Since Donald Trump became president, it’s felt even more urgent to keep an eye on policies involving women’s rights and issues. Christina Cauterucci is a Slate staff writer who’s been focusing on the intersection of gender and politics, as well as stories concerning sexuality, women’s health, and fashion.
In this S+ Extra podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members, Chau Tu talks with Cauterucci about the late Hugh Hefner’s complicated legacy, how the term “feminist” has been co-opted, and reporting on Trump’s America through the feminist lens.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: How would you describe your beat? What kinds of stories are you looking out for?
Christina Cauterucci: My beat in general is focused on women and gender, so I take that to mean everything from reproductive health policy and reproductive health science stuff, things about sexuality, certainly politics. I’ve written a lot about Donald Trump, as all of us have at Slate. Feminism in general. I also write some about fashion, which is an interest of mine, both men’s and women’s and agendered fashion.
It’s a fun beat because I actually think of it more like a lens than a beat because then I can pretty much write on any topic through the lens of feminism and gender. My editors have been great about giving me a little bit of free rein to pick what interests me.
Do you feel that your beat has changed a lot since Trump came into office?
I don’t think it’s changed that much, just because when I first started in the fall of 2015, the campaign was already in full swing. I was already writing a lot about the candidates, both on the Republican and Democratic side. So I was writing a lot about both of their policy proposals, but then also just the crazy stuff that everyone was saying on the campaign trail. And then once Trump was elected, I just sort of followed those strings and wrote about his nominees and what Republicans were doing in Congress. So it hasn’t changed that much, but I think my feelings about writing about it have changed a little bit.
Before the election, I really felt like I had a purpose. Whether I was writing about Trump or Clinton or Sanders or any of the other Republican candidates, I felt like, “OK, I’m helping people make an informed decision. And it’s important that I follow these topics and these candidates really closely and criticize where things needed to be criticized on both sides.” Of course, I think Trump deserves more criticism, so I spent more time on that, but there was a moment after the election where I felt a little bit of hopelessness, like what is the point of all of this? We did so much work, and not that I thought Slate was going to change the outcome of the election or anything, but it took me a couple weeks to get back in the groove of feeling a sense of purpose behind my work.
Are you surprised by anything that he’s done and any of his associates have done, their policies? Especially concerning women and women’s rights?
Not entirely. I was pleasantly—I don’t know if you’d say surprised—but I was somewhat pleased to see that they did follow through on Ivanka’s promise to push for child care legislation. And I certainly don’t think that their proposal is adequate, and it would benefit wealthy families far more than it would benefit anyone who’s actually struggling to provide child care for their children. But it’s great to see that conversation continuing where, before the election, it felt like there was not very much space to talk about those policies because there were a lot more pressing and enraging issues around racism and Islamophobia and misogyny and sexual assault and that kind of thing.
One of my favorite pieces of yours recently was one where you explored old photos of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer. Windsor, of course, was someone who helped lead the way to legal gay marriage in the U.S. It was really moving to see these photos and see how the two of them grew together as a couple. How did that piece come about from your end?
So, Edie Windsor passed away a couple weeks ago when I wrote the piece, and I follow a lot of queer people on social media and there are a lot of people posting tributes to her and articles about her death and her life. There were photos that came along with those posts, especially on Instagram. And they were just these amazing old photos and as I was looking at them, it kind of struck me. I was wondering why I was feeling so many emotions about the photos because I don’t feel a particular emotional connection to Edie Windsor herself. I’m certainly grateful and happy about the Supreme Court case that she was a part of and that she worked to push through. But yeah, I never felt any sort of personal connection to her as a heroine, necessarily, of the gay rights movement.
But then I realized that I don’t see many pictures, many old photos of queer couples and gay couples because—well, for many reasons. Because photography was expensive and a heavy lift back in the ’60s when their photos together began. And at the time, a lot of queer people were either living in secret or not documenting their relationships on paper. But those relationships existed and they thrived and it’s amazing to see that, to see a queer relationship documented through so many decades.
