Blog empire Gawker Media, like its magazine counterparts Conde Nast and Hearst, asks readers to sort themselves by advertising demographic. One might be interested in sports, and read Deadspin. One might be interested in gadgets, and read Gizmodo. Or one might be interested in being a woman, and read Jezebel. When Jezebel launched in spring 2007, I myself was keenly interested in being a woman. I was 20 years old: being a woman was a relatively recent development, and I was curious about the ways it could be done. And I had always enjoyed reading about being a girl.
Fortunately, I had magazines. From ages 6 to 10 or so there was American Girl, bright and clean and dorky, full of historical fiction and craft projects; New Moon, proto-feminist and printed in single color; and Girls’ Life, precocious, with advice about boys. In late elementary and early middle school I read back issues of Teen and Seventeen at the library. In eighth grade my girls’ school classmates and I hoarded copies of Cosmopolitan because we were nothing if not good students, and if there was a textbook for sex we would find it and study it, and ignore its terrible writing and style. “Like an aunt who wears high-waisted jeans but says really shocking things,” my best friend said about Cosmo, at a time when high-waisted jeans were unacceptable. By high school it was clear to us that women’s magazines were a dead end. We would not be snapping up Vogue’s must-have statement shoe for spring. We would not be blowing his mind with Glamour’s kinky new move. We would not be the women women’s magazines proposed, and by college, nor did we wish to be.
But when Jezebel came along, it was hard to resist. Gawker Media’s new blog was also about being a woman, and how to be a woman, but from the start it defined itself against the dubious suggestions of women’s magazines. An introductory manifesto listed the glossies’ “Five Great Lies.” The magazines peddled affirmation while cultivating insecurity. They doctored photos beyond anatomical possibility. Writers created the illusion of celebrity access while revealing only publicist-approved platitudes. Editors recommended products they themselves had received for free. “The Big Meta Lie,” Jezebel concluded, was “that this is one big postmodern joke on which we are all in . . . And though we’ve found women’s magazines to be a fairly trusty engine of hilarious tidbits, it is not all one big joke.” This was the exasperation of insiders, women who’d worked at these places and couldn’t quite believe that anyone bought what they sold. Jezebel’s first team of editors had previously reported on celebrities (Anna Holmes), fashion (Jennifer Gerson), and business (Moe Tkacik); they were soon joined by a sex blogger who wrote under the name Slut Machine (Tracie Egan). As an opening gambit, Jezebel offered a $10,000 reward for before and after evidence of cover retouching. The site’s slogan was “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing.”
The editors tackled the same material as women’s magazines, but they did it their own way, and with a different idea of their readers. They incorporated both high and low culture in their coverage of the usual middlebrow subjects, and they cultivated distinct voices rather than a generic house style. Egan’s omnivorous viewing habits meant massive amounts of reality TV coverage; Tkacik’s unabashed Obama advocacy determined Jezebel’s take on the election cycle. A review of the movie A Mighty Heart, based on Mariane Pearl’s story of her husband Daniel’s abduction, included an account of being a reporter on September 11, a memory of desiring to give inappropriate blowjobs, and earnest appraisals of Angelina Jolie, Glamour magazine, and Mariane Pearl’s memoir. (Verdict: it was bad, “like reading some very precocious teenage girl’s diary.”) Whenever the Jezebel editors found evidence of insincerity, they pounced, with the support of a growing commenter community. A reader answered the call for Photoshop dirty work with a pre-touch-up Redbook cover photo of Faith Hill, and Jezebel rode the story through more than a million pageviews and a cascade of posts that ranged from an explanation of “Why We’re Pissed” to self-congratulatory fascination with the press they received. When the New York Times Style section took notice of Jezebel shortly before its first birthday, the angle of the story was niceness. Jezebel was “a website that set out to be—dare one say it?—nice.” Unlike its sister site, Gawker, where both the editors and commenters had lately grown cruel to their subjects, Jezebel discouraged making negative remarks about women’s bodies. It was “a digital-era upgrade of Sassy.”
