The Book of Jezebel: An Interview with Anna Holmes
I was excited to speak to Anna Holmes, the founder of Jezebel, for many reasons. Jezebel is a site, like Hello Giggles, which has a distinctly female point of view. They appreciate and get girl culture, they don’t shy away from how complicated it is to be a woman and they’re on top of it when it comes to the rights and wrongs we as women experience every day. And Anna started the site, and was its editor. Anna has recently put together what I consider to be an encyclopedia to being female, The Book of Jezebel, so I thought it would be a great time to talk to her about feminism in general. The first thing we did when we sat down to do our interview was watch Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here” video. I really wanted to hear Anna’s thoughts on it. We got together the morning after Lady Gaga hosted SNL, and I really wanted to hear what Anna had to say about that performance, as well.
So you just watched two very extreme videos. Let’s start with Lily Allen’s “Hard Out Here”.
I get that she was trying to go for a certain point. I know there were some critiques of the video with regards to the dancers and being women of color and being sexualized— sexualizing themselves, her sexualizing them—I was not impressed with that. I think if she was trying to make a comment or commentary on Miley or whoever that it failed because it didn’t come across as a joke to me and it made me uncomfortable watching it. I can understand if there had been one shot in the video where the dancers were being sexualized and then perhaps you see them again and they have more clothes on and they’re not being sexualized. But because they kept going back to it over and over and over again it didn’t seem like a joke anymore. It actually seemed like it was…
Yes, serious, and I don’t want to use the word exploitative, but problematic.
I really like the lyrics in the song. Lily Allen is putting out a really good message; she’s talking about women being objectified and not having to be a size six.
Yeah the video started off in an interesting way and went downhill from there. Like the opening scene were she’s getting lipo’ed or whatever and is talking back to her manager, I was like, okay, this could go somewhere interesting. And then it went somewhere bad. I mean, she undermined her own message; the visuals undermined the message of the song basically.
And so we just watched Lady Gaga’s performance on SNL of the song “Do What U Want”, which she sang with R. Kelly. So what did you think of it?
I don’t know why Lady Gaga would choose to be seen with R. Kelly in public. I don’t follow her career well enough to know whether she’s collaborated with him before or if she has a history with collaborating with problematic pop culture stars. And I don’t really have a problem with the message of the song, like “do what you want with my body.” Okay, fine. I mean I’ve heard worse, even decades ago. Maybe it’s because I’m just becoming an old person, but I felt it was kind of gross. Like she put her hand on his groin at one point, and she was allowing him to feel her up all over the stage; it just seemed they were trying to be provocative for provocation’s sake to sell records I guess. I was grossed out by that. I’ll put it this way: I was disappointed when I saw the Lily Allen video, but with Lady Gaga’s, I was like, really, you guys are boring. Think of something more original than the male-pop-star-rubs-the-female-pop-star. What did you think of it?
It was weird and uncomfortable. And the audience was not into it. And I didn’t like the message she was sending.
Usually when Lady Gaga’s outrageous, she’s outrageous in a way that feels a little bit fresh. And that was an outrageousness that felt totally ultimately typical, like standard for pop culture: let’s sexualize the female. It felt like it was beneath her. I was kind of surprised she agreed to do that.
The breaking point for me was when she got on top of him.
I think the breaking point for me is when she’s kneeling in front of him or squatting in front of him. From the TV viewers’ point of view, it looks like she’s simulating going down on him; you kind of see her move her head back and you could see her hand was on his groin. And I’m like, what are you doing? Maybe I’m just a prude, but I don’t think so. I don’t know, maybe she feels she’s not selling enough records. I mean, I don’t know, it felt very cynical to me; it felt like it was a cynical thing for her to do.
What do you think on how women are represented in pop culture today?
I have a lot of warm feelings towards women in pop culture. I don’t have a lot of warm feelings towards singers, women in the record industry. That, I think, would be interesting for someone to kind of look back at the history at women as portrayed by the record industry and compare it to other pop culture genres and if there’s a difference. Is the record industry more exploitative and gross in regards to women than, let’s say, movies? I’m not willing to make that argument, but I don’t feel great about music. It might be part of the reason why I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music just because, at least in regards to women, there aren’t compelling personalities or songs. I tend to be stuck in the ’70, ’80s and ’90s. I stopped paying attention to the music industry as I got older, I think, because a lot of people experience music through videos. When I see videos, a lot of them are just… even when the artist is a male, it’s about sexualizing the woman in some way over and over and over again. That kind of eye candy quote unquote, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I feel better about the representation of women on TV, and in movies, absolutely.
I agree with you. I think there are certain artists that fight the whole performing that way—like Taylor Swift. And these music videos, they change my views on the female artists that I listen to, respond to…
Really, like what?
Like with Lady Gaga: I used to think she was good at representing a good image of an empowered woman, and then last night changed everything for me. And you know, Miley was a Disney star who became an adult in front of our eyes and she broke out of that good girl image, which I’m okay with.
