16 July 2012

On Ladyblogs

This piece appears in Issue 14, inaugurating our new Controversies section. Buy the issue.

In February, I published a piece on the n+1 website about a subject that has, in one way or another, absorbed my attention for a long time. The “ladyblogs,” as I called them, were websites that were replacing women’s magazines for me and my peers. The ladyblogs’ appeal was immediate and obvious: I had fallen for them, but they left me increasingly skeptical. I wanted to try to figure out why something I had liked so much now seemed so ill fitting.

But I should start by telling you about my best friend. A few months after what quickly became the best of the ladyblogs, the Hairpin, launched, in late 2010, Julia sent me the following email.

“a problem i have: i have to stop myself from emailing you every single post on the hairpin.”

“I HAD THAT PROBLEM BUT THEN I JUST TOLD YOU TO START READING THE HAIRPIN,” I said.

We were recent college grads with office jobs and spare mental airtime, plus a taste for historical oddities and pop culture miscellany. The Hairpin was edited by a young woman about our age, Edith Zimmerman; she published posts about Lonesome Dove, seahorses, intrauterine devices, and Robyn. Reading the Hairpin was a little like revisiting the all-girls school where we spent middle and high school, a place where liberal feminism was a comfortable assumption and dorky fun was everyone’s default setting. The way the Hairpin contributors wrote and the things they wrote about made sense to us—they were the paraphernalia of friendship.

A year ago, after quitting a newspaper job, I emailed Zimmerman and asked to write a story for her. Erica Jong had edited an anthology of women’s sex writing and would be talking about it with her daughter at a New York bookstore. Could I go see them and cover whatever happened? When Zimmerman said yes, I was delighted. I requested a review copy of the book, which I annotated energetically; on the appointed day, I looked, listened, and took careful notes. When it came time to write the piece, I found, to my surprise, that I didn’t want to. 

Part of the problem was that I didn’t know what there was left to say about Erica Jong. I didn’t want to roll my eyes at her ’70s-era feminism, but I couldn’t get excited about it, either. Jong’s sense of her own daring—“things were supposed to be different now (and usually I was blamed for it)”—was so self-congratulatory that it was hard to congratulate her. Her shtick with her daughter (mom loves sex, daughter’s a prude!) seemed exasperatingly well worn. 

But the larger difficulty was the dislocation I felt as I imagined writing up the event for the Hairpin. In two years of post-college journalism, I’d slipped into plenty of voices (“pun-loving partygoer,” “person who cares about real estate”), but for the Hairpin, this move somehow seemed more complicated. Participating in the Hairpin meant speaking to strangers as if they were my friends. The mental contortions I found myself making were an attempt to conjure intimacy out of thin air.

Why was this how it felt to try to write for the blog that I thought was the best of the women’s websites, the closest to what I might imagine as my ideal? What made the Hairpin suddenly seem limited rather than liberating, and why hadn’t I recognized it as a reader? I let the Jong story slide off my to-do list. But I remained interested in the surprising discomfort I’d experienced. Fear of Flying did not feel relevant or troubling to my daily experience of being a woman. The Hairpin did.


In the piece I eventually wrote, I tried to explore what had attracted me to, and then repelled me from, the online women’s media I consumed, which mostly meant Jezebel and the Hairpin. Jezebel’s editors had started off angry about a lot of the same things that had frustrated second-wave feminists about popular journalism; early posts criticized women’s magazines for airbrushing models and shilling advertisers’ wares. It wasn’t so much this stance that interested me as the attitude with which it was delivered: loud and funny and unapologetic. Still, after showing a brief willingness to challenge and sometimes even to surprise, Jezebel retreated into platitudes and predictable self-righteousness. The Hairpin began a step ahead, taking the absurdity of mainstream women’s publications as a given and claiming a mandate to redefine what a women’s website’s interests might be. But in the absence of a specific agenda, the site drifted back to familiar women’s magazine territory: advice columns, beauty tips, and thumbs-up for consumption. The wit of the execution gave this stuff an obvious edge over women’s magazines. But if a women’s website was free to claim any territory and tone it wanted, and it contented itself with winking at convention—was being in on the joke good enough? 