But “sassy” is not an obvious synonym for “nice,” and Jezebel’s appeal had as much to do with exuberant provocation as it did with inclusion. “It was thick and brown and foul,” Tkacik wrote of the liquid that issued from a ten-day-old tampon. “I wanted to say it smelled sort of like Vegemite tastes, but that’s too kind.” Egan got high and filmed herself answering readers’ questions in a recurrent feature called “Pot Psychology.” Such antics may not have been mean, but this did not make them nice. In their assault on the standards of mainstream women’s magazines, Jezebel’s editors seemed determined to prove their aptitude for bad behavior—and not bad meaning titillating, but meaning reckless, abrasive, or just disgusting. Jezebel’s readers were a savvy bunch; too-skinny models and Photoshop falsehoods were familiar grievances. But Moe Tkacik comparing her menses to the Cantonese snack “stinky tofu”—that was something new.
The site’s two ideals—high-minded inclusivity and cool-girl daring—made for an uneasy balance. A few months after the Times story, Egan and Tkacik joined the comedian Lizz Winstead for a discussion called “Thinking and Drinking.” In front of a live audience in New York (and later, endlessly, on YouTube), they proceeded to get trashed and joke about rape. Egan said she had never been sexually assaulted because she was “smart” and lived in Williamsburg. Tkacik said that she didn’t report her own date rape because she “had better things to do, like drinking more.” Egan called pulling out “the most fun way not to get pregnant.” “If any of you guys use the pullout method, but you read, you know, anything I wrote about Ben Bernanke,” Tkacik told the crowd, “at least you’ll go to the grave with your syphilis slightly informed.” Winstead chastised them. They fumbled with Solo cups, slouched, and shouted down hissing audience members.
Afterward, Winstead took to the Huffington Post to call the conversation “deeply disturbing.” Jezebel Editor-in-Chief Anna Holmes wrote that she was “unhappy and frustrated” and called the incident “a fucking shame.” Egan and Tkacik made some efforts to defend themselves: they were drunk, they were caught off guard. Basically, they wanted to be women and speak without necessarily speaking for women. Their online bravado had looked like it might be some brash new face of feminism. After a certain point, though, their rebellion seemed to be demanding the right not to be taken seriously.
There were no immediate repercussions from the incident, but over time the site’s voice changed. Tkacik briefly moved to Gawker before returning to print journalism. Egan remained at Jezebel but retreated into TV recaps. Jezebel began to take itself more seriously, but its seriousness took the form of ardent inoffensiveness. Rather than attracting attention with outrageous statements and big personalities, the site courted pageviews with a blend of easy indignation and broad pop culture coverage. The editors came out against Youth Lingerie Football, girls’ T-shirts with anti-homework slogans, and the sexual abuse of children. An ideal subject was one that could not possibly hurt the feelings of any conceivable reader. Linking to an illustration of “Ponytail Angle of Attack vs. Intelligence,” Dodai Stewart allowed that the image was “ostensibly humorous,” but assured readers that “obviously how you wear your hair has nothing to do with your intelligence.” Anna North began a post on “How to Brighten Your Mood When It’s Raining” with the disclaimer, “If you’re suffering from clinical depression, it’s a good idea to seek medical treatment if at all possible.” She went on to recommend chores, fun music, and good deeds.
Jezebel believed the glossies were dangerous. Its successor, The Hairpin, regarded them as obviously absurd.
While Nick Denton took his web properties bigger and broader, former Gawker editors founded a new site, The Awl, that laid claim to the distinct voice and media provincialism that once were part of Gawker’s appeal. Seemingly out of obligation, in fall 2010 the Awl editors introduced a sister site, The Hairpin. The Hairpin would be “a women’s website . . . insofar as it is run by women, will feature writing by women (although guys should absolutely feel free to get in touch, too), and will mostly be read by women.” There was none of the self-conscious agenda that Jezebel had brought to the project of running a women’s website. In fact, there seemed to be no agenda at all, just a niche to fill. If the Awl appealed to readers disappointed by the new Gawker, then The Hairpin would be a home for women who used to like Jezebel.