Again, there’s an element to that that feels very pathetic and cynical on their part. Like in the news the other day, she was onstage in Europe at the MTV Europe awards smoking a joint—they were in Amsterdam so it’s legal, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like someone sat down and said,“What’s the most shocking thing we can get away with?” And they’re just going through the list: sexualizing dancers, slapping them on the butt, smoking pot, simulating oral sex. I mean, it feels so unoriginal. Actually, I don’t feel disappointed by Miley Cyrus because I never cared about her one way or another. I think if I’d been following her career, I might be. You know, there’s a way to announce that you’re a grown up or shift your career from being a child star to an adult star and that’s not the way to do it, to be taken seriously. Maybe she doesn’t want to be taken seriously. It’s possible if she’d done something that was more intelligent, she would have gotten people talking, too. That said maybe she just doesn’t.
So for people who don’t know Jezebel, can you explain what the site is?
I’ll answer about how when I was running it. People could expect to read posts—I hesitate to call them stories, I call them posts—about what the writers of the site and myself the editor were interested in. Anything and everything young women are interested in. That said, a certain type of young woman. We were not putting up stories that had a Republican point of view. We were very unapologetic of having a certain point of view that was very left-y progressive and feminist. So it wasn’t things that every young woman wants to talk about, but just trying to reflect that there’s a diversity of interest among women that we didn’t feel was being reflected in women’s media before that.
Why the name “Jezebel”?
I did not pick the name. It was chosen by Gaby Darbyshire, who was the COO of Gawker Media for many years. I did not like it, and had a hard time using it when describing my job/what I did for at least a year. Obviously, eventually I came to accept it but it was not a favorite—it felt too obvious, in a way. The accompanying image was chosen by the designer, Patric King, who designed most if not all of the Gawker Media sites— the color scheme, font, avatar/image were all his decision. I wanted to have a number of rotating avatars of women of different ethnicities/appearances, but Gawker Media was not interested in doing that (probably too much money or too much work).
How did you start Jezebel?
I was asked to start a women’s site for Gawker Media and that’s the one I started. They basically wanted to do a women’s site and I had worked a lot for women’s magazines and I was frustrated by women’s magazines. The sorts of stuff we had to write, like how to get a guy how to keep a guy ….
I hate that kind of stuff.
… how to lose ten pounds in 30 days, yada yada yada. I was very frustrated by that. And I had read Sassy when I was a teenager and they weren’t like that. I just felt so fond of the idea of a less insulting women’s publication. We just wanted to do something that was smart. A lot of the Gawker Media sites tend to be sites that go after the big boys. So, for example, they have a site called Gizmodo, which is about technology. Gizmodo likes to go after Apple, whereas other tech sites are like, “Oh, Apple’s the best!” So it would make sense that a women’s site would go after bigger entrance into the women’s media space. We started critiquing women’s magazines all the time. The site doesn’t do that as much now because the point was made but for the first couple of years we always we always harping on and making fun ofVogue and Glamour and Cosmo especially because that was the worst offender.
I know. Every time I pick up a magazine for teens, it’s horoscopes and blah blah blah. There are these two girls, YingYing Shang and Alice Walker who did the Teen Mag Makeover and for one month, they did everything the magazines told them to do. And they documented it. Like, bump into a cute guy! Whoops!
Oh, no. Well, the problem with those magazines whether they’re teen magazines or whether they’re for older women is that they give advice. Here’s how to deal if you have a crush – and the thing is, nobody knows anything! If you need advice about something, you should do a couple of things: you should look within yourself, you should ask a trusted friend or relative, and you should go with your gut. A magazine writer can not give you advice on what to do in your life. They just can’t unless it’s something really obvious like, what should I do if my boyfriend is being horrible to me and being mean to me all the time? Well, then, my advice would be would be break up with him. But that’s kind of black and white and cut and dry. More nuanced stuff, magazines shouldn’t be giving advice on at all, ever. That’s another thing we never wanted: to be giving advice on the site ever because I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe we knew more than anybody else about how to get through life.
Exactly! I mean, magazines try to act like they’re the experts!
And no, they’re not!
Right. Like, with teen girls, there are things you have to experience and learn from so you can have that knowledge in the future.
Yeah, I think where teen magazines and women’s magazines can be helpful is when they provide facts. Here’s some information on human sexuality or here’s some information on what to do when you get your period. But when you start getting into advice or opinion, readers need to tune out.
None of them really talk about feminism and girl empowerment. There are plenty of awesome sites that do that, but a lot of teen girls I know have subscriptions to magazines like Seventeen and Teen Vogue and stuff. I haven’t seen an article where women are in power, like, “Ask a guy out – don’t wait for him to do it.” I read an article where Liam Payne (from One Direction) agreed with Seventeen magazine that it should always be the guy that asks the girl out. I was like, are you serious? So, what’s your definition feminism?
