Monday, February 13, 2012

We Need to Talk About the Lady Blogs

What a two weeks it has been for lady blogs. Holy crap. Between Jezebel's lovely reposting of a woman's rape (which I'm not linking to here because I frakking refuse to give them page-views for that bullshit) and n+1's musings on the recent developments in this rather insular blogging community, the lady blogosphere has shown its limitations.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I am a ladyblogger myself. I am a senior writer and copyeditor at Persephone Magazine, which is like the red-headed step-child of lady blogs. We never get invited to the lady blog party, but we're certainly crashing it. I've also been a (starred) commenter at Jezebel and was very active in that community (when it was a community). I'm a regular reader of other lady-blogging communities including Shakesville, Feministing, and The Hairpin. I have a passing familiarity with XOJane and The Rookie. Though to be honest, most of my reading and commenting time goes to Persephone and The Hairpin (and once-upon-a-time, Jezebel).

I call it the lady blogosphere rather than the feminist blogosphere because at some point, lady bloggers recognized that feminism is a word that shuts out many groups, including people of color and those who do not identify as cisgender. Though there are a few blogs that openly call themselves feminist, and that's cool too. Although many lady blogs do not adopt the term feminist, their approach is certainly critical of the patriarchy and the other systems that bind women in problematic ways. That said, most blogs are happy to adopt the term lady blog. As the NYMagazine article about the lady blogosphere notes, the blogs adopt the word lady thusly: '“lady” being the term of choice for many online writers, an ironized alternative to the earnest “woman” or problematic “girl.”'

Last week, Molly Fischer wrote a thoughtful article about the lady blogosphere in n + 1. The n+1 article deals mainly with the current lady blog ruling class:,,, and Jezebel is the one that points out the differences between photoshopped and unphotoshopped pictures, posts about politics, and also talks about dirty tampons. It never claims to be feminist, but at its start, it was definitely fed up with the way most women got portrayed in magazines like Cosmo.

The Hairpin, the child of The Awl, "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." In other words, twee. But unlike Jezebel, The Hairpin is more comfortable using the "F" word, but it would never say its a feminist blog.

And then we come to XOJane, which comes up because it is edited by Jane Pratt, who also edited that lady magazine that everyone in their late 20s to mid-to-late 30s worships and laments its passing: Sassy. And so we get XOJane. And it's. Um. Okay? As Fischer seems to note, XOJane is sort of like when mom decides to be the cool teenager: she did a lot of cool things in her youth, but she's having a hard time fitting the monster she created into the box it has become.

Fischer also talks about Rookie, which is great and makes me wish I was that fucking smart when I was a teenager, but I'm not going to talk about that here because it is the future (also, I really don't want to criticize teenagers - though they could do with a little attention to people of color, but that's all I'll say). I'm more concerned about the adult lady blogosphere, and I am most interested in sites like The Hairpin and Jezebel because they carry the most weight. Fischer laments that it's turned from having a definite feminist (or social justice) goal to "BFF-ship."

And then a week later, Jezebel did this: it published a picture of a woman's rape. This from the same blog that refused to publish pictures of Rihanna after she got beaten up by Chris Brown. In the terminology of the Internet: what is this. I can't even. Editor Jessica Coen wrote, after commentors raised a shitstorm about the rape photos, "We have since added additional pixelation to all of the images, including those of the attackers. This post is ultimately about the existance of a video, thus the images ARE the story-without them, there's nothing. To remove them would be, in effect, to un-report the stor. Which is not going to happen."

How the mighty have fallen. As commenters have noted, Jezebel used to be a place you could go if you were feminist (or sort-of-a-feminist) but still enjoyed watching Toddler & Tiaras. Under the direction of Anna Holmes, Jezebel was a refuge for those of us whose moms had taught us Gloria Steinam, but who thought porn was great and who had read far too much Judith Butler and bell hooks in college: this was a feminism that knew its problems and that dealt with them out in the open. And of course, Jezebel was a community. I've met many friends from Jez, many of whom have gone on to be IRL friends and intellectual collaborators. But then shit like this became more and more prevalent. People wondered, "Is Jezebel the safe space we thought it was?" And the answer is no.

n+1 didn't deal with this shitstorm or really any other problematic shitstorm on Jezebel, but there have been plenty in the past year they could have addressed. There was Trace Egan's barely concealed racist tendencies and that article by that guy who thought that women should let men jizz on their faces because of their feelings. Oh Jesus. The n+1 article seemed most concerned with the personality of the reader who pursued Jezebel and The Hairpin and whether they were engaging in too much fluff (which, brief aside, is insulting. Fluffy is just fine in the lady blogosphere. It's the focus on an identity that is white and heterosexual that is the problem. Ms. N+1 has clearly never gotten into a race-bending fantasy casting debate for Pride and Prejudice - talk about your fluff-that-leads-to-deep-discussions-about-race-and-gender.)

