How n+1 gets Ladyblogs wrong

Can a triannually published, New York Times-minted literary magazine that boasts five male editors out of six publish a smart, well-written critique of the snarky, irreverent Internet watering holes many women frequent?

N+1 tried. And they came damn close, with the exception of two missteps:

  1. Complete and utter failure to mention Persephone Magazine, ergo: sample size at least one ladyblog short.
  2. Elitism painted in broad, Rothko-style strokes. And, as someone who frequently pisses and moans about having to drive an hour to get to any good shopping or see a non-community-theatre play, I KNOW elitism from mere smugness/entitlement/excellent taste in clothing.

In “So Many Feelings” (kudos for not just titling it “Squeeeeeee!1!”), Molly Fischer voices  disappointment with the identity evolution of four of the internet’s most popular and infamous women’s blogs ““ Jezebel, The Hairpin, xojane and Rookie.

I have no axe to grind with Fischer’s assessment that Rookie is a slightly creepy place where grown women go to reminisce about a very narrow (and I would add WHITE) version of teen girlhood. Think DeGrassi, Daria, Courtney Love circa Hole and a whole buttload of “The Virgin Suicides” ““ the Sofia Coppola movie, not the book DUH.

And I just don’t care one single Fig Newton about I visited it for the first time after reading “So Many Feelings” and it reminded me of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Bitch,” which gave me “Am I pretty enough to be successful??” ulcers.

What interests me is Fischer’s take on Jezebel and the Hairpin, both of which I read regularly, one of which I love and one of which I used to love. While I relate to her not-quite-verbalized frustration that these two blogs aren’t the meccas of feminist thought a certain vocal subset of their readers expected, I also feel like her entire argument is falsely predicated on the notion that all female spaces must be dedicated to the active advancement of Women (capital W because we’re a monolith) at all times.

I know many of you are ex-Jezzies or, perhaps, like me, you continue to lurk on the fringes and catch TweetBeat or ogle Toddlers & Tiaras clips. It’s a far cry from my fall 2008 days, when I first discovered Jez and made a point of reading and commenting on EVERY article.

Those were heady times–I had just graduated from college and felt both lonely and over-stimulated by my newly claimed independence. Jez became my internet home, a haven where I got schooled by a smorgasbord of intelligent women commenters about everything from female bodily autonomy to the exclusion of African-American feminists to the best brand of tampons (sorry O.B. cult, I still vote Tampax Pearl. Unscented, of course).

But, like many of you, I felt disenfranchised by the way the site treated its community, the way it reported sensitive news (HELLO privacy-destroying pictures of a journalist raped in Syria that were just posted yesterday!) and the way Jez began to obviously court page-views with controversy-baiting articles. Baseless attack on Jon Stewart, anyone?

Fischer locates the nexus of Jezebel’s success and its downfall in the Thinking and Drinking scandal of July 2008 ““ Salon recap here for those who want to tumble down a rabbit hole of bizarre slut-shaming and rape-apologizing. She posits that, in reaction to that asshattery, Jez grew “nice” and adopted an unofficial policy of only covering topics that couldn’t possibly offend anyone.

Jez HAS melted into soggy-tissue-paper wimpiness. But I think Fischer is exaggerating the role of Thinking and Drinking and its perpetrators, the brash, gross, often politically incorrect bloggers who made a name for Jezebel.

Let’s break from Jez for a moment to consider the Hairpin ““Fischer insinuates that an early writer with a political bent was somehow forced out for not being quirky enough? The theory is very thinly sketched.

My take on the Hairpin: sometimes it’s a mite too precious, but the content is otherwise refreshing, funny and unique. And I don’t particularly remember it ever being any other way–I feel confident, despite never having met Edith Zimmerman in my life, that she had a clear vision for the blog and she achieved it. Early 20th century celebrity gossip and cleaning advice for all!

What exactly Fischer dislikes about Jez and the Hairpin is never clearly stated. But the main complaints I could elucidate are that ladyblogs hold womanhood at an uncomfortable arm’s length (hence girly-girl euphemisms like “lady” popping up all over your ladyscreens) and that writing and commenting for the sites has become a shallow “slumber party” of a popularity contest, with little to no serious critical writing.

