He has no regrets

Newsweek designer defends his controversial tech sexism cover

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The relaunched version of Newsweek is no stranger to controversy. Almost a year ago, it brought the ire of the internet upon it with its launch story on Bitcoin creator Satashi Nakamoto, to the point where the company had to hire private security for the reporter who wrote it.

This week, the venerable old magazine is seeing another wave of conflict. This time, the backlash concerns cover art used to illustrate the story of sexism in the tech industry. Instead, some believed the image was an act of sexism itself: It features a cartoon graphic of an eyeless women molested by a giant computer cursor. Full disclosure, I’m one of them.

Others disagree, saying the image is “provocative” but that’s the whole point. It brings more attention to the issue. The debate raged yesterday and into today, on Twitter, Facebook, and even The Today Show.

Newsweek larger

As Alexia Tsotsis pointed out, the picture fails a checklist of objectification. The eyeless face makes the woman incomplete; she could be interchangeable for any woman. She is literally being clicked on, as thought she’s an object.

Newsweek editor-in-chief Jim Impoco tweeted that if people read the story they’d understand the picture was a perfect fit for it. Author Nina Burleigh penned a generic, albeit very thorough 5,000 word look at tech’s sexism problem.

All the discussion got me wondering about what really happened and what the artist who designed the woman thinks of the controversy.

So I reached out to Edel Rodriguez, the illustrator who drew the woman. He worked in conjunction with the art directors for the piece, an independent design firm called Priest+Grace which has designed many of the new Newsweek’s cover art. The firm declined to answer my questions, but they confirmed that Rodriguez pitched the idea and drew the woman.

Rodriguez answered my questions over email, and we covered everything from the process of choosing the cover to whether he’d do it again if he could go back in time (an emphatic yes). We only did one round of questions, so we didn’t get to have a back and forth. If you want to hear more of his thoughts, check out the discussion he’s taking part in on Facebook.

How did you come up with the idea/design for the Newsweek cover? Were women consulted in the decision? Was there debate over whether to run it?

I received the assignment from the art director for Newsweek covers, a very talented and smart woman. She sent me the article, which I read, and then proceeded to brainstorm and come up with sketches based on the article. I sent her my ideas and she picked this idea for the cover. I then went ahead and did the final artwork.  The staff at Newsweek received it and designed the cover. Women were involved all throughout the process. I am not sure about their discussions because I was not present at their meetings.

What was it supposed to convey or represent?

The subject of the article is how women are treated in Silicon Valley. It details the sexual harassment, jokes and treatment that women put up with in the industry. The image represents this harassment. A woman should have the right to dress however she pleases without this happening to them. These men have grown up around technology and video games their entire lives. They see women as objects that they can mistreat. The image conveys the exact moment when the harassment is symbolically taking place.

Did you suspect some people would react negatively to the cover or were you surprised?

I assumed some people would have negative reactions to the image, it’s the case whenever one does an image about sexism, racism, or other social topics. Some people will agree with your point of view, others will see it another way. Many women have had good reactions to the cover as well, they see it as showing the problem, which it is. The purpose of a magazine cover is to bring attention to the story and to start a conversation about the topic. I feel it has done that.

What would you say to people who think the cover objectifies women and marginalizes the sexism issue in Silicon Valley?

I would tell them that it’s not my intention and that if they read the story they will understand that the image is illustrating a very real and persistent problem in the tech industry, and that my intent is to bring attention to the behavior of these men.

If you could do the cover over again would you still take this approach?

Yes, absolutely.

What did people not understand about the cover?

That my job is not to be an advocate of what things should be, my job is to illustrate the story. The topic is “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women”, and, unfortunately, according to the story, this is how many men treat women in that industry.

10 Responses to “Newsweek designer defends his controversial tech sexism cover”

  1. Byron Bennett

    Since my earlier post below, I’ve read Alexis Tsotsis’ article on the cover referenced above, and wow! It is clear that this cover image was way more disturbing to some people than I had imagined.

    I think this fragment describes the main beef she and others have with the image:
    “Newsweek’s faceless and sexualized symbol of women in tech is a disservice to these women and countless others. It’s basic and reductive. We have worked so hard to broaden the scope of what we can be, in Silicon Valley, in the world, and here comes Newsweek putting us back in the box with an image that bluntly, sloppily trivializes how painfully that progress was won.” http://techcrunch.com/2015/01/29/ethics-in-cursor-molestation-journalism/

  2. Byron Bennett

    I see the NW cover image and I think, “This story is about an industry that tokenizes women, turns them into an adornment like a Keurig coffee machine to serve as eye candy for all the rich and powerful men.” I’ve never been to the Valley, so I don’t know what it’s like there, but from everything you read on the tech sites, it sounds like if the Nerds took over the school locker room and picked up the conversation that the jocks were having before they left.

    The author, as a woman writing for Gigaom, clearly has real life experiences with the problem that no man can fully appreciate. So, what would have been of interest to me would be to understand why she and others find it offensive.

    Was it too weak? Did it make the problem seem like it was as offense against inanimate objects and therefore is not a big problem? If so, then I think that was kind of the point of the image…to make the statement that “Silicon Valley sees the problem of sexism as an offense against nameless, inanimate objects. It doesn’t even think the problem is hurting real people.”

    Didn’t read the article, but the image perfectly illustrates that SV doesn’t appreciate the depth of the problem. Of course, it takes a reasonably subtle person to see that. Maybe the image’s detractors don’t think most people will read it that deeply? But it seems pretty clear to me that the message is not only does SV have a sexism problem, but it doesn’t even think it is hurting real people.

    • Read your comment above as well. I personally agree with you…Let me explain:
      It seems to me like, as you mentioned, the image does a good job of illustrating the story. I do find it odd that the woman on the cover be faceless, but I also think that’s the point: that sexism happens to everyone and is a very real yet trivialized issue in SV, yet the perpetrators don’t see that. I can almost see in my mind the sexist jerks at the controller to a computer where the cover image is a game or something.
      Additionally, it sounds like to me Tsosis is denying there’s a problem, which is frankly very disturbing. “We have worked so hard to broaden the scope of what we can be, in Silicon Valley…here comes Newsweek putting us back in the box”–excuse me? Many and most women in SV are still finding themselves *in* that box. That’s the point! This is happening! I’m sure it’s not her intention to imply this, but I found it unfortunate nevertheless.

  3. snuggles

    It’s been my experience that the SV is a sexist environment run by either sociopaths, introverts or people who just have zero social skills. Add women to that mix and all sorts of heinous crap happens.

    The Newsweek article is pretty stupid, although, I was really really hoping Salon/Jezebel would have written about the sexism because they tend to go full retard. But yeah, Newsweek is pretty awful. I mean, seriously awful.