps. They were included in the original letter written by Khong, which I’ve only just now become aware of. It’s clear they were added for EMPHASIS (see what I did there? I really want you to GET IT). Normally, Khong does not introduce the issue or its theme, but this time she says she was “forced” to by the men ranking higher than her on the editorial board, “…to prove that there is, you know, a female working on this magazine.” According to LP‘s masthead, Khong is actually the only woman working at Lucky Peach as a member of the editorial board, although all three interns are women. The gender breakdown of the mag’s upper echelon, however, is not what I’m interested in. At least not today.

My reaction to the gender issue might be a matter of timing. When I came across it at Magers and Quinn, an independent bookstore in the Uptown area of Minneapolis, it was the cherry on top of a week that included this profile of the highly controversial Bustle in The New Yorker, which made me cringe, and the 80th Anniversary Issue of Esquire, which I pored over.

But back to Lucky Peach, which caught my eye at the bookstore yesterday because of its bright and colorful cover(s). Yes, two covers!

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(Image from Slate)

Got that, everyone? There are stories in here for the LADIES, and there are stories in here for the DUDES. In case that is confusing, start with whatever cover’s bountiful spread most resembles your own sexual organ. If that’s neither a hot dog nor a sliced open melon, you’re out of luck. Because gender is binary and we are defined by our “parts” don’t ya know.

Though the men’s and women’s content may mingle within the same perfect bound book, the issue’s actual construction makes it impossible to move languidly through the content. If the separate covers designating men’s and women’s content aren’t enough, the separate sections are actually bound inversely. Switching over from the women’s to men’s content (after a brief flip through the “Sex” section), involves turning the magazine over and preparing yourself for a totally different and DISTINCTLY MASCULINE experience. Get ready, bros.

But is the content that different? I don’t think so. As in many aspects of gender, the distinction is quite arbitrary.

Admittedly, I am not a regular reader of Lucky Peach. Though I’ve long admired their success in turning an independent literary magazine about food into a lucrative business, LP is not a publication I religiously buy. But I bought this one because the “For Women!” tagline caught my eye. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s reading this letter. Joanna and I spend countless moments in front of magazine racks, and I can say that I’ve without a doubt become an expert at scanning the racks for what’s new and interesting. Scoping out the competition is a full time job (albeit one I love and revel in and garner constant inspiration from).

There is no redeeming quality about LP‘s efforts to make their publication more feminine or female-friendly this time around.

As L.V. Anderson points out in her article about the issue for Slate.

“Given their eagerness to challenge the gender binary, why did the editors decide to make separate sections for men and for women at all? The covers make obvious that the division is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but practically speaking, it functions as a stark divide…And yet editorially, it’s hard to say what the difference is among the three sections. There are articles by both men and women in both gendered sections…Sometimes it seems like the Lucky Peach honchos flipped a coin to figure out which section an article would go in.”

What would have been nice, and what I think would have been a considerate and appropriate response to the readers who Khong says keep writing in to ask, “WHERE ARE ALL THE LADIES?” (again, I can’t claim those caps), would have been to simply include more women writers, not only in their summer issue, but in future issues as well. Any real increase in presence is presented as temporary and as a means to appease. I don’t want to be appeased, I just don’t want to only see female bylines attached to articles about “Traveling with Kids” (Issue 7: Travel).

That being said, I paid $12 for this issue, and in the next few weeks, I’ll read each and every story included inside, no matter the direction in which it’s bound. I’ll read the men’s section for the same reason that I read Esquire, GQ, and the other top-notch, non-gender specific magazines that are still populated, sometimes exclusively, by male writers.

Joanna and I are careful to make it clear that The Riveter is not a “women’s interest” publication. We are only two women and we can’t presume to know what women’s interests collectively are. We curate content that, though told from the female perspective, we think is of interest to both men and women. When we say that Esquire is one of our favorite magazines, we’re often met with responses such as “Really? But it’s so misogynistic.” We disagree. As they celebrate their 80th anniversary this month, we recognize and celebrate it as a magazine which features riveting content by men, that we as women also enjoy reading.

In our interview with Bustle (pre Lizzie Widdicombe’s article in The New Yorker), Arianne Tobin played the devil’s advocate and asked us why we would create another women’s magazine, and “relegate good writing to the so-called ‘pink ghetto.’” First of all, I don’t know what the “pink ghetto” exactly is. Secondly, in a perfect world, The Riveter would not exist because the mainstream publications we all read and spend our latte money on wouldn’t be vaguely disguised as men’s interest magazines, or at the very least, thinly veiled platforms that are much easier to mount if you are male. We are different from Bustle and other women’s magazines in that we are not just providing one more platform that subscribes to the tired trope that women are more likely to read stories that they can digest in the same space as beauty and fashion tips, or that women are only capable of writing about these things.

Lucky Peach had an opportunity to advance a mission that The Riveter shares: to promote women as writers and to increase the diversity in storytelling. Issue 8 is a sorry attempt at doing so.

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Kaylen Ralph is co-founder and co-editor of The Riveter, a print and online magazine that promotes longform storytelling by women for everyone. She graduated with degrees in magazine journalism and English creative non-fiction writing from the University of Missouri in August, 2013. She is currently based in Minneapolis, MN and conducting research for an anthology of female longform journalists to be released by The Sager Group in 2014. 



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