No Offense

No Offense

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.

The “woman-hating from a so-called feminist site” line of criticism has been attached to Jezebel since the beginning. The motion of the criticism itself tends to be valid and valuable; what surprises me every time is the weight attached to this criticism, the sense of actual offense, the personal investment, the damningly fatalistic idea that feminist ideology itself, as well as every woman who believes in it, is threatened if a women’s website makes a misstep or mistake. (The sense that the label will only invoke a grading rubric—not a gimme, as it is for others, but a gotcha—is one of the reasons why Jezebel, to the long-standing dismay of some readers, hasn’t explicitly self-identified as a feminist website; I’m calling it a feminist website now because we are described that way nonetheless.)

I have criticized Jezebel myself in the past: I wrote a piece at The Hairpin in early 2014 about the Lena Dunham photoshop bounty, which did not strike me as offensive as much as it did ideologically transparent. I didn’t like it, but it did not occur to me for a second that a blog post at a website that generally corresponded with my politics could actually have the power to sully those politics, or meaningfully put them at stake. That piece was edited by Emma Carmichael, who hired me at Jezebel later that year.

Criticism exists for its own sake, while offense has larger goals—to extract an apology, to shore up moral superiority, to browbeat the offender into changing her life. Fischer’s n+1 piece documents a 2008 incident where Tracie Egan Morrissey and Moe Tkacik were called on the carpet for saying some off-color things at a comedian’s live show. She writes:

Egan and Tkacik made some efforts to defend themselves: they were drunk, they were caught off guard. Basically, they wanted to be women and speak without necessarily speaking for women. Their online bravado had looked like it might be some brash new face of feminism. After a certain point, though, their rebellion seemed to be demanding the right to not be taken seriously.

Or perhaps what they were demanding the right not to be representative, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. It is possible to believe in your own politics and not expect other people to echo you. It is possible, perhaps necessary, to think you are right without needing anyone to agree. It seems like something that anyone would want, as a person, as a feminist, as a person who works for a feminist website: to not have your work’s purpose identified by other people as predicting and adhering to a large, messy, multivalent crowd’s idea of what is correct.

Let’s say a feminist site fucks up occasionally; so do feminists. Let’s say even that the site is frequently unpalatable; that seems reasonable in a world where every human is a nightmare to someone else. To me, the obvious conclusion from everything that is annoying on the internet is that the stakes of representation should be much, much lower. But we are trudging through these wild storms of approval and disapprobation on a failing hunt for consensus; we are worshiping and trying to locate a mirage.

Some of the most “offensive” things that have been written about me on the internet stem from my defense of Lena Dunham, who, ironically, may be the person most offended at Jezebel out of everyone in the world.

You may remember that, in 2014, some maniacs tried to drum up the idea that Dunham was a child molester based on the way she describes touching her sister’s diaper in her memoir. I wrote several times about how I disagreed with this, which caused a few fringy right-wing men to clog up my SEO with articles about how I love child rape and child rapists and rape in general almost as much as I love Lena Dunham, my presumed role model and ideological twin.

I think this is fine, and almost funny, for the same reasons that I think it’s fine and almost funny when people tweet that I hate women: (1) it’s not true, and (2) it seems unrealistic to think of other people’s opinions as strictly my business, even when those opinions are about me. But, in light of the clammy men’s rights tenacity with which I’ve been tied to my defense of Dunham, it was quite annoying to hear her describe Jezebel like this on a podcast at Re/code:

I used to read Gawker and Jezebel in college and be like, “I can’t wait to get to New York where my people will be to welcome me.” And it’s like, it’s literally, if I read it, it’s like going back to a husband who beat me in the face — it just doesn’t make any sense.

Dunham later apologized for this statement with a dinosaur cartoon on Instagram, captioning it with the statement that “[The internet has] allowed for so much magic. But also makes room for so much hate and a new kind of violence. I’m not the first to say it. I shan’t be the last.”

She was certainly not the first to label a blog post as “violence,” and at this rate of overly figurative word usage, she surely “shan’t” be the last. There’s also no question that Gawker and Jezebel are staffed with combative people who may not aim for cruelty but occasionally achieve it through our steady love of rudeness, or that both sites have both gone over the line on Dunham, too. Gawker outed her rapist; Jezebel called aggressively for her unretouched Vogue photos. On the other hand, Gawker also defended her against the National Review; both sites defended her (three times on my byline) against the allegations that she was a child abuser; both sites have also written legitimate criticism of her treatment of race and her opposition to sex work decriminalization.

I’m not sure I’d read Jezebel if I were Dunham, either. But there are several kinks in the rhetoric surrounding Lenny, Dunham’s newsletter, which has Jessica Grose, early Jezebel alum, as editor-in-chief. In an interview with Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed, Grose said:

The internet feminism conversation can be very circular and limiting and exclusive. And it saddens me to see that a lot of the competition is about saying “you’re not feminist enough”: trying to kick people out of feminism rather than bring them in. And Lenny is an opportunity to say, “There are many different types of feminisms, and we can work together.”