My definition of feminism? It’s a very boring answer, but it’s the answer I always give. My definition is the dictionary definition of feminism, which is “the social political and economic equality of the sexes”. I do not think it’s a dirty word. I never thought it was a dirty word. I’ve never hesitated to call myself that because I grew up in a household where my mother was an unapologetic feminist just like yours. I was aware that some people might have a problem with the word or might be uncomfortable with it, but I didn’t understand that. I was always just like, what’s your problem? It’s a pretty uncontroversial stance to take. And as for why teen magazines and why you’re not reading empowering things about young girls or women or feminist stories is… well, I don’t know why they’re not doing that. Women’s magazines have been influenced by the internet and are starting to have more of that sort of content. Glamour and even Cosmo, who has a new editor, are starting to be more explicitly feminist. I wouldn’t call them feminist magazines, but they have more content that nudges in that direction. So maybe teen magazines will follow or maybe someone has to start a new teen magazine!
Yeah I would like to see that happen. So, who are some women we should be paying attention to?
That is a great question. Women we should be paying more attention to, hmm… I should go by genre. I wish, for example, like in film, directors like Nicole Holofcener or Kimberly Pierce were more famous. Maybe they don’t want to be. Maybe they’re perfectly happy making the very good movies that they make. I think they’re fantastic and send great messages in terms of female characters. In terms of actresses, I think that’s a littler harder for me because the whole thing about actresses is that you don’t always know what their politics are because they’re always playing a different role unless they talk about in magazines. In terms of comedy, you have someone like Mindy Kaling…
Or Amy Poehler.
There’s a new show called Trophy Wife which is done by this woman called Sarah Haskins. Sarah Haskins came from the internet. She used to do these webskits called Target Women and she would make fun of the way women are marketed to. And now she has a TV show on ABC, she’s the creator! I would say it’s very progressive in terms of its treatment of women and the main female character. So I’m excited about them in terms of writers and performers. Well, I’m excited about you, as well…
You’re a performer and a writer of the younger generation. I love my friend Irin Carmon, who used to be a writer on Jezebel and now she’s on MSNBC. She does really great stuff on abortion rights.
I know you love NASA.
And so Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted some stuff about Gravity, which takes place in space.
I love Neil DeGrasse Tyson and I actually enjoyed Gravity. If he has a problem with that, that’s fine. He has every right to have a problem with it because he’s an astrophysicist. I really adore him. He is the best. He was my Twitter avatar one month, like an old picture of him when he was in his 20s. I have a major crush on him. I didn’t love the movie but I liked it because I like space. The interesting thing about the movie is that she succeeds in the end, right, but she succeeds because a guy helped her. And that was a little bit annoying. But I’m not going to take sides on the Gravity versus Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Actually if I was going to, I would probably take Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s side just because I’m obsessed with him.
So I want to talk a little bit about The Book of Jezebel, which you edited and have just published. And there are a lot of entries. I wish I could ask you about every one but I’m going to ask you about just two. You have this American Apparel ad, and the headline reads “How Is Your American Apparel Model Feeling Today?” and it includes nine shots of the same image with a different emotion as its caption. Why did you do this?
We were trying to make a point about American Apparel that is visual. So we took an ad. So this image is from an actual American Apparel ad. And we got the same font. Often times, the models are asked to have vacant faces and no personality. Everything is about them being sexual objects, not who they are as a person. You don’t actually need her face there, you know? Because it’s all about this part of her body, which is very frustrating. So we thought we would put a picture of an American apparel model and then by using these different emotions or feelings, underscore the fact that she’s just being presented as an empty vessel by American Apparel, as are most of their models. She could be 3 or she could be 17. The site has gone after American Apparel and their advertising for a long time.
Yeah, like my mom hates American Apparel like so much for that reason. I have mixed emotions on American Apparel. And the thing about their clothing is that it’s good quality, but all of their shirts are form-fitting, which some teenage girls love because boys like that. I have a lot of shirts from there and the clothes are form-fitting on me, so I have to wear a sweater over my shirt.
Yeah, I have tons of before I really realized what a problem I have with them. I used to buy their underwear—they have these little boy shorts and they were comfy and they didn’t ride up your butt and they weren’t sexy they were functional. I feel really bad about it but I really like them but I don’t want to spend money on little boy shorts .
So on page 98, you have a whole page devoted to Euphemisms For The Word “Female.” I really like this page. Why did you include it?
First, we did all the entries in the book. Then I had to go through all the entries and we had to have stuff that would break up the entries. So when I got to the word female on the list of actual entries, I was like, okay, why don’t we do a sidebar of euphemisms for the word female? It would underscore just how many euphemisms there are. There aren’t that many euphemisms for male. It’s like male, dude, guy, lad. A lot of them are not loaded words. The euphemisms for male are kind of straightforward but they’re not sexualizing or undermining the very idea of manhood, whereas a lot of the female euphemisms are doing just that: they’re considered to be insults or they’re patronizing or they’re sexualizing.
Thank you, Anna. Thank you for starting Jezebel, putting the book together, and speaking with me!