Anna Holmes, the founding editor of Jezebel, just published a book (along with Kate Harding, Amanda Hess and a bunch of contributors) titled The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things. I’ve read it and it is very good and you should read it too. I spoke with Anna about the book and her time at Jezebel, and over at the Guardian wrote a piece about the evolution of Jez and Anna’s goal of subversive feminism:
When first given creative control of Jezebel, Holmes set out to do things differently to the women’s magazines she had worked on, including Glamour and InStyle, where “there were a lot of stories about finding a man, how to have sex and ridiculous sex tips that I had to write. It was a formula and I hated it.” She crafted Jezebel with a sort of stealth feminism that appealed to the Gawker bigwigs (“I used the word feminist once to the higher-ups and they blanched, so I knew I had to be a bit subversive about it,” Holmes says), as well as to the hundreds of thousands of young women soon flocking to the site. Her method was to write about celebrities, fashion, lifestyle and popular culture, but through a feminist lens, and throw in a healthy dash of social justice too.
The word “feminist” didn’t make the site’s tagline – “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing”. Holmes says that this was partly because the bigger plan was “to use the stuff we were told to cover, like celebrity and fashion, as inroads to feminism”.
When it launched in May 2007, Jezebel was not immediately well-received by the already thriving feminist blogosphere. Sites such as Feministing, Racialicious, Pandagon, and Feministe (which I edit) were suspicious of its Gawker money and, a lot of us activist-minded feminist bloggers considered it Gawker-style snark over substance.
By December 2007, Jezebel was hitting 10 million page views a month. Feminist undertones were there, especially in its eye-rolling at airbrushing and celebrity body-bashing, but explicit feminist thought seemed underdeveloped, with the spectre of media sexism employed to feed the outrage machine rather than launch thoughtful analysis. According to the rightwing blogosphere, Jezebel remains a den of self-indulgent, slutty femi-Nazis. From the left, its feminism was sometimes fluffy.
For Jezebel’s part, the criticisms from the left stung worse than those from the right. “I felt that we were learning along with everyone else,” Holmes said. “My understanding of the nuances of the feminist blogosphere and what they were talking about and their literacy influenced stuff on the site, sure. But I was not going to let a very vocal two percent of our commenters who seemed to want to complain all the time change how we did things in any sort of massive way.”
Check it out. I was one of those early critics of Jezebel, but I’ve largely changed my mind. Does the site always post content that is 100% feminist and awesome and progressive? No. But Anna created a platform for many smart, engaged women, some of whom I agree with and some of whom I don’t, and some of whom are often correct and insightful and some of whom are occasionally spectacularly wrong.
The more I “do” online feminism, the less interested I am in policing feminist perfectionism an the more I enjoy thoughtful debate and discussion alongside the realization that online feminism is an ecosystem, not an entity. Our websites and platforms hit different communities and find different people in different places. Jezebel served the very purpose Anna intended it to: It’s a space for explicitly feminist writing presented by bright young women, alongside more typical “women’s magazine” content filtered through a feminist lens, serving as a kind of feminist gateway drug to newbies. They have an active and dedicated commentariat who debate endlessly and offer a variety of feminist views. It may be “problematic” in some ways (my kingdom to give that word a rest), but on balance, Jezebel does a real service. And it’s served as a launching pad for some of the smartest, most interesting writers around, Anna at the top of the list (but also Megan Carpentier, Lindy West, Jessica Grose, Anna North, Sadie Stein, Irin Carmon, Dodai Stewart, Katie JM Baker, Erin Gloria Ryan… it goes on ).
I haven’t read Jezebel as regularly since Anna left — although I don’t read any blogs “regularly” anymore, and mostly get my blog-reading in via whatever people are linking on Twitter — and I’m not really Jezebel’s target audience anyway, but I’m glad it exists. I wish their editors would have made some different decisions and they’ve published a ton of content I find wholly objectionable, but I’m glad we have women’s websites and feminist websites that are big and popular and imperfect and interesting and controversial. And I’m glad that Jezebel’s trajectory has been a learning experience for me: Not everything has to be perfect to be good, and there are a whole lot of different ways to do this feminism thing. Just because one of them doesn’t appeal to me 100% doesn’t mean that it’s 100% bad or harmful. I can hate certain things a website does and still think it publishes a lot of excellent content, and respect its vision. And as women come to sites like Jezebel for the celebrity and the fashion and get drawn into the comments and to the other blogs Jezebel links to, perspectives change, feminist understanding becomes deeper, and learning is done. That’s an invaluable tool.