The Hairpin was sort of about women, but really it was about editor Edith Zimmerman’s sensibility: internet-fluent and self-consciously eccentric, with a nostalgic streak for both childhood and history. There were photographs of brightly colored items organized by color, a list of “Things to Name Your Oregon Trail Family,” and a discussion of 17th-century dildo pranks. Creepy dolls were objects of ongoing fascination, and Steve Buscemi was included in a game of Fuck/Marry/Kill. This was cute performed for an audience that disliked Zooey Deschanel but still liked reading about eco-friendly cat bonnets. It was cute that was always also a joke about being cute, with hyperbole or alcohol or icky things thrown in to make sure everyone got the joke. Accompanying some posts were Zimmerman’s own shaky little line drawings of a dolphin, a birthday cake, a disembodied smile.
The Hairpin’s media criticism tended toward the observational, peculiar, and irrefutable. (In what must have been her most popular post of all time, Zimmerman presented “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” a collection of stock photos, without commentary.) The exception was posts by Liz Colville, who at first sat below Zimmerman on the masthead. Seemingly there to legitimize The Hairpin’s status as a “women’s website,” Colville dealt straightforwardly with gender and politics; many of her posts wouldn’t have been out of place on early Jezebel. Last January, Colville posted “How Lady Magazines Fared in 2010,” an earnest breakdown of 2010 circulation figures and cover subjects for women’s magazines. “The data suggests that in a lot of cases women just aren’t getting what they want from a magazine,” she concluded. Her post appeared back-to-back with Zimmerman’s “Oo-ooh, Someone’s Mad at the New Yorker,” about a woman who was demanding a refund because the vast majority of the magazine’s writers were men. “Does this bother you?” Zimmerman wrote. “This doesn’t bother me. If you like a magazine, read it; if you don’t, don’t. Also, if you’re mad at a magazine, sounding like a total drag can’t be the best way to get what you want.” By January, Colville had left the website.
Meanwhile, advice columns proliferated. The Hairpin offered readers the chance to Ask a Dude; before long one could also Ask a Married Dude, A Lady, A Clean Person, or A Handy Femme. “There are times when a question comes in and I die a weeny bit of joy because it’s just so Hairpin,” wrote Clean Person Jolie Kerr, in response to a query about spilled leg wax. “Usually when this happens I forward them to The Lady Edith and we sort of go ‘ALKSHjfhaiakhSLKasfHLSKHFsh’ because it’s our way of expressing how much we love you. I think it’s nice for you to know that!” The advice columns sometimes involved shame (“Nipple hairs: do you notice?”) but more often showed childlike delight in adult activities: you too could caulk a bathtub or host a potluck. The site had reclaimed the service-journalism staples of women’s magazines. With wittier execution and more explicit material, it turned out they were still fun.
In January, Jane Marie Feltes started writing the “How to Be a Girl” column. She was a producer for This American Life, not a beauty editor, which gave her credibility: if she recommended wearing highlighter on your cheekbones all the time, perhaps this was not an outlandish idea. Feltes enumerated “Reasons Why You Need a Winter Pedicure” and advised airbrush body foundation for bruised legs. She posted shopping lists of “What To Do With Your Allowance This Week” (buy a cuff bracelet and a cotton romper). The flight from women’s mag territory had come full circle, except that beauty editors had never sounded this excited about their jobs. “AHHHHH this has been so fun!” Feltes started one of her columns. “Every time I see an email from one of you I go ‘EEEEEEEE!!! YAH-YAH-YAAA-YAH!’” In September, she took the spot below Zimmerman’s on the masthead.
Looming over all the new women’s sites was Sassy, the early-’90s teen magazine that yoked indie rock and pop feminism, thrift-store fashion and first-person journalism. Short-lived and beloved, it was the object of reverent nostalgia, at least among the former teenage girls who’d grown up to work at magazines and post comments on blogs like Jezebel and The Hairpin. For them “Sassy” was shorthand for a certain set of female media ideals—smart but not self-serious, stylish but skeptical—and expectations were high when founding editor Jane Pratt announced plans for a new website, xojane.
