The Gospel of Reductress

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Sarah Pappalardo, left, and Beth Newell met while writing comedy before they decided to launch a website together. Shaminder Dulai

The internet’s best satire site is run by two 30-somethings in an office the size of a walk-in closet.

A big closet, at least—like the ones you see on MTV Cribs that are filled with fancy sneakers, except not attached to a mansion in the suburbs. There is room for a coffee machine, two polished wood tables and a white board emblazoned with odd notes from a recent meeting: “tissue ghosts,” “condom on a banana,” “sea witch.” Considering Reductress’s office is in downtown Manhattan, this is actually an upgrade. The satirical feminist website was previously headquartered around a single large table upstairs in this same building. “It was loud,” Editor Beth Newell recalls. “We were next to a small startup with very young employees that were always in our personal space.” Her cofounder, Sarah Pappalardo, pantomimes their frustration: “We’d come back to our chairs and find them sitting in them. Their feet up on our desk. Like, aaahh!

Reductress is a funny and sometimes scathing site with a feminist bent. It is what one might have affectionately called “fake news” several years ago, before the 45th president and his supporters commandeered the phrase to discredit critical information. But Reductress is not out to trick anybody, although this sometimes happens by mistake. One piece, a first-person essay titled “We’re Piercing My Baby’s Tongue. Here’s Why,” drew hundreds of angry emails and Facebook posts. (“This bitch is nuts,” remarked one perceptive reader.) “The mommy stuff really gets people!” Pappalardo laughs. “People love to judge mothers.”

Reductress is not a mommy blog. It’s like The Onion, except it’s written in the chirpy, faux-empowering tone typically associated with magazines marketed to women. Some of the articles take the form of xoJane-style confessionals (see: “My Boyfriend Finally Said ‘I Love You’ but It Was to Bernie Sanders on the TV Behind Me”). Others are suggestive of a Cosmo-esque sex guide (“How to Blow Him Until You Die”). All of the stories function as an unsparing send-up of women’s media in the digital age, of feminism being marketed as a performative brand, and of millennial women and how they are expected to behave and be seen: How to Eat Lunch at Your Desk So Silently That You Cease to Exist; Why I Stopped Meditating and Started Screaming; I Am Not a Feminist, but I Do Think All Men Should Die; How to Impress Your Boyfriend’s Mother When His Cum Is Still Inside You; I Don’t Regret Carrying My Pregnancy to Term, but I Do Wish I’d Known I Would Die; Can I Still Be a Feminist if I Hate Myself?; I Can Only Come to the Hamilton Soundtrack.

“My mom likes most of the content,” says Nicole Silverberg, a writer and comedian who serves as an associate editor for Reductress, “but sometimes when I write about cum she’s like, ‘I think I’m a little too old for this!’ It’s like, ‘OK, cum is ageless, but I see where you’re coming from.’” But serious topics are not off-limits. In August, Reductress received a large burst of plaudits when it devoted the entire site to rape jokes that punch up (targeting rape apologists instead of victims). The inspiration came after a series of rape allegations rocked the New York comedy scene. “I think it resonated with anyone who’s experienced any part of rape culture,” Pappalardo says.

01_05_reductress_02 Reductress occupies an office about the size of a large closet, but has a reach around the world with its satirical take on women's media. Shaminder Dulai

The founders are both 31. Pappalardo, who has short hair and square-rimmed glasses, lives in Brooklyn. Newell has decamped to Westchester, where she lives with her husband and two young children. A year or two ago, they were operating Reductress in unglamorous obscurity. Now the website draws about a million unique views a month, has a book in stores and is a weirdly indispensable presence on the Facebook feed of pretty much any left-leaning 20-something. Reductress is not drowning in cash—digital ad rates have been plummeting, and the two editors take on speaking engagements and other public events in order to stay afloat—but it is financially stable. In early fall, the site began consistently paying its contributors. “We wanted to be able to pay writers a long time ago,” Pappalardo says.

