I have always been obsessed with magazines, particularly women’s magazines. The boxes of them recently cleared out of my mother’s attic and my undergraduate thesis — on Cosmopolitan, Ms., and Playboy magazines in the 1960s and ‘70s — prove it. My feminist awakening was, like many others’, peppered with gateway drugs like that: Ariel Levy’s “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” the HBO series “Cathouse,” and, of course, Jezebel — the groundbreaking women’s website, which current owner G/O Media unceremoniously shuttered Thursday after more than 15 years, and where I worked from 2013 to 2017.
So in 2014, when I began to notice that, under the leadership of then-Editor in Chief Joanna Coles, Cosmo had been attempting a “rebrand” of sorts — one that read to me as a dog whistle for how little anyone, including some of their own staffers, seemed to have been paying attention to it before — I felt compelled to, as myself and my fellow former colleagues still say, “blog it.”
What resulted was a lengthy feature on the brand’s past, present and possible future. At the time, I had been working at Jezebel for a year and a half, and though I had already moved away from churning out, on one holiday shift when I was the only one on, 11 posts, this was the kind of thing you had to carve out time for at a site where we were consistently publishing 25 to 30 stories a day. Alongside mostly editing my colleagues’ work, I remember chipping away at it over months, and when it was published the response I got from its own leader seemed (to me) to prove my entire point: her tweeting that it was the “Longest piece every [sic] written about @Cosmopolitan!” Did she even take her own brand seriously? (In hindsight, no offense to my beloved editor, I’d agree it could have used a cut down.)
The idea of the dream job in women’s media had already been scuttled by “The Devil Wears Prada” years earlier, but I was living it, having somehow finagled my way into writing for a site that I loved so much my Gmail archives show I spammed my friends with links to it weekly soon after its launch in 2007. And though Jezebel did many things well, it did nothing deeper and more consistently than analyze media — particularly media that related to nonwhite men — in a world uninterested in demonstrating to a smart audience why they should care about such a thing.
For a brief period of time when I started my career, I thought I wanted to be a media reporter; I loved following the ins and outs of who had been hired where, and how that was changing such and such place. But soon I realized that I largely hated having a byline, and that media reporters largely sucked. As I wrote in a never published piece (you’re welcome) a couple of years later, media reporters “talk to the same circle-jerk of people, [and] they themselves become a smaller circle-jerk of people who jerk each other off on Twitter, [and] both are comprised of mostly white men living in New York City who then end up making grandiose pieces out of limited sources”:
For whom are they writing? They often appear to have no historical context for the company or sector they’re covering, churning out posts that are nothing more than rewritten press releases about the same hot properties companies, currently The New York Times, Gawker Media, Vice, BuzzFeed, Vox. It is quite clear they, whether they realize it or not, consider first and foremost their audience, as this breed of again, mostly white men, has gone from announcing that they’ve got a “scoop” on Twitter to downgrading things even less worthy of attention to “scooplet.” Whether the mass public is interested in the not even particularly deep inner-workings of a variety of companies that will likely not exist in 10 years, let alone 50, is unknown, but they are rarely given the chance to figure out if they should.
Luckily, the site I worked for was built on the backs of an idea that those comings and goings have real ramifications, that media literacy doesn’t have to be something we talk about like a vague concept, but something we practice every day — not that we often got much credit for it. The reproductive rights coverage no one else was doing as consistently; the photoshopping no one else would discuss; the diversity counts no one else would do the math on; the workplace injustices people at other places were rightfully too scared to speak about; the bodily honesty deemed too disgusting to mention. The Gawker Media sites understood that they were so captivating in part because they were the story — we showed what was behind the curtain, with the full understanding that not only was that entertaining — and, like much of what we wrote, often ridiculous and very funny — it was a disservice to our audience to treat them like they deserved anything less.
It’s rare to know something you were a part of actually mattered, but I know that Jezebel did: The world we live in would have been drastically different without it, not to mention that my life, personally and professionally, wouldn’t have been the one I enjoy now. In that piece about Cosmo I wrote that, “We can think of blogs like Feministing and Jezebel, then, like consciousness-raising circles: one hopes we reach a point where they’re no longer a necessary antidote to a flawed system, but simply a cohesive part of an improved landscape.”
I don’t know that we’re there, but we’re closer. And we knew something powerful then, too: We were the ones doing it.