The more interesting question, I think, is whether a blog that purports to be pro-woman and if not feminist, then certainly comfortable with the terminology (I'm sure I've seen a few of their writers use hooks and Butler in the same blog post), has a responsibility to its unspoken values. The n+1 article harkens the fall of Jezebel to the unfortunate incident on "Thinking and Drinking," where Jezebel writers Tkacik and Egan got trashed and joked about rape. Fischer notes that Jezebel got more polite afterwards, but I disagree. If anything, Jezebel got more eager to please by falling in with the things that made its writers (and readers) seethe. Fischer may characterize this as more polite, I characterize it as a very impolite way of using your readers' trust that you'll stick to your guns to ride a wave of the status quo to money in the bank. Gawker owner Nick Denton's near-transparent pursuit of the almighty dollar at the cost of unique voices and a strong online community further speaks to this hideous dishonesty.

But here's some humbling information. On a day when everyone was upset with Jezebel over their publication of a woman's rape, it had a dozen posts with over 10K views and one with over 100K. Which, as one of my fellow editors noted, is why they don't care about shitstorms - they don't need to worry about keeping their commenters happy because their page views are enough to keep the advertisers satisfied. Le sigh.

The Hairpin, on the other hand, has managed to avoid shitstorms. The Hairpin is polite in a way Jezebel never could be. Early 20th century celebrity gossip and posts about estate jewelry are hardly going to raise an eyebrow. And while The Hairpin has paid lip-service to other identities with columns like their "Ask a Queer Chick" and has taken feminist stances on abortion, it is still a fairly white and heterosexual space. Which, let us remember, is the real problem with the lady blogosphere.

So where does that leave us, and by where, I mean where we are when you get enough page views that the point of view on which you initially wrote doesn't quite matter anymore. I don't know. It's such a sticky wicket. As Courtney E. Martin pointed out in The Nation, the lady blogosphere when you care about your ethics, is not very profitable. It's sort of sad that you can't really care about the ethics that founded you when it comes time to making a living wage. But what isn't sad is the whole range of lady bloggers who aren't making a buck, but who really give a shit. At Persephone, we don't define ourselves as feminist because we know plenty of pro-lady people aren't comfortable with that term, but we're also not going to post pictures of someone being raped nor are we going to blatantly be anti-woman. I mean, most of the editors are feminists, but we understand how problematic the term is, so we're not going to push it on ALL the people

What is great is that other blogs haven't bowed down. Sure The Hairpin is twee. Of course Feministing doesn't make any money (but writes some great articles), and Shakesville is equaly non-profitable, but I think what we as lady bloggers need to remember is that we do have certain ethics, and even if the blog doesn't use the "F" word, we still have values we want to hold on to.

Of course, there is a larger question here, a more pretentious one (if you will): how do you talk about these issues, these deep, abiding issues about what it is to be a woman in the world, while still being aware of all the bullshit that comes attached and still making a living. Because if anything, that's the pit that Jezebel with its rape apology, The Hairpin with it's twee focus and XOJane with its 90s magazine seal-of-aproval has fallen into: how do we make a living? The promise of Jezebel was that you could be critical and still popular, but at some point, popularity outweighed the critique. It was like if at the end of Mean Girls, Regina George didn't get hit by that bus and took over the school and LiLo's character never learned her lesson.

As an unpaid editor at a ladyblog that tries hard, I think it can be done. Though as a copywriter who sometimes has to lay aside fierce beliefs so that a product will sell, I also understand that compromise has to be made. Maybe, like The Hairpin, you become twee or like XOJane, you revel in nostalgia. Or maybe, just maybe, someone sees the merit in good, quality work that refuses to compromise.

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