Anna Holmes, founder and former editor of Jezebel.com. Photo: Anna Wolf/ Grand Central Publishing
It’s strange to feel nostalgic about something new. Yet on flipping through The Book of Jezebel, that’s exactly how it feels. Promoted as ‘an illustrated encyclopaedia of lady things’, the book is edited by the founding editor of Jezebel.com, Anna Holmes. It’s a job that seems – by its sheer scale – both thrilling and terrifying, since the blog has emerged as one of the biggest feminist websites in the world in the last seven years.
Even for the most non-sentimental reader, certain entries (see: CrazySexyCool, or Mars, Veronica) will trigger the kind of flashback that makes you question whether your soul has truly ever left the 90s.
Others, like ‘bikini wax’ (“Also known as woman-on-woman violence”) or ‘babies’ (“Tiny dependent human beings believed to cause ovarian explosions among young women and commitment phobia among young men. Conclusively proven to cause endless f—king drama in the feminist blogosphere”) are sparky reminders of why so many are drawn to the site in the first place.
The Book of Jezebel
A tome like this takes time to build – about three years (and with the help of over 50 contributors) to be exact. Ironically, the project was intended to be a brief reprieve for Holmes after stepping down from her editorship in June 2010.
“I was very burnt out from running the site but I didn’t want to take another full-time job because I was so wrecked from that one,” says Holmes. “You’d think that I would be dying to get away from it but the fact is it’s very addictive...I just wasn’t ready to give up the site altogether so [the book] was a good step forward.”
For those aren’t already obsessively reading it, Jezebel is the sister site of Gawker.com – the first commercially successful feminist blogs to cover everything from gender politics to fashion and pop culture in a smart, funny and irreverent way.
An illustration of of the 'cat lady', from The Book of Jezebel. Photo: Wendy McNaughton
Many credit the site as a key influence behind the wave of ‘ladyblogs’ that came after it, including now established players like: The Hairpin, The Frisky, Slate’s XX Factor and The Vagenda. For Jezebel’s part, the traffic came thick and fast. In less than a year, the site was already hitting 10 million page views a month, surpassing the popularity of its parenting site shortly after.
Despite the fact that Holmes cut her teeth in high profile glossies like Star, Glamour and Entertainment Weekly, the 40-year-old editor has always had a complicated relationship with fashion and celebrity.
“It was cathartic to give the finger to women’s magazines,” she admitted in an address to journalism students at her alma mater NYU last week.
“We had to define ourselves from the get-go. It felt like women’s magazines got worse and worse with sex [and] relationship advice and the consumption of material goods… [the magazines were] creating insecurities and purportedly solving them.”
Holmes’s mum was a second wave feminist. Indeed, she traces the frustrations with her peers back to her mother’s influence. “She’s also not someone who shies away from expressing her opinions – I think I probably got that from her, as well as a healthy sense of outrage. “
As a reaction against those magazines, Holmes’ goal was to make a women’s website that she would want to read, that didn’t talk down to readers or pretend that they were as un-diverse as women’s magazine would have us believe. There were to be no diet tips, ‘how to please him’ dating advice and no stories that capitalised on female insecurity.
“In my most ambitious moments, I saw the site as a battle of the Annas: Holmes vs. Wintour, ” she wrote on the site’s third birthday.
At times, the battles were ‘physical’: during Fashion Week in 2007, Jezebel sent magazine fashion editors sick bags printed with site’s logo that contained a mint and a tongue depressor in each. (“The idea was that the industry of fashion was vomit-inducing; you could vomit because the spectacle was so gross,” she explained in a recent interview.)
But more often than not, the struggle played out in the form of groundbreaking posts. The first Jezebel story that caught mainstream attention was about a retouched cover image of singer Faith Hill in Redbook magazine. Readers were invited to submit the best examples of cover images prior to being airbrushed for publication, exposing the industry’s distorted beauty standards.
Staffers also bucked the convention by writing about their sex lives or bodily functions in funny, unapologetic and visceral ways. (A sensibility that’s mirrored in The Book of Jezebel) And it’s often posts that challenge the concepts that women are ‘one-note’ or that they are supposed to be accommodating and humourless that resonated most with readers. For Jezebel, there’s no reason why a reproductive rights activist can’t engage in a pop culture discussion with the same amount of passion and eloquence.
Of course, taking down the patriarchy can be back-breaking work. During Holmes’s three year reign as editor, staffers worked from home “in their pyjamas”, communicating mostly via IM or over email. A typical day for Holmes usually starts at 6am – putting together the news list for the day and assigning stories to writers. The first posts then go up at 9am and she would keep going until 11pm on most days.
“It was like feeding a beast but it was also really fun. There was lots of adrenalin. It was difficult but obviously we wouldn’t have kept doing it for that long if we didn’t enjoy it somehow.”
So how does she feel about the loyal readership the site has amassed? “It’s interesting because I’d never been so close to such a vibrant conversation dominated by such smart women before, in one place, day after day. So it was a little bit breathtaking. And intimidating. And exciting.”