When Anna Holmes was tapped in 2007 to launch “girly Gawker,” as Jezebel was first billed internally, the idea was barely articulated beyond a focus on fashion and celebrities and the site’s association with the popular media blog’s network. “It didn’t really need to be spelled out, because at the time the main sites were known for going after the industries that they covered,” says Holmes. “They didn’t pull punches, and they sometimes went after the really big guys. [Sports blog] Deadspin would go after ESPN, [tech blog] Gizmodo would go after Apple. So it was implicit that a women’s site would not be a remake of Cosmopolitan.com. It would have a Gakwer sensibility, and be a bit scrappy.”
The idea was perfect for Holmes, who had worked at women’s magazines for years and had grown frustrated with their narrow and exploitative definition of women’s interests. “At Jezebel, we wanted to talk about the things women I knew were interested in, which were broader than fashion and celebrities–it included politics, and gender politics within pop culture,” she says. “I don’t think I ever put in writing my little secret hope that we would politicize the readers in the way that we ultimately succeeded in doing.”
Jezebel soon became one of the Internet’s most popular feminist forums, thanks to Holmes, her writers, and a community of commenters who deftly channeled a balance of anger, celebration, and serious discussion through a cutting, hilarious tone. Holmes left the site in 2010, but in addition to writing a column for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, she has been editing The Book of Jezebel (out Oct. 22), a 1,000-plus-entry “illustrated encyclopedia of lady things,” from Aaliya to zygote (full entry: “Too young to be a slut, so way more entitled to civil rights than you are”).
Fast Company talked to Holmes about the book, Jezebel’s creative inspiration, and the ways that a new generation of young women can embrace feminism through humor and pop culture.
FAST COMPANY: Jezebel injected fun and humor into an explicitly feminist enterprise. Was there any thinking around how that approach might have a certain effect, especially on topics that had often been maligned as humorless?
ANNA HOLMES: I don’t know that it was a conscious strategy. It was part of the Gawker way, which was to be snarky. So in a way we had to copy them in that sense. I appreciate humor and I think I have a good sense of humor, but I don’t think I express it that well. So it wasn’t like I’m the funniest person in the world, so we’re going to transfer it to the site–it was that we had to be funny, and some of the things going on in the world that we’d be covering were so absurd that there was no other way to approach them. But mostly it was the writers that I hired–really the first person I hired, Moe Tkacik, was very, very funny, as well as brilliant. I never said to her ‘You need to be funny,’ she just was. The tone that she adopted in her posts did strike a nerve and influence the other writers who came on after her. It certainly got a reaction from the readers. The site was a reflection of who we were. There was a period of time when I tried to edit them into one coherent voice, but we were posting 60 things a day. There was no way I had time to actually do that, and it was more fair and honest to let them speak in their own voices.
Because of that fact, I think in some ways Jezebel went a long way in making feminism cool again.
I think one reason for that, and I hesitate to use the word “cool,” but at least what I think made it more accessible, was not just the humor, but that anyone who was looking at the site would see every day, multiple times a day, that the writers and commenters were versatile, and able to pivot from talking about things that were very serious to things that were “superficial.” One minute there would be a post that was being snarky about a red carpet, and 20 minutes later the same writer would be posting about the 2008 election in a way that was perhaps humorous but also very incisive. So people were setting an example for one another that was very versatile, which is what women are. Which I felt wasn’t represented in other women’s media.
What were some of the observable effects outside of the site that you saw that approach having?
I don’t think I saw any at the time, or I’m not sure that I was willing to trust my intuition about them, like maybe I was seeing what I wanted to see. Meaning that it seemed to me that I was seeing more discussion of gender politics and feminism, or feminist critiques of pop culture in other media organizations, but maybe I’m just seeing that because I want to think we’re having an influence. Maybe they were there all along. But I don’t think that they were.
During the 2008 election when you had Hillary for awhile, and then Palin, you started to see a lot of shows like SNL and The Daily Show doing a lot more pointedly feminist content. And not to say they weren’t doing that before, but I think that was a period of time when that type of content was needed, and there was a hunger for it. I wouldn’t say that the site so much started something, as it came along at a time when people needed and wanted it.
