Can Digital Media About Feminism Actually be Feminist?

We've proven feminist media can be marketable. But is it possible for media to be (actually) feminist?

Three women lauging together harmoniously in a sunlit meadow of flowers.

 

In September 2011, just in time for a new school year to start, fifteen-year-old Tavi Gevinson founded Rookie, an online magazine for, and largely by, teenagers. “I don’t want to even think about what makes someone ‘just your average teenage girl,’ or whether I fit that mold, or if that’s who will read Rookie,” she wrote in her first editor’s letter. “Rookie is a place to make the best of the beautiful pain and cringe-worthy awkwardness of being an adolescent girl.” The f-word, feminism, didn’t appear in that letter, though it was quickly apparent that this was a feminist site. Early stories touched on avoiding girl jealousy, buying an electric guitar, and the male gaze. And unlike other outlets for teen girls, this was one run by an actual teen, and frequently sourced ideas from readers, who often become contributors.

“Those readers were our lodestar. They, along with our contributors, guided our decisions,” wrote former Rookie story editor Amy Rose Spiegel, in an email.

Rookie never talked down to its readers, or fretted over covering both the frivolous and the serious. An average day’s content could range from the coolness of stickers to sexual assault to a dreamy playlist.

“When teenagers are tasked with representing their own interests instead of having older people narrate what those might be, the resulting coverage can be as progressive, diverse, and reflective of social awareness as many teenage girls are,” Spiegel wrote in a 2017 article on the political changes then underway at Teen Vogue.Feminism is worthwhile if it continually morphs and expands to promote all women’s rights and livelihoods.”

This ability to evolve, both materially and conceptually, has proven crucial to the survival of feminist outlets over time, not just as it relates to coverage, but also in terms of operation. How does corporate women’s media navigate the line between profit and feminist ideals? How can feminist indie outlets sustainably fund their work?

In 2021, the public is more tuned into labor conditions than they have been in decades, and treating workers equitably—especially if your coverage slants to the left—is non-negotiable. While there isn’t one golden standard that will fit every outlet, there are some basic tenets that seem key to aligning feminist values with operations: paying fairly, sharing decision-making power, allowing for work/life balance, centering diverse voices, and giving equity and authority to organizational stakeholders who are not white women. If feminism is about fighting sexist oppression and exploitation, then your employees shouldn’t feel exploited; people know feminist optics when they see them. Many models have been put to the test, and the new feminist publications of the 2020s are hoping they’ve figured it out.

The 2010’s were a heady time for feminist, and feminist-adjacent, media. Some of these outlets explicitly labeled themselves feminist, others published content that advocated for or focused on gender equality. Blogs were still experiencing something of a heyday, as evidenced by the popularity of sites like Feministing and The Hairpin. Feministing, founded in 2004 by Jessica and Vanessa Valenti, had over one million unique monthly viewers at its peak. The Hairpin, a sister site to The Awl, was launched in 2010 with Edith Zimmerman at the helm. A bit more esoteric than more provocative sites like Jezebel or Feministing, The Hairpin still trafficked in poking fun at mainstream representations of women, such as Zimmerman’s classic “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” a textless post featuring various stock images of the aforementioned women. Writer Molly Fischer dubbed The Hairpin and its fellow general interest women’s media-type sites “ladyblogs,” noting that they countered “a particular brand of easy misogyny.”

Jezebel, a Gawker women’s vertical launched in 2007 by Anna Holmes, made probably the biggest impression. Holmes told The Guardian that she initially didn’t mention to Gawker founders that she envisioned the site having a “feminist sensibility,” as she alone felt there was “a sizable audience for feminist issues.” Within months of its launch, Jezebel was garnering 10 million monthly pageviews, an astounding confirmation that her suspicions were right.

Soon, a new generation of primarily VC-backed feminist sites sprung up, often working in a snarky, sassy tone similar to Jezebel’s. XoJane, an editorial venture of Jane Pratt, started in 2011, the same year as the uber-positive women’s lifestyle site HelloGiggles. (In 1998, Pratt was the founding editor of the formative teen print magazine Sassy, which was credited with discovering Chloe Sevigny on the streets of New York and hiring her as an intern.)

Slate launched a women’s content vertical, DoubleX, in 2009; The Frisky started in 2008. It seemed that once sites like Jezebel had proven the viability of running a feminist site, traditional media, from the Washington Post to Vice jumped on board. Vice joined the fray with the women’s vertical, Broadly, in 2015. The story of the ultimately short-lived site is indicative of both the financial flailings of traditional media and the inherent tension of a corporation running a feminist vertical.

