Image via The Cut
Those who don't know the site by name might recognize its most famous article: "I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life." That viral story sparked a complex conversation about the parameters of #MeToo and what constitutes assault. It detailed the experiences of a woman named Grace who, when on a date with Ansari, felt threatened and demeaned by his coercive actions; and it led to massive backlash against Ansari's career, especially in light of the fact that he often proclaimed himself a staunch feminist.
Ironically, the fact that Ansari branded himself a critically-minded feminist but displayed less-than-feminist behavior in his intimate life is eerily reminiscent of the inner workings of the babe.net office. According to The Cut's Allison P. Davis, office life at babe often continued into bars and parties at night, and the line between professional and romantic life often evaporated as liquor flowed.
As it turned out, a website that branded itself a place "for women who don't give a fuck" was not exempt from actively harming its female employees. Among the morally disconcerting happenings at the office: There were relationships between 27-year-old Joshi Herrmann, founding editor of The Tab (the umbrella media company that owned babe.net), and multiple younger staffers. One staffer said that she was asked to write a personal story about a "walk of shame," even though she had never actually experienced one; another, a black employee, said she was asked to participate in a video series in which she felt like a caricature.
Inevitably, things boiled over. It was about more than the strange office dynamics: babe.net's employees soon grew "mad about the whole power imbalance inherent to working for a website that translated their most intimate experiences and identities and beliefs into clicks." Employees delivered a letter full of complaints, which were ultimately written off as "baseless." Eventually, babe.net closed after failing to secure the funding it required to remain afloat.
Are Women's Sites Still Relevant?
If babe.net's now-private Instagram is a zombie, as Davis writes, then its website is a kind of graveyard. In the ever-changing digital world, the Internet is full of these: repositories of old stories that once desperately fought for engagement of any kind. If you go on babe.net today, you can see the skeletons of posts like, "Why is this egg prettier than me and you," "We spoke with the woman Tek$shi 6ix9ine slept with when she was underage," and—eerily—"Aziz Ansari talks sