Jezebel Grew Up

Nikola Tamindzic/Jezebel

The website Jezebel was born in 2007 out of the idea that the urban (or at least urbane) American woman was a ripe demographic, yearning to read about pop culture, fashion, and sex in a more skeptical way than the package provided by the traditional glossy women’s magazine. “In media, men are not a coherent sect,” Internet entrepreneur and Machiavellian overlord of Gawker Media Nick Denton told The New York Times in 2010. “You go into a magazine store and see rows upon rows of women’s magazines. [With women], there’s a much clearer collective.”

The mother ship blog of Denton’s empire, Gawker, had made its name in the aughts by obsessively covering the then-Manhattan-centric media scene, turning its cool kids into Internet celebrities, their lives and movements chronicled, snarked at, and used as signifiers for Gotham’s ills and triumphs. Gawker media expanded to include a consortium of blogs focused on everything from sports (Deadspin) to gadgets (Gizmodo). By 2010, Jezebel, with its puckish Internet prose on modern womanhood, was Denton’s highest generator of page views and a touchstone for the way feminism is practiced and relayed in the Internet-driven 21st century.

Denton hired Anna Holmes, an alum of Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Glamour, and Star, and tasked her and a team of six with perfecting the alchemy of a highbrow, humorous evisceration of lowbrow indulgences like celebrity culture, held together by a pragmatic women-are-too-smart-for-this sensibility. Enemy No. 1 was the set of glossies Jezebel saw as not only pandering to but conditioning women for advertising profit. After examining the mirror for jiggling triceps, aubergine under-eyes, and gelatinous back fat, where else could a woman turn in her hour of need to answer the question: How then shall we live?

Holmes recalled her animus toward magazines like Vogue as critical: “These outlets did not seem to realize (or accept) … that there was a vibrant, powerful, and, most importantly, diverse population of women who did not want to be spoken down or marketed to, and whose interests included, but extended far beyond, the superficial traumas of split ends and celebrity breakups. In my most ambitious moments, I saw the site as a battle of the Annas: Holmes vs. Wintour.”

 

The site, while feminist, wasn’t the Germaine Greer “cunt”-reclaiming type of space. Rather, it channeled the annoyances women had about the culture’s treatment of them into farcical running set pieces. “Cover Lies,” a recurring feature, annotated the front-page promises of magazines, “translating” headlines like “Shiny, Bouncy Hair: Easy, Speedy At-Home Blowout” to “Blow Money Blowdrying: Expensive Tools That’ll Save You No Time.” The site’s posts had the casual tone of a recap between friends after a crazy night out or a Gchat about a stupid thing they’d overheard. “I felt both liberated and obligated to ‘overshare,’” Moe Tkacik, one of the original Jezebel bloggers, has written of her time at the site. “[I copped] to all manner of offenses I would have elided in earlier jobs: unprotected sex, a history of eating disorders, a newfound dependence on attention-deficit-disorder drugs, belief in God, etc.”

The realm of feminism had hitherto been dominated by academics, radical writers to be admired, and women dressed like Stevie Nicks who talked about their inner goddess. Jezebel’s voice was that of a wry daughter inclined to make fun. The site’s trademark debunking of digitally altered celebrity photos seeped into the popular culture, so that when in February of this year actress Jennifer Lawrence admitted upon the release of her Dior advertising campaign, “Of course it’s Photoshop—people don’t look like that,” it was hard not to think of Jezebel’s yeoman’s work in exposing the common practice. Like Nutella on whole-grain toast, fashion commentary drew readers to the site, where they also got a dose of stories on rape, harassment, and a host of other problems. Grappling with race was a particular mission of Holmes’s. A blogger could talk about the prejudice visible in fashion magazines’ treatment of black hair and liveblog a Baby Phat fashion show. Jezebel was large and contained multitudes.

That big-tent mentality helped telegraph to a wide swath of women how they should comport themselves—not in the ankles-crossed, shoulders-back ways of old but on sundry questions like how to respond to street harassment and, implicitly, how to not feel bad about an active, blunder-prone sex life. No matter what happened, the sometimes-hotheaded personae of Jezebel’s bloggers seemed to coalesce around the cool reasoning that being a feminist was the only sensible way to be and exist in the modern world.

The trickle-down Jezebel effect is something I know well. I started reading the site in college and spent many a computer-lab hour perusing it when I should have been writing papers. Search “Jezebel” in my Gmail history, and e-mail chains and chats abound—the first recorded instance is February 8, 2008, when I e-mailed one of my sisters a link to a post, “Hillary Clinton Has the Clap,” about how cable commentators wouldn’t stop discussing the presidential candidate’s predilection for pointing and clapping rhythmically at crowds of her supporters. Back then, I talked with both male and female friends about Jezebel posts and the debates they fueled.

Proto-Jezebels like Sassy, the indie mag of the late 1980s and early 1990s, had aimed at teenage girls and had seen their reach confined to—well, teenage girls. Jezebel’s spillover from its Gawker partnership, coupled with its bloggers’ penchant for stoner humor and click-bait body talk (the saga of Tkacik’s struggle to remove a ten-day-old tampon is equal parts riveting and revolting) meant that the Jezebel audience reached well beyond its core. Comedy was Jezebel’s greatest asset in conveying the modern female experience to men, letting them in on the running joke of sexism’s absurdity but also sparking moments of “Have I done that?” introspection. Jezebel was an institutional voice of a generation long before Lena Dunham was a glint in HBO’s gimlet eye.

