Jezebel: Feminist, Gossip, Both?

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I am a regular at Jezebel — it, like so many of the sites within the ‘Gawker’ Empire, is a good source for links, often funny, and has pretty pictures. The columnists are smart, even if necessarily a bit reductive. The site is easy to navigate, headlines are snappy, photographs of elegant and beautiful women from across the world, celebrities doing weird/endearing things, and odd fashion statements are in abundance.

Sometime last summer, I was lucky to happen upon the blog of Erin Meyers, , who recently finished her dissertation on celebrity gossip blogs and now teaching as a post-doc at Northeastern University. Erin was kind enough to share her dissertation with me, and it includes a treasure trove of data from focus groups on how people *actually use* — not how scholars think they use — gossip blogs. I was surprised, however, when I saw Jezebel on the list of gossip blogs she analyzed — I thought Jezebel was a feminist site? Sorta? Maybe? But not gossip!

Obviously, Erin’s right — Jezebel covers gossip, mixed with a bit of third wave feminism, and, well, it most definitely is a blog. The full title of the blog is, after all, “Jezebel: Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women.” I just thought of it as a more of a feminist glossy magazine transferred to the web and a lively comments section thrown in for good measure. And I suppose that’s probably Gawker founder Nick Denton’s approach: this isn’t a feminist magazine, nor is it purely a gossip blog. It doesn’t want to be sold in the web equivalent of feminist and independent bookstores, but it also doesn’t want to hang out with US Weekly in the glossy supermarket section. It’s a hybrid, meant to attract educated, liberal, literate women who are feminists, but not radicals. Who like to look at fashion and gossip, but within an intellectual or ironic context. Who like sex but don’t like submission, who wear push-up bras and high heels but don’t think of them as oppressive.

But is it really feminist? Some have termed Jezebel post-feminist, but I don’t think that’s the case. Like Angela McRobbie, I understand post-feminism as the idea that society has reached a point where feminism is no longer necessary. Arguing about and agitating against oppression — whether in the form of lower wage rates, body politics, whatever — is a waste of time, because that oppression doesn’t really exist. It’s just something that feisty women make up in order to be mad about something, and it really cramps other womens’ style. This is most definitely not Jezebel’s editorial philosophy.

Now, I do think that Jezebel is an expression of a certain strain of feminism espoused by young, educated, liberal, middle- and upper-class women who believe they can mix interests in fashion, celebrity, race/gender/sex/class inequality, sexuality, oppression, body issues, human trafficking, making the world a better place for young girls, you get the picture. (If you’re interested in the different strains of feminism, and why they simply can’t seem to get along, I cannot recommend Susan Faludi’s recent Harper’s article on the age divide and “ritual matricide” in contemporary feminism highly enough).

I’d guess that the women who regularly read Jezebel are a mix of self-identifying feminists (men and women) and people (men and women) whose beliefs align with those of feminism, but not label themselves as such. The majority of these women might not belong to other feminist organizations, although they may read other clearly-labelled feminists sites, such as Feministing, Feministe, or Bitch.

Or they might not read any of those sites, and be more of the type of reader that is led to Jezebel through other Gawker sites (Gizmodo, Gawker, Deadspin, etc.) or clicking on links from friends featuring celebrities doing sassy things.

After reading the fascinating profile of Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, in The New Yorker, I’ve been thinking about how Denton’s purpose with Gawker was to build a media empire that demanded that people read it, talk about it, know it. He wanted it to be the place where other writers had to go to, even if they hated it, when they woke up in the morning. (Sometimes I feel this way about TMZ). In recent years, he’s also changed the way that he measures traffic to the Gawker Media sites — instead of counting the number of page views, he goes for UNIQUE page views; he wants new eyeballs, not simply people who come back over and over again to comment.

So how does Denton’s philosophy relate to Jezebel? Over the last year, Jezebel has been at the center of several controversies — for calling out Jon Stewart for not employing enough female writers/staff, for refusing to take down before/after Photoshopped pictures of Jennifer Aniston on the cover of Marie Claire. (The Photoshop issue is, without doubt, Jezebel’s hobby horse: see #photoshopofhorrors and their editorial on “Why You Must See Unretouched Images, and Why You Should See Them Repeatedly.” But does a smattering of attention make it must-read?

