When one thinks of AOL, the phrase "tireless supporter of women's rights" doesn't immediately come to mind. And yet, in a romantically lit ballroom on a Monday night, I found myself in the midst of an applause break for all the conglomerate had done to push the feminist agenda. It was day one of the MAKERS Conference, an invitation-only event at the luxuriously sprawling Terranea Resort in the la-di-da beachside suburb of Rancho Palos Verdes, CA (median household income: $120,000 a year). A promotional clip, the first of dozens I would see throughout the week, showed off the jewel in MAKERS’ crown: a three-hour PBS documentary about the "Women Who Make America," sponsored by AOL and Simple® Skincare. Enormous screens, projecting the faces and voices of countless women who had persevered over the patriarchy, commanded the attention of the ballroom; Beyoncé, with her impassioned reminder that girls "run this mother," acted as the soundtrack. "For the first time on television," it said, we were about to witness "the story of how women changed America."
The MAKERS Conference’s first loftily stated goal, for which its organizers were suitably mocked, was to "reset the agenda for women in the workplace in the 21st century." Given that the plausibility of this being accomplishable in three days was nonexistent, the goal then changed to "gather[ing] prominent leaders and innovators from corporations, not-for-profits, and government organizations committed to women's and working family issues for a 48-hour action plan to help defined [sic] the agenda for women in the 21st century." The brain trust charged with this unenviable goal, a gaggle of well-heeled AOL-approved folks from said fields, was there to be inspired, eat artichoke-crusted black cod, and learn from master classes like "Brand Maker: Living IN Your Brand” and “Fear Means Go: Learning to Embrace Change and Challenges.” Horrifically underdressed and unable to give a satisfying response to the query “Who are you with?”, the only way I could have possibly been more out of place among them would be if I were a misogynist.
A beautifully shambolic interview between occasional actress/professional tabloid subject Jennifer Aniston and Ms. founder Gloria Steinem kicked off the festivities. Aniston, tank-topped and bob-coiffed, dazzled the crowd with her gold accent jewelry and borderline enviable lack of cogency. In the interest of imparting academic respect for her subject, she sported aviator glasses with clear lenses. Clutching index cards filled with questions she publicly acknowledged she had no hand in writing, she struggled with her duties as a moderator; after each question was asked, her face, both revealing and retaining nothing, reset and blankly moved on to the next. When Steinem lamented the fact that female actresses still had to be much younger than their male costars, Aniston responded, "What do you mean?" in a manner that suggested she had never seen a film which did not star herself. Feminist ally US Weekly perfectly summed up the interview’s highlights: "The We're the Millers actress,” they dished, “who has been engaged to Justin Theroux since August 2012, wore her gigantic engagement ring and a necklace with the letter ‘T’ on it, a probable nod to her soon-to-be last name."
As the most branded feminist of the bunch, Steinem was the belle of this particular ball. Post-interview, dozens flocked to pick her brain during the Q&A. A sage on a stage, they wanted–nay, needed–her pearls of wisdom. At Tuesday's dinner, an unofficial celebration of her 80th birthday, a video montage of notable MAKERS like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah, Beyoncé, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Ellen DeGeneres expressed shock and delight over how great she looked for her age. Jane Fonda, flanked by Marlo Thomas and grasping a champagne flute for dear life, oversaw the wheeling-out of an enormous, ostentatious gold cake; at her urging, the room cheered and warbled “Happy Birthday” en masse.