And their photos together are also just so beautiful. They have a really intense physical connection, which Edie Windsor had talked about at length in interviews before her death. And you can just see the vibrance of their love. And it really reminded me of people I know today and couples, both queer and straight, you know, when you look at a couple and just think, “They are a beautiful match.”
You also recently wrote about Hugh Hefner after his death, and he’s actually a pretty divisive figure amongst a lot of people. What are your thoughts about his legacy?
I went into writing—I wouldn’t call it an obituary—but my sort of assessment of his life feeling a little bit conflicted or even-handed about his legacy. There have been a lot of pieces written since his death about his legacy of contributing to civil rights causes and abortion rights cases, lower court cases and abortion funds. So he certainly did do great things. He hired black writers when not a lot people were doing that.
But I think his legacy was far more shaped by the magazine that he ran and his lifestyle, which he was very public about. He had crafted this very elaborate image of a bon vivant and a playboy. And he made it mainstream and cool and respectable to commodify women’s bodies, basically. Obviously, there had always been erotica and pornography, but he put it next to some really objectively great journalism. And with his fancy mansions and his sort of refined tastes in furnishings and food and liquor, he made it into something that the everyday person could feel good about doing. He made it into a really mainstream, multimillion-dollar industry, and I think that that will be the legacy that lives on far more than whatever contributions he made to the civil rights and feminist movements.
On the flip side of that, a couple weeks ago, you actually wrote about the Playboy coffee table book and you looked through 700 different centerfolds that had appeared in the magazine, right? And you had a takeaway from that as well, just looking at these women’s photos, right?
Yeah, it was kind of funny. When the book first came in the mail, I’d requested it from the publisher because I knew I wanted to review it. I opened it at my desk, not really thinking and an intern was walking by at that moment and I was like, “Oh my god.” Kind of shocked at the pornographic nature of the photo, which obviously, it’s a Playboy book. I don’t know why I was shocked. But I think I probably paged through only a couple of Playboys in my life. And once the photos got to the late ’80s and the ’90s and the 2000s, they were really garish. Everything was exposed. There wasn’t even any pubic hair and it was just these extraordinarily sexualized, not even sensual images of women. So that was my initial shock. And I felt sort of naïve about that and I’m sorry to that intern who I probably sexually harassed.
But I did make a point of paging through every single one of these, I think it was 734 centerfolds. And by the end of it, they ceased to mean anything to me anymore. I had never looked at so many naked bodies in one sitting and by the end, they all kind of looked the same and I felt like I had said a word too many times and it made no sense to me anymore. It just seemed boring and banal and, I don’t wanna say gross, but it’s like a strange obsession.
It’s interesting and fun to see how styles have changed and Playboy’s sort of world building got more elaborate as the years went on. In earlier years, it was a lot of just flowy, sheer dresses and lingerie. In the ’50s, it was actually a lot of women in baggy pants just with no shirt on sitting by a record player or something. Then when you get to the ’80s and ’90s, it’s like, “OK. She’s a news anchor and she’s behind the desk.” Or “She’s biking and her skirt has hiked up.” And there were just a lot of schoolgirls. That became really popular in the 2000s, which played off of the infantilizing theme that was popular throughout but in previous years, had been depicted by girls playing with dolls and drinking milk.
There was a disturbing number of twins and triplets, which when people say to me, “You know, well, this is also the sexual revolution that Hugh Hefner created”—which by the way, I do not think he created the sexual revolution—“[that] benefits men and women.” I don’t think that this is a story being told from the woman’s point of view when it’s her caressing her twin.
Yeah. I don’t know if they get the same benefit as the man in that scenario.
Probably not. But it was an interesting experience. I recommend it to anyone with a strong stomach and an hour or so on their hands.
Kind of along the same lines, there’s been a lot of talk just more recently in the last couple years or so about the term feminist and what it means to be one and how it’s used. So what are your thoughts about that? Do you think it’s become more problematic to use the term feminist?
