Feminist Media Is Mostly Gone. Where do Feminist Writers and Stories Go Now?
By the time I began a career in media in 2018, it was already confusing where feminist perspectives belonged. At first, I thought the answer was everywhere. In college in the late ‘10s, there were endless places to read “the feminist angle” on just about everything. Journalists were making names for themselves as feminist critics, analyzing sexism and racism in policy and pop culture. I mimicked them at my college newspaper, and in my first gig at a fashion magazine, I assumed it was my job to deliver hot feminist takes. I wrote essays critiquing the dating app misogyny debate and the turn towards “vulnerable” celebrity brands. They were commissioned without enthusiasm. Anything critical of a public figure was deemed too “mean” and edited out. ” I pivoted to covering music.
Fashion magazines have never really been in the business of doing meta-commentary on cultural discourse or criticizing celebrities. But my naivete was understandable during the heyday of feminist media, which pushed journalism and culture towards feminism. Since then, over a dozen feminist outlets like Bitch, Broadly, Wear Your Voice, ManRepeller, Rookie, Feministing, Lenny Letter, and The Hairpin have disappeared. The New York Times and the Washington Post, have also cut dedicated page-space for women, ending the newsletter In Her Words and the vertical The Lily, respectively. There are exciting newcomers like Lux, The 19th and The Meteor, and holdouts like Bust, Dame and Rewire. But when Jezebel closed briefly in mid-November, before being revived a few weeks later by Paste, it laid bare just how small and one-dimensional women’s media has become. With exceptions like Teen Vogue and The Cut, most of the women’s publications that survived the 2010’s rarely cover politics or publish criticism, and rather focus on fashion, celebrity and internet culture.
Perhaps, it’s not a tragedy that feminists are no longer incentivized to write scathing takedowns of Marvel’s every release. But unsurprisingly, journalists tell me that the landscape for feminist writing has become narrow, competitive, and lonely. The options available—tidying pitches up for mainstream publications, making inroads at lefty magazines, or forging into the creator economy—are leaving behind crucial stories about women, feminism and gender.
“In a very literal way, there are less opportunities for feminist writers because there’s just less slots,” says critic and essayist Grace Byron.
When Byron got her start around 2021, most feminist sites were already gone, or bare-bones operations. Her first stories were for The Observer doing book reviews, often of queer or women authors. She’s had success writing for The Cut and Lux, but notes that these outlets don’t accept many pitches. As such, when she has an idea, she’s often figuring out how to capture the attention of a lefty general-interest outlet, like The Nation or The Baffler. Magazines like these publish great work on gender, she says, but they can also have exacting standards, low capacity, and a high barrier-to-entry that make them a tough place to cut your teeth as a newbie or an outsider.
Byron especially feels the loss of a robust feminist media as a trans writer. Plenty of outlets want to commission her to write about gender politics, but few publish the sorts of niche, in-depth or provocative stories she’s interested in writing. “When there’s something I feel isn’t being said even in the feminist media sphere, there aren’t a lot of places to go,” she says, noting that general outlets are much more likely to include the word “trans” in her headlines.
Feminist writers, she says, “have to be really adept at figuring out: how do I fit the story I want to write into different kinds of websites?” This isn’t necessarily bad. Bryon said she appreciated that the emphasis was not on identity, when writing a review for The Nation recently. But in general, she says, it’s easier to break into general interest publications if you have a broader political thesis or a “#representation” spin.
In the current landscape, it can be advantageous to frame stories in a “gender-neutral way,” says Magdalene Taylor, a journalist who covers sex and relationships. She’s found an effective home for her beat in a drought of women’s outlets: men’s outlets. She came up writing for chroniclers of the manoverse, MEL, and now writes for GQ and Vice. She’s written for Jezebel and The Cut but feels like most women’s outlets today are out of touch, dominated by shopping content, or both. She’s chewing on a story about the discourse around “girl’s girls.” She’ll pitch it to i-D as a digital culture story. This is the logical route, versus taking it to a women’s outlet, or even framing it as a story about women.
Last November, the New York Times’ Emma Goldberg wrote that, “traditional women’s publications like Cosmopolitan, Glamour, or Vogue now seem to operate their websites from roughly the perspective that Jezebel did 15 years ago.” It’s true that 15 years ago, Vogue would not have published essays on fat acceptance, or begged readers to believe Amber Heard. However, the mainstream has made its counterculture irrelevant. It’s difficult to imagine any women’s outlet taking a public figure or the fashion industry to task today as vigorously as Jezebel was doing in 2008, or publishing a story as gross as the blog’s diary of a stuck tampon.
Funny, weird, gross personal essays about being a woman are still being published in unexpected places. Culture writer Lana Schwartz recently placed an essay about dating with New York City-focused Hell Gate, weaving her complaints about the supremacy of biking on the city’s dating apps, with trends in post-Covid urban policy.
