Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media. This is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Jezebel is no more.
Initiated back in 2007 by Gawker Media founder, Nick Denton, he saw it as a way to serve Gawker's readers who were mostly female in the snarky style of Gawker's 13 other blogs. To its founding editor, Anna Holmes, who'd spent years toiling in the orchards of traditional women's magazines, Jezebel would serve as a counter to the artifice and fantasies of those magazines. As a community for a new and diverse generation of women who lived in the real world, the Jezebel of my imagination, and eventually my reality, she recalled in 2010, would serve as an antidote to the superficiality and irrelevance of women's media properties.
Their reliance on insecurity creation, misogyny, and unabashed consumerism had become increasingly offensive. Jezebel was groundbreaking, a smash hit that did precisely what Anna Holmes had hoped, but in 2010, she left. The website lived on, even after Gawker was bankrupted by Hulk Hogan's sex tape lawsuit. Remember that? Jezebel's plug was finally pulled by G/O Media this month. Holmes says that the site's crucial place in feminist lore wasn't a given at the start.
Anna Holmes: There was a meeting I remember very clearly when I was sitting outside the Gawker offices with one of my bosses and I had mentioned the F-word, feminism, and he cautioned me against it. In that moment, and I remember it very clearly, I thought, "Well, I'll show him." Because it made sense for the site to explore gender politics and racial politics because the Gawker Media websites tended to punch up. You had Gizmodo which was their technology blog and it tended to go after companies like Apple, Jalopnik, car blog would go after GM.
Gawker itself tended to critique mercilessly big media. It made sense to me that they would have a women's website that would punch up towards, let's say, women's magazines. The feminism angle, however, was something that was very specific to myself and the staff. That was not something that we were being asked to do, and as I said, in fact, we were being cautioned against it.
Brooke Gladstone: What did that mean? What were you being subversive about doing?
Anna Holmes: Well, the tagline of the site was, "Celebrity, sex, fashion without airbrushing." That's an acknowledgment that these topics of celebrity, sex, and fashion had been airbrushed in women's media. Because young women had been taught to privilege certain topics over others, celebrity, sex, or fashion, because those topics were the bread and butter of women's magazines and celebrity magazines. We wanted to take a different approach to those subjects by using them as entry points into discussions about gender politics and racial politics.
There have been examples in child-rearing books about hiding broccoli in a brownie. This was a way of hiding broccoli in a brownie, although there were times when we just served broccoli as well.
Brooke Gladstone: In terms of wrapping the broccoli in a brownie, one of your early exploits at Jezebel was to offer a $10,000 bounty for an un-airbrushed celebrity photograph which you actually got.
Anna Holmes: I don't know that that was my idea. I wish I could take credit for it but it might've been the idea of Nick Denton who was the owner of the company. He's the one who ponied up the money, the $10,000 bounty/reward. I probably had complained about the ways in which pictures were airbrushed. I know that he thought it would make a slash. I didn't actually believe though, that we were going to get sent a photo and then the photo came in of Faith Hill, photographed for the cover of Redbook, and it was unretouched. Maybe calling it a revelation is going too far but it was quite shocking what they had done to her photograph.
Brooke Gladstone: What did they do?
Anna Holmes: They smoothed out lines and curves, anywhere on her body or face that they could have. She looked a little bit like a human doll, the way that a lot of actresses and models had been made to look on the covers and in the interior pages of women's magazines. She didn't look like herself, particularly when compared to the original photograph. She was a very beautiful woman. We had become so used to seeing airbrushed photographs that I don't know that we could have looked at it without the original and honed in on what it was that had been done.
Brooke Gladstone: What was the subtext of that enterprise?
Anna Holmes: Well, the subtext or maybe even the overt text was that women's magazines and women's media, a lot of it was built on a lie. In that case, there was visual evidence of it but the critique extended to the stories, content, and headlines, et cetera, put forth by those magazines. We made critiquing women's magazines and industry in and of itself. Every day on that site, there was some critique, and that's putting it nicely.
Brooke Gladstone: For instance, you tracked the number of models of color in fashion brands and in women's magazines.
Anna Holmes: Our critique went from race to economic class to sexual identity. I think one way in which we failed is the way in which we didn't acknowledge growing conversations around gender identity. With regards to race, there was one writer, Dodai Stewart, who was one of the first staffers to be hired. She had many aspects to her job but one of them was that she went through women's magazines every month and also the photographs that came out of fashion shows and counted up the models of color that were on the runways and that were in the editorial pages of these fashion magazines.
She took them to task. She did this again and again and again. We would have readers who would comment. They were sick of hearing about it. They got the point. I really did believe and she believed that by repetition, we would get the point across more. We had no proof that by complaining about the lack of diversity on the fashion runways or in fashion magazines that anyone was actually going to pay attention besides the readers. You started to see at some point, it's hard for me to pinpoint things changing in women's magazines and on runways.
