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TEDx: “The birth of Jezebel”

Anna Holmes recounts her frustrations with women's entertainment publications

Daring to escape the comfort of a steady paycheck from the largely male-dominated industry she had come to know and disdain, Anna Holmes left her work with women’s magazines to begin the feminist blog Jezebel.

Tycho McManus/Staff Photographer

Holmes moved from a small town in California to New York City when she was 18-years-old. She said she felt contempt for her hometown and its demographic; that and her interest in writing encouraged her to make the move.

By 2006, she had worked with magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, Star and InStyle. According to Holmes, these publications both supported her financially and disappointed her morally.

“Just like when I was a kid, I had this nagging feeling, this kind of ever-present unhappiness and frustration. Except this time it was professional and not personal,” Holmes said.

Holmes explained that her work in the women’s magazine industry eventually brought her to hate it, referring to it as “cynical” and “phony,” though at the time she saw no way of abandoning it.

“Almost every female writer I knew at that point, and I knew a lot of them, had worked or was working at women’s magazines,” Holmes said. “Women’s magazines … were where we paid our bills, but also where we damaged our souls.”

According to Holmes, the message being sent by these publications were simple: Sex appeal demand is sacred, marriage and motherhood are paramount and every celebrity engagement ring or baby bump should be accounted for and analyzed.

“I can laugh about this now, but the fact of the matter is that these messages were being journalized by millions and millions of young women and many of them young enough that they didn’t know, or remember, that there was once a world that didn’t so aggressively or explicitly scrutinize the female body or a woman’s marital status and use it as a barometer of which to measure her human worth,” Holmes said.

She said she remained complacent with her place in the industry until she was approached by another female writer with the idea to start a women’s website with Gawker media, an online media company and blog network. At first, Holmes rejected the proposition.

“What if it failed? I had a steady job at a successful magazine … I got a regular paycheck deposited into my checking account every two weeks, I had health insurance, I had a 401(k), I had access to a company cafeteria,” Holmes said.

After a decade of disappointment, Holmes decided to go along with her friend’s idea and began Jezebel.com in 2007 to use pop culture as a gateway to address larger issues from a new perspective.

“Rather than patronizing or dismissing female interest in mass media and pop culture as a complete distraction or a waste of time, we’re going to use it as an opportunity to make points about the status of women in contemporary, Western society,” Holmes said.

Holmes went on to say that she wanted to provide tools, examples and opportunities for women with which they could approach the world differently, instead of providing for an industry that feeds off of insecurity.

“Maybe, just maybe, more young women would be willing to embrace, or reclaim, both the idea of feminism and the word itself,” Holmes said.

According to Holmes, it was anger and opportunity, not ingenuity or idealism, which allowed her to “stray the course” and pursue her dream of inspiring new thinking in readers.

Holmes said that Jezebel allowed her and her staff to translate their feelings of disappointment and disgust with the status quo into a shelter for likeminded individuals.

“Feeling like you’re on the outside looking in, whether that’s because of your economic class, or your racial background, or your sexual or gender orientation, or your political views, provides you with a way to see the world with fresh eyes,” Holmes said. “I promise you that someday, no matter how uncomfortable those feelings get, they will serve you well both personally and professionally.”

Q&A

Pipe Dream: What was the driving force behind creating Jezebel?

Anna Holmes: My frustration with women’s magazines both as a person who has worked for them and as a reader of them. I felt that they were patronizing young women and what young women’s interests are. I think that young women are interested in clothes and romance but they’re interested in a lot more than just that. It was basically me feeling that there had to be a space for other sorts of discussions, and I couldn’t be the only one who thought that the sort of stuff young women were being given and taught was subpar.

PD: How would you define the modern feminist?

AH: I don’t think there’s any way to define the modern feminist because I think that feminists are very different and they’re not monolithic. I think that young women, young feminists, tend to be using the Internet and social media as a way to organize, as a way to communicate, put across ideas — which is different than say 20 years ago … so that they can find people more easily than let’s say women of my mother’s generation could. But I’m not able to make any generalizations about modern feminists other than that they believe in the political and social and economic equality of the sexes. I think in the feminism we see now that there are people who are trying to bring in discussions about sexual orientation and race more strongly than they did in previous generations, so that’s a way that it feels more modern than contemporary — is that a lot of feminist thought is being informed by how women who aren’t white and upper-middle class experience the world and experience the world as women.

PD: How did you come to identify as a feminist?

AH: I always have. I was marinating in it from birth. I never thought it was a bad word, but I grew up in a feminist household. I didn’t grow up in an environment where it was considered to be a bad word. I know that a lot of women do grow up in that environment and I’m not even necessarily saying that they grew up in homes where that is taught to them, but that society, historically, has been very dismissive of, or has made stereotypes about, what a feminist is which are completely bunk.

PD: How do you usually respond to the negative stereotypes associated with feminism?

