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Jezebel and the demise of ‘hot mess feminism’


Jezebel and the demise of ‘hot mess feminism’

It’s not just that the tone of the writing was uniquely Millennial. The way people consume media has changed, too. Readers no longer need a “middle woman.”

In a bizarrely ahistorical but otherwise engaging article for the Guardian, Moira Donegan eulogized the now-defunct website Jezebel, which shut down last week.

For Donegan, Jezebel was re-radicalizing: a desperately needed revival of feminism, restyled for the Information Age. In Donegan’s eyes, Jezebel’s sensationalist first-person essays, known at the time as “clickbait,” were tantamount to radical feminist consciousness-raising. Alongside websites such as xoJane and Feministing, Jezebel showed a strong commitment to woman-first politics and ushered in a new age of feminism.

Or so Donegan claims. With its death, she writes, we are witnessing the end of feminist media itself.

It would be compelling if only it were true.

Like its peers, Jezebel wasn’t exactly the beacon of activism Donegan seems to remember it as. Jezebel was the corporatization of something we’d already seen in the blogosphere. Finally, the feminist websites we’d already been following on LiveJournal, Xanga, and Blogspot had enough reach to start a real conversation.

It was also, infamously, one of the first websites to take advantage of accusing people of being “problematic,” whether that meant “fatphobic,” “transphobic,” or just plain old “misogynistic.” For the longest time that was more a tactic of its notoriously toxic comments section (xoJane’s wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, either) than the contributors to the site itself. And while Jezebel is best known, on both the right and the left, for its role in the rise of the most toxic elements of wokeness, that isn’t an entirely fair characterization.

Mostly, like other websites at the time, Jezebel’s primary goal was to drive click-through traffic. In fact, it was Gawker Media’s “highest generator of page views,” which is saying something if you remember the kind of stuff that Gawker used to publish.

Its writers accomplished this in a number of ways: the Jezebel-to-Twitter pipeline, its vicious comments section, its speculation about the penis sizes of various Disney princes, and, of course, its salacious sex stories. If Jezebel was a pioneer of outrage bait— which indeed it was, and this did not go unnoticed by feminist critics at the time, either — it was also a pioneer of “hot mess” Millennial feminism. You know, the often woeful oversharing about one’s sex life and vices that became such a staple of the once-popular confessional essay.

Anna Holmes, Jezebel’s founder, euphemistically described this tendency as a “remarkable new openness.” (It’s also worth noting that Jane Pratt’s Sassy reboot, xoJane, would go on to sprint, with both out-there guest contributors and full-time staff like Cat Marnell, where Jezebel only walked.)

Was this “remarkable new openness” really “feminist” though? That’s anybody’s guess. Is strip-mining not only your own personal life but the personal lives of others for $50 and a chance to kick-start your career as journalist turned personality “feminist”? You tell me!

I wouldn’t compare it to consciousness-raising, as Donegan did, but maybe that’s what it was. Casting light on the unsavory parts of womanhood so we’d all feel less alone. The ad revenue and 15 minutes of e-fame were added bonuses.

Thus, with the confessional essays promoted by Jezebel, we saw the birth of the not-quite-a-journalist culture commenter personality. To me, this will always be Jezebel’s real contribution to the world of digital media. Not wokeness.

In a way, the rise of the personality over the journalist — the personalities who were uniquely attention-grabbing and not known for their mastery of the craft or uniqueness of their stories, like Tom Wolfe — is what killed sites like Jezebel and let social media thrive. It’s not just that the tone of their writing was uniquely Millennial. The way people consume media has changed, too.

Some websites have persisted, like the one you’re reading now. But we’re one of the lucky ones. Gen Z isn’t going to blogs in the same way that Millennial readers once did. They’re coasting off vibes from platforms like TikTok and Instagram, picking up ideas from a confluence of different people and sources, or they have a handful of individual personalities they subscribe to.

And they no longer want — or need — a middleman. Or, in the case of Jezebel, a middle woman.

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