I do think that what Dodai was doing had an effect in terms of shaming fashion designers and magazines. The other thing is that we would write stories and they would get picked up elsewhere. It wasn't that everyone was reading Jezebel. It's that people who were in charge of creating content for other blogs and websites were reading Jezebel and commenting on the stories that we were posting. The internet was a little bit of a wild West on the one hand. On the other hand, we helped one another out. You saw this most acutely among websites that were much more explicitly feminist than ours was.
We used, as I call it, the F-word, quite liberally and unapologetically but I don't know that I would've described the site as a feminist blog. There are reasons for that, that I'm happy to get into if you want.
Brooke Gladstone: Sure.
Anna Holmes: Most of what I defined as feminist blogs were, unlike Jezebel, Labors of Love that were not being financially supported by a company. They were written and edited and published by young women who were not getting paid to do so, whose focus was explicitly on gender politics in a way that ours wasn't. We would post about a recap of the previous night's episode of Mad Men. That's maybe not a great example because Mad Men is full of gender politics commentary. It felt unfair to claim the mantle of a feminist blog.
Brooke Gladstone: Interesting mentioning Mad Men, there's another case where maybe broccoli was wrapped in a brownie. If you operated under the principle that if you repeated things enough, they'd start to sink in. You did deal with reproductive rights, racism, sexual harassment, and assault. They wouldn't feel like outliers in your magazine. You've said that there was once a reluctance to talk about subjects that related to women's lived experience.
Anna Holmes: Yes, and the idea that we had a publication where stories about, let's say, Mad Men coexisted along a story about diversity or lack thereof in the fashion industry, next to a story about reproductive rights and the ways in which they were being eroded. Women, as I like to say, can walk and chew gum at the same time, and they can be interested in all of those things and more. Again, the repetition was about normalizing a conversation. I can't give enough credit though to the readers. It was one thing for us to repeat ourselves.
It was another thing to offer a platform for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of women to share their own stories and to be taken seriously, and to support one another. I do think that you can draw a line between the conversations that were happening on Jezebel and other blogs, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, et cetera, to the big reported revelations around powerful men and sexual assault that you started to see happening in 2017 and beyond.
Brooke Gladstone: How would you characterize Jezebel's commentators, the good, the bad, the ugly?
Anna Holmes: I have so many words to describe them. They were opinionated. They were loyal. They were sometimes bitchy. They were animated and vociferous, and they were complicated, and they were really hilarious a lot of the time. Very smart, impatient, they were critical. Within a few weeks of the site's launch, there were commenters who were calling themselves the Jezebels. It made me somewhat uncomfortable because of the quickness with which they took to it, and the kind of responsibility that I felt to them because of it.
They drove me crazy. They drove the writers crazy as well because of the fact that they were watching us so closely, so closely. There were times when it felt like it was us versus them.
Brooke Gladstone: You make them sound like a bunch of unruly collaborators, which to a great degree, I know they were but they also could be incredibly mean intellectually dishonest, bullies toward each other.
Anna Holmes: Yes, they were unruly, and they were all of those things. They could be bullying and they could be intellectually dishonest. We had to moderate the comments. As much as it sometimes felt from my point of view, like a free-for-all, it really wasn't. We could ban people and did. We didn't really delete comments. Nick Denton didn't want us to be deleting things. We had a certain function at one point called disemvoweling, the V, which meant that if there was a comment we didn't like, we would press a button and it would remove all the vowels from the words in the comment, which drove the commenters crazy.
Brooke Gladstone: Shortly after Buzzfeed News shut down, in a column for The New York Times, Ben Smith posited that, "If the end of BuzzFeed News which he created was the end of an era of digital news, Jezebel," he said, "was the beginning." He pointed to how the commentators on Jezebel, the community it created, responded to each other. You took issue with his portrayal of Jezebel as a blueprint for the outrage that would come to rule social media. Now, Jezebel's heyday was before social media, but he argued that the kind of freedom and the kind of anger that it manifested, I think that was his argument, opened the door to what technology would later usher in.
Anna Holmes: I mean, I just reject that. Well, first of all, I don't know exactly what his argument was. I tried to pin him down on that for The New Yorker piece that I wrote. I was confused by the piece that he wrote. It seemed to me that he was making an argument that Jezebel had an anger that was out of control. That we trafficked an outrage or expressed emotion or opinions in ways that felt somewhat unhinged. He used the phrase uncontrollable anger in his piece. I felt that was sexist.
I didn't like that he seemed to be suggesting that the divisive tenor of discourse online, particularly on social media, could be traced back to the site. There was plenty of discourse happening on the internet before Jezebel and during that was contentious. One could argue divisive, made one uncomfortable, et cetera. I wasn't quite sure why he was singling out Jezebel. I do think because he was not the target audience for the site, like most men weren't that there was a deep discomfort with the anger that was being expressed on the site because it was coming from women.