AH: I don’t really encounter them that often. I mean, if I encounter them it might be in the comments sections of some story on the Internet or on Twitter, and my way of dealing with that is to ignore them because they’re so dumb as to not even be worth commenting upon. I do get annoyed when people in positions of power, public figures, further those stereotypes. But I’m not sure that outrage against that person is the best method of counteracting that sort of stuff. I think perhaps calm disagreement is a better way of reaching people who still seem mired in stereotypes and clichés.

PD: What are some of the greatest obstacles that the feminist movement is facing right now?

AH: I don’t know if these are obstacles that are new, I think that they are obstacles that have probably been there as in any social justice movement. There is a lot of critique, circular critique, that I don’t always think is the most productive. I think that we should be fighting people who want to take rights away from women rather than fighting other feminists. I think that outside of feminist conversations, the biggest hurdle that feminists have to deal with is this continued assault on women’s productive rights in the United States, and the turning back the clock on access to safe and legal abortion, not to mention contraception. I mean it feels like we’re living in a different century sometimes when you read the news. Some people think that abortion is a fringe issue but the ability to control your reproductive health, the ability to control when and if you have children, is very much tied into your ability to control your life, to control your economic circumstances, to control how you move about in the world. They’re all connected. It’s not about women who don’t want kids, who are selfish … it’s about deciding when and where to have children if you want to have them at all and be able to control your economic destiny, which is true freedom. I get annoyed when people, outside of feminism, suggest that abortion is some sort of fringe issue. It’s very much tied up with female freedom and agency and being able to control their destinies.

PD: Do you think trans-awareness is a feminist issue?

AH: I think that you can make the argument that feminism isn’t just all about women, but about equality for all and the intersection of all those social justice movements, so whether that is anti-racist work or activism on behalf of trans people … I think my answer would be yes. Do I think that it is the most pressing feminist issue? I wouldn’t say that, but I also don’t know what I would say is the most pressing feminist issue right now other than perhaps … reproductive rights. But I do think the trans issues are being talked about by feminists, I think they’re important … that people have a struggle with trans issues because they like to be able to put people in boxes. I think that the people both within feminism and outside feminism are only now beginning to learn how to talk or think about trans issues. I think a lot of people don’t have the vocabulary for it or the literacy for it, including myself. I’m not saying that I’m completely ignorant about it but I’m not an expert about this certain stuff.

PD: In your time working at Jezebel, did you ever take your male audience into consideration?

AH: No. I really didn’t care about them. The thing is, there was part of me that was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that there were guys who were reading it, but men had been tailored to in every arena in the world and life for long enough … especially in media. Even women’s media was about women tailoring themselves to be attractive to men. A lot of it was always about men when it came down to it. I couldn’t really care less. Again, when I discovered that there were men who were reading the site I was happy to hear that because it meant that they felt it was a space that they could enter as well. I didn’t want it to be unwelcoming, but they were something that I just wasn’t taking into consideration at all. People would complain and say, ‘why don’t you have any male writers?’ and I’d be like, ‘because there are male writers everywhere else.’ I don’t need to have a quota of men speaking out on the site. If they want to say stuff they can send me emails or put comments in. I was totally disinterested in what guys had to say about women or women’s media or feminism. And maybe that sounds harsh but I really was not interested.

PD: You said you no longer run the site. Do you do any work with it still?

AH: After I quit from running the site, I agreed to do a book that was branded to the site … that came out last fall so I did publicity for that. But I don’t run the site anymore … I don’t have any sort of input into what goes on there which is fine, because the thing is it was a very exhausting job and the reason I had to quit was because I was burnt out. It was not sustainable. I look at it as a reader from time-to-time. I like to think that some of my DNA is still there, but I’m not actively involved.

PD: How do you feel about the direction Jezebel has taken since you’ve left?

AH: I don’t think that it’s stayed the same, I think that it’s gotten bigger and perhaps more commercial since I was there. But I can’t speak about that with any sort of authority because for a long time after I left I wouldn’t look at the site … for my own protection. I’ll put it this way: When I ran the site, I’d go on vacation for two weeks, I’d come back, and inevitably they would have published something that I would find annoying. It wouldn’t be a major fuck up, but I was such a control freak and a micromanager about everything — the headlines, the pictures, the text — that when I wasn’t around I would inevitably be annoyed. So when I quit, I knew that I would probably get annoyed by things they did just because I wasn’t running the show anymore. It still talks about feminism, maybe not as much as it used to. If I thought it was hard to run that site when it was four million readers a month, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to run it if it was 11 million readers a month which I believe it is now. So I believe it’s grown quite a bit in the past four years.

PD: Who named the site, and why do you dislike the name of the site?

AH: The owner of the company named the site. I think he wanted something that would feel “subversive,” the idea of reclaiming a word that was used as criticism at women. The reason I didn’t like it was because it felt very obvious. It would be like naming the site “dirty whore dot com.” To me it just felt too obvious, and I think maybe I just don’t like the word; there are just some words you don’t like … there’s something about the way it rolls off your lips that gives me the heebie-jeebies. Obviously it’s a memorable name and it has some resonance, but I never liked it.