Newsweek designer defends his controversial tech sexism cover

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.

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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.