But when her site went up in May 2011, the readers who’d been prepared to adore xojane weren’t sure what to make of it. “Yes, I’m Exactly Twice as Old as When I Started Sassy,” read the title of Pratt’s first post, as if she already knew her situation was impossible. Her fans were disappointed that she’d changed but embarrassed to watch her try to stay the same, and worst of all, starting to wonder if she’d ever been that great at all. Pratt would have seemed an ideal voice of savvy adult womanhood, one with both years of media experience and an intimate sense of her readers. But with xojane, Sassy had soured into the self-proclaimed place “where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded.” The cool big sister who relished sharing her expertise had grown up into a woman who feuded with salon receptionists she overheard calling her old. Fearless honesty was hard to applaud when it yielded headlines like “I Obsessively Monitor My Husband’s Lube Bottle.”
“Ladyblog horrorcore!” was one Hairpin commenter’s verdict on the new site. This appeared to be the general consensus. Thenceforth, the internet noticed xojane only when it perpetrated something really egregious, like an inaccuracy-filled column by “health critic” Cat Marnell about contraception. “Ranting Lady Blogger Hates Birth Control, Only Uses Plan B,” wrote Gawker of the “bizarre 1000-word treatise.” Faced with more high-minded criticism—that the site was spreading misinformation to impressionable youth—xojane posted “An Open Letter to ‘Teenage Girls’” telling them to get off the site and “leave us at xojane to our lentil soup and our crafts and our footie pajamas and our ’90s nostalgia.” Apparently this was a no-kids-allowed slumber party.
But Pratt had a protégée, one who shared her reverence for Sassy but remained in the original Sassy demographic: Tavi Gevinson, the 15-year-old Illinois style blogger who had become a sprite-like mascot of the fashion industry. Gevinson had written on her blog that she “like many, would like another Sassy,” and Pratt got in touch with her. “We’re going to start a magazine for an audience of teenage girls,” Gevinson wrote afterward. “(I am trying so hard to be cool and professional right now.)”
Despite that initial excitement, the partnership dissolved—no hard feelings, Gevinson said, she just wanted full creative control. A few months after xojane’s appearance, she introduced Rookie, “an online publication for teenage girls.” Pratt was credited on the staff page as the site’s “fairy godmother,” while The Awl’s editors and Gevinson’s dad were “guardian angels.” Instead of Pratt’s Say Media, Tavi was working with New York parent company New York Media.
When Rookie made its debut in September 2011, it was met with the same delight as Jezebel and The Hairpin before it, the same perennial surprise that a women’s site could casually combine serious matters and style. The theme for its first month was “Beginnings,” which allowed Gevinson to approach her audience in a way that was weirdly, persistently general: she assumed that teenage girls were mostly interested in the fact of being a teenage girl. Posts addressed this topic in broad and direct terms. Here is a post about teen girl characters in movies and on TV. Here is a post about another type of teen girl characters in movies and on TV. Here are ways that you, as a teenage girl, can dress up like the idea of a teenage girl, in short pleated skirts and knee socks. Here is a post that begins “I am a 23-year-old heterosexual male, but I often feel like a 16-year-old girl.” The author goes on to explain what he believes this involves.
But, if I recall correctly, as a teenage girl, one spends a lot of time imagining what life will be like when one is no longer a teenage girl. That rapt anxiety of anticipation is constant: adulthood is so close you can smell it and yet the transformation of you, teenager, into you, adult, seems fundamentally impossible. How will it happen? When? The idea of being an adult is totally fascinating to teenagers. The idea of being a teenager is interesting primarily to preadolescents and adults.
Gevinson repeatedly mentions The Virgin Suicides (both the book and movie) as an inspiration. But The Virgin Suicides is not an empowering document of teen girlhood. It’s a book about men’s mythmaking fixation on boyhood fantasies. Its fractured nostalgia is an odd way for a teen to think about being a teen—but it’s a perfectly reasonable way for an adult to think about being a teen, and adults are some of Gevinson’s biggest fans. Her vocabulary, which includes My So-Called Life, Daria, Clueless, and of course Sassy, belongs to an adult cohort that came of age in the nineties. For these women, ostensibly wised-up to pop culture’s fixation on youth, a precocious adolescent made an awkward media savant. Gevinson has a right to her tastes, but the eagerness of adult women to share them was disconcerting. “I am 30 years old and still very proud to be a sticker collector,” a reader commented on a post about stickers. “STICKERS 4 EVER WOO.”
