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Home >Press > StarTribune

Media | Press Releases | Founders | Media Kit

Published Sunday, February 27, 2000

$.com: Women's sites stir debate over content

Eric Wieffering / Star Tribune

Mindless driver or a room of one's own?

That's the essence of the debate over women-oriented Web sites such as iVillage.com, Women.com, and Oxygen Media. Writing in the New York Times Magazine on Feb. 6, author Francine Prose described the sites as "not just separate but sequestered, not challenging or provocative but intellect-numbing and reactionary."

Interest in women's sites has never been higher. iVillage Inc. and Women.com completed initial public offerings of stock in 1999 and have attracted big-name advertisers and partners such as America Online, NBC, Hearst Corp. and Rodale. Both rank consistently among the top 50 most-visited Web sites.

Last October saw the debut of Oxygen Media, which includes a cable channel and Web site. It recently received a $122 million investment from the luxury goods maker LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Other backers include AOL, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Oprah Winfrey.

Each of these companies is chasing the same group of women, aged 25 to 54, for the same reason: money. After trailing in online use for years, women now make up about half of the online population and are expected to make about 48 percent of all online purchases this year.

Given that electronic commerce revenue is expected to top $1 trillion worldwide in 2003, and that women control or influence about 80 percent of all household purchase decisions, it's no wonder so many sites are competing for their attention.

These companies are led by strong, accomplished women. Candace Carpenter founded iVillage in 1995, early enough to be considered an Internet pioneer. Before founding Oxygen, Geraldine Laybourne was a top executive at ABC and Nickelodeon.

But you would't know it from their sites, which seem as chirpily obsessed about weight loss, fashion, makeup, relationships and shopping as so many women's magazines.

"Are you a storage queen?" asks iVillage. "Can long distance love last?" asks Women.com. On Oxygen's cable channel you can watch "Pajama Party," which features a slumber party of a half-dozen women in their 20s, and join in a discussion online. Recent topics: lingerie and midnight munchies.

Joan Korenman, director of the renowned Center for Women and Information Technology at the Baltimore campus of the University of Maryland, said she rarely visits sites such as Oxygen and Women.com. "They just don't speak to me."

'Dumbed-down'?

"They really do seem like a dumbed-down version of women's magazines," said Sidney Smith, a graduate student in women's studies at Minnesota State University at Mankato. Smith, who is writing her thesis on women's activism on the Internet, said mainstream sites such as Oxygen appear reluctant to delve into more serious issues, such as the standing of women in undeveloped countries.

Even their attempts to address more serious topics such as personal finance or starting a business are insulting, said Helen Whelan, who helped create CNNfn before co-founding the Web site Myprimetime.com in San Francisco.

"They're written in a way that suggests you're stupid if you're a woman," Whelan said. She also objects to the advertising these companies use to attract women visitors. An Oxygen ad, for example, says "Hairy backs -- another great thing about being a woman."

"I found that offensive," Whelan said. "Can you imagine what would happen if a guy went out and said something like that about women?"

Of course, some women might argue that, especially in the early years of the Internet, men made women feel unwelcome by "flaming" them when they asked innocent questions, or by aggressively propositioning them in chat rooms. "It could get really scary," said Linda Olsen, a Philadelphia-area author.

Women feel safer at women-oriented sites, and not all the information is silly or trivial. Parentsoup.com, which is part of iVillage, is a wonderful resource, Olsen said. "Women's Web sites are connecting women in much the same way that clubs and neighborhood get-togethers used to," Olsen said. "Now that more women are working, they aren't able to meet and exchange ideas like many of our grandmothers and mothers did."

These sites must be doing something right. iVillage, for example, said its registered members increased to 4.2 million as of Dec. 31, up from 2.7 million three months earlier.

Officials at iVillage and Women.com did not respond to requests for interviews. Oxygen included a link to Prose's story on its site and started a discussion. Almost half of the 15 women who responded said they agreed with Prose.



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