On the Wednesday before Election Day, the mood at the Reductress office is still hopeful. Or maybe “hopeful” is the wrong word. It is generally taken for granted that Hillary Clinton will soon be the president-elect, in the same way that we take for granted the fact that the office building we’re in is not presently on fire. Election season has been tense at Reductress HQ. “It feels like everything that Hillary is going through is a stand-in for something that we have personally gone through with some man, some misogynist in our life,” Pappalardo says, letting out a dark laugh. It’s been exhausting, Newell adds, sifting through the flaming wreckage of election norms. “Watching the way he spoke to her in debates and the way he’s spoken about her during the campaign—it’s really triggering, as a woman, to be spoken down to like that,” Newell says. “Especially when she’s so vastly more qualified than him.”

Soon (we figure) the dread will subside. Pretty soon (we imagine) the campaign will begin to feel like a strange dream. So what’s next for Reductress? “We always say that whatever Oprah does to women’s media, we want to do to women’s media satire,” Pappalardo deadpans. “We heard her chai was discontinued in Starbucks, so we hope to swoop in there as soon as we can.”

***

On the cover of the Reductress book is a raised fist with pink nail polish. There are jagged streaks of lightning surrounding it. The colors are garish: bright yellow, hot pink. Its title says it all, or at least it says a lot: How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having It All...And Then Some! In the bottom right corner, in neat cursive—the same tasteful typography that might be used to reveal a multinational sponsor—it says, “Presented by Reductress.” It is a brash visual send-up of corporate feminism. It is amusing to imagine people unfamiliar with Reductress coming across this volume in a bookstore and furrowing their brows, taking it at face value.

The book is a lot like what’s on Reductress.com, just…more of it—a coffee table tome teeming with snark. It was written, the editors explain, from the perspective of “a women’s magazine that has the right intentions but might not be super well-informed.” So the book’s 200-plus pages facetiously treat feminism as a luxury lifestyle that basically consists of eating probiotic yogurt, worshipping Beyoncé (“the first feminist”), tweeting feminist hashtags and bragging to friends about how enlightened you are. Highlights from the book include a glossary: Wombversation means “talking with another woman in hushed tones while placing your hand on each other’s bellies,” an official timeline of feminism (“2012: Prettier lesbians start to emerge”) and a profile of “Roy, the Hunky Male Feminist,” who self-identifies as “the most consenting man alive.” Those who make it to the final page have the opportunity to sign a binding feminist contract.

The authors ask me if I’ve read the book, and when I say that I’ve flipped through it but haven’t read the thing from cover to cover, Newell nods knowingly and tells me that’s for the best. “Some reviewers were like, ‘This was exhausting to read all at once!’ We’re like, “Oh yeah. This should not be read all at once.’”

A coffee table book, a form that signifies elegance and taste, is maybe not what anyone envisioned when the site published its first dick joke nearly four years ago.

Reductress The cover of Reductress's new book, 'How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having It All...And Then Some!' HarperOne

Newell and Pappalardo met while doing a comedy sketch at the Magnet Theater in Manhattan. They became friends. Newell was teaching comedy workshops for women. She hatched an idea to start a fake women’s magazine/website. In early 2013, the pair launched Reductress on a nonexistent budget.

“We spent a few months just, like, writing articles and asking our friends to write articles,” Newell says. At the time, Pappalardo was working at a small digital-production agency. Newell had some experience in internet satire, having interned with “The Onion News Network” a few years prior. At The Onion offices, she learned how to run pitch meetings and organize headline ideas. Reductress would grow, in time, to be one of The Onion’s few viable competitors.

During that first year, the editors paid out of pocket to keep Reductress afloat. They formed an LLC so they would not be personally liable if the site got sued. (“We got our first cease and desist within the first three months,” Pappalardo says, laughing mischievously. “From a certain makeup company. We may have evoked their name…”) Every Monday, they would meet at Think Coffee on Eighth Avenue—not an ideal venue for collaboration, particularly when there was a stranger mumbling to himself at the table where they were trying to start a business.