The appeal of women’s magazines was that they could tell you how you ought to behave—how you should look and whom you should date and what you should buy. How to be a woman is a notoriously slippery, mysterious business, and the women’s magazines offered to pin it down, to make it manageable. All you had to do was buy a skirt, take a quiz, learn six confidence boosters and seventy-five sex tricks. For the most part, the search function has usurped this role (no contemporary eighth grader thinks Cosmo is the best place to learn about sex). But with regard to the subtler sensibilities of adult life, women’s magazines—or more accurately their successors, the blogs—still have an important purpose: they tell us how to be by showing us how we, as women, should talk.
Behold the ladyblogosphere, for these are not women’s blogs but ladyblogs, and “lady” is their endemic verbal tic. Here genitals are ladyparts or lady business (or worse, ladyflowers); here there are single ladies, of course, but also fancy ladies and lady squatters, lady politicians as well as lady doctors and lady writers. “Lady Eats 183 Chicken Wings,” says one Jezebel headline. Here’s another: “For the Lady Who Has Everything, How About Some Blinged-Out Pepper Spray?” The Hairpin has “Ask a Lady” and also a “League of Ordinary Ladies” comic, about going to the movies and eating cookies and taking up needlepoint. “Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility as ‘A Lady,’” reads one post on The Hairpin, “because she predicted this website.” Lady: a child’s categorical noun for non-mother adults.
My own mother went to college in the early ‘70s. She started a women’s resource center with a newsletter; it was called The Bimonthly Period. She retains a second-wave feminist’s fondness for the very deliberate use of the word “woman.” She is a doctor, though, and occasionally she says “lady” when discussing gynecological matters. (“Sometimes ladies need a few stitches after labor.”) The word allows a certain decorous remove from discomfort—it is a polite way to acknowledge the listener’s presumed squeamishness or embarrassment about anything particular to her sex.
On the ladyblogs, adult womanhood is a source of discomfort, and so when we write posts or comments, we tend to call ourselves ladies. We also might be tempted, at slightly braver moments, to call ourselves feminists. Indeed, each ladyblog’s approach appears intended to counter a particular brand of easy misogyny. Women are not mindless consumers, declares Jezebel; women are funny, proclaims The Hairpin.
But the ladyblogs are not feminist simply by virtue of offering women an alternative to traditional female media—feminist blogs are of a different genre, with a specific and explicitly political project. The ladyblogs are fundamentally mainstream general interest outlets, even if a façade of superiority to the mainstream (edginess, quirkiness, knowingness) constitutes part of their appeal. Neither Jezebel nor the Hairpin concerns itself with the harder to articulate, more insidious expectations about women’s behavior. Neither knows how to write for and about women without almost embarrassing itself in its eagerness to please. Jezebel is too painstakingly inoffensive to hurt anyone’s feelings. The Hairpin is too charmingly self-effacing to take itself seriously, too tirelessly entertaining to ever bore a visitor. They bake pies with low-hanging fruit: they are helpful, agreeable, relatable, and above all likable.
Surely one can’t, and shouldn’t, strive to like and be liked all the time. But how else can one be? This is not a likable enough question for the ladyblogs to entertain. In the end, they tell us less about how to be than about how to belong, and they are better at this than Sassy ever was, because no place is better for performing inclusion than the internet. Readers write to The Hairpin’s advice columns in painful imitations of the house style. (“SO MANY FEELINGS.”) Commenters squeal over plans for real-life meet-ups in bars. (“I registered just so I could RSVP YES to this!”) The internet, it turned out, was a place to make people like you: the world’s biggest slumber party, and the best place to trade tokens of slumber party intimacy—makeup tips, girl crushes, endless inside jokes. 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.