by Jia Tolentino
It’s strange to edit a feminist website when almost nothing offends you, because the feminist website is traditionally imagined to run on offense.
This is not how we imagine it ourselves while we’re working. I’ve learned it slowly, watching strangers react. The model, I gather, is that of a factory, which ideally functions like this: (1) Feminists are full of ambient, legitimate discontentment because of generalized inequality—the wage gap, institutional discrimination, normalized sexual violence, etc. (2) That discontentment is then drawn to a headline on a feminist website like “Ohio Just Passed a Law Requiring Pregnant Women to Name All Fetuses ‘Ava Avery’ Before Obtaining Abortion” or “Look at This Dumbass Douche With His Ballsack Draped Over an LIRR Armrest.” (3) Within that article on the feminist website, the feminist’s discontentment is validated, essentially self-actualized—it gains a sense of greater purpose, is attached to an identity, and becomes that grandly pressing thing, offense.
There’s supposed to be a fourth step; the offense is supposed to go somewhere and do something. The Ohio law is blocked after wide public protest; the ballsack man (just one more point on the spectrum of all those men who think their ballsacks can go places they shouldn’t, am I right, she cried, burning in hell) is meekly and humbly shamed.
Of course, in practice, that’s not what happens at all.
This summer, at Lollapalooza, I got offended while talking to a man wearing a North Face parody shirt that said RAPE YOUR FACE. He was an objectively upsetting sight, just visually, but I wasn’t mad about it until the end of our conversation: I asked him if he’d ever raped a face and he told me, grinning, that I’d just have to find out for myself.
At that precise moment, I felt the offense mechanism kick in: the everyday occurrence of seeing something bad, plus the added condition of taking it personally. Fuck that guy! I thought, flushed with a sensation I experience maybe three times per year. I had tried to convey the fact that “RAPE YOUR FACE” wasn’t an abstract message; the guy jumped ahead of me, personalizing it with an invitation. I felt directly involved, which is a sensation that appeals to people in a way I don’t connect with. I don’t like the hit of that feeling, the self-enlargement, the heat.
The next morning, I wrote it up. The post was short and gentle, without commentary and without the man’s name. Still, it was a “get offended at this” post—a classic Jezebel category that I presume has always been overrepresented by virality and exacerbated by the problem of tonal register. There’s a large gap between “this is bad” and “you should be offended” that seems to vanish on the internet, and the harder we try to widen it on this website, the more we are constrained by that lingering expectation: that Jezebel exists, as some have always imagined it to, for the infantilizing purpose of telling women when they should get mad.
It felt like something adjacent to satisfaction to live up to that expectation for once. And it worked; people got mad; other websites picked the story up. The factory processed my offense forward to the final step, and then, as usually happens, it went nowhere. The rape-your-face guy did not, as far as I know, come to the understanding that his shirt was horrible. Presumably, his already considerable sense of alienation from and aggression towards women got deeper. For sure, his friends photoshopped dicks on my face and tweeted them at me for a week.
The offense factory model is the longstanding public conception of the feminist site’s broadest political use—“court[ing] pageviews with…easy indignation,” as Molly Fischer wrote about Jezebel in n+1 in 2012. As a formula, it relies on offense being viewed as politically valuable, a tool that will unite people with similar interests and make them do something other than type, complain, and type.
But at the end of 2015, it should be clear: offense doesn’t work that way. The offense model has failed, and dramatically. Women have a prominent voice in online media; feminism is a broad and verbally defended platform, and what has it all amounted to except a nightmarish discursive juxtaposition between what feminism says and what it is able to do? Pop stars preach female solidarity while reproductive rights roll back all over the country; we have politicized and vindicated every possible manifestation of female narcissism without getting any legislative movement towards mandatory paid parental leave. Feminism is proliferating essentially as merchandise; we can buy anything that suits us and nothing that we really need.
A deep frustration about this disconnect simmers. It produces, incorrectly, the idea that the solution is for feminism to be more tightly regulated. The old expectation lingers as the practices are changing: in theory, people still expect a feminist site to tell people what to be offended at; but what people seek from a feminist site is that the site itself will cause offense.
A website, like a person, can go about its day in a relatively unfettered fashion and still, when it matters, be confined within a larger frame. More specifically, as tends to happen with women generally, women’s sites are known less for the times they are quietly successful or respectably competent and more for the times that they have loudly fucked up.
Not counting the large audience of conservative people that we are constantly offending in a way that’s not worth thinking about, Jezebel has angered people three major times this year. All three posts I find instinctively defensible; two of them involved editorial decisions I’d classify as mistakes. The first was Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s post about Amy Pascal’s pube dye, the reaction to which the editors did not anticipate (that was our mistake); the second was the Zola story, which I wrote (my mistake here was to not blur Zola’s friend’s face immediately); the third was Sarah Miller’s personal essay about how much she hates maxi dresses, which I edited, and still think is great.
None of those posts were intended to get attention via offending people, but they immediately attracted the type of traffic that these types of posts do. Providing women all over the internet an occasion to distance themselves from some purported baseline, these offense posts are in a practical sense the “greatest hits” of feminist discourse; these three got 140,000, 410,000 and 200,000 hits respectively. (For comparison, the same day we published the Pascal post, we published an essay by a woman who is facing a decade of legal entanglement in Burkina Faso to try her rapist in court; it was viewed 67,000 times.) On Pascal, Zola, and Maxi Dress, we got hundreds of offended comments, dozens of angry emails; people wrote nice pieces on respected outlets about Jezebel’s poor editorial judgment and anti-pube, anti-sex-worker, body-shaming politics; others, nearly all liberal women, tweeted at me, calling me sociopathic, saying that we hated women, that no one respected us, on and on.