You can see the submerged truth in here—the understanding that if there is any consensus to be built in feminism, it must necessarily incorporate dissent. But “feminists are bad when they say other feminists are bad” is an extremely convoluted idea. So is “we’re going to be better than the bad feminists by being inclusive of all feminists, except whoever does not fit our definition of what a good feminist is.”

This line of thinking is too complicated to be useful or even regularly put to use in the real world, where feminism often seems much simpler: a matter of being aware of inequities, of accounting for them, of letting people be. But on the internet, the idea that feminism requires careful, crowd-conscious positioning is dominant. The idea also hovered around two of the most popular woman-centered books of last year: first Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist—the primary intellectual weakness of the woman-centered internet can be summed up as “we love Bad Feminist but we hate bad feminists”—and then Lena Dunham’s memoir itself, which insightfully crystallized one of the largest cultural trends of this decade with its title, Not That Kind of Girl.

The essence of this type of thinking is negative self-definition: the delineation of political identity by what you are not. This is not new, of course, but it’s exacerbated by the internet, which revolves around brand-building and feelings of superiority and incentivizes the public, repeated, politically decorative combination of the two. (Actually decorative, on occasion: $46 at Lenny’s new online store will get you a tasseled banner that reads “FEMINIST,” and for $46 more you can preface it with the word “STAUNCH.”) In other words, it’s easy to look around at this unappealing buffet of identity and establish who you are by deciding first who you don’t want to be. It’s easy to say you are Not That Kind of Feminist as if that were sufficient to establish What Kind of Feminist You Are.

The avowal of something does not instantiate it. Is that as obvious as I think? Fervent support for a political position does not automatically translate into any meaningful gains. The failure of the feminist offense factory to result in much else other than better TV and extremely woke 12-year-olds should be sufficient proof of that.

Contemporary life means being hyper-aware and worse off than ever; we are increasingly shut out of the mechanisms of representational democracy and simultaneously being forced to know more and more and more. We know many rape kits are backlogged in all the big cities, how many black teenagers have been shot by the police this year, how shamelessly the NRA pulls its levers, how corporate campaign finance ensures that the wealth gap is here to stay. And we can’t change any of it—or at the very least, not very easily, not when it’s so much easier to sit around and get very precisely insightful online.

And so, there is an unspoken, horrible idea that contemporary political activity starts and perhaps ends with building a really good politicized identity—a process that, again, relies on disapproval, disaffiliation, offense. As tired as the Jezebel-as-offense-factory expectation is, we still get a constant stream of emails asking why we haven’t stated our outrage at one thing or another, telling us that not taking umbrage will weaken our general stance. Offense masquerades are seen as so politically useful that there’s a whole subgenre of rhetoric centered on offense taken hypothetically. What if this post were written about a woman, we conjecture, in the light of our own self-approval. Would you still be offended if the clock had been a bomb?

What? And yet this system of loaded identity formation is impossible to get around on an internet that is socially mediated, where instead of receiving ideas, we receive reactions to those ideas first. Then, further, we are encouraged to react to—to approve or disapprove of—other people’s reactions. This chain of reactions doesn’t do anything; our opinions are useless. But we are so very interested in them, because we are incentivized to be. Social media’s conceptual home base is personal identity, constructed via opinions—it’s your face and whatever you disapprove of, more or less.

So we say who we are by announcing what offends us. We prune our personal stances into intricate dioramas; we call these stances an identity; we call it all action, maybe even progress, where some are concerned.

The feminist dream of being unconstrained by other people’s opinions has been replaced, for the feminist website (and I think, for individual feminists), with a noose of daisy-chained ideas from people who don’t even have the decency to admit they find it more politically productive when you’re wrong than when you’re right. I can’t think of an obligation that feminism ought to have lifted faster than the obligation that a woman construct her life around agreement—and yet, this year, it seems like this is exactly what many people understand feminism, within its own sphere, to be.

In 2015, feminist discourse sought agreement and not-so-secretly craved internal strife. A quick way to prompt backlash was to be a woman who claimed to center other women: newly branded feminist Taylor Swift took a hit over her obviously self-promotional “squad” machinations; Broadly earned some empty fuss over their winking tagline (“for women who know their place”); Vanessa Grigoriadis was slammed for her Nicki Minaj profile in the New York Times Magazine, her writerly distance reinterpreted as racial hatred.

This confusion is inevitable for a movement that was founded on disagreement but appears, deceptively, to have achieved consensus. While feminism is still at significant odds with patriarchal discourse, it’s been normalized into a parallel track, a viable selling point; it is centered in popular vision and somehow evaporating into the air. And so we come to imagine that the problem is one of marketability. We center feminism around palatability, inspiration—female-dictated obligations descended directly from male-dictated obligations that women play nice and look lovely and agree.