During the summer of 2014, the business made its first hire: Anna Drezen, a comedian who would later become a writer for Saturday Night Live. Newell quit her job at Magnet Theater to focus on Reductress full-time. That was the year the Reductress founders saw feminism creeping into the mainstream in curious and sometimes disingenuous ways. That was the year Taylor Swift was spotted “browsing the feminist section of a Manhattan bookshop,” while bloggers spent hundreds of collective hours trying to identify the precise meaning of the phrase “basic bitch.” And that was the year Beyoncé performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in front of a glowing “FEMINIST” banner (curious, not disingenuous). Feminism was big, feminism was trending, feminism was a prize, a trinket to be won. The stature of being a feminist suddenly engulfed much interest in feminism itself. Reductress wrote the book as a response.

“There’s this rush of acceptable feminism now,” Nicole Silverberg says. “It’s being used to sell you empowering soap! and empowering hairstyles! and things like that. And that is great. Feminism for the masses is much, much better than no feminism at all. But it kind of gets reduced to these bullet points of, like, Look good, feel good! Look bad, feel good! Look bad, feel ok??

The success of Reductress reveals a substantial audience for satire that skirts the general-interest, newspaper-parody format. Since Reductress launched, ClickHole—The Onion’s viral-mush parody site—has become an absurdist staple. There is also The Hard Times, which takes aim at punk zines. It’s a motley trio. “Remember how i said only the onion should do satire?” the music journalist Josh Terry tweeted in 2016. “I’m revising that to include clickhole, reductress and hard times.”

Asked about the targets of their satire, the Reductress editors are careful not to mention individual outlets by name. They say they are mocking a broad constellation of blind spots and blunders in the way in which female-focused media speaks to readers. The tropes are readily identifiable. There is, for instance, the specter of the personal-essay confessional. “People are now willing to share anything for $40, no matter how deeply personal,” Pappalardo says. She sums up the attitude of the publishing industry as such: “Oh, you’re a woman who’s done something in entertainment. Now you must share every traumatic story you’ve ever had in this memoir.”

Related: Thought Catalog's reckoning

Silverberg recognizes these tropes from the magazines that she grew up reading in Arizona. “Magazines like Seventeen and J-14 and Teen ‘Whatever’—all that stuff was in the ether,” she says. “A lot of it was girls being like, ‘Ugh, I had my period in front of my crush, how do I go to school tomorrow?’ But no one’s telling you that everyone gets their period and you shouldn’t feel ashamed of it. These types of overarching truths that I now just know. No one was ever telling me, ‘Did you know there’s such a thing as, like, a menstrual cup and you could just be cool with dumping blood from your vagina in a public sink??’ I had no idea the ways in which I was supposed to feel proud of being a woman or not ashamed of certain weird stuff with my body.”

Is it cathartic to mock all this on the Reductress site? “It feels powerful,” Silverberg says. “I feel like a powerful dragon when I’m working for Reductress.”

* * *

Back at the office, the Reductress staff bought cake. It was November 8. Election Day. Newell and Pappalardo had finished the workday with some celebratory wine, then headed to their respective election-night gatherings. “We had prepared an entire home page of articles about Clinton’s victory,” Silverberg later recalls. “Which in retrospect just feels mortifying.”

The day after Trump won, the mood in Manhattan flickered between disbelief and despair. The sidewalks were full of tired strangers with dead-eyed stares (at least more than usual). New Yorkers filled the subway tunnel beneath 14th Street with Post-it notes—little scrawled declarations of grief, support, whatever. One anonymous somebody wrote, “The grief of this city reminds me of post 9/11.”