I must admit, the use of “lady” initially rankled when I started reading women’s blogs. However, it’s fairly obviously being used as a tongue-in-cheek way to rebut the notion of women as fragile, as other, as programmed by evolution to form their own spaces so as not to sully or otherwise degrade the territory of men.

Does the joke get a little too self-referential at times? Sure, maybe. Does anyone who spends more than 5 seconds on a ladyblog truly believe that we ACTUALLY all lie on fainting couches and clutch smelling salts and wring delicate strands of Tiffany’s pearls?

The second critique, that Jez and the Hairpin sold out the “sisterhood” for some kind of intangible, lesser bond Fischer calls “BFF-ship” irritates me because it’s just so, “I couldn’t ever do any work that isn’t personally fulfilling and everybody but me is totally wasting their potential on bullshit.” Thaaaanks, but your late teens called and they want their naiveté back.

It’s not fair to criticize Jez or the Hairpin for courting a wider audience. Both were founded as sister sites to obviously commercial ventures. They don’t publish easily digestible content solely for the reward of being internet famous, they do it for the MONEY. Shocking, right?

Not to be all “It’s the man, man,” but had Nick Denton, Gawker emperor, been able to squeeze hard cash money from Jez’s early, mostly awesome incarnation, Tracie Egan would still be blogging under the moniker “Slut Machine.”

Instead, he decided to make Jez over into a mainstream blog. In the interests of streamlining everything, Jez articles got shorter and shorter (good luck finding anything over 300 words there), the once-integral comments section shrunk and became more tightly monitored, and the ratio of fluff to legitimate criticism skyrocketed.

The Stepford wife-ification of Jezebel initially angered me, but I realize now those were just growing pains prompting me to find other blog communities more suited to my age and taste for political and feminist theory. I’m firmly of the opinion that the BEST peddlers of such fine wares are the privately owned blogs (Shakesville, for one) that operate mostly free of censorship, where the writers are personally invested in and knowledgeable about their niche topics.

Jezebel and the Hairpin aren’t necessarily competing with these smaller blogs, but complementing them. Both are still more woman-friendly than 90% of what’s currently on the internet. And Jez in particular can provide the perfect springboard for women who are just starting to become interested in feminism or for the lady who wants to visit a female-oriented space without being concerned about it providing the sum total of her news and cultural analysis.

My greatest beef with “So Many Feelings” is that it discredits that lady and her desire to veg out in front of highly truncated bits of celebrity gossip. The essay basically stomps all over the value of women exchanging beauty tips, developing a commenter lingo, sharing DIY ideas or basically doing anything that doesn’t involve close-reading Andrea Dworkin.

Whether Fischer intends to or not, she plays directly into the hands of one of the biggest “feminist” fallacies–that we must, at all times, be actively disproving the notion that our gender is superficial. That we can’t develop any talents related to traditionally patriarchal means of oppression, i.e., no liquid eyeliner or crocheting for you.

At the end of the day, feminism is important, but only as a means to an end, which is freedom and equality for all women, no matter who they are or what they like to read or how they like to waste time on the internet.

You don’t read many long-form critical essays about how men spend way too much time on Deadspin gushing about cars. It’ll be a great day for women when the same is true for us and the feminist community stops biting its own tail with these meta-critical posts.

P.S. Molly Fischer, you’re welcome to come hang out at Persephone anytime! Seriously, I mean it.

42 thoughts on “How n+1 gets Ladyblogs wrong”

    1. My bad – the use of “minted” implies they were created by the nyt but i meant that the nyt (particularly this 2005 A. O. Scott piece: helped launch their brand, which is distinctly opposed to that of women’s interest blogs in that it has loftier goals and courts a wildly different readership. Anyway, I would take criticism of lady blogs more seriously if It came from one of our own.

