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Earlier this year, when controversy erupted after Jezebel rooted through leaked Sony emails and reported back on the color of the pubic hair dye Amy Pascal orders on Amazon, my editor, Allison Benedikt, pinged me to say: “Aren’t you happy you don’t have to respond to that Jezebel piece?”
“I feel happy whenever anything bad happens to women,” I replied.
Hi. I’m Amanda Hess, and I’m a recovering ladyblogger. After writing about women in one way or another for most of my career—including 2½ years of blogging for Slate’s excellent women’s section, DoubleX—I’ve absconded to our tech vertical, where I write about the culture of the Internet. One thing I like about my new job is that it does not require me to publish opinions about women on the Internet. I’ve got nothing against women (I am one), and I’ll still write about gender from time to time (I’d hate to leave a teen girl One Direction conspiracy theory unturned), but ignoring women as a class for a few months has proven both a professional and personal relief.
“Women” is kind of a crazy beat. The Awl’s John Herrman has observed that the online media economy requires writers to produce fresh takes faster than they can formulate new ideas, but the marketplace leaves ladybloggers at a particular disadvantage. On the planet, women constitute half of the human population, but on the Internet, they’re just one vertical among dozens. Covering the issues that disproportionately affect women as a group means wrangling a set of wildly disparate, oddly specific, and sometimes esoteric coverage areas: reproductive health, parenting, gendered violence, beauty standards, the feminist movement, sports, Hollywood, political representation, equal pay, sexual double standards, Beyoncé’s golf thighs. And while many outlets have scrambled to snap up a ladyblogger or 200, few are investing in dedicated reporters to drive news on the beat. Some of my favorite reporters focus on women—Jodi Kantor’s New York Times investigations into the barriers left standing for women at work, Ariel Levy’s New Yorker tales on the political edge of the female form, and Katie J.M. Baker’s BuzzFeed reports on the institutions failing adolescent girls are all great—but they don’t produce enough fodder to sustain the blogs. Meanwhile, traditional women’s magazines are offering up less and less mockable material. When Jezebel launched with a vengeance in 2007, it offered a corrective to the lies proffered by Cosmo and its competitors in service of the “celebrity-sartorial complex.” But ladymags have since jacked Jezebel’s style and staffed up with sarcastic smarties. Now even Maxim is marketing itself as a feminist rag.
The thirst for opinion but dearth of reporting on female concerns can actually be a gift to an enterprising ladyblogger. When she has the time (and the institutional support) to pick up the phone and report out her obsessions, the field is wide open. Slate let me explore the frayed edges of feminine consumer culture, from the poor treatment of NFL cheerleaders to the batshit backstory of People’s Sexiest Man Alive. But when take time comes, the ladyblogger enters a crowded arena. In lieu of the news cycles that bless tech bloggers (a new iPhone every fortnight!) and pop culture obsessives (what movie/TV show/book/album is opening/premiering/publishing/dropping this week?), the ladyblogger beat is propelled by opinions and opinions on opinions. That makes a ladyblog an interesting place for a writer to hone her rhetorical tools. But once they get sharp enough, she may begin to fantasize about impaling herself with them. Modern sexism often manifests itself in the form of innumerable little slights. Documenting them all is a monotonous task, and parrying each with an original insight or a cutting retort is an impossible one. On my best days, the dynamic challenged me to find inventive ways to illuminate old problems. On my worst, I felt like I was playing a game of feminist Mad Libs: The sexist quote and offending speaker may change, but the patriarchy remains the same. At some point, the pieces start threatening to write themselves.
Meanwhile, every ladyblogger is placed under an insane expectation to agree with all of the others. “Online feminism has more and more rules lately,” Jezebel editor Emma Carmichael told the Longform podcast last year. “There are only so many things you can say.” Feminism is an amorphous concept, which can make it seem like a big tent—every feminist defining the movement for herself. But it can also function like an invisible electric fence—nobody knows how far she can stray before she gets zapped. I have been called “bad PR for feminism” by a feminist sympathizer and “a voice of reason inside the feminist movement” by an anti-feminist commentator, but I’ve come to see “feminist writer” as a dig regardless of the context in which it’s lodged. To me, a great writer investigates her subjects with skepticism, reports them with nuance, and delights in surprise. An effective activist succeeds in the opposite way: She flattens complex ideas into slogans, cultivates loyalty to her cause, and skips the inconvenient details. I get why an activist might own feminist, but why would I agree to reduce my worldview to a single word? And why that one? Last year, I told the New Republic’s Alice Robb that I suspect “feminist writer” is just the latest euphemism for “woman writer”: one more way to qualify a woman’s opinion before she opens her mouth.
When my work wasn’t being classified on the feminist-to-not spectrum, it was diagnosed as a personal vendetta. Because I wrote about a group of which I’m also a member, I was often accused of pursuing a calling as opposed to a craft. Some critics wondered why I was so obsessed with gender (that was the job) or how I could afford to waste my time writing about it (on account of the money). Others traded opinions on which portions of my biography or biology could possibly explain why I thought the way I did. They speculated about my relationship status, the races of my sex partners, the color of my pubic hair, how my weight will fluctuate as I age, and of course my daddy issues. When I took a detour from the lady beat last year to write an essay about a childhood spent hiking with my father, one commenter observed, “She had a good relationship with her dad. I would not have guessed that from someone who seems to hate men.”
And you know what, jerks? I’d do it again. I wouldn’t have a writing career without ladyblogs, and writing is one of my few marketable skills. I graduated from college on May 20, 2007. Jezebel launched the next day. I got a job off Craigslist opening mail and plugging databases for the Washington City Paper. Soon, Jezebel soared, newspapers tanked, and when the City Paper laid off half its staff, I hung on by volunteering to write all the time about the sex, gender, and lady-related stories that my friends and I were passing obsessively back and forth. It wasn’t long before a good chunk of our site’s readers were coming in through my blog.
Everybody talks about those boy wonders who flipped their little political blogs into big-time media careers, but for me and many of my female peers, feminist blogging was our hustle. Sure, I sometimes found it marginalizing, how sex and gender and feminism and “women” stuff got tossed together and sidelined in its own little corner of Web writing. But working in the margins has its perks. I became an expert in a vast, sensitive, and complex coverage area that other journalists wouldn’t touch. And eventually, when mainstream publications wanted in, they tapped me—to write about athletes’ boobs for ESPN magazine, New York’s porn queen for the Village Voice, or pubic hair stylings for the New York Times Magazine.
Now that I’m off the “women pages,” I see my ladyblogging background as my secret weapon. It’s just that now I get to peer at gender from an angle instead of always facing it head-on—and get to look at the world through more than one lens. Meanwhile, I’m finally free to read the ladyblogs for pleasure instead of business. I’d tell you what I think about them, but I don’t do that anymore.