In 1970, in a piece of music criticism, Ellen Willis wrote about the danger that feminists would “shore up the very system that punishes them.” In that piece, she wrote, “What disturbed me about both brands of women’s culture music was that it was so conventionally feminine.” The two brands she’s talking about are folk music—intimate, communitarian, rhetorically loaded, insular—and slick, conventional pop. Willis took the sum of it: “It seemed to me that too many of the women’s culture people had merely switched from trying to please men to trying to please other women.”

I wonder how long we’ll be able to read that sentence and still be able to imagine that it was written yesterday? (Around the same time, Willis also wrote about what’s lost when “violence is robbed of all concreteness and becomes a metaphor for a larger, and seemingly inexpressible, set of feminist concerns.”) In a way, the bind Willis wrote about in the aesthetics of music has even gotten worse. She presents two parallel options: slumber-party sensitive feminism, or widely appealing, conventional feminism. The current expectation, maddeningly, is that feminist ideology will somehow adhere to both. It’s supposed to be hard and soft, all-inclusive and heavily patrolled. Approval of women is feminist, disapproval of women is anti-feminist, unless it’s disapproval of the wrong kind of feminist, in which case that disapproval is the nexus of feminism itself. It is a wasteful trap that this dishonest positivity has come to seem essential.

Willis wrote, in another essay called “Feminist Radicalism and Radical Feminism”:

One typical feminine strategy is to compensate for the humiliation of sexual “inferiority” with self-righteous moralism or asceticism. Whether this is rationalized as religious virtue or feminist militance, the result is to reinforce patriarchal values. As I see it, a psychoanalytic perspective is crucial to understanding and challenging such self-defeating tendencies in feminist politics, and for that it is anathema to feminists who confuse the interests of women with their own unconscious agenda.

The unconscious agenda dictated by the internet is to value only what speaks to us directly, to approve only of what corroborates our ideals; to never upset people, to write for approval; to create an identity based on who offends you; to govern your conduct with the goal of being admired. This passes, remarkably, as what’s good for feminism. I can’t imagine anything worse.

Decidedly unhelpful in this dilemma is the fact that the internet visually flattens the peaks and valleys of importance; the platforms we use every day make all ideas look more or less the same. A tweet about something you care about deeply is the same size as a tweet about something you’ll never think about again; engagement shoots on Facebook sit next to death announcements, vacation photos, self-promotion, obvious cries for help; a joke post on this site takes up the same amount of space as a meaningful piece of reporting, and it’s all swept away every day.

In this environment, it’s not just the case that all concerns seem inaccurately equal, but that everything personal seems equally political, too. In the context of feminism, this is particularly counterproductive. Feminism’s promise should ostensibly be that of de-politicization, but its effect has been the opposite; everything about a woman’s life has been politicized to the point of fragile veneration.

This has been one of the most casually alarming things about working at Jezebel: tracking the idea that period stain photos should be allowed on Instagram not because they’re unremarkable but because they are beautiful; the idea that we shouldn’t report on a much-lauded entrepreneur’s questionable business practices in the interest of protecting and “building up” young women; the idea that if women appear on a rude yet accurate list of unintentionally onanistic tweets, as a few did last week, it must be because Gawker Media doesn’t like women who like themselves.

There is an extremely bad undercurrent in this delicate line of thinking that suggests that women are both weak and precious enough to require this—that (unless we are bad feminists, of course) we should be theoretically protected from harshness as a class. There is a growing inseparability between female narcissism and feminist liberation and female identity full stop; there is an idea that women and women’s bodies have to be sacred, treated worshipfully or never mentioned, in order to be worthwhile. There is an idea that every woman is vulnerable enough to be shamed by anything, and that she is also incapable of doing anything (except for being a bad feminist) that should cause her public shame.

It has been interesting to negotiate this editorially. I am overwhelmed with the sense sometimes that what people want from a feminist website is what we seem to want from women generally, what women have learned to want from themselves: a trick mirror that carries the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault.

What I want, in front of this mirror, is a de-escalated agenda. I want to see my flaws as they are, no more, no less. I could stand to care a little more when people disapprove of Jezebel, or, more specifically, to believe that my words and choices signify more than I want them to. I wonder sometimes if—in what I think is a sincere political desire to decouple consensus and representation, to detach both obligations from the feminist writer—I am doing exactly what bothers me most in other people: going out of my way to justify whatever I find personally pleasing, acting in extreme self-interest under the rough cloak of social good.

I wonder, I really do, if I’m shirking some basic editorial accountability under the belief that feminism’s relationship to offense is changing—that it has changed significantly already—as well as the sense, despite what is suggested to me, that there are other things to worry about other than getting caught on the wrong side. I think it’s fine when people get offended at this website; I think it’s fine that I tend to disagree. I don’t know if that’s the same thing as believing that the only person who will ever perfectly agree with my politics is me.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

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