Judging Jezebel

Dear CF,

What a delicious problem you’ve brought to our picnic table. Of course feminism shouldn’t be divisive. It should be like being pro-human, or pro-kid. BUT. By the time I finished this post I realized I was defending divisiveness and having a problem, not with feminism, but with how it gets tacitly defined (or rather undefined) on sites like Jezebel. Maybe you can help me work this out.

I like your explanation of XX in 3)–that it’s a shined and softened 2.0 version of something a bit more raw and funkified.

You know, it’s funny—I remember being irritated by the XX blog on Slate when it first came out, and am irritated still. I was irked by Jezebel when it started too. That said, I’m pleased by the juggernaut Jezebel has become. It’s a vigorous animal, though the accusations of “echo-chamberhood” might have some merit.

I enjoy Jez. I look at it daily. I like its size and its breadth and the ways in which it’s slowly expanded to include the merely frivolous as well as the concerns and injustices of third world women. It offers a much-needed vehicle for smart-girl niggles and nostalgia (oh, Fine Lines!!). And yet sometimes it reminds me of a much younger version of the woman I idolized but never quite wanted to be.

To get back to your question, though: why are all these women shying away from feminism? I’m as irritated by this as you are. (I’m apparently a grumpy gus today.) I’m surprised at Sarah Haskins.

Let’s take seriously the case against feminism for a second. Many critics of (let’s call it “XX”-wave) feminism claim the “movement” has become about the right to choose in the most frivolous way possible. In the Jez comments a consensus frequently emerges that everything a woman does can potentially fit under the feminist umbrella. Except judging another woman.

(Isn’t it ironic that as we as a nation are talking about the merits of having another female Supreme Court Justice, judging has become a bad word?)

The ladyblogs frequently try to root their mission in a set of ethical principles–“no bodysnarking” has become a mantra on Jez. But the results, which amount to prepublication censorship, can be, well, a bit Animal Farmish. It’s been interesting to watch this happen. The discourse community Jez generated was too big for the site to develop the fearful and snarky commenting culture Gawker achieved in its heyday (when there were executions, and when a commenting account was difficult to come by). Instead, Jez is regulated (quite capably) by hortense. And while it would be a mistake to call Jez humorless—it’s hilarious—it’s also true that the humor is carefully circumscribed and that the editors have no sense of humor about themselves. For all Linda Hirshman and company might claim otherwise, this is no longer a blog based on transgression. God forbid someone should criticize Tracie—who suffered plenty at the hands of Gawker commenters and has developed a coping mechanism called Napoleonic petulance.

I wonder if the issue with Jez in particular (I don’t know Feministing very well) isn’t—and I may be projecting here, because I see this is in myself—that Jez’s driving principle isn’t action but reaction. Maybe reaction is the only kind of action possible on a site like this? Action is impossible because it demands initiative, an agenda and a mandate?

The blog seems to be struggling constantly with two ideological extremes:

  • one, frequently articulated by the commenters: everyone is different.  How dare anyone reduce women as a class to anything? We are all snowflakes. This comes up in response to scientific studies or behavioral pieces.
  • The other extreme, where Wrong and Right have a small but well-regulated kingdom: Jez has become a blog for women with a very specific, if obvious, take on women’s issues and condemns people along fairly nondebatable lines: rape is bad. Children being forced to marry is bad. Domestic violence is bad. Photoshop is bad. I agree with you that Jez did something new. It used to be much more polemical than this —more along the lines of Bitch Ph.D—but as posts have gotten shorter and more frequent and the commenting culture hardened, I feel the editors have smoothed and polished the provocative edge that the XX Factor takes to task. (Frankly, that article, beyond its more obvious problems, is a hopelessly outdated analysis of Jezebel.)

It seems to me that this tension produces a culture of feminism where a two-tier system of choice is established, and only the “choices” that don’t really matter—whether or not to take a husband’s last name, for instance—benefit from the snowflake treatment. Being a feminist means I have the right to choose! To judge another woman is girl-on-girl crime!

The problem, of course—and Jez struggles with this too—is that those choices do matter. To create a hierarchy of choice is to suggest that certain things matter more than others. Should taking a husband’s last name be a political issue or merely a question of aesthetic taste?

These conversations happen in the comments. You said, by the way, dear CF, that you exclude the commenters in your analysis. As you can tell I’m incapable of doing that; I think the commenters are critical to Jezebel and what it’s become. The XX blog is a very different animal, I think, precisely because it doesn’t allow for that direct engagement between poster and postee.

I’m not sure Jez the blog is conscious of that tension, which is potentially a paralyzing one. I occasionally read AskMen to see what the menfolk or talking about. It’s instructive. There is no pretence that men are snowflakes; the site’s whole project is about subordinating your individualism to the demands of sex and money.

Jezebel wants to have it both ways, and that’s what makes it interesting and frustrating. Mainly, I think, because of the issue of “girl-on-girl crime”? Feminism was never about the absence of judgment. When I watch Bea Arthur as Dorothy (and I have been, lately, a lot), it’s her judgment that I admire. She is a judgmental character. Deeply flawed, but, like Judge Judy, sure of the moral and political codes that guide her decisions.

The chaotic kind of “right to choose” feminism seems to be emerging on Jez—a goodhearted, communal approach whose philosophical confusion derives, I think, from its unique mix of social life with political discussion. Politics and social worlds have never mixed well, as Emily Post and Miss Manners can tell you. Anytime an opinion is expressed about porn or sex work, someone crops up who works in the industry and the issue gets humanized, which is both interesting and problematic in a blog that’s as much about social identities as about ideas. The consensus to withhold judgment has the unintended effect, I think, of exploding any kind of generative code, be it moral, political, or otherwise.

Underlying the whole project is the terrible possibility of rejection. We are women, we are friends.  Even though we’re all unique and have different views. This is all well and good. It’s the tacit conclusion—let’s all be on the same side—that gets sketchy.

This gets back, I guess, to my objection to the title and concept of Slate’s ladyblog. Genetics is the least interesting and least intelligent selection principle for an ideological forum. What meaning does a club offer when the only criteria for membership is the possession of two matching chromosomes?

Fondly,

Millicent

One Response to Judging Jezebel

  1. Pingback: The Art of The Comment « Millicent and Carla Fran

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