I don’t think it’s problematic for someone to call themselves a feminist, but I definitely think that the term has been diluted and co-opted, both by people who aren’t feminists whose actions are not feminist, and by companies who are just trying to make money off of the word and the term feminist, and they’re sort of stripping it of its political meaning.
For example, you see this a lot with the Trump administration and supporters of the Trump administration where women will say things like, “Well, I’m a feminist. And I’m pro-life. So isn’t being pro-life feminist?” Well, that’s not exactly how it works because if you’re pro-life and you’re trying to take abortion rights away from women. That’s not a good thing for women and you’re curbing their bodily autonomy and their ability to choose their own directions in their lives, and you’re limiting their lives.
Or people who will say things like, for instance, when I’ve written things critical of Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, women in the Trump administration, I will get folks on Twitter, women saying things like, “How can you be a feminist and be so critical and tear down other women?” Well, being a feminist doesn’t mean supporting everything other women do. Especially when the things that those women are doing are hurting women and other people.
And then there are companies who will use it like putting it on T-shirts or the Thinx period panties brand has tried to make itself into a feminist company. And even though the product that it makes certainly does great things for women who enjoy it and who can afford it, but the founder, who now actually is no longer at the company, would say things like, “We’re trying to change the meaning of feminist into something that’s less naggy and less hairy women reading poetry,” which, if you’re insulting a certain kind of feminist and saying that the word feminist means something that doesn’t fit in with your sort of capitalist image, in my opinion, you don’t really have the right to call yourself or your company that’s just trying to make money off of the word feminist a feminist.
What kind of feedback do you usually get from readers?
Oh, God. Actually lately, I’ve been getting some really great comments on Twitter, which I always appreciate because I know it’s way easier to comment on something you don’t like than to comment on something you do. A lot of times, I know I’ll be on the internet and just read an article and think, “That was awesome,” and not do anything about it. But I’d say in general, I never read the comments on Slate because I think I read the comments on the first piece I wrote and it was a bad experience and I never went back. But I do hear from our comment moderators that the Slate community of commenters is more civil and thoughtful than most. So that’s great.
I mute people who say mean things to me on Twitter. I have a very heavy finger on the mute button. When I get a personal insult, when somebody Googles me and finds my photo and says something about how I look—or in one case, the guy Gavin McInnes, who’s now the head of the Proud Boys, an alt-right group of men, Googled a picture of me and three friends and he tweeted it out and sort of encouraged his followers to insult me and my friends. And they’re not journalists; they don’t put themselves out there. That was bad. And so I reported the shit out of all of the people who were calling us slurs or making violent threats.
But when I get a comment from somebody who actually read a piece of mine and maybe disagrees with an argument, I appreciate that as much as I appreciate people who just say that they liked the piece, because I think it’s so easy to comment on something when you just read the headline or when you think you know the argument a writer is making but you actually don’t. And so when somebody takes the time to read it and engage with it, I’m always impressed and grateful.
Do you have any pet causes, stories that you wish got more attention and want to get more attention onto?
I think for reasons of financial and time resources, I don’t see a lot of reporting on ways that U.S. policies affect women in other countries. The policy that I’ve reported most on is the global gag rule, which keeps U.S. funds from going into international organizations that provide abortion care, advocate for abortion care, or refer for abortion care. So there are millions of dollars at stake that with every Republican administration that comes in get pulled away from organizations like International Planned Parenthood Federation, Marie Stopes International, groups that have really wide global infrastructures for providing contraception and reproductive healthcare to women. And when these organizations lose their funding, it has incredibly wide-reaching and generations-long impact because women are unable to control their own reproductive lives. And that is incredibly intertwined with their economic solvency.
So it’s hard to report on these things because a lot of times, they’re in countries without a lot of reports from mainstream U.S. organizations and media outlets. Had I all of the time and reporting resources in the world, I would report more on that.