After the cake wheeling, the room’s alpha feminists assembled for a seemingly endless photo op in front of the stage. The co-founder of MAKERS, Dylan McGee, saddled up to Steinem. "We need [AOL CMO] Maureen [Sullivan]! We need Maureen!" she despondently yelled to no one in particular. Complimentary shirts and party hats, which posed the question "WWGD?" ("What Would Gloria Do"?) were dispersed throughout the crowd. As the swarm surrounding the alpha feminists grew bigger, a disembodied male voice came over the loudspeakers requesting that attendees use the hashtag #WWGD when Instagramming the festivities. "Ladies,” the voice reminded us, “there are photo booths on both sides of the stage." Well-dressed women with wine glasses loudly discussed career issues as a disco song about the futility of stopping them now played overhead. No one, I’m sure, had any interest in stopping them from patting themselves on their backs. Well, no one capable of doing anything about it, anyway.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say the primary reason I attended the conference was because I was promised face time with Steinem. As a high school feminist so into Ms. that I was published by Ms., I found the opportunity to meet one of my childhood idols impossible to pass up. Inspired by the overwhelming corporateness of my environment (my fellow attendees used the phrase “Lean In” as a noun, verb, and adjective), I spent hours crafting what I thought were the perfect questions–queries about capitalism, America’s class dichotomy, and the use of feminism to market beauty products. As I awaited my interview, I overheard the conversation of the woman who was to sit down with her before me. After talking about her “favorite brands” with a colleague, she said, "OK. I gotta get ready to interview Gloria. She's such a badass." The fact that Steinem wore sunglasses indoors, not that she was a former Playboy Bunny who worked her way to winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was cited as proof of her badassness. She interviewed Steinem. Due to a scheduling snafu, I was only able to email my questions to the queen.
Said questions were petulant and bratty, the deranged ramblings of an infant socialist. My surroundings had, apparently, rubbed off on me. Steinem, in her infinite and even-handed wisdom, responded to them days later like a heat-seeking missile, striking down my anger with reason and logic. When asked about the intersectionality of ageism, classism, and sexism, she mused, “I don't think there's any such thing as being an effective feminist—or effectively anti-racist, etc.—without recognizing this interdependence and opposing them all." When asked if she viewed feminism as a luxury, she typed, “Feminist ethics and values are not a luxury because they are about mutual support." When I expressed displeasure over Sheryl Sandberg’s public celebration of an “empowering” Pantene ad, Steinem acknowledged that "marketing aesthetics as empowerment doesn't work" but maintained that, "as for ads, I would rather them with feminist values than with anti-woman values, just as I would rather see egalitarian ads than those that are racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic." God, she was good. Dispensing wisdom was her job.
Wednesday morning, as I ate one of the best (complimentary!) omelets of my life, I read all about AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who had made an appearance at the conference the day before and in doing so avoided a discussion of the whole "distressed babies" fracas he was currently entangled in. (Armstrong recently blamed cuts in his company’s 401k program on the premature birth of the children of two employees. Non-incidentally, his compensation rose from $3.22 to $12.07 million last year. But I digress.)
He chose not to speak on his own, and instead used 10-year-old female football phenom Sam Gordon as a human shield. An adorable, inspiring shield, to be sure, but a shield nonetheless. At the conference, surrounded by friends and associates, he was was miles away from "haters" in the press—he was the recipient of laughs, hoots, and applause, both when he pitched softballs at the magnanimous prepubescent jock and when he introduced Marlo Thomas as presidential material. In the inspirational Twitter photo of Gordon MAKERS posted before her interview, her flawless skin, rouge, and pink lip gloss stood in the forefront. The photograph was of a makeup artist prepping her.
Sheryl Sandberg, when talking about the Pantene ad campaign that excited her so, described it as "an amazing example of what can happen with marketing." After all, she said, "One of the most active ways women get messages is marketing." Her brows looked great. Her skin, luminescent. The fact that Pantene was owned by Procter & Gamble, a major supporter of Republican candidates and therefore a threat to the rights of women, was irrelevant.
Waiting for the ballroom to open before Steinem’s party, I had a long-winded and intolerable discussion with a woman who said she worked "in recruitment," which was rendered easier with complimentary flutes of champagne. Another woman reminisced about her attendance at other conferences; she was impressed by the production values of this one. She could tell they were trying to make “a big splash.” She was exactly right. This was, indeed, a big splash. In a small pool. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. To me, at least.
Steinem’s thoughtful, evenhanded response to my mean-spirited line of questioning was signed "With Friendship." Reading it, I remembered Sandberg's take on Steinem: "She doesn't actually agree with everything we all do. But she stands by us. She is the best example of women helping women." As our queen, of course, one would expect a certain regality. She is our ruler, but a benevolent one. I am not the queen. I am but a plebe. Who, once the conference wrapped up, crammed 17 complimentary Luna Bars in my bag, got into my shitty car, drove back to my one-room apartment, and stewed over what I had just witnessed.