CORPORATE FEMINISM

Leila Ettachfini began working as an intern at Broadly its first year, while still an undergrad, eventually becoming an associate editor. She characterized the Broadly team as small but mostly supportive, minus the explosive 2017 Buzzfeed investigation which found that staffer Mitch Sunderland was secretly feeding ideas to Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos. (Sunderland was promptly let go from the site.) Ettachfini notes that lower-level staffers were largely kept in the dark about high-level editorial or business matters.

One such matter was Vice’s decision in 2019 to fold Broadly and its other verticals into the central Vice site, distributing Broadly staffers to other parts of the company. Then, just five months later, Vice announced that it was buying women’s lifestyle site Refinery29. Refinery29 doesn’t label itself as explicitly feminist—though like a lot of contemporary women’s media, it espouses a facile sort of liberal feminism, frequently running stories on sex positivity, body acceptance, and advice from girlbosses. “The team was pretty obviously upset about that,” Ettachfini says. “Not anything negative towards Refinery, just it felt like okay, well, we were doing that.” She notes that the decision to close Broadly came shortly after the site had gotten the most monthly traffic ever. “We were all like, ‘Oh we’re doing well, the company is happy with us.’”

While it’s true that women’s publications are often the first to go during times of financial turmoil, as former Broadly editor-in-chief Lindsay Schrupp told the New York Times, the closures can also be seen as an indication of their success. As feminist coverage becomes more acceptably mainstream, there is less of a need to silo that content into separate publications.

The shuttering of Broadly shows the difficulty of a corporate media outlet running a feminist site; when the bottom line is making money, political ideals go out the window. Jezebel was purchased by Univision in 2016, when it acquired Gawker Media’s sites. (The financial problems stemmed from an invasion of privacy lawsuit filed by Hulk Hogan, and financially backed by Peter Thiel, wherein Gawker was ordered to pay $140 million in damages; it ended up filing for bankruptcy.) In 2019 Univision sold the sites, which by that time included Gizmodo Media Group and The Onion, to private equity firm Great Hill Partners. (Gawker Media’s fate is but one example of private equity firms acquiring, and largely gutting, media entities in the past decade. Alden Global Capital is a chief offender, as detailed in a recent investigation by The Atlantic.)

Since the Hogan lawsuit, Jezebel has undergone many changes in personnel and editorial direction. A recent Gawker investigation (the “new Gawker,” a separate site reporting on its former sister vertical) found that since March, 75 percent of Jezebel’s editorial staff have quit, including former editor-in-chief Julianne Escobedo Shepherd. “Jezebel has been the victim of the media’s worst impulses, both in how it was sold and managed financially,” former features editor Stassa Edwards told Gawker.

But even before the splintering of Gawker Media, Jezebel staffers expressed frustration with the ways they were treated by management. In 2014, staff posted an open letter on its site, complaining that management failed to adequately address the sexist and violent trolls in the site’s comments section. Jezebel writers were required to engage in the vibrant discussion section. By design they were also the only people who could take down offensive messages, meaning they, and their readers, had to regularly face degrading content. “In refusing to address the problem, Gawker‘s leadership is prioritizing theoretical anonymous tipsters over a very real and immediate threat to the mental health of Jezebel‘s staff and readers,” staffers wrote. The company responded quickly to the letter, disabling media uploads and implementing a pending comment policy.

THE RISE AND FALL OF DIY RAGS

Remaining independent, and thus having ostensibly more reign over business and editorial decisions, is also not without its challenges.

Bust Magazine is one of the longest-running feminist rags; it still puts out four print issues per year. Bust began in 1993 by three then-Nickelodeon employees, who ran off copies of the first issue on the company’s photocopier. It briefly seemed like it might go the way of Jezebel, when it was purchased by Razorfish Studios in 2000. By that time, no editors or contributors had ever been paid, so the founders thought that they’d give outside funding a whirl. After 9/11 and the dot-com boom, Razorfish went belly up, and co-founders Debbie Stoller and Laurie Henzel bought the magazine back. As a 2014 article in The Awl notes, since then the editors have run a slim operation, relying heavily on unpaid interns. In 2018, it was reported that they paid $150-$200 for print features. In addition to subscription and ad revenue, Bust brings in funding through its Craftacular events, essentially markets with small-scale vendors, like an IRL Etsy.