No, but I do think it helps drive new eye-balls to the site. Ultimately, the difficulty with labeling Jezebel is that it does not want to be labeled — if it was purely feminist, purely gossip, purely fashion….it would receive far less traffic than it does. And while it’s keen to cultivate a group of loyal readers (soliciting reader advice in #SocialMinefield and #Dresscode, what it really wants is pieces to get linked, go viral, spread beyond the Jezebel community — either through cross-posting on another, decidedly un-feminist Gawker site, or through your own Tweeting, Facebook sharing, emailing, Tumblring, etc.

So here’s the thing: to modify Marvin Bell, Jezebel is not feminist, exactly; it is feminist, inexactly. It lacks an articulated feminist agenda. It doesn’t even have feminist in the title. Sometimes, especially when taken over by a (male) editor of one of its “brother” sites, it can be outright non-feminist. (For some reason, I can’t find evidence of these posts — please post below if you find them). But I do think that its writers are feminists, and much of the content, and political and social content in particular, is decidedly feminist, if we define feminist as writing and thinking that works towards a more gender- and sex-equitable world. And people (including men and women, young and older-ish) who wouldn’t otherwise come to a feminist site are led here, through Denton’s linking matrixes and readers’ work, and exposed to ideas, opinion, and rhetoric that they might not otherwise seek on their own. And if they’re compelled by this material — and the promise of more pictures of smiling Jon Hamm — they might come back, read more, become part of the community, be led to other, more explicitly feminist sites.

Is Jezebel a feminist gateway? Does it hook readers with gossip, fashion, and celebrity photos and sneak in some feminist thinking? Or just a way for Denton to make money off of women?

I really don’t know the answer to question. Feedback is needed, readers. Please assist. Like Jezebel, I’ll promise a pretty celebrity photos (and analysis) of the celebrity of your choice.

Postscript: After publishing this, I realized that there’s a fundamental dilemma posited even in the title of this post — can gossip be feminist? Or is the generation discourse about other people — and women in particular — often with the intention to shame, judge, or disdain, inherently non-feminist? Can there be such a thing as feminist gossip, and if so, is that what Jezebel is aiming for?

Contemporary Fan ‘Magazines’ & Digital Interactivity

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Note: This post starts where the yesterday’s on Classic Fan Magazines and Analog Interactivity left off.

Part of what I liked about Orgeron’s article on interactivity was the very application of the term to behaviors so distant from what we consider ‘interactivity’ today.  In other words, fan interactivity — and even agency — are now ascribed to those who log hours on Discussion Boards, who rally together to save beloved television shows, whose interest is (sometimes) authenticated through actual changes in television narrative, who write fan and slash fic and distribute it within international digital communities.  Interactivity has also taken on a connotation of immediacy — you can voice your displeasure with a scene by logging on to the show’s website while you are watching; you can reply directly to a celebrity’s tweet within seconds using your own Twitter account.  Digital engagement and interactivity is NOW.

Today’s analog fan magazines – the actual paper magazine that you pick up at the store or receive in your mailbox — contain a large amount of the same interactivity that characterized the classic fan mags.  Letters to the editors, polls, second-person address, advertisements that hail the consumer and ask her to judge herself and others.   They pale in comparison to that which I discussed in my previous posts, but such features exist nonetheless.  With that said, such analog interactivity is so 1992.  Today’s gossip industry (and version of fan “magazines,” also known as gossip blogs) has taken interactivity to new level.

For gossip blogs such as Perez Hilton, the form of the blog itself invites commentary.  As I think about it, I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere as concerns Perez Hilton: fan comments provide a public platform for readers to voice their opinions quickly and often; while Perez does not engage commenters, the existence of the forum — mostly uncensored — has provided a site for dedicated readers to engage in prolonged discussion of both Perez and the minutae of the celebrities on whom he posts.   Perez often concludes a gossip bit/story with the question “What do YOU think?”, explicitly encouraging feedback and implicitly validating their opinions. Below, for example, the typically opinionated Perez defends Jersey Shore ‘star’ Snooki, ending with ‘Thoughts?’

Over the last year, Perez has implemented social media tools — the ability to Facebook ‘Like’, Retweet via Twitter — increasingly present on all information sources (including this one).  I don’t want to suggest that reposting a story is a means of interactivity, but when the story is reposted with commentary, the user is obviously interacting with the item…and inviting others to do so as well, either on Perez on via Facebook comments, Twitter replies and retweets, etc.

The analog publciations – People, US Weekly — have cultivated their websites into havens of interactivity, putting them in convergent conversation with their print forms.

