Artist behind Newsweek cover: it’s not sexist, it depicts the ugliness of sexism

Newsweek’s current cover story on sexism in Silicon Valley is getting negative attention for dressing up what it defiles: unequal footing for women in technology.

The cover was ridiculed as “desperate/inappropriate/offensive” and described by a national TV host as “despicable.” But many defended its intent, including the cover story’s author, Nina Burleigh.

“The cover illustrates disgusting behavior that has been described in literally hundreds of easily available tweets, blogs and articles online as well as in the many interviews I conducted with women,” she told PBS NewsHour.

In Burleigh’s article, she fleshes out the stereotypes behind Silicon Valley’s legends, who she describes as being unimpressive physically but capable of walking into venture capital firms and leaving with a million dollars. Presented in parallel are the many women who have reached for the same support who were not rewarded because, as Burleigh suggested, they are lacking “the sine qua non of the fabled Silicon Valley startup”: penises.

Burleigh’s article investigated why this disparity existed, but her reporting was lost on “Today Show” host Tamron Hall, who said she hadn’t read the article but “you want to rip the cover off.”

“Where were all these offended people when women like Heidi Roizen published accounts of having a venture capitalist stick her hand in his pants under a table while a deal was being discussed?” asked Burleigh.

Artist Edel Rodriguez, who was TIME’s art director for Canada and Latin America from 1994 to 2008, created the provocative cover and discussed his process at length on Facebook. PBS NewsHour spoke to Rodriguez today.

What did you take away from Nina Burleigh’s article?

It’s hard to like something that’s so difficult to read. I liked it as a written piece but I don’t like the subject. It was about how men have been in a computer mode for so much of their life that they treat women the same way: like tools. That’s the most disturbing thing and one of the main things I took away from it.

What’s your process when you approach illustrating a magazine cover?

I usually get a story synopsis about a paragraph long and soon after, a rough draft of the article. My process is to start doing quick sketches, several pages of rough ideas and concepts. I hone it down to more developed ideas in pencil. When I have enough ideas, I send them to the art director. This one was Grace Lee. She looked through my ideas and picked the one that was used on the cover and the one on the inside. When she picked those ideas,  I did the final artwork. The whole thing took two days and I finished last Friday.

What were your other ideas?

They were all over the place. I had ones that were variations of the arrow attacking the woman or raising her dress. Others showing men as pigs in a way. A hand holding a cell phone and a thumb down on a woman, keeping her down. A woman inside a cell phone. A laptop with the pig’s face on it. A woman being pulled by different electronic cables. Woman getting trampled or devoured by a laptop.

Did you have a conversation with Grace Lee about which was the best for the cover?

In this case, I sent a bunch of ideas and she said, “I want this one for the cover and this one for the inside.” That was it. Sometimes there are revisions. There were no revisions or extra sketches in this case. She also talks to the staff at Newsweek, the writer and editor. They decided that that got the point across in the story. The headline, which was written later is “What Silicon Valley thinks of women.”

Did you anticipate the backlash?

I thought there might be a few letters or something. I didn’t realize there would be that much commenting on it. Many women think this cover is right on the money. There might be 30 to 40 percent who have a problem, and 70 to 60 who think it shows it perfectly. That’s the sign that it’s getting people’s attention. And that’s what a magazine cover should do. To get people to try to figure out what the image is. The article could possibly eliminate what they were first outraged about, but you have to read it. The cover is supposed to get them to read.

Tamron Hall on the Today Show described it as “the lowest common denominator” used to sell something. Is that what it is?

They had Miley Cyrus twerking half naked on that show and a whole feature on “50 Shades of Grey.” They’re accusing me of using sex to sell something? There’s a big outrage machine in the media. The next day, they’ll be outraged at something else. I’m interested in opinions and thoughtful articles about it, not talking heads on television. They’re using it themselves as titillation, but that wasn’t my intent. It was to show a problem.

A lot of commentators said that this image “revictimized” women who have experienced sexual harassment at work and that it “punched down” to them.

It’s a difference of opinion. I don’t see how a woman working her life and showing that this still happens to her is pushing her down. It’s punching at the person moving the cursor. If someone feels revictimized, I’m sorry that’s the case. People are affected by images; it happens all the time. But I am illustrating this story and it’s about harassment.


Edel Rodriguez’s illustration for the interior of the Newsweek cover story on sexism in Silicon Valley.

You created two images: one for the cover and one for the interior. Do you think the messages they conveyed were the same?

I think that there are two different messages. One is about sexual harassment in the workplace and the second image is more about women’s careers. That you’re high up and this stuff knocks you down. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It’s not like I don’t know what images mean and what they indicate. In terms of the visual for the cover, the one that ended up on the cover is better, because, graphically, it’s smarter. There is more room for the headline and the whole cover can be taken in as a complete statement. The image in the interior takes up too much space on a cover and doesn’t have the same impact.

When you read negative criticism and saw a lot of women were offended, did you ever doubt yourself and think maybe it was sexist?

I would be rethinking if every woman or more than 50 percent of women I saw were offended. But many of the women [who are offended] didn’t read the article. The outrage industry jumps into full effect immediately. News sources embed five tweets and it becomes “what people are thinking.” It’s tiresome how it happens on a repetitive basis. I wouldn’t change this image. There’s a huge percentage of women who think it’s very appropriate. Even women in tech.

After what happened to Charlie Hebdo, there has been a lot of scrutiny of cartoons and images in the media. Do we live in an era of heightened awareness about images? Or have racism and sexism always been topics that are too touchy?

I think if there’s a heightened awareness about images in print, that’s wonderful. Is there actually a more heightened awareness? The one thing that’s changed is that responses are immediate. If there was a question about the cover, someone would write a letter to the editor, the editor would pick five to publish. But now, everyone’s writing everything immediately online and it’s starting a discussion. Nowadays it happens in larger amounts and much quicker. I’m fine with that. The idea is that it starts a conversation. If every week, there’s a conversation, and it’s happening in a civil way, that’s what it’s supposed to do.

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