Bitch, which was founded shortly after Bust, in 1996, and which also continues to publish a print magazine, has made greater efforts to diversify its income streams. In 1999, it applied for non-profit status, allowing it to apply for grants and receive donations. It later invested in development planning, hiring it’s first executive director in 2009, and putting more energy into partnerships and building out a membership program. Bitch has also notably evolved with the changing morés of feminism and the larger cultural discourse as evinced by its contributor guidelines, which stipulate that Bitch “welcomes complex, intersectional arguments and refuses to ignore the contradictory and often uncomfortable realities of life in an unequivocally gendered world.”

In the mid-90s, these feminist mags tended to have a narrower focus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the founders of Bitch and Bust were white, as is Jane Pratt, and their coverage reflected this. The first issue of Bitch included a write-up on Larry Clark’s Kids and an article on Kelly from 90210. Today the staff is racially diverse and the content wide-ranging, covering everything from climate change to the #FreeBritney movement. Sassy covered both fashion trends and riot grrrl, and even had Bratmobile guitarist Erin Smith as an intern.

Bust’s editorial content, and vision, haven’t changed too much over the years, though they have greatly expanded their coverage of food and crafts. “One thing that has stayed the same (about Bust) is it has always been informed by feminist ideas,” Stoller told USA Today, on the occasion of Bust’s twentieth anniversary. Her definition of feminist ideas? “We try to present a variety of images of women, and we try to celebrate women. We write to our readers like they’re smart.”

Though these better-known outlets were founded by white women, there were also many feminist-aligned publications run by women of color. There was the popular Bamboo Girl, by Margarita Alcantara, which ran from the mid-90s into the 2000s. Make/shift, a bona fide print mag, was run by Daria Yudacufski and Jessica Hoffmann from 2007 to 2017. And there were countless others, particularly in the zine world, from the punky Gunk to Osa Atoe’s Shotgun Seamstress.

The expansion in coverage for outlets like Bitch and newer places like Jezebel can be attributed in part to the internet, which both democratizes speech and clues publications into trends. Social media makes it easy to see what articles people are responding to, through clicks, share, and likes, and what topics people are talking about, from abortion laws to #MeToo scandals. Platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have also led to the rise of the digital creator economy, where people of color can create content free from the white gatekeepers of more traditional media, and make career inroads in media that would previously have been impossible.

The shift in coverage, and tone, is also due in part to the ever-shifting narratives of feminism. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s development of the term “intersectionality” in 1989 and its adoption in popular discourse in the 2010s certainly injected much-needed nuance into the understanding of oppression, as did the growing calls for greater representation in pop culture. The changing demographics of the journalism industry, though slow, surely also played a role.

Still, whatever faults these early publications may have had, it is nearly impossible to envision the emergence of places like Rookie, Jezebel, or the socialist feminist magazine Lux without all the advances that the Busts and Bitchs made. In the mid-90s, there were different fights to wage. Susan Faludi’s Backlash lays out the societal setbacks waged against women as a response to the progress of the sixties and seventies. Marital rape wasn’t technically deemed illegal in all fifty states until 1993. Back then, traditional women’s magazines wouldn’t have dared include a piece by a transgender Army vet or been bold enough to call abortion laws “terrifying.” Indeed, Anna Holmes launched Jezebel partly in response to everything she hated about traditional women’s media, having previously worked at Glamour.

The fate of places like Rookie or The Hairpin, both of which have folded in recent years, shows the difficulties of maintaining even a low-budget digital outlet. Rookie ceased publishing in 2018, noting that “digital media has become an increasingly difficult business” as ad sales became less valuable. In a final editor’s letter, Gevinson says the site first closed its offices and tried publishing less frequently, but eventually had to admit it had become unsustainable, no matter how devoted its readers were or how special a site it was.

As Jia Tolentino noted in a 2018 post-mortem about The Awl and The Hairpin, blogs had the “editorial latitude to be obscure and silly and particular, but the finances are increasingly hard to sustain,” with algorithms favoring newsy, mass appeal-type content. She cites the 2016 closure of The Toast, due to financial reasons, which in the end is what happened to The Hairpin. The outlets in the space that remain standing, like Autostraddle, gal-dem, or Salty have been able to do so in direct proportion to the success of their membership programs that allow subscribers to fund them directly.