The Fashion Police solicit response  – and offer immediate feedback.

Reader-response to a picture of Angelina Jolie:

Readers ‘deputized’ as gossip-getters –

The interactivity at Lainey Gossip is a bit more subtle — and rarely referenced by Lainey herself.  In fact, the largest form of response comes in the form of Lainey soliciting emails and comments from her readers — not to be posted on the actual blog, but so that she can gage reader sentiment.  In fact, she refuses to open up comments sections on posts — it invites a space for hate, and if you’ve seen a Perez comments section, you’ll see that she’s right.  She does periodically publish hate mail, and when I first posted on my own experience with Twi-hard hate, way back last fall, she linked to my post as a means of showing that Twi-hate is by no means exclusive to her.  She opens every day with ‘Smutty Shout-Outs,’ where readers email their congrats, love, hopes, etc. for others (for example, someone can say that their friend is having a rough time and needs pictures of The Gos, Hot Harry on a Horse, etc.)  She also periodically replies on Twitter and through email — or at least she has to me (has she to you?)  I suspect that the gesture towards interactactivity, depicted below, is just that — a gesture.  It’s certainly very rarely integrated into the gossip posts themselves; she talks about her freebie-five all the time, but certainly doesn’t end each discussion with “go post your own for all to see in the space to your right!!”

Ultimately, the biggest gestures towards interactivity are far more personal than the bigger, more conglomerate sites.  See, for example, the recently published pictures from the Smut Soiree — where readers mingle with Lainey.  (Speaking of which, attending the Smut Soiree is totally going to be my Ph.D. graduation present from my best friends.  Just sayin’.)

People, US Weekly, and even Perez and Lainey are, in many ways, aping the success of TMZ, which encourages interactivity at every turn.  The TMZ style is characterized by garishness (both in aesthetics and general rhetoric) and oddness (submit pictures of you grilling!).  For myriad reasons, however, TMZ receives more traffic than all of the aforementioned gossip sites combined.  Whether the opportunity to interact is part of that allure — well, you can tell me if you’ve submitted pictures of yourself grilling, or phoned in a tip, or voted in a ‘who’s hotter’ poll…..(in all seriousness, please tell me if you have).

Soliciting reader opinion on the Mel Gibson case — can he be forgiven?

(And offers you a chance to ‘live chat’ about it…)

Interactivity ‘puzzles’ — an old National Enquirer trick.

Bestowing readers with power over the site itself :

‘Who’d You Rather,’ a regular TMZ feature (with poll results below)

So how is this different than the analog interactivity described in my last post?  I want to argue that what has fundamentally changed is the idea of us, as readers, having any sort of sway over Hollywood or celebrity culture.  Part of this disconnect can be linked to general celebrity indifference — long gone are the days when a star would ‘write’ an article in direct response to fan sentiment.  And even though celebrities cultivate an aura of authenticity around their official online interactions — on Twitter, on their websites, etc. — there’s still very little sense that our interaction on a gossip site will change the way that Hollywood, the gossip site, the gossip maven, or celebrities in general will behave, dress, etc.  And while I think that Twitter has reintroduced a modicum of belief in the power to speak directly to and receive communication directly from the celebrity, it remains a relatively nascent phenomenon.

I also think that there’s a broader understanding of celebrity culture as a machine — an industry unto itself — and thus far more immune to the complaints and suggestions of fans, however univocal their protests may be.  In other words, those who are interested in celebrity gossip are more cognizant of the celebrity as a product — of the machinations that go into image creation, of the fact that celebrity gossip itself is entertainment — and less likely to believe in celebrities as actual humans open to suggestions.  [I'm not suggesting that everyone was inveigled by the star system during Classic Hollywood, but the illusion was much more easily tended, and thus all the more easier to believe].  When someone comments on one of Perez’s posts, it’s not because she’s under the illusion that the celebrities featured in the post will actually read it — rather, it’s a means of voicing her opinion about the celebrity (and what he/she stands for) and engaging in dialogue (sometimes ethical, other times certainly not) with others.  Similarly, acting as ‘fashion police’ on the US Weekly site is less about you policing the actual star and more about policing women’s choice of fashion in general, and what you believe is and is not appropriate (or beautiful, or fashionable) to wear in public.

Does this ring true?  Let me know your own experiences with interactivity — and how you think it’s different than the analog interactivity cultivated in the past.