Between the World and "Us": A Celebration of Nancy Gibbs' Work

October 24, 2017
The word "Nancy Gibbs" handwritten with hand drawn lightening bolts around it.
Art by Kirsten Hemrich 

Here’s a name you might not know: Nancy Gibbs.

Nancy Gibbs started her career in 1985 as a part-time fact checker for Time Magazine. Educated at Oxford, she has spent her entire three-decade career at the magazine, working her way carefully and meticulously up the ranks of a world that was, at the time, white-male-dominated. Gibbs became the first female editor-in-chief of the nationally recognized magazine in 2013, calling herself “the first managing editor to wear pumps – so far as we know.” And to this day, she has published more cover stories than anyone else – 174 to be exact. Recently, she announced that it was simply time to move on. She told Vanity Fair, “It’s time for me to figure out what I’m going to do next.” At the end of this year, she will be stepping down.

Gibbs said in an interview with the NY Times, “Change doesn’t scare me. I know that our industry faces all kinds of uncertainty – I recognize that. But this is the golden age of storytelling, so if you’re not changing, you’re missing the opportunity.”

So, why should you care? In a world of shocking mass shootings and spontaneous presidential tweets, why am I wasting your time on a biography report? Here’s why: In the “golden age of storytelling”, it matters who is telling the stories, but it also matters who is reading them.

What I admire about Nancy Gibbs’ work is that it transcended her gender. She wasn’t a woman writer known for being a woman writer, she was just an excellent freaking writer. Period. Her work was read by men and women, Muslims and Christians, Americans and non-Americans (if that’s not classic other-ing, I’m not sure what is, but bear with me) alike, none of whom read her because she is a woman, or an American, or anything else. Gibbs is a writer who excels at being a writer – on topics from parenting to her award-winning cover story on 9/11, Gibbs courageously took on challenging projects. She wrote great stories, and they were read by everyone.

Of course, what I am describing is easier or harder depending on the complexities of one’s identity. The more “marginal” qualities that intersect, the higher the bar is set, it seems. Nonetheless, it is not unheard of. For example, Oprah was able to transcend her race by becoming a pioneer in her field, and creating a brand that is appreciated by (almost) all women. The Oprah Winfrey Show was in everyone’s middle-class household at 4:00 PM. Ellen Degeneres was able to overcome her sexual orientation – certainly, Ellen’s show is not made “by a gay woman, for gay women.” It is just a darn good show that we all laugh at. Shonda Rhimes didn’t write Grey’s Anatomy for an audience of doctors, nor for an audience of black women. Or women, at all. It is a show telling an emotionally riveting story that transcends all identity barriers.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for a dismantling of shows, stories, or platforms that are made for a particular audience. It is absolutely crucial for all people to be able to see themselves reflected on TV, in magazines, and in Hollywood. Everyone deserves for their story to be told, and everyone deserves certain platforms that they may claim as “theirs”. As Iris' own Taylor Lamb has explained, "Lemonade" is written for black women. It just is. That doesn’t mean that other women can’t enjoy it, but it does mean that the creator had a purpose in mind, and that purpose was for Black women to appreciate. There absolutely are shows, magazines, books, literature, movies…. Stories that are told for “us”, whoever “us” happens to be. They are valuable, and they are beautiful. But they should not be the only places we see “us”. BET should not be the only place we see Black actors, Feminist magazines like this one should not be the only places we hear women’s voices, and the travel section of Barnes and Nobles shouldn’t be the only place for international stories.

How many of my white friends have actually read Ta Nehisi Coates? How many of my guy friends have read Jezebel? How many of my non-hip-hop-loving friends have seen The Get Down? I’m not saying that nobody does – there are always my woke friends (keep being you!) – but it simply is not the norm.

Courtney Kemp Agboh, the creator of Power, recently explained, “The thing that frightens me about my show is that I wonder if it’s ever going to reach an audience outside of its core demographic. We’re the highest-rated show on Starz, and people still say, ‘What?’ It says something about how television is perceived and how people select themselves out of it. I was talking to a reporter about my next show, which is set in Connecticut, where I grew up, and she said – she didn’t mean to offend me – she said, ‘Well, I’ll watch that one!”.

In a conversation between Zendaya and Yara Shahidi, Shahidi explains “One thing that I constantly say is that my goal is not to be the face of black girls. The goal is to open the door so widely that I am drowning in a sea of [black girls]… I shouldn’t be the “accessible” version of a black girl. That doesn’t allow people to fully appreciate their heritage. I’m half black, half Iranian, and I’ve never seen a half-black, half-Iranian description of a character in a script ever.”

What I’m trying to say is this: in the golden age of story-telling, the stories that we tell are important, the integrity of our work as storytellers is crucial, and the platforms on which we tell these stories are more precious than ever. But, there is value in telling these stories in ways that transcend our own identities. If an article I write or play I produce or album I record reaches another immigrant, Muslim woman – inspires her, moves her, teaches her – then that is progress. But if the door is opened so widely that immigrant Muslim women are everywhere, their experiences are widespread and their concerns are known, then that is the ultimate goal. Likewise, getting a few females into the engineering department is a good start, but that is not the ultimate goal – drowning in a classroom full of bright, female engineers is. It’s not a goal that we can achieve overnight, but as an activist, it’s the one that I want to strive for.

That is why Nancy Gibbs matters. And more importantly, that is why we, as women of our generation, have a responsibility to fill the positions left vacant by pioneers of an older generation, and bridge those gaps further. Women are actively changing the world every single day, and these women aren’t just the Michelle Obama’s and Beyoncé’s of the world. They’re the you and I’s of the world, too. But to change the world, we have to reach the world – even the parts of it that don’t particularly want to listen.

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