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?



Ladytalk: Slate’s XX Factor Can Suck It

Dear Millicent,

As I bet you know, Slate revealed XX Factor yesterday, its lady blog, with the tag line “What Women Really Think.”   The tag line irks me.  It reminds me of some scotch ad from the sixties, where a sultry woman has an eyebrow raised at a man in an ascot holding up his drink.  It suggests that one needs an answer to that messy mystery of “broads.”  And then it alienates–either men are the audience for the blog b/c they desperately (or at least, when their partner is mad at them) want to know the answer–or the thinking women are showing all the other women what Women are thinking.  They shout for the whole crowd.   Am I overthinking it?  I should check the blog and find out.  It also reminds me of YM, but with YM, I would have read it like the bible and thought “oh, so this is what we are thinking!”

There has also been critiques of the site on Feministing, Broadsheet (who interestingly makes all the ladyblogs into a big neighborhood where certain houses (Jezebel) get TPed),  and Jezebel which is where I first heard about the site.   They call particular attention to a string of ‘Feminism is dead” stories that the site launched with, meanwhile promoting goo-gah essays about the importance of Betty Friedan.  XX Factor wrote a response to the critiques, Jessica Valenti pulled this quote:

Susannah Breslin writes:

Apparently, if you launch a website for women in 2009, the most important question is whether or not it’s feminist. At least, that’s what you’d think, judging by today’s launch of the women-oriented website you’re reading. Only, the funny thing is, I thought feminism was dead. I mean, didn’t we kill it already?

She then goes on to hope that the XX Factor is bigger than this.  This interests me because:

  1. It seems as if three to five years ago there were a handful of sites that came forward and decided to offer content that was for women but not about mascara or models.  They built their readership based on unique formulas of gathering news about women’s issues that weren’t fully presented in all media outlets, and displaying a strong likeability by putting the real girl in the narrative (ambiguous, disgusting, vulnerable, tenacious, full of work and worry, and fucking smart).
  2. These sites (for me, I found Feministing first, and then Jezebel, and a little Bitch PhD), built a loyal readership who snarked and said “hey, she’s just like me.”  They have challenged the need for tabloids and fashion mags.  They sometimes do a better job of both, and for free.  They also don’t insult us (I’m leaving the commenters out of this).
  3. Other, larger sites realized they were missing something (I could be wrong, but one could argue that Feministing is the grand honcha of this blogging style), and wanted in.  Like any heightened element of culture, the idea was shined and softened and presented to a larger audience.  Broadsheet and XX Factor seem like this part of the cycle to me.
  4. And, now, an editor thinks it dumb that the feminism identity matters.  Perhaps they want to bring on the audience that is afraid of feminism, but likes smart conversation.  The audience that thinks feminism is only for the irate and itchy.  This seems adolescent and poorly thought out to me.
  5. A pet peeve of mine is when a celebrity that kicks ass is asked whether or not they identify as a feminist, and they say something like, “well, I’m all for women, and humans, but I’m not a feminist.” Even my beloved Kate Winslet, and It girl Sarah Haskins have done this.  Why can’t one of them say “Yes. I am a feminist, and if you know somebody with a uterus, you should be one too.” Which is what I honestly want from all my blogs, and magazines, and friends, and family.  I want the New Yorker to say, of course we are feminist.
  6. And what I mean by this is–feminism isn’t divisive.  Would Kate Winslet say she was a humanist? Probably? Would she publicly support civil rights? Probably? It is a label that shouldn’t need the pause.
  7. Why do so many of the smart sites for mature ladies insist on using pink and purple so much? Is it to announce that is is for ladies and by ladies? Kudos to Broadsheet for going light on the pink, and to Jezebel for going whole hog with hot pink.
  8. This all boils down to the fact that I think XX Factor has made a mistake.  Their font is pink.  They are shirking feminism like it’s something only the needy or angry would cling to (just like the solo kid in highschool that proclaims all couples as stupid), and they are trying to seem likeable by talking about Kate Gosselin’s hair.  They are trying too hard in all the wrong ways.

And, brava to  Feministing and the other blogs that were out there trailblazing all this so well that we now get to argue about these things, and watch as the cool thing that everybody wants to mimic and sell isn’t pokemon or tight pants, but a forum for engaged and real discussion about women’s issues.