I had assumed so, I suppose, but when I considered participating myself I felt uneasy about this version of online womanhood—again, not so much at the content as at its presentation in the guise of friendship. The Hairpin’s introductory statement invited its audience to join “a low-key cocktail party among select female friends”; readers showed a reciprocal eagerness to identify as “’Pinners.” Women’s websites like the Hairpin created unity among their readers by cultivating the sense of membership in an inner circle, where women displayed their intimacy and cemented their belonging by speaking to one another like high school best friends. The Hairpin’s voice, filled with chatty camaraderie, was sometimes cloying and sometimes engaging when it gave me style tips and book recommendations (“I know I made you all go out and get your Villette tramp stamps like my first day here”); but in articles that took on larger topics, that voice read as distracting, condescending, or even anxious at the prospect of alienating readers. “Ask An Abortion Provider” was presented with an ingratiating affect—“I can pretty safely assume you have not socially encountered one of us before. No, not because I think you’re not cool enough!”—that suggested a tension between constant likability and confident authority. And so I concluded: “The notion that women might share some fundamental experience and interests, a notion on which women’s websites would seem to depend—‘sisterhood,’ let’s call it—has curdled into BFF-ship.”


What exactly was wrong with virtual BFF-ship? This was something I hadn’t totally worked out. But the Hairpin’s response to what I had written offered the best possible answer.

The women who comment at the Hairpin tend to be a positive group, given to complimenting the editors and thanking the authors of personal essays for sharing. But they filed 813 overwhelmingly negative comments in a thread linking to the article, many of them speculating as to what my real problem was. Here are some suggestions:

BadWolf, with 27 likes: Since n+1 is the blog the pretentious douchey boys in college were all about, this just makes me think our friend Molly really, really wants the boys to like her better than they like the rest of us. Because we are so feminine and relatable and silly, and not like her, because she likes gin and The Big Lebowski.

Mlle.gateau: I love the Hairpin, and I think Molly Fisher missed the point, because I wasn’t aware that one had to be SERIOUS AND ANGRY ALL THE TIME to be a feminist, like some kind of weird Ann Coulter–created caricature. Moving on.

KiraShea: This article makes me feel the exact same way that I feel when I hear another woman say ‘I don’t really connect with other women. I’m really only friends with men.’ Kind of bad for her.

Heyits: I’m wondering what exactly happened to Molly that she has this attitude. Do you think she was a commenter who got booted from Jezebel? Reaching further back in time, did she just not have a lot of good lady-friends in high school? Has she (perish the thought) NEVER BEEN TO A SLUMBER PARTY? If that’s the case, homegirl is missing out. I don’t know, you guys, I kind of just want to give her a hug and invite her to the party. She’ll be like Katherine Brooke, all uptight and sourpussed, and by the end of it, loosening up her bun and shyly flirting.

I had written to express skepticism about the voice cultivated by women’s websites. Now I was experiencing the real problem with the community defined by that voice: the way it manages criticism. When intimacy is your model of success, it becomes easy to assume that everyone is either a friend or a traitor. I had tried to approach the ladyblogs as an observer rather than a participant, but my writing about them in an apparently impersonal public voice, as a woman—which became a woman holding myself apart from their community of women—registered as unacceptable aggression. So, was I a spinster feminist, or just out to impress boys? This was the exact corner of the internet that seemed like it ought to know better.


In my case, criticism earned personal hostility. But for those more invested in BFF-ship, speaking its language can mean muting dislike or disagreement.

Readers saw a case study of this in Zimmerman’s interactions with novelist Kate Zambreno. They began when Zimmerman wrote a negative review of Zambreno’s novel Green Girl for the website the Morning News. “Suggested alternate title: It sucks to be humorless and heartbroken in London,” Zimmerman wrote. She found that the book had “moments of loveliness,” but was frustrated by its charmless “drag” of a protagonist. “Why would anyone want to share more than ten pages with this woman?” she wondered. This may not have been the most thoughtful review in the history of criticism, but a handful of Morning News commenters were unusually hard on Zimmerman, calling her work “shallow” and “lazy.”