  1. One of the things that extra-specially angered me was her dismissal of friendships formed among the commentariats of the various blogs she discusses. I know that the Jez community was (and is) highly durable, and that the relationships I (and others) have formed with fellow commenters span everything from just having people to hang out with–and really, what the hell is wrong with that, I ask you–to having the knowledge that there’s a group of people ready to support you emotionally and non-judgmentally, offer advice and perspective, or simply get pissed off on your behalf. And these days that’s a huge thing. Just because it’s not overtly or primarily political doesn’t make it not valuable.

    It just seems like… I don’t know. If you want to do feminism, devaluing women’s communities is not the way to go, especially if you don’t know a thing about them.

      1. The hackerpocalypse and the redesign (which was basically a gigantic “lol screw you, faithful commenters”) was what got me to quit, although the number of seriously problematic things they’d been posting for the sake of clicks/ad money had been steadily increasing. But I’m SO happy that the Jez community has managed to reconstitute itself in other places, because I don’t think I’ve ever found a group of people I’ve learned so much from and had as much fun with.

        1. Yeah, the hacker thing was what prompted me to take advantage of their offer to wipe accounts- I definitely took advantage of the anonymity of the Internet and shared stuff I proooooobably shouldn’t have, so that was a good jolt of, “you’re never really anonymous, dummy.”

          I’m glad for jez or jez-like communities too. It’s nice to talk to people with similar values instead of perpetually having to explain, “well I’m feminist/pro-choice/liberal/what-have-you, so I think…” also I sometimes wonder about old prolific commenters, like tscheese and pilgrim soul. Loved them!

  2. Fabulous article, that’s really all I posted to say. I think that there is a valid critique in the fluffly happy rainbows kind of women’s blogs that are out there, but they (the Hairpin) are not trying to be anything other than that. Jezebel used to be a feminist blog, now it is a women’s blog and there is a difference. The beauty of Persephone is that is seems to walk the line of both. Although people (myself included) need to be better about commenting on those articles and not just on ones about cheese (as fabulous and fun that it was).

    I wonder if the author of the article ever read things like Feministing? I wound up giving up the “hard hitting” feminist blogs like this one up, because I couldn’t handle being angry like that all the time and the aggressive commentators. The odd thing is, like you said, Megan, that there would never be a critical article about men on jalopnik or whatever. Furthermore, I don’t really imagine that there is a vibrant blogging community for men equivalent to the feminist or lady blog-verse. I suppose there are those “how to be a gentleman” blogs but it doesn’t have the same critical background that the women’s ones do.

    I’m pretty sure nothing made sense there. Just woke up haha


    1. I’m not entirely sure I’d agree that Jez used to be a feminist blog–or, if it was, it was a fairly problematic feminism it subscribed to. The editorship never claimed explicitly that Jez was a feminist site, although the sort of language it adopted silently suggested that it was a space at least open to feminism in theory–so long as feminists didn’t get on the editors’ cases about things like racism, ableism, or casual transphobia. To me, it was really the commentariat that tried to make Jez into a more explicitly feminist space, but the editorship–especially after Anna H. left–resisted that when it got in the way of pageviews.

      That always disappointed me, because I loved Jez (I commented there between 08ish and last February) and I always thought it could have, if the editors wanted it, gone in the direction of PMag and opted for a more inclusive feminism that walked the line between political/social activism and just hanging out (if that makes sense), and it would have done just as well as what they’ve got now. But even then, I’m pretty sure the n+1 writer would have despised it.

      (I am a perpetual fence-sitter, in case you can’t tell. I want to have my cake and eat it too, damn it.)

        1. Yeah, I remember that too. While I can’t recall any specific controversies from Anna H’s day, I do remember that, every time someone popped up to say “I thought this was supposed to be a feminist site/feminist-friendly space” in response to something problematic, an older commenter would come in with “You must be new here.”  And I really think that Jez got the feminist label and has been able to keep it because (even now) it’s feminist compared to, you know, the vast majority of major media-owned websites.

          I don’t know. Even though I had years to get used to it and obviously was always free to take my readership and pageviews elsewhere and not complain, it always bugged me that Jez would talk the talk, but wouldn’t walk the walk if it ever became inconvenient.

