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An Interview with Carmen Rios

I first became a fan of Carmen Rios through her work Ms. magazine. I envied her bold voice, and her passion for women's issues continues to inspire me. I became an avid listener of her Bitch Media podcast Popaganda and marveled at her ability to be profoundly entertaining.

But what inspires me most about Carmen Rios is her consistent support of women in media. In addition to being a writer, podcaster, and speaker, Carmen is also a strategist for feminist organizations. She's taught me that the internet is crucial to the feminist movement, and I'm so grateful that she has carved out digital space for women to speak their mind and be themselves. Like most women who have the nerve to express their opinions on the internet, Carmen has had to withstand a lot of hate, but seeing her handle the challenges of being a woman online with grace and beauty has given me the strength to put myself out there more.

Honestly, though, I think the biggest lesson I've learned from Carmen and her work is that you're allowed to be fun-loving and outraged at the state of the world, you can wear pink and be taken seriously, you can be obsessed with pop culture and still be an intellectual-- as a woman, you're allowed to be complicated and multi-faceted and celebrated for who you are.

What work are you most proud of?

This is the hardest question to answer! I’m proud of all I’ve written, recorded, released, shouted from the rooftops—but I think what I am most proud of is the commitment that I’ve had, sometimes even unconsciously, to make work that mattered. I graduated during the recession, and I came of age in the era of girl power. It would have been easy for me to decide that feminism was a passion project, or that doing feminist work was a suitable side hobby. I was so determined, so dumb, so decidedly intent on staying in this world—and this is the work that has not only defined my life, but imbued it with value and meaning. I’m proud of younger me for knowing the money didn’t matter. I’m proud of younger me for taking risks and doing what was scary just because she didn’t want to say no to any opportunity to make an impact or make a difference. I’m proud that I built a career where my entire self could show up to work every day, bask in her glorious power, and sucker-punch the patriarchy before lunch.

Who are your inspirations?

I wake up every morning on a mission to make my mother proud, live out my grandmother’s legacy and get on Hillary Clinton’s radar. When I’m worried about staying wild, I look to The Coquette. When I’m hungry to go off-course, I look to Cheryl Strayed. When I’m scared to tell my story, I brush up on my Cherrie Moraga. When I’m determined to be bolder, I revisit Angela Davis’ autobiography. When I want to move from creative suffering to creative bliss, I turn to Elizabeth Gilbert. When I was afraid to ask for a raise, Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries convinced me to spit it out. Without Eileen Myles, I would never have found any of my own words to describe any of the rest of my life. And I hang an illustration of Yoko Ono in my room, just in case I’m ever looking for advice.

What do you think is the most important skill for a young journalist to develop?

I think saying yes to a challenging assignment—being cavalier enough to do it without asking any questions—is a great way to learn. I have so many facts, data points and quotes stored in my brain just because I went into the world determined to talk to as many smart women as I could about issues I didn’t know enough about yet. And some unsolicited advice: Ask the author about something that happens in the middle of the book.

What was the most important lesson you learned from working at Ms. Magazine?

Working at Ms. taught me the real value of an editor, and how to be a gentle guide to a writer instead of a jarring disruption. I don’t think a lot of writers are editors, and vice versa—and finally sitting on the other side of a draft challenged me to figure out how best to teach without talking down to people, and how to write and edit in someone else’s voice out of reverence for what they have to say. Editing is like hosting a dinner party: Everything on the website should get along, but every piece needs its own personality. Learning how to edit without imposing is hard work, but honing that talent is a major part of building trust with writers.

What's been the most transformative experience of your life?

Moving to Los Angeles. I really didn’t know if I would ever do it. I really did think I would just live with that hole in my heart for the rest of my life. Packing up my life and moving across the country wasn’t something a girl like me was supposed to do—and I’ve spent the years since excitedly doing all the other stuff I didn’t have permission to do, too. The reverberations of that trip live everywhere, but especially in the story I tell myself. I used to think that story had such few possibilities. Now I know that I can start a new chapter whenever it serves me.

What's the best piece of storytelling you've ever encountered?

The following books made me cry before I even got to the end: Chelsea Girls, Native Country of the Heart, Wild. I wanted to read Crazy Rich Asians before I saw the movie but it was so good I just devoured it and both sequels in as many days instead. The Yellow House deserved at least one dozen National Book Awards. There is an echo in my head ever since Patsy: "I want more." It's like a tattoo on my chest at this point because I keep it that close to my heart. And a few months ago, I drove into the desert and read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a tiny house on an abandoned ranch with no TV, wi-fi or exterior lock on the door and I highly recommend it.

Using a metaphor, how would you describe your creative process?

The long and winding road. I often circle an assignment—I do research, then get up and do something else. I transcribe the interview, and then I get up and do something else. I pick it up, put it down. I spend entire days consumed by the thought of it. Writing is like a road trip that way: I can veer off-course, slow down and make pit stops, but I still need to get where I’m going, and the only variable is how fast and how fashionably.


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