By way of response, Zimmerman invited Zambreno to the Hairpin for a Q&A. Zimmerman was doing what I am trying to do now: create an opportunity to revisit her opinions, and to revise or more strongly restate them. Both Zimmerman and Zambreno were positioned to respond to their critics—Zimmerman to the commenters, Zambreno to Zimmerman. But instead of discussing their differences, Zimmerman abandoned her critique entirely. 

“I feel a little ridiculous even putting myself into this conversation,” she wrote, “because you wrote a novel, and I wrote a review. That a lot of people thought sucked. I would love someday to make a book, and I think it’s awesome that you have.” Zimmerman highlighted the praise Zambreno had received elsewhere, encouraged readers to buy the book, and expressed chagrin at certain omissions in her review.

It’s hard for me to imagine, though, that Zimmerman’s initial response was only lazy or mistaken. Surely she meant what she had written? If she did, she was willing to discard it. She framed her shift in terms of the rebuke she had received from commenters and a coincidental email recommending the book. Social consensus had overruled her opinion, and it was time to reestablish social harmony. 

Below the Q&A, one commenter wrote, “I was really anxious while reading this, I think because both Edith and Kate were in a very vulnerable place: what if someone said something awful about the other’s writing?? But in the end I like Edith even MORE than before, and Kate seems awesome too.” 

“For real. Two classy ladies being super classy,” responded another. 

What if Zimmerman and Zambreno had managed to stay super classy while still disagreeing?


But whatever: it’s just the internet, right? That was the knee-jerk reaction of some commenters, who described what they read and wrote everyday as unimportant. 

Like a lot of entry-level writers, I have done time in the blog-post trenches, which are the best place to learn that the internet constantly has to be written. There is no deadline, no complete unit of achievement. A blogger does not write until she has finished her work; she writes until it’s time to stop writing. Some online critics who responded to my essay felt that I didn’t understand this kind of ongoing performance, and so was treating the internet as something it wasn’t or couldn’t be. They thought I didn’t understand that the internet often spoke in tones of fast, facile intimacy, and that this voice wasn’t the ladyblogs’ alone.

Perhaps this, then, is what I meant: my ideal website—and we’ll call it a women’s website (what the hell) because I am a woman—would be one that didn’t make these excuses, writing off fun as “filler” or requiring the premise of friendship in order to raise weightier matters. This website would be one where the editors were willing to assume authority in and for their work, even if it meant sometimes seeming argumentative or unlikeable or wrong. It would be one where good faith could be assumed without gussying everything up in the trappings of intimacy, swaddling tricky subjects in chattiness. These are gestures that seem strange and infantilizing to me, because instant friendship regardless of individuality is the kind of assumption that parents make about children (“They have a daughter your age, you’ll have fun!”) and bosses about subordinates and majorities about minorities, but not one equals in power typically make about one another. 

The personal, the appealing, the intimate: these are qualities that have been traditionally associated with female writing, and I want to help confirm their worth. But what if I feel most intimate and exposed when I’m making an argument? What if I feel I’m revealing myself when I try to analyze how I experience the world? What if I find it empowering to create space for disagreement? Jenna Wortham recently wrote for the Hairpin about her disappointment in Lena Dunham’s new TV show, Girls, and its treatment of race, and I read her post with interest. I understood the excitement of seeing a new endeavor do so much better than its predecessors at speaking to me and the people I knew, and the frustration of watching it still fall short. I agreed with the implication that respecting the things women make means asking how they can be better. Wortham’s voice seemed like a good development for the Hairpin.

When I wrote that sisterhood had been replaced by BFF-ship, some readers assumed I was rooting for the former. But second-wave sisterhood was always suspect, especially to the many women it ignored: women who weren’t white, women who weren’t straight, women who weren’t comfortably bourgeois. Sisterhood was spurious, and so too is BFF-ship, but in a different way—not for the women it overlooks but for the relationships it obscures, all those things women can be to one another that are harder than BFFs to represent, more uncomfortable to enact, and more threatening to the world beyond the ladyblogs. While clubby intimacy might be the internet’s default mode, a ladyblog presents this mode as an end in itself. And if being a woman means joining a club, then we’ve mistaken a failure of second-wave sisterhood for its goal: we’ve embraced exclusion as if it were an achievement.

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