 

If you really want to make an Internet moment last, take a screen shot or write a book about it. Holmes has done the latter in her editing of The Book of Jezebel, distilling the essence of the site down to 300 pages to create a self-proclaimed “encyclopedia of fact and opinion.” The alphabetized, often illustrated entries range from single pithy sentences to longish paragraphs, mixing historical trivia about famous women with politics and pop-culture references. Taken as a whole, The Book of Jezebel is a taste guide and a rulebook of engagement; for every situation that might befall a woman, there is a proper, right-headed feminist response. This is in no small way the essence of the site’s legacy, that assuredness—to be a Jezebel woman now means as much as it once did to be Helen Gurley Brown’s “Cosmo girl,” speaking to a certain worldview, albeit one that adheres to the experiences of a cabal of mostly Brooklyn-based writers in their twenties and thirties.

Jezebel in print is markedly more academic than when it appears on LCD screens—no doubt Holmes sees her audience as the blog’s most devoted readers, those with more pedagogical models of feminism. Or perhaps she thought print required gravitas. The Book of Jezebel pays attention to the modern history of color, class, and evolving sexual norms (“cisgender” ringing any bells?). Radical activist Angela Davis, Pam Grier, and Josephine Baker get write-ups, as do Salma Hayek for clever comedic roles turning hypersexualized Latina stereotypes on their head, and Margaret Cho for her struggles as an Asian woman held to standards of white beauty. Catherine Opie’s work photographing lesbian communities gets its due, along with countless performance artists celebrating the female form (and in the case of Marina Abramovic, tormenting it).

Wickedly funny bits abound—defining marathons, for instance, as “26.2-mile road races that used to be badges of honor for serious athletes but are now excuses for everyone you know to exercise obsessively for several months and hit you up for money.” Homage is also paid to perma-girl favorites like BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, anything Judy Blume, and an impressively clever “Periodic Table” (of the menstrual variety).

But if the clubby snark of the site’s founding DNA is present in The Book of Jezebel, so too is its more earnest mutation, a strain that strikes a discordant note with Jezebel’s original populist feminism. In response to the right’s restricting access to reproductive health services, certain definitions in the book hammer political associations in a way that’s more raw and angry than what I remember Jezebel to be. That anger can lead to a bigotry of its own kind; the entry on “anti-choice” paints all those against abortion as being anti–birth control and anti–HPV vaccination, an assumption that might hold true for a segment of outspoken activists but doesn’t do justice to the many who have moral uneasiness with the procedure. An occasional bullying of women who don’t fit the Jezebel mold also exists, which seems new and unbecoming. The book’s entry on Stephenie Meyer, Mormon author of the Twilight series, drips with condescension. Sofia Coppola is described as interested in “artfully draped, filmy costume design and hazy, ill-framed film shots … tends also to be a bit hard on women in her films.” From time to time on the website, too, women like comedian Olivia Munn, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and the woefully misguided Meghan McCain get similar treatment for personifying various affronts to feminism.

Jezebel’s increasing political sincerity is a result of its newfound place in the feminist establishment. It’s no longer the upstart site whose writers get in trouble for making un-PC comments. Since leaving Jezebel in 2010, Holmes has gone on to write for The New Yorker online, Time, and numerous other publications, and she recently landed a columnist position at The New York Times Book Review. Jezebel, part of a collective voice that rises up in response to a range of issues affecting women, is read by “influencers,” and it begins many of their conversations in the media.

But if the modern feminist blogosphere, Jezebel included, has a flaw, it is a classic one—hubris. The snarky house voice that made the Internet sit up and pay attention is a double-edged sword. It can be flip and dismissive of certain views, making for posts like “Quitting Your Job to Be a Full-Time Mom Is Probably a Bad Idea,” written as if the answers to wrenching family decisions are foregone conclusions. “Does it make sense that a person who derives a sense of self worth from earning a lot of money and wielding a lot of power would also get their jollies changing diapers?” asks Erin Gloria Ryan, undercutting the role of mothers while displaying an impressive knowledge of the interior lives of all successful people.

 

It’s not that I don’t agree with much of the politics of Jezebel, but I no longer find myself looking to the site as I once did. Perhaps that’s because I’ve come to find its churn of outrage—sprinkled with such clever wordplay as “whore pills”—predictable, akin to turning on MSNBC and watching the talking points. The patriarchy is as real as it ever was. But posts such as “Who’s Really to Blame for the Looming Government Shutdown? Sluts.” feel like pandering, as if the reader can’t appreciate that the politics of her uterus are not always the alpha and the omega of an issue.

Jezebel can never get back to its delightfully disruptive beginnings. But could it go establishment in a way that more broadly represents the multitudes of women fed up with being told that in order to be loved they need to lose their mall-jeans and their mall-size posteriors? Plenty of friends of mine from college who once read Jezebel alongside me changed their names when they got married but continue to have pro-choice politics and no-nonsense views about equality in their relationships. Perhaps a healthy dollop of the secret sauce that first made Jezebel a sensation—frank humor and the unvarnished personal essay or two—would help bring them back. Or maybe more straight reporting on women’s experiences would provide a less judgmental medium.

“The problem with sisterhood—the idea of a sunny alliance on the basis of a shared feminine fate—has always been that it deprives women of all individual taste, history, and temperament,” Michelle Dean wrote in The New Yorker online on the friendship between political theorist Hannah Arendt and writer Mary McCarthy. While I see wisdom in that idea of individualism, and find some of Jezebel’s political assertions reductive, another might say that women are in desperate need of other women to link arms with and protect one another in the fierce game of Red Rover we play against the world every day—that we need loud voices promoting feminism, news cycle after news cycle. That might be right. Still, a woman can balk and grimace at being told when and over what to summon her righteous anger. Our progress should be more like actual sisterhood: full contact, shout-filled—but with a spirit of camaraderie.

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