Newell and Pappalardo left town. They flew to Los Angeles for a small book tour, a prearranged trip. It was November 9. It was weird. They hadn’t slept. “The idea of getting on a plane that afternoon was just… not even conscionable,” Pappalardo says, reflecting a couple of weeks later. “Waking up that morning kind of felt like someone had died and you went through a five-year breakup, all at once. It was just kind of a horror to wake up and come to terms with.” Back in New York, Silverberg received a text from her bosses telling her to stay home. “I just stayed home and, you know, thought. A lot. About stuff. The week after, it was just me in the office, with our interns and a couple of staff writers. And it was grim.”

But during that flight to Los Angeles, the Reductress founders logged onto in-flight Wi-Fi and began to plan for the coming months in Trump’s America. “We were on Slack with everybody back in New York and thinking of ideas and takes and angles on this,” Pappalardo remembers. “We kind of realized that this is our job now. It’s not the job that we expected or wanted. But this is our new reality and we’re either gonna fight for it or be wimps.”

01_05_reductress_01 Nicole Silverberg, left, shares some story ideas inspired by a night out with, from left, Beth Newell, Sarah Pappalardo and Taryn Englehart in the offices of Reductress on December 7. Shaminder Dulai

Reductress is not an outlet for political reporting. It is not known for earnest activist sloganeering. But in recent months, the site has begun mirroring the rage and disembodied despair that’s taken hold in progressive circles. The headlines have become darker: “Is It Celiac? Or Just the Fiery Violent Rage You Feel All the Time Now?” “Brave! This White Woman Chose to Protect Her Race Before Her Own Gender.” Pappalardo’s favorite is a piece she wrote hours after Trump’s victory speech: “‘How Am I Supposed to Explain This to My Children?’ Asks Melania Trump.” (The First Lady is a recurring target. On Inauguration Day, Reductress posted a piece imagining Melania Trump marching on the White House treadmill so that she could feel included in the Women’s March.)

It is exhilarating to see the anxieties of Trumpism filtered ironically through the cheap, cloying language of viral headline tropes. The tone is angry, in a pointed but also sly way: feel-good liberalism laced with cyanide. It’s more barbed than New Yorker goofball Andy Borowitz, whose satire is frequently soft and predictable. Borowitz is careful: He never ensnares his readers (or himself) in the critique. The target of every Borowitz Report jab is Trump or Trump-adjacent figures. On Reductress, the jabs are aimed just as frequently at milquetoast white liberalism (i.e., “Sharon to Spend the Next Four Years Patting Herself on the Back for Attending the Women’s March”).

“We’re not going to be writing, like, 10 different articles on Trump’s tax returns,” Silverberg says. “We’re always going to be trying to find the angle that’s relevant to the experience of being a woman in America.” But the overarching atmosphere—Trump’s rise, the country’s hard swing right—is unavoidable. “Trump is obviously the center of the issue, but there’s such a complicated and massive web of issues surrounding him, and figures and philosophies and Nazis. We also have more silly stuff. One of our writers wrote an article called “How Trump Inspired Me to Drain My Cyst.” We live in a world where Trump tweets something and immediately there are like 85 different joke-takes on it. We don’t want to explore those takes that people are naturally going to jump to. We’re trying to get to the pit of it.”

On the subject of Reductress’s impact, Silverberg adds: “I don’t think that I understood the power that we wielded until we had done our page about sexual assault in August… Which is not to pat ourselves on the back, like ‘Good for us! We know how to write jokes about rape.’ It’s more that I didn’t realize what our reach and impact could be until women said, ‘This made me feel seen’ or, ‘This made me feel not so crazy about my own experiences.’”

Reductress will endure. The founders are characteristically modest on the subject of its success. “We were hoping we’d have that loft in SoHo by now,” Pappalardo half-jokes. Somewhere in the gray space between the righteous resistance and the sardonic smirk, Reductress will reside.

“There’s something universal in being able to say to ourselves, ‘OK, we are writing about the woman’s experience.’ And politics are still a woman’s experience,” says Silverberg. “I think the word empowering is—”

She pauses. “Not everyone loves that word because of how it’s been co-opted by, like, feeling like you should be empowered by the phone case you have. But I do find it empowering to work for Reductress.”