I have a vivid memory of watching an MTV promo in PJs and eating breaded chicken with ketchup while my babysitter, Rita, helped my sister take a bath. It was early 2011. Ha! Just kidding; I was seven or eight. The promo featured a teenage girl sneaking into her younger sister’s room to french kiss a poster of the Backstreet Boys’ punky chanteur A.J. McLean. Obviously, this girl was all I knew of how to be hip in the ’90s — she was an older sister (same here!), wore a tank top (there she was a little ahead of me… I didn’t take the plunge until I was 22), and probably wasn’t a virgin. I knew even in my youthful innocence that I simply had to be her. So, while my sister bathed, I, too, snuck into her room and had a private moment with her requisitely framed A.J. And as I licked his glossy magazine teeth, I felt closer to the beacon of post-adolescent cool that was MTV Girl, and I felt optimistic that I wouldn’t be such a terribly lost child forever.
I maintained a desperate grip on similar pop representations of how to be throughout my adolescence. I spent hours pouring over websites like gURL.com that claimed “a different approach to the experience of being a teenage girl.” Throughout high school I continued to seek examples of better-than-Joannas in the media, secretly buying copies of Cosmopolitan with my girlfriends, and reading their sex tips at 1 a.m. under their covers, at once shocked, ashamed and nervously aware of my newly awakened libido. I soon became interested in music and started reading Nylon; I wanted to be thin, so I read SHAPE; I became ambitious and turned to the essays in the back of Glamour about 20 girls under 30 who were going to change the world. These images of desirable potential consumed me but I would be lying if I said that the struggle to choose what kind of woman I want to be doesn’t still torture me.
But the mission of these female-interest publications does not exist unchallenged. In her n+1 article, “So Many Feelings,” writer Molly Fischer broached the question: what happens when female-interest blogs (and all publications for that matter) break with their espoused ideology in favor of being honest? Fischer employs my mainstay, Jezebel.com, as her primary example. The blog started as a shockingly honest account of the female experience, proudly boasting the slogan, “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing.” In its original incarnation, Fischer notes that the site was crass, even disgusting: “Jezebel’s appeal had as much to do with exuberant provocation as it did with inclusion. ‘It was thick and brown and foul,’ [Moe] Tkacik wrote of the liquid that issued from a 10-day-old tampon. ‘I wanted to say it smelled sort of like Vegemite tastes, but that’s too kind.’”
The site’s contributors celebrated being exceptionally inclusive, while maintaining flippant, bad girl personae, an unstable combination that threatened collapse. The tenuous mixture of tones was put to the test at a talk called “Thinking and Drinking” with comedian Lizz Winstead, during which contributors Tracie Egan and Tkacik got wasted and joked about rape and STDs. “Egan said she had never been sexually assaulted because she was ‘smart’ and lived in Williamsburg. Tkacik said that she didn’t report her own date rape because she ‘had better things to do, like drinking more.’ Egan called pulling out ‘the most fun way not to get pregnant.” Now, I am appalled by many of the things the writers said in this interview, but the fact that they were brave enough to speak as women without speaking for the whole gender is admirable and nearly impossible in a society that demands ideological consistency from women who self-identify as feminist or otherwise. But Jezebel did not remain unscathed by their sacrilege, and I lament the disappearance of the bombastic, controversial, and, yes, even at times, hateful Jezebel in favor of the inoffensive pop feminism and “easy indignation” that it features today.
I want to stress that my alarm at this story does not concern whether or not Tracie Egan is or was crude. When a writer like Gawker’s Max Read writes some verging-on-cruel post about a fellow male writer, there’s no narrative that he’s straying from or abiding by. He gets to be an intellect sans associations or loyalties while his female counterparts have been forced to contextualize themselves within the current state of feminism. When Moe Tkacik spoke indelicately about her experience with rape, why was she accused of tarnishing the female sex? Why did I as a high-schooler go on three-hour binges of reading provocateur Tucker Max’s disgusting essays and why has Tucker Max not yet been excoriated like Egan and Tkacik who sheepishly retreated into print media and TV show recaps after their publicity gaff? Why can’t an obnoxious woman be an obnoxious person just as an obnoxious man doesn’t have to fear destroying the good standing of his sex? The efforts of the aforementioned publications to aid in my generation’s attempt at self-definition is at least harmless, if not productive, however, in choosing a publication to associate with (and with it a demographic) society demands that you exist within the parameters that it has set for you. Ultimately, women cannot break free from these imposed ideological constraints until we stop conforming to them.