          1. you guys are right, feminist is not something they were ever accepting of being labeled, but the readers definitely fell into that point of view and that did shape jezebel for a time. I read it daily for 5 years and things haves slide, which I think everyone can agree. The cherry being, of course that article a few days back of the sexual assault on film. That ended it for me. I am done with it.

            As an aside: look at how reasonable persephoneers are. You disagreed and I still have my head and remain unburned! WHO KNEW THAT COULD HAPPEN ON THE INTERNETS?!?!?!

            1. Oh, yeah, I definitely agree with that; the feminist slant really came from the commentariat, which kind of grafted its hopes and dreams onto the writing/editorial staff. Granted the commentariat had its issues and definitely wasn’t above critique itself, but I guess it just annoys me that Jez was more than happy to refuse to consider itself feminist even as it had a bunch of commenters going “look, this is a really great feminist(-friendly) site!” so it could just pull out the “oh, we’re not really feminist” line whenever they needed plausible deniability or something.

        2. Yeah, it’s never struck me a feminist in any meaningful way.  It seems like any site that’s aimed and run by women is a sort of de facto feminist site, regardless of evidence for or against that.  It’s baffling (and inaccurate, much of the time).

    2. Yeah, I can’t think of any all men’s sites that have loyal followings quite like jez or us or the hairpin. My half-formed theory is that women have almost always formed very close-knit communities, whether online or in person, as a reaction to being excluded from so much of “regular” life. Like the presidency. Haha, like I said, half-formed!

    3. I used to read Feministing, but I gave it up for slightly different reasons. I can work myself up into a pretty good froth, and my screen name might imply a certain familiarity with aggressiveness. But ultimately it was their comment section that drove me away. It seemed like most of their comments were very new to feminism, or new to applying feminist ideals to looking at the world around them, so their discussions lacked nuance and were quick to knee jerking. I don’t mean that as an insult — I think that’s a common trajectory in progressives and I was new at one point too — but ultimately it meant that the site just wasn’t for me. I much prefer Femeniste, on many different levels.

  3. I shook my fist at being left out at first, too, but I don’t know if I want to know what Molly would write about us.  While it’s usually kind of sucky to be the underdog of the ladybloggosphere, it sometimes has its advantages.

    The part that stuck in my craw the most was her claim that all of the ladyblogs she discussed were trying to be likable and relatable. Well, duh. All of those ladyblogs are businesses. Without clicks, there’s no money from advertisers. If there’s no advertising money, the ladyblog is only going to last so long. Unlikable bloggers who are hard to relate to aren’t going to get enough clicks to attract any advertisers in the first place.

    I thought it was interesting that all the blogs she focused on were owned by larger media companies.

    Additionally, I think “lady” is fine, and less loaded with gross than MRA and Ferrenghi favorite “female” and less onerous than “woman.” Lady rolls off the tongue nicer, and implies a certain layer of fun that Molly’s version of feminsim/womanhood doesn’t necessarily make room for.


  4. I can understand a certain level of disillusionment with Jezebel, though I was never more than a lurker — but frankly, the Hairpin (not to mention Persephone!) has made my life infinitely more pleasant. It seemed like the perfect site for readers like me who read about hard-hitting feminist criticism in other places and just want a chance to say, “But I found this new way to do nail polish and it makes me feel like a pretty, pretty badass.” And their estate jewelry column is unparalleled.

  5. Yeah, I was surprised that there was no mention of Persephone at all, considering how many ex-Jezzies hangout around here (myself being a former lurker). And I also didn’t get The Hairpin hate either. The reactions from the commenters over there was awesome. I get where Fischer is coming from but like you said, she’s buying into the fallacy  we must “be actively disproving the notion that our gender is superficial.” I don’t get why we can’t have both. I like reading about things like cooking, knitting,  and makeup, while I also learn about social issues, world events, and bad-ass feminists.

    1. Whomp, there it is.

      I hate having to choose between talking about heavy issues or “lighter” issues. I want my worlds to intersect. I am both.

      I like sparkles. I like makeup. I like kittens and fingernail polish and puppy videos and cupcakes. None of these things change the fact that I will school your ass on the financial colonialism of the IMF or effectively change how deeply I feel about the chipping away of reproductive rights. Its just not that simple.

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