In his defense, when I called him out on the uncontrollable anger phrase, he conceded the point, which is that it sounded sexist. I made the point to him that women's anger is, in fact, usually very controlled because that's the ways in which we've been taught to express it. He was very complimentary about Jezebel in the book that he published this year called Traffic, which looked at a number of websites and website companies and the ways in which they rose and fell. That op-ed where he mentioned Jezebel's augering the beginning of a more contentious discourse online, didn't necessarily land the point.
I was confused by it, and I tried to ask him what he meant by that. He answered, but I think that he was probably struggling with, "Well, when does X start, and when does Y start in relation to X and was this all happening at the same time?" At the time when Jezebel launched, social media was not really a thing. I'm not saying it didn't exist, but it was not the thing that it is now. The sorts of commentary that one found on Jezebel or other websites, or in the comments of Jezebel and other websites, were very self-contained to those websites.
Once you get Twitter going, and they introduced the retweet button, which I believe happened in 2008, maybe even 2009 or '10, I'd have to go look it up, is when you start to see an explosion of online commentary that moves very quickly throughout the internet.
Brooke Gladstone: Virality.
Anna Holmes: Yes. That privileges more emotional language over other types of language. My rejection of Ben's argument also has lots to do with the fact that the site started before social media became ascendant. I don't know that I feel as defensive about it as I did when I first read that op-ed, but that's in part because I've had time to think about it. I wrote about it. I talked to him about it. That's one thing I think that we don't do enough of which is to engage our critics in good faith. I didn't take to Twitter to yell about it, which is maybe something I would have done years before.
I think that a lot of the discourse online is very performative. I don't think that that was the case with what was happening on Jezebel. I don't unlike Ben draw that straight line between the site and what social media later became. It would be giving the site too much credit, in a way to imbue it with that much power.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm a lot older than you. I'm a classic second-wave feminist, I guess, watching the various waves of feminism go by. I just wonder how you think Jezebel influenced the broader culture, especially with regard to feminism.
Anna Holmes: I remember when I think, this was in 2010, maybe 2011, Tina Fey's 30 Rock did a parody of the site.
Brooke Gladstone: What was it called?
Anna Holmes: It was called Joan of Snark.
Speaker 17: Wonderful news non-famouses. My publicist just called from rehab. I made the internet.
Liz: You're on JoanOfSnark.com.
Speaker 18: On what?
Liz: Joan of Snark. It's this really cool feminist website where women talk about how far we've come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies. Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Anna Holmes: As is the case with many parodies, it wasn't necessarily positive. The idea that a large powerful network TV show was good parody, our little site meant that it was having an effect on someone, it was making an impression on someone. I think that it's unapologetic embrace of feminist ideas. The repetition of the word itself, served as a model, especially for younger women, a comfort in our own skin with regards to our gender politics. You started to see actresses and celebrities being asked on red carpets, whether they consider themselves to be feminist. This was not happening before.
It did feel like there was an opening up in the culture around what feminism was, could be self-identifying with it. In 2014, Beyoncé performed in front of an enormous lighted sign that said, feminist and this was at the MTV Video Music Awards. I don't think that you would have seen that happen were it not for the influence of feminist discourse on the internet. I'm being very specific when I say the internet because that's where everybody was in 2014. That's where everybody is. Do I think that she would have done that in 2006? I don't mean to suggest that she was doing that cynically.
I think that, as time went on, all of our gender politics were evolving. I don't know whether she read Jezebel, and I don't know whether she read Feministing or any of the other feminist blogs that existed, but something got to her and she felt comfortable enough, claiming that word and the identity as her own. I do think it has to do with the Internet.
Brooke Gladstone: I love the way that you ended The New Yorker piece. You said you saw Jezebel not as the beginning of the end of the digital media era, but as a moment, a spark within an ongoing discussion about gender politics. Then you concluded with a quote from the late civil rights activist, poet, philosopher Audre Lorde, something she wrote way before the internet in 1981 that seemed to speak to Jezebel's legacy.
Anna Holmes: What I said at the end of that New Yorker article was that Jezebel and the conversations that it sparked have led to new realities around sexual assault, harassment, pay inequity, and cultural depictions of women. Those conversations also make people uncomfortable in part because they involve women expressing their anger in public and sustained ways. Then I went on to quote Audre Lorde, and I said, or rather she said, "Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger, which can act as a powerful source of energy serving progress and change."
[MUSIC - Kronos Quartet: Tilliboyo]
Brooke Gladstone: With regard to Jezebel's legacy?
Anna Holmes: Well, I don't know that I'd say that its legacy is one of anger, but its legacy is one of providing a space for women to express themselves up to including beyond anger but including other things like humor, being able to express the full range of emotions that they have and the full range of people that they are.
Brooke Gladstone: Anna, thank you very much.
Anna Holmes: Thank you so much.
Brooke Gladstone: Jezebel's founding editor, Anna Holmes.
Micah Loewinger: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Candice Wang with help from Shaan Merchant.
Brooke Gladstone: Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: And I'm Micah Loewinger.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.