By Melanie Eng/UW News Lab
Seattle Town Hall was abuzz on a recent weeknight with talk of feminism, Internet trolls, and the best way to respond when someone calls you a “lesbian shit ass” for standing up for women’s rights.
Leading the discussion, held Thursday, November 8, were two of the most influential (virtual) voices in modern-day feminism: Anna Holmes, founder of smart, wildly popular lady blog Jezebel.com, and Lindy West, fan-favorite contributing blogger and former staff writer for The Stranger.
As Holmes and West took their seats on stage, audience members eagerly clutched their Starbucks cups and yet-to-be-signed copies of The Book of Jezebel – a snarky encyclopedia of “lady things,” written by Jezebel.com contributors and released in October. West assured everyone that they were in for an “informal” discussion, gesturing meaningfully to the Dixie cup in her hand.
“They want you to think there isn’t real table wine in here,” she said. “But there is.”
The discussion began on a light-hearted note, with Holmes and West taking turns reading entries from “The Book of Jezebel” in alphabetical order. Entries ran the gamut from Marie Curie and Jennifer Aniston (“unwitting homecoming queen of tabloid culture”) to knockers and shrill (“misogynist for ‘a woman just said something’”).
“ ‘Offensive,’ ” read West with obvious delight. “One, what misogynists think feminists think everything is. Two, misogynists.”
One excerpt even defined the mythical “vagina dentata” of urban folklore, which immediately prompted a debate over the pros and cons of having a set of teeth between your legs.
“That would be pretty cool,” quipped West. “But does that mean I’d have a vagina where my mouth should be?”
This balance of goofiness and sobriety, peppered with a healthy dose of sarcasm, has become Jezebel’s signature over the past eight years and continues to draw more than 38 million global viewers and 2.6 million unique visitors to the site each month, West said.
Victoria, a 21-year-old gender studies major, said she appreciates Jezebel’s funny, relatable approach to women’s issues.
“I like that they cover women’s rights in a way that’s not saturated in academia,” she said.
Holmes created “Jezebel” in May 2007 after working many years at traditional women’s magazines (Glamour, Star and InStyle among them) that she felt were one-dimensional to the point of vapid.
“Everything was about men, clothes, sex, all with a permeating level of misogyny,” she said.
So when a friend asked her to collaborate full-time on a new “girly gawker site,” Holmes leapt at the chance. She spent the next three and half years – plus every last ounce of her time, energy and sanity – creating an outlet that would appeal to female readers without marginalizing or talking down to them. (Burnt out from too many 18-hour work days, she eventually left the site in 2010 and is now a columnist for The New York Times Book Review.)
The result was an entirely new brand of women’s media: one that delivers astute social commentary on real issues without cutting out the juicy stuff. Articles analyzing rape culture in America and factory worker abuse in Bangladesh appear right alongside op-eds about the elusiveness of the female orgasm and the dangers of “muffin penis.”
And it works.
Mike, a 35-year-old “male feminist” who came to the event as a long-time fan of West, said Jezebel’s diverse scope of coverage is why he keeps reading.
“It’s always titillating,” he says. “It’s a fun intersection of politics and race and scatological stuff.”
Of course, a media outlet that aggressively (and sometimes controversially) tackles “taboo” issues like rape jokes and racial appropriation is bound to have a few critics. Some are well-known, like Jon Stewart of the Daily Show and former Happy Days star Scot Baio, whose wife infamously called out the publication for being “a bunch of lesbian shit asses” after they re-posted an unflattering Tweet of Baio’s.
Others are nameless iron-pumping bro-trolls who, according to Holmes and West, frequent the site’s uncensored feedback forum, emboldened by the LED barrier separating them from the victims of their cyber abuse.
But according to West, the blog’s high level of reader engagement does more than just enable trolls – it also facilitates the creation of a strong, loyal fan base that isn’t afraid to “put haters on a virtual pyre.” In fact, she said, allowing her Twitter followers to “take care” of Internet trolls in precisely this manner is the most gratifying way to deal with abusive feedback.
West is a popular target for virtual malice thanks to her high-profile status and proclivity to write about the stickier issues. She recalls one particularly disturbing encounter where a commenter called her “fat garbage” and announced that “it would’ve been better if [her] parents had beaten [her].”
“It’s a scary place,” she said about the Internet. “People will try to destroy you. But you have to stand up for what you believe in and never apologize for it.
“People get tired of reading my tweets [about feminism and rape culture],” she continued. “But, like, sorry. I’ll shut up about it once it’s fixed.”
Holmes, who doesn’t believe blogging or tweeting can ever equate to real activism, concedes that this kind of take-no-prisoners Internet advocacy still has the power to promote social change. And that gives her hope.
“There are a lot of men and women online talking about feminism and racism where there wasn’t five or six years ago,” she said. “I can’t quantify the [feminist] movement in any real way, but there is momentum.”
Melanie Eng is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.