By Elizabeth Dwoskin
Friday, April 28, 2006
Fed up by Maxim's Hot 100 list that ranks women for their sex appeal, a new wave of activists are promoting the "Real Hot 100," a celebration of women who break barriers. The group sees media reform as a major battleground.
(WOMENSENEWS)--One night in June 2005, Gwynn Cassidy was having a drink with her colleagues from a women's legal advocacy organization in New York City.
When the conversation turned to Maxim magazine's fresh release of its annual Hot 100 list of women between 18 and 35, the mood shifted to frustration.
To Cassidy and her friends, including Ann Friedman, an editor of the Feministing.com Web site, many women on the list--such as "Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria and teen actress Lindsay Lohan--were better known for changing into skimpy items of clothing than for changing the world.
Were these really "the most successful and most talked about women on the planet," as Maxim, the New York-based men's magazine whose April special issue touts "the biggest pile of half-naked women we've ever seen," claimed?
"We knew plenty of women that were hotter than Eva Longoria," said Cassidy. "I mean, we're hotter than she is."
Cassidy, Friedman and a number of others decided to mount a retort in the form of their own Real Hot 100, a roster of accomplished women between the ages of 18 and 35. The first lineup will be released in June.
The project is part of a campaign for "media democracy" by the Younger Women's Task Force, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit associated with the National Council of Women's Organizations.
"Fighting more traditional feminist battles like pay equity, reproductive rights and violence against women will always be central to young women's work," the task force's Web site says. "But working for justice in the media . . . is the new battleground for younger women."
The heat of the Real Hot 100 women, according to the group's Web site, will derive from the pace and energy with which they are "breaking barriers and making a difference in their communities."
The project's message, summarized in the logo "See how hot smart can be," is resonating across the blogosphere and on the Web. On Dec. 5, the day the Real Hot 100 Web site was launched, the project was featured on "Yahoo Picks" and received an encouraging write-up from Salon's Rebecca Traister, who beamed in jest, "Ladies, let the cat-calling begin."
The Real Hot 100 women are selected from nominations by friends, parents, husbands and the women themselves. This year's field--over 250 nominees--are posted on the project's Web site; a print version of the victorious 100 will come out in June to correspond with the annual publication of Maxim's Hot 100 list.
Maxim's publicist Drew Kerr said in an e-mail, "We are going to pass on commenting," when asked to provide a reaction to the Real Hot 100 rebuttal and to reveal how Maxim selects the women profiled.
In addition to challenging Maxim's standards of feminine success, the Real Hot 100 project seeks to highlight young women's often overlooked contributions.
Rachel Burton, a 31-year-old co-founder of Piedmont BioFuels Co-op, based in Pittsboro, N.C., is one nominee. She's pictured on the project's Web site converting the tour bus of country music legend Willie Nelson to run on the co-op's signature blend of biodiesel fuel, which is "homebrewed" from waste vegetable oil.
Nelly Yusupova, a 27-year-old immigrant from Tajikistan, is another. She moved to New York City to escape the Taliban. After teaching herself English and computer science, she went on to become the technical director of Webgrrls International, a networking service that also provides mentoring and skill-sharing opportunities for women interested in the fields of computer science and technology.
Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg, 23, triples as a Human Rights Watch researcher, a waitress at a cafe in New York's Museum of Modern Art and a co-founder of the Prison Education Initiative, an organization that teaches arts and high school equivalency courses to women incarcerated on Riker's Island.
Cassidy hopes nominees will use the site for networking purposes. "If one of our minister nominees wanted to offer women in their community advice on safe sex, where would they turn? They could turn to their church's old guard or they could turn to one of our many nominees dedicated to sexual education. Besides combining their efforts towards improving women's lives, they would learn so much about each other and the different worlds from which they both come."
The common goal Cassidy envisioned--making the world better, improving women's lives and learning about one another--is abundant among the Real Hot 100 nominees, but not all of them identify with the traditional feminist label.
Jenni Prokopy, a 35-year-old nominee from Chicago, created ChronicBabe.com, a Web site that provides a positive support community for younger women with chronic illnesses. Prokopy, who has fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by fatigue and pain, said that many on the list add nuance to connotations of feminism that are more overtly political.
"They are opening art galleries, creating clothing lines with materials that are made only by women . . . just quietly living a pro-female lifestyle by starting something in their communities," Prokopy said. "The only way to express your feminism isn't by going to a rally."
Organizers of the Younger Women's Task Force see media democracy--or media justice as some describe it--as a movement advocating everything from raising the number of women who hold powerful positions in media companies and increasing the visibility of female journalists to combating the way media images represent women.
The concept has its roots in late 1990s campaigns against media consolidation, deregulation and corporate ownership that have re-emerged in the current support for independent media.
The Younger Women's Task Force has taken that concept and drawn from the legacy of women's rights activism and the multicultural movement's struggles for representation.
The nominations poured in from more than 30 states during a three-month nominating period. Project organizers say the strong response suggests they were not the only ones fed up with lists like Maxim's, which published its 100th issue in April.
"Not just women, but a lot of men, too, are sick of those images," said Friedman.
Matthew Mardis-Lecroy of Des Moines, Iowa, for instance, nominated his wife, Mary Beth, a minister in a local church. "Mary Beth is striving every day to shatter the stained-glass ceiling in the ultimate old boys' club, the mainline Protestant church," he wrote in his nomination message.
"When I got that e-mail, I literally got goose bumps," Cassidy said. "It let me know that we're doing a good thing here."
Elizabeth Dwoskin is an editorial intern with Women's eNews. She is a freelance writer and radio producer based in New York.
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