Recently, Laura Hudson at Wired tweeted that “scrolling down to the comments section on any article about feminism is like deciding to go down to the basement in a horror movie.” How do you process and make sense of the often intense negative reaction to what should be productive discussions?
Well, we didn’t get that sort of backlash. The comments at Gawker were moderated very heavily, and anyone who came onto the site and tried to start shit would be very quickly mocked and banned. When you see that sort of stuff it’s on sites that normally don’t talk about those issues, or aren’t moderated, or are predominantly male, or some combination. We did sometimes have that problem if something we wrote got cross-posted to the other Gawker sites; but if they did that it was a losing battle. As for other sites, I honestly don’t read comments anymore. One thing the Internet did was underscore how many horrible racist, sexist people are out there. Maybe they’re just disproportionately loud, but if you’d asked me in 2002, “What percentage of the U.S. population is vehemently racist,” I probably would have said eh, 10%. If you asked me now, I’d say 40%, just based on Internet comments. That isn’t necessarily true, but that’s what it feels like.
In terms of the evolution of the effort to engage young women in feminism, the book takes the conversation offline. Why did the encyclopedia format feel like the way to go?
We wanted to do a book, and there were a couple of ideas that we had, and I like reference books. I mean, I wouldn’t call it a reference book that should be shelved in the reference section, but it’s not a fake reference book, either. It’s not a parody. The thinking was to take the sensibility of the site and distill it into a very un-comprehensive take on the world–and that was it. I think that most people who read it will be familiar with the site.
I know the tone isn’t scholarly and the entries are selective, but there is a lot of critical information in there on feminist topics and people–I could see it being used by a particularly savvy high school teacher.
Really? I would kind of love that, but it would also make me kind of nervous, because that’s an extra level of pressure. Someone tweeted at me they’d love to use it in one of her classes, and I said well please read it before you do, because it wasn’t designed for that. And she said it could be a good entry point, and it’s true it could, just as the site was a good entry point for people into discussions of issues that perhaps are talked about in much more nuanced ways in other places.
I was picturing baseball cards for each of the women mentioned in the book, sort of a feminist dream team.
That would be awesome. You never know, I hope it sells well, but if they ever decide to do something ancillary that would be a great idea. Collect ‘em all, like Garbage Pail Kids, but not. They’d come in packages with a tampon.
Do you think there are new technologies, forums, or other opportunities that will change the way some of these issues are discussed, sort of the way Jezebel did?
I think you’re seeing these conversations happening on places like Twitter and Tumblr for sure. But I also think I’m seeing them more in film and pop culture, television. That’s not a new technology, but segments on things like The Daily Show,, or Lena Dunham’s show [Girls,] or The Mindy Project, or Orange Is The New Black; I feel that the appetite for these conversations is now being somewhat more sated by more traditional technologies like TV. There’s definitely a lot more room for it–it’s just kind of the beginning of that. There was a woman who used to do a series of videos for Current TV’s website named Sarah Haskins, who would make parody videos of the various ways that women are marketed to. And she got very popular; we would put her videos up on the site all the time. Now she’s one of the creators of a show that I’ve heard is very good called The Trophy Wife. I haven’t seen the show, but I promise you that sensibility is part of that show, because of her background, what she’s known for. So you have someone who was using newer technology, that is to say a five-minute online sketch that then got posted to blogs, that made her more famous, and then she got a TV writing gig.
So it’s people who were using new technologies to have these conversations that then gave them the opportunity to move into more traditional platforms, which is still advancing things because they’re getting a bigger audience.
Yes. And someone like Lena Dunham who was making short films online, then made a feature film, and then got a TV deal.
Speaking of traditional platforms, other than your column for the Times’ Sunday Book Review, what are you working on next?
Publicizing this book is my focus right now, and once that is done I will figure out what my next full-time job is–I will take or create one.