Amid all the talk of quarantine and social distancing and turning one’s home into a virus-free safe space, it’s a welcome distraction to read this piece by Amanda Hess in the New York Times Magazine about The Wing, the swanky, all-female club (or “pop-feminist Biodome,” as Hess labels it). It was supposed to function as a safe space, too, but turned out to be something far less appealing.
Founded by Audrey Gelman in 2016, The Wing has been marketed as a female-only “third space” for the wealthy (membership costs $3,000 per year) and well-connected (Women’s March co-founder and shameless anti-Semite Linda Sarsour is a member). Initially launched in New York, it now has locations in cities like Washington D.C., London, Hollywood, Chicago, and San Francisco, among others.
But The Wing is more than just a club. As Gelman told Fast Company, “We want our mission to not only be expressed through our brand but through our internal policies.” The brand is unabashedly feminist, progressive, and political. The Wing has hosted appearances by Hillary Clinton, and Gelman threw a lavish fundraiser for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who repaid her with a blurb for the company’s website: “The Wing isn’t just a functional space, it’s a real symbol of what’s opening in our country. [It’s] one of the most potent forces that we’ve seen emerge in politics this year.”
But inclusivity extends only so far; this is not a space that welcomes fans of Margaret Thatcher or Nikki Haley, for example. The San Francisco chapter of The Wing named a conference room in honor of Christine Blasey Ford after her testimony during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Nor does it welcome men, a fact that prompted a lawsuit and an investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights.
Any argument for a female-only space inevitably prompts comparison to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. This holds true for The Wing, but not because of the club’s embrace of Woolf’s proto-feminist messaging. As Hess argues, it is for its unabashedly elite demand for comfort and ease: “Luxury and feminism have long been intertwined,” Hess notes. “Virginia Woolf’s 1929 book A Room of One’s Own — a Wing philosophical touchstone — didn’t argue for just any old room. Woolf wanted women to have access to ‘deep armchairs,’ ‘pleasant carpets’ and opulently catered luncheons presented by servants on silver trays, to bask in the ‘urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space.’” Dignity and equality might be hard-earned, Wing members know, but they should bring with them their own luxurious rewards for the deserving.
Alas, the deserving are an elite group, which is why The Wing embraces partnerships that allow it to promote itself and expensive products from companies eager to bask in the glow of The Wing’s particular brand of corporate feminism: “Wing members effectively pay to advertise products to other women in front of the club’s feminine backdrops, and along the way, burnish their own brand power too,” Hess writes.
But how to market Instagram perfection when you still need toilets scrubbed and plush couches lint-rolled for your exclusive members? According to many of The Wing’s employees who spoke to Hess, by using them as advertisements for a corporate image that is belied by those employees’ reality.
To be sure, the people who seem to want to work at The Wing aren’t exactly wannabe engineers or future titans of industry. One woman is described by Hess as a “first-generation Liberian-American with a striking, pasteled online presence who was cultivating their own business as a professional witch incorporating Tarot and astrology.” She ended up posing for pictures wearing T-shirts with slogans like “EXTREME SELF-CARE” on the Wing’s website.
Other employees described their work experience as a low-paid, emotionally exhausting, passive-aggressive H.R. nightmare. “Until recently, Wing values posted in the spaces reminded employees that a requirement of the job was to act in a ‘utopian’ manner,” Hess notes. One employee simply told her, “I was treated like a human kitty-litter box.”
When she was asked about her disgruntled workers and the often-punitive corporate strategies for dealing with them, however, Gelman blamed … society. “Despite their intention to build a women’s utopia, she acknowledged, the ills of society at large had seeped in,” Hess reports. Gelman said, “These are familiar themes for us.”
The themes might be familiar to Gelman, but her vices are well-known to observers of self-styled influencers and thought leaders. Like Gwyneth Paltrow, whose ego-driven efforts at wellness have given the world dodgy medical advice and vagina-scented candles; or Elizabeth Holmes, who grifted her way through Silicon Valley while being hailed as the female Steve Jobs, Gelman’s savvy P.R. strategy has created the image of a successful yet empathetic female entrepreneur. But Gelman’s privileged life has failed to offer her the one thing she most needs: self-awareness.
The Wing is less an expression of confused feminist values than it is of today’s impossible, Instagram-perfect standard for female success. The Wing is the high-end version of this compulsion; the low-rent (though more lucrative) version is the Kardashian-Jenner empire, with its cheap cosmetics and unhealthy waist-trainers and reality television dramaturgy. At least the Kardashians don’t pretend to be empowering the women they’re marketing to or drape themselves in feminist glory. They’re just getting rich by convincing teenage girls that they should all look like the female android in Ex Machina.
By contrast, the ladies of The Wing claim to want to have a space where they can escape “the male gaze” and promote feminist values. Yet they do so while catering to the demands of a platform (Instagram) that emphasize image over substance and hashtag activism over real political organizing. What Wing members and its founder, Gelman, can’t escape is some much-deserved scrutiny of their elitism and hypocrisy. In our current moment of public crisis, The Wing’s self-indulgent posturing doesn’t look like female empowerment; it looks decadent and appalling.