“It’s not like women’s media has regressed, where it’s all about how to get a man and how to not be fat,” says Schwartz. “But we’re at this downslope where there’s less room for different takes and thoughts and you have to conform your ideas in order to make money.”
Outlets like Bitch and The Hairpin made up a critical mass of another shrinking category: independent media, which publishes with less oversight from traffic, profit and brand safety-concerned executives. Feminist media was a home for radical thinking, the loss of which concerns longtime freelancer Nylah Burton, particularly during an event like the war in Gaza, when journalists have been fired for expressing solidarity with Palestinians. Burton has struggled to place stories on Palestine that she imagines Bitch or Wear Your Voice would have taken. Women’s outlets have stayed far away from the issue, while Jezebel has been reporting on Palestinian women suffering through C-sections without anesthesia and periods without pads or clean water. For Burton, this underscores the intellectual and political stakes of the loss of feminist media. “Where’s the archive of feminism in this moment?” she wonders.
Some of that archive is on Substack. The clear descendants of feminist blogs are newsletters, podcasts and other creator economy output. In the Times, Goldberg identified Rayne Fisher-Quann’s Substack Internet Princess, Charlie Squire’s Evil Female, the podcast Binchtopia and the Gen-Z lit mag Crybaby Press. Well-known feminist journalists like Moira Donegan, Jill Filipvoic, or Jessica Valenti (founder of Feministing), too, have taken to Substack to cover women and gender politics. Alumns of women’s media have found success writing critical takes that fashion magazines won’t publish, such as Jessica DeFino on her beauty industry focused dispatch The Unpublishable and Amy Odell’s fashion newsletter Back Row.
Newsletters are freer from pressure from advertisers who don’t want their ads next to stories about sex or abortion, which reportedly made Jezebel hard to monetize. But there are downsides to the atomized, freelance feminist media world. Creator platforms don’t typically provide resources or protections (the Substack Defender program offers legal “advice and direction” but not representation) that empower journalists to report on wrongdoing by corporations or public figures. Then there’s the issue of editing: some writers start their careers with a strong personal voice. Others only find theirs with guidance and mentorship. To the Times, Fisher-Quann described today’s feminist media today as “individualized and splintered.” This climate has produced feminist outlets with mastheads of one, premised around a single cult of personality.
Multi-author newsletters like Mental Hellth, Welcome to Hell World and Discourse — all of which accept pitches — have proven collectivity can exist in the creator economy, and represent an exciting model for independent feminist media. The entertainment newsletter Dirt was the publication that journalists I spoke to most frequently referenced, as carrying the torch of smart, funny feminist writing.
Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, reproductive rights are a major exception to “less slots.” Many outlets are scrambling to build out their abortion coverage now that it’s one of the biggest stories in the country, and a crucial angle on the 2024 election. Susan Rinkunas, Jezebel’s former abortion reporter (she’ll be contributing to Jezebel 2.0 on a freelance basis) was booked as soon as she was laid off in November. “Before Roe [was overturned], it was sometimes hard to place stories. Outlets would be like, ‘We just did a story on abortion,’” she remembers.
However, abortion reporters working with mainstream outlets must cater to their cautious both-sides objectivity. And without feminist media, some stories will never get told at all. While she’s busy, Rinkunas is frustrated with how legacy outlets tend to cover the issue as an abstract policy issue, instead of something that affects women’s lives — at Jezebel, women’s lives were always the story. After her layoff, she made a list of outlets like, The Guardian, Slate and HuffPost that wouldn’t require her to quote medical “experts” on both sides. Mainstream media can also be slower to take threats to women’s rights seriously. “Everybody I was talking to was telling me Roe was going to be overturned. Everyone,” says Megan Burbank, a health policy reporter for outlets like NPR, The New Republic, and Crosscut. “A lot of my pitches were turned down because they were considered too hypothetical. I was writing those stories a few months later.”
The future of feminist journalism is unclear, but solidarity is what will carry it through this moment. This solidarity brought us worker-founded and owned feminist projects like Lux and The 19th, which are publishing crucial feminist commentary and reporting. Relationships between writers and editors—wherever they work—get feminist stories into the pages of general and mainstream publications. In turn, media unions protect the agency of those editors, to advocate for your pitches and push back against their bosses.
Every writer I spoke with emphasized the importance of finding collaborators and editors that take feminist ideas seriously, wherever they might work. “It’s about the editor, not the publication,” says Burbank. “It’s true for any beat but especially for this one, because it is something that’s been misrepresented and historically not given attention.” Rinkunas adds, “Find the editor so dedicated to this coverage that they’re sharing the stories they’ve assigned or other outlets’ stories. That editor is going to open your pitch.”
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