listening to MYTHOS
HILARY REID interviews sophia richards
Flip through the pages of most women’s magazines and it won’t be long before you find that something needs to be fixed – maybe your teeth, your blackheads, your thighs, or your boring, ugly salad. Answers, always for sale, await: a teeth-whitening pen, deep-cleansing pore strips, CoolSculpting, more photogenic greens.
The idea that women’s magazines – or any magazines with ads – sell products to readers is not new. Still, I was surprised at how refreshing Mythos, a New York-based online magazine created by and for women, felt for its lack of products and how-tos. Instead, Mythos publishes interviews with women of varied ages and pursuits – past interviews have included lawyer and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, writer Alexandra Kleeman, illustrator Maira Kalman, and postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Last month, Mythos re-launched with an updated design, an interview with Marxist feminist scholar Silvia Federici, and an essay by poet and writer Thylias Moss. I wrote to Sophia Richards, the founder of Mythos, with a few questions about the online magazine that, as Richards puts it, publishes “unconventionally glamorous conversations about womanhood.”
Tell me a bit about Mythos. When did it start, what other publications did you look to for influence, what was missing in magazines that you felt should exist?
Well, I wanted to start something like it in high school, which had the same name but was a completely different thing. It was something like a really optimistic and over-share-y personal blog that I was going to co-run with a friend.
I actually started Mythos in the summer of 2016 because I had been semi-homeless and unemployed and was really frustrated with the world, myself... the relationship between myself and the world… Desperate times call for desperate measures.
In terms of influence, I’m a huge Into the Gloss fan, so I was very inspired by them. The Coveteur, the Line, and then all the major “elegant lady” print mags, like Unconditional or AnOther. The aesthetic sophistication of my publication is nowhere close to the ones I’ve just mentioned, but I aspire to get there eventually.
But I think when you look at the above publications, what’s missing is pretty obvious. They’re all about who are the “good” women and the “cool” women – but for some reason every single cool woman has like, Diptyque candles and marble bathrooms. I think the message that ultimately communicates is that there’s a superior expression of femininity, and one that’s very class-dependent. Although it makes for beautiful images that I continue to return to, I think at the end of the day it's pretty evil and just insensitive.
Why did you choose to name the magazine “Mythos”?
I wanted to emphasize the mutability of womanhood, and create a vision for a magazine that would accumulate as many representations of lived-femininites as possible.
In your most recent Letter from the Editor, you write, “I was inspired to create Mythos because the way we speak about the feminine life never seems to get past the facade of knowing essential to the creation of perpetual allure.” Can you expand on this statement?
Sorry, that was definitely a bit opaque! The real-world example is basically… you look at any women’s magazine out there (even small-circulation, which was really disappointing for me to discover), and on the cover there’s inevitably something like “Dakota Fanning tells ALL about her new life!” And then it’s just some writer going to great lengths to impose some narrative onto Dakota Fanning, and also to abstract her from you, the reader, by being like “as she giggles at me from behind her ramen bowl I find myself asking if she’s a real person.” The effect of all of that is to make you feel like a worse woman than Dakota Fanning so that you make sure to buy the magazine again and repeat the cycle. And you finish reading it and learn absolutely nothing about her. That's the “facade of knowing.” The allure is rooted in commerce.
You also quote Hilton Als in your Letter from the Editor, writing that you craved conversations between artists who often, as Als put it, “didn't give a damn about their bodies and tried to write them away.” This is an intriguing idea, especially in the context of a magazine focusing on the lives of women. Can you tell me a bit more about how this idea relates to what Mythos does?
I think a lot about bodies, which is way too much to go into right now, but… one, I’ve had issues with eating disorders, and two, I’ve been a fashion model for five years, even though I started straight-size and now I do curve. Also, to be frank, puberty blessed me and I was not a "pretty girl” before then. I’m being melodramatic by using those words, but it really was traumatic to wake up one morning and witness people reacting to my body with desire instead of the repulsion or disinterest that I was used to. But more than that, people started to desire me because of it. They suddenly cared a lot more about who I was even though I had exactly the same personality, etc.
And that’s intimately connected with all women’s media. There has never been a cover girl for a women’s magazine who wasn’t conventionally hot. But that bothers me even less than the utterly offensive content that results from this totally overpowering interest in hot people. There are so many brilliant, fascinating women who we could collect life-advice from, and yet we continue to ask like, 19 year olds with rich parents about how we should be living our lives.
I feel very strongly about the significance of bodies, and the consequences of having a woman’s body. Our consciousnesses are embedded within them; everything we love and admire in a person is enacted because they have a body. Yet, there are bodies we want to see, and bodies we don’t. And when we erase certain bodies from our media, we are erasing the consciousnesses embedded within them. So this is my feeble attempt to rescue the bodies that many women have tried to write away because they are “unphotographable."
I know a lot has been written about how photographs like, violate their subjects, and I don’t really know how to respond to that. I can’t say whether images are good, but I think I believe in them, and that they make possible a type of entrance. And I wanted to enter into the spaces of women who would otherwise be invisible to me.
Each Mythos interview opens with the same question: “Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.” Why start with the same question, and what has been one memorable answer?
I was really inspired by Krista Tippet’s podcast On Being, which I started listening to in high school and changed my life. She always starts with “What was the religious or spiritual background to your childhood?” which always allows for very intimate and delightful answers. So it was definitely my own little homage to her, but I also think that it serves to tie the interviews together over time, and suggest that the collection of conversations is greater than the sum of its parts, which is the goal.
I think the most memorable answer I’ve ever gotten was from Gayatri Spivak, who recounted her girlhood with the story of her father giving her a pink life-size doll, and then laughed about how Freudian it was. She immediately followed with the exact month and year that she menstruated (November, 1953).
One of your first interviews was with the writer Alexandra Kleeman. You quote something Kleeman told Vogue: “You have to find some way of engaging with the world around you, however it’s constituted. The engagement is necessarily going to be flawed. But if you do it on your own terms, you’ll be able to extract some pleasure from the world.” How do you think this idea could relate to the founding of a magazine?
That’s an excellent quote, because I think it really encapsulates the problem of the publication as a whole: how do we deal with femaleness? Each of our individual solutions to that is definitely flawed —if not to ourselves, certainly to someone else. But a collection of women’s stories about their relationships to gender will absolutely allow me to make more informed decisions about my own gender-expression, and doing so in the form of long-form interviews is my best attempt to represent them “on their own terms.”
Currently, the site covers topics including bodies, class, family, left-brain, right-brain, politics, race, religion, romance, sexuality, and the uncommon. Are there other topics that you hope to cover in the future?
Well I created those with the hope that it would help guide readers but also accurately describe every possible conversation I could have, so ideally I’ll never need more categories! But in terms of what’s lacking: everything. I want to include a ton more women in blue-collar work, in STEM fields. I’m not doing an amazing job at managing to produce great-quality content with a truly diverse set of women, but I’m working on it! I’m really, really trying.
Who are three women you would like to interview, and why?
Entirely selfishly: Krista Tippett, Laura Marling, Maggie Nelson.
How does living New York influence the work you do?
It’s entirely responsible for it. I wouldn’t have started this magazine if New York hadn’t totally kicked my ass last summer. Cliché as it is, every type of person is here, so if I don’t find them it’s because I didn’t look hard enough, not because they weren’t available to me. I also feel like it’s basically the hardest place to have a superiority complex because everyone is really great at what they do and no one cares about you, so it keeps me working hard. It also really fuels my daydreams to know that I all I have to do is email someone I admire to find myself in her apartment a few weeks later.