How feminist blogs like Jezebel gin up page views.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 6 2010 1:28 PM

Outrage World

How feminist blogs like Jezebel gin up page views by exploiting women's worst tendencies.

Olivia Munn. Click image to expand.
Olivia Munn 

One of my friends posted a link to last week's Jezebel post titled "The Daily Show's Woman Problem" as her Gmail chat status, alongside the words "Every woman must read this." Obediently, I clicked, and read a lengthy post that began with the assertion that The Daily Show is a "boys' club where women's contributions are often ignored and dismissed." When I finished reading, I was outraged! But not, as the majority of Jezebel readers and commenters seemed to be, at The Daily Show.

Jezebel writer Irin Carmon's argument is essentially this: "Former videogame show host" Olivia Munn may soon become the show's first new female correspondent in seven years, but her potential hiring is nothing to celebrate, because, while she's a woman, she's not the right kind of woman. She has hosted G4's Attack of the Show for four years, and she has written a book. But, per Carmon, "her previous career path has led some"—meaning, I guess, Carmon and Jezebel commenters—"to criticize The Daily Show for hiring someone better known for suggestively putting things in her mouth on a video game show … and being on the covers of Playboy and Maxim than for her comedic chops." Included as a link is a previous Jezebel post that featured video of Munn jumping into a giant pie while wearing a French maid costume.

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The rest of the post was given over to quotes from various comediennes and Daily Show executives who'd been fired, or never hired, by the show. These women spoke to Carmon on and off—mostly off—the record. The overall impression they gave was of a working environment that was either unfriendly or downright hostile to women. It included a boss who once threw a "newspaper or script" at the show's female co-creator and an audition process that put a high value on looks. Female Daily Show employees whose stories didn't fit into this narrative—like longtime female correspondent Samantha Bee, who recently told NPR that the show was a dream workplace for parents of young children, and Daily Show writer and Slate contributor Alison Silverman—were mentioned very briefly. Far more attention-grabbing was the video of Munn suggestively eating a hot dog embedded midway through the post.

As of this writing, Carmon's post has generated almost 1,000 comments and nearly 90,000 page views. It's a prime example of the feminist blogosphere's tendency to tap into the market force of what I've come to think of as "outrage world"—the regularly occurring firestorms stirred up on mainstream, for-profit, woman-targeted blogs like Jezebel and also, to a lesser degree, Slate's own XX Factor and Salon's Broadsheet. They're ignited by writers who are pushing readers to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage but which is actually just petty jealousy, cleverly marketed as feminism. These firestorms are great for page-view-pimping bloggy business. But they promote the exact opposite of progressive thought and rational discourse, and the comment wars they elicit almost inevitably devolve into didactic one-upsmanship and faux-feminist cliché. The vibe is less sisterhood-is-powerful than middle-school clique in-fight, with anyone who dares to step outside of chalk-drawn lines delimiting what's "empowering" and "anti-feminist" inevitably getting flamed and shamed to bits. Paradoxically, in the midst of all the deeply felt concern about women's sexual and professional freedom to look and be however they want, it's considered de rigueur to criticize anyone, like Munn, who dares to seem to want to sexually attract men.

When Jezebel was founded, it proposed itself as an explicit alternative to traditional women's magazines. As any first-year women's studies major will tell you, these glossies make money by exploiting women's insecurities. The editorial content creates ego-wounds ("Do you smell bad? Why isn't he into you?") that advertisers handily salve by offering up makeup and scented tampons. But Jezebel must also sell ad space, and its founders knew that they are marketing to a generation that knew the score about how they'd been marketed to in the past, which meant those old-fashioned print tactics weren't going to work. Page views are generated by commenters who are moved to speak out, then revisit the comment thread endlessly to see how people have responded to their ideas. Ergo, more provocative posts tend to generate far more page views, and the easiest way for Jezebel writers to be provocative is to stoke readers' insecurities—just in a different way.

Instead of mimicking the old directly anxiety-making model—for example, by posting weight-loss tips and photos of impossibly thin models like a traditional women's magazine—Jezebel and the Slate and Salon "lady-blogs" post a critique of a rail-thin model's physique, explaining how her attractiveness hurts women. The end result is the same as the old formula—women's insecurities sell ads. The only difference is the level of doublespeak and manipulation that it takes to produce that result. Recently, Broadsheet's Tracy Clark-Flory elicited 32 mostly sycophantic comments by closing a post that rehashed a news story about a controversy over a model's age by saying that it was "skin-crawling" that a mother of a 15-year-old model was quoted as saying that "age is irrelevant if you're beautiful." And XX recently got in on the Olivia Munn debate with a post about how Munn isn't funny enough to be on the show. The writer cited an interview with Munn but no examples from any of the 374 episodes of G4's Attack of the Show that Munn hosted between 2006-10.

It's certainly important to have honest, open conversations about the issues that reliably rake in comments and page views—rape, underage sexuality, and the cruel tyranny of the impossible beauty standards promoted by most advertisers and magazines (except the ones canny enough to use gently lit, slightly rounder, older, or more ethnic examples of "true beauty"). But it may just be that it's not possible to have these conversations online. On the Web, writers tend to play up the most jealousy- and insecurity-evoking aspects of controversy, and then anonymous commenters—who bear no responsibility for the effects of their statements—take the writers' hints to any possible extreme. It's just how the Internet works.

At the same time, many posts on these sites aren't consciously written with the twisted mess of intentions I just described. Probably many of the writers feel that their work is helping women by exposing sexism and getting important women's issues onto their radar. But especially for Jezebel writers, whose page-view-generating skills are a matter of public record, and whose careers are dependent on maintaining their stats, the pressure to continuously hit "outrage world" topics must be intense. As I write this, two of the five top stories on Jezebel have to do with weight loss: "Isn't It Time We Called 'Curvy Models' Simply 'Models?'" and "Lily Allen's Face Not Thin Enough For British Elle?" In the comments sections, readers are responding with naked bitterness: "The thin and pretty are like rich people. They are freely given advantages they already have," says sensitivitycop. NewWaveBatMitzvah chimes in with "I'm just glad that finally someone is paying attention to skinny women with large breasts. It's high time they get out from living in obscurity in the shadows where they cry themselves to sleep with tears of sorrow and loneliness."

On and on it goes, as commenters click again and again on the same post to follow the conversation, generating the traffic that enables the site to sell ad space. Right now, the ad alongside those headlines is for Cheetos.

Disclosure: Emily Gould worked previously for Gawker Media, which owns Jezebel.

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Emily Gould is the author of the new book And the Heart Says Whatever.