Jezebel: Feminist, Gossip, Both?

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?

7 Responses to “Jezebel: Feminist, Gossip, Both?”

  1. Jennifer Jones says:

    You know, I was thinking about the status of Jezebel recently too, and I think it’s interesting that their response to Gawker’s Christine O’Donnell story yesterday does some explaining through their relationship with Gawker. They dispute the nature of the story and disagree with the promotion, but note that they also are compelled to link to it because they are part of a media group that knows “all too well” how internet interaction works (if I’m not off on my quotes). It points to me the negotiated nature at the core of the site’s creation. At the same time, I do think that Jezebel can include aspects of both feminism and gossip. I think that feminism and other kinds of critical political activities are fueled by the kinds of “unofficial” discourse that Jezebel trucks in. That kind of work can be financially profitable, as Denton has discovered, but also politically and culturally profitable, as plenty of its readers have found. It’s not perfect, but I think that the ways that readers can use the stories to spur more discussion and action can be useful to feminist goals.

  2. Annie says:

    Really wonderfully put, Jennifer.

    And I absolutely agree that the recent Christine O’Donnell coverage (and both Gawker and Jezebel’s relation to it) might help us parse some of these issues (or maybe simply muddle them more). But I’d recommend checking out Jezebel’s “Why You Care About Christine O’Donnell Getting to Third Base” for a good primer:

  3. Alyssa says:

    When you mention the other Gawker media writers who compose Jezebel’s “outright non-feminist” posts, are you referring to AJ Daulerio of Deadspin? He was a guest editor on July 5 and September 6. Here are a few links:

    I actually don’t think he’s that bad–while I recognize the inflammatory rhetoric, I feel like what he wrote was tongue-in-cheek. I didn’t think it was particularly funny, but it didn’t infuriate me either. (And, for the record, I am a regular Jezebel reader, but I’ve read probably two articles on Deadspin, ever.)

    As a feminist reluctantly interested in celebrity gossip, I read Jezebel mostly because its bloggers know how to write in complete, grammatically correct sentences and don’t say disgustingly misogynistic things like Perez Hilton or Michael K do. I think the Jezebel bloggers are feminists who write for a site that, yes, functions as a vehicle for Nick Denton to make money off of women (which is problematic). I think their occasional forays into territory more serious than, I don’t know, Katy Perry and Russell Brand’s wedding–forays like Irin Carmon’s campaign against Jon Stewart, for example–are, like Gawker’s attempts at investigative journalism, sensationalistic and often misguided.

    I don’t think that gossip itself is inherently non-feminist–people gossip, not just women. But I think that Jezebel’s brand of gossip does, despite the feminist leanings of its writers, traffic in the shame and judgment of certain women. I wouldn’t call it a feminist site.

    Are you aware of the Lizz Winstead debacle from a couple of years ago? This is just Lizz’s take on it, and I think she was pretty unfair to Moe and Tracie, but here it is:

  4. Annie says:

    This paragraph here — “I don’t think that gossip itself is inherently non-feminist–people gossip, not just women. But I think that Jezebel’s brand of gossip does, despite the feminist leanings of its writers, traffic in the shame and judgment of certain women. I wouldn’t call it a feminist site” — really encapsulates a lot of what I feel about Jezebel. I suppose the post above was trying to look for the more potentially feminist aspects of the site — which is why I termed it a “feminist gateway” — but I do think I have to agree with you that it’s not feminist.

    What do we think of the Denton ownership? Does ownership (and oversight) by a non-feminist (I don’t think that we can call Denton a feminist by any stretch of the imagination) automatically make it difficult for Jezebel to be feminist itself? As autonomous as it sometimes is, its very existence depends upon its imbrication within Gawker Media. Here’s where political economy within the media (and gossip) industry becomes really crucial as we contemplate editorial purpose and intended readership of media products that truck in gossip.

    And no, I hadn’t heard of the Winstead stuff — absolutely fascinating. Thanks for the excellent feedback!

  5. Charity says:

    Just anecdotally, Jezebel seems to me like a gossip site that attracts feminist readers. Because even if we’re commenting about the NCAA’s first transsexual basketball player, there’s still plenty of gossipy “OMG, can you believe she said that?!” And while this (and the dynamics with its owner) might mean that Jezebel isn’t truly feminist, I still think the site is quite a breath of fresh air. I used to subscribe to Bitch mag, but stopped when I realized that it just wasn’t fun to read. All them feminist bitches were too serious! But Jezebel bitches are hilarious and they make the issues more easily digestible. Because of that, I read more of their stories and, consequently, think about more feminist issues. I don’t comment on the site, but just reading the comments (even more than the articles) has helped me gain clarity as to the different approaches to feminism and what my own approach looks like. So, no, it’s not ideal, but, yes, it has quite a bit of cultural value.

  6. Heina says:

    Hugo Schwyzer doesn’t help:

    He wrote two separate pieces trying to make women feel bad for men who want to engage in sexual acts and proclivities that are generally considered a bit sketchy. While anything done consensually is fine, of course, the fact that he went to such great lengths to justify certain men’s desires to cum on women’s faces and watch “barely legal” porn makes many women uncomfortable. On top of all that, he admitted to nearly killing (and possibly) raping a former partner without ever being prosecuted for it. It’s “I’m a male feminist; I’m so special and thus immune to criticism” syndrome.

  7. [...] slut shaming–are things that it does in its celebrity coverage. (This has been written about already.) Perhaps avoiding the “feminist” label is just a way for Jezebel’s writers and [...]