On Friday night, a group of editors of websites for women met at the Housing Works Bookstore, in Manhattan, to celebrate the launch of The Book of Jezebel, an encyclopaedia of ‘lady things’ that is the first book inspired by the influential site Jezebel, and to discuss the current state of ladyblogs. Havens for everything from feminism to pop cultural criticism, ladyblogs have come to replace traditional women’s magazines as a platform of discussing female issues for a whole generation of women.
Kate Harding, co-author of the Book of Jezebel, and a veteran blogger herself, moderated the discussion, and began by asking if any of the all-female panel objected to the term ‘ladyblog.’ The store was packed with people, with latecomers sitting on the stairs or leaning against bookcases.
“There’s a lot of conversation, it always comes up repeatedly, about the ghettoization of women’s blogs,” said Jessica Coen, editor in chief of Jezebel. “But I actually have no problem with ‘ladyblog.’ If anything, I actually get tired of just the term ‘blog’, because I think what all of us do, our work is far more complicated than just your personal blog or LiveJournal.” Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel and co-author of the Book, didn’t think she ever referred to Jezebel as a ladyblog until someone else did. She accepted the label because “if someone in going to judge it based on that term and dismiss it, then they’re obviously not paying any attention to the journalism side.”
“We might have cultivated spaces that talked specifically about gender, as an entry point for other issues we wanted to talk about. But I do think fundamentally [that] we should work toward a media environment where you don’t need to identify as a ladyblog,” she said.
Asked if she identified herself as a feminist, Yesha Callahan, managing editor of Clutch Magazine, said that although she thought of herself as one, most of her readers were not—they are largely conservative and disapprove of single parents and homosexual relationships, she said.
“We want to be a progressive women’s site, but our readers are not that progressive,” she said. “You can’t make a site more progressive when your readers aren’t. I was shocked by the views of some of the women who write comments, leave comments. I was called a ‘whore sympathizer’ this week.”
While Holmes and Coen agreed that Jezebel’s audience is predominantly feminist, Coen said the site’s readership was very broad. “I certainly think there are people who come to Jezebel not at all for feminist stuff,” Coen said. “They come for the pop culture, they come for that style of writing, for the politics. But all of that is infused with the feminist viewpoint.” Ladybloggers shouldn’t be heavy-handed with feminism; instead, they should “slip it in there, so people don’t even realize that they’re reading a feminist website right away. I think that’s very powerful,” she said.
Harding also asked the panel how they dealt with comments. Amelia McDonell-Parry, editor in chief of The Frisky, said she avoided reading online comments and strongly encouraged all her writers to steer clear of them too: Negative comments were often more demoralizing than they were worth. Callahan said that Clutch has begun to ban certain IP addresses because a lot of men had taken to posting offensive comments on the site. (Yet the most bizarre Clutch commenter wasn’t male, but female: a white woman living in Belgium, clumsily masquerading as an African-American woman.) Lori Leibovich, executive lifestyle editor at Huffington Post Women, argued that not reading comments was essential to protecting a writer’s wellbeing. “As a general rule, anyone who’s writing anything personal, and if you use the word ‘I’ in your blog post, do not read the comments. Just don’t,” she said.
However, Holmes has read comments and was alarmed by the amount of personal information readers revealed about themselves. “I felt that oftentimes the commenters on the site didn’t realize that there were people reading the comments, who maybe didn’t have their best interests in mind,”she said.
Asked if there were any posts that she felt had unexpectedly taken off with readers, Coen mentioned Lindy West’s “How to Make a Rape Joke,” published last year. Prompted by comedian Daniel Tosh’s crude response to a female heckler, West explained why most rape jokes weren’t funny and demonstrated how to tell one properly. Coen said West’s post not only challenged the stereotype that rape was a dirty word, unfit for comedy, but also helped bring feminist conversation on the topic to a more mainstream audience.
Harding was also interested in how the editors balanced commerce with advocacy. Callahan admitted that Clutch featured both posts on natural hair and ads for perms, to the annoyance of some readers. Leibovich was resigned to the fact that The Huffington Post’s right rail—auto-populated with the most popular stories on the site—would occasionally feature a post on dieting, inappropriately close to a thoughtful Lifestyle piece on body image.
But Coen said she rarely had to worry about ads, because Gawker’s sales department understood Jezebel’s content. “What the problem is is when we put up content that advertisers are not pleased with, and they’ve already bought the site for the day. Our content stays. We don’t take anything down. So the advertisers will want their logos down,” she said.
Once Harding invited questions from the audience, the conversation inevitably turned to controversial Bleacher Report-mogul Bryan Goldberg and his new women’s site, Bustle. McDonell-Parry said she respected the women who worked at Bustle, but also dryly offered them her sympathies.
Holmes was even more blunt. Goldberg’s manner of launching Bustle “showed that he was self-aggrandizing, naive, [and] obnoxious,” and “was insulting to the dozens of women who I know who have been pioneering in that space for a very, very long time,” she said.
“It was the six-million-dollar mansplain,” Harding added.
Edith Zimmerman, founder of The Hairpin, said Goldberg seemed so out of touch that she wasn’t so much irritated as amused by his behavior, and that she felt sorry for him. Holmes replied that she had pitied him too, until she saw a photograph in the New Yorker in which he appeared to be using a woman as a table.
Another audience member asked about the role of humor in ladyblogs, particularly as an entry point into feminism for people who might not respond to more earnest advocacy.
“We were really explicit about using humor at Feministing,” Mukhopadhyay said, “because of the really annoying rumor that feminists are all unfunny. I think that irreverence is really important, because the day-to-day issues that we’re working on are so serious and so intense that it does require an ounce of humor to get through,” she said.
Holmes referred to Daily Caller columnist Mark Judge’s review of The Book of Jezebel, in which he blamed the writers’ jaundiced view of the world on ‘daddy issues,’ even as he acknowledged that the book was funny. “What I think is under a lot of the best humor is anger,” Holmes said. “There’s a lot to be angry about and annoyed about and frustrated by, particularly with regards to women’s status in the world, whether here or abroad. And that is where the humor comes from.”