Amy Rose Spiegel recalls pleading her case with the editors to join the Rookie staff after an early pitch was accepted. “I was so into it,” says Spiegel, who now works as an editor and hosts the podcast Power: Hugh Hefner. “This is so in key with what I believe, what I like, what I’m interested in.” She was a regular contributor for a few years before eventually coming on as an editor at the age of 22. And even though she was paid as an independent contractor for the duration of the job, she says that the pay was much more equitable, even after taxes, than it had been at a major corporate news outlet she’d also worked at. Throughout its tenure, Rookie also made editorial decisions in a pretty democratic way, albeit informally, with editors constantly talking through ideas and encouraging one another in a private Facebook group. This sort of collegiality was common at blogs.

“I felt like the luckiest person,” she says. “Rookie was my home.”

ALIGNING VALUES WITH OPERATIONS

One of the newest outlets on the scene, Lux, an impeccably designed glossy, aims to avoid the operational snafus that have befallen so many of its predecessors. Lux published its first issue in January 2021, and is managed by a core group of editors and three designers, diverse in identity and background—some are well-versed on the editorial side of things, others are active political organizers. It operates in a collective, non-hierarchical model, with shared decision-making. They have weekly meetings and try to rotate responsibilities like writing their newsletter. A lot of task delegation goes to whoever has the time and capacity, or the enthusiasm, to do something.

“We really want to make sure that this is a project that isn’t disconnected from the left,” says Cheryl Rivera, one of the editors. “It also should feel connected to things that are actually happening in real life, not just being written about online or in print.”

Though the magazine is still in its early stages, operating with little capital, the collective is already planning how to avoid financial pitfalls. They hope to eventually explore a worker-owned cooperative structure, though for now they are contributing their time for free. Rivera likens the work to organizing, which she also does voluntarily. “I consider it a sort of world-building project,” she says. “It’s necessary work.” Writers are compensated equitably (and the editors are paid for their published writing). Lux worked with the Freelance Solidarity Project to craft a fair contract for contributors. They pay 50 cents/word for shorter articles, and $1/word for features.

One thing that sets Lux apart is its foregrounding of a very specific, socialist view of feminism. It uses bell hooks’ definition, that “feminism is the struggle against sexist oppression.” Editor Cora Currier recently explained it further: “Feminism is something you do, it’s an organizing philosophy. It’s not something you wear. It’s not an orientation, it’s not a book, an identity, a belief system.” This strongly-defined stance is another thing that sets Lux apart from more corporate outlets, like Jezebel or Broadly, where the feminist framework has been stretched so wide that it’s completely devalued. Essays on The Craft, Netflix recommendations that pass the Bechdel Test, and a slideshow of hot pregnant celebrities are not likely to alienate the advertisers these sites rely on.

Articles in Lux touch on everything from the Indian labor organizer Nodeep Kaur to luxury products of the early Soviet Union to a consideration of the Raven Leilani book Luster. It uses the glossiness and beauty of traditional women’s magazines in a cheeky way, but also to turn the very idea of luxury on its head.

“We do believe in beauty and luxury as concepts that are not just bad,” Rivera says. “But luxury as a people’s sort of luxury. What is really luxury? Luxury is the space and time and material reality to really enjoy yourself, to be yourself, to be with your friends.”

The design is also intended to make the magazine accessible. Following in the footsteps of the Combahee River Collective, which coined the term “identity politics,” the editors hope that the magazine has multiple entry points with which to engage people who may be interested in socialist feminism. “We have big dreams for it,” Rivera says. “It doesn’t look like just a print magazine for most of us. It looks like the magazine being at the center of maybe a larger socialist feminist organizing project, a larger project of creating a real left media.”

Proving the importance of feminism to a “successful socialist left,” is at the core of Lux’s aim. “We’re not gonna equivocate on feminism, and we’re not going to equivocate on socialism either,” Rivera says. “Those things go together, and I don’t see other publications out there right now, who are willing to go there for socialist feminism in this way.”

This kind of idea-centered feminism is also the direction that Leila Ettachfini envisions the industry going. “When Broadly came about, there was a lot of focus around identity-centered journalism,” she says. “Now maybe the version of that today is a bit more around aligning values.” If Lux, with its equitable pay structure and its finger on the pulse of the socialist movement, represents the future of feminist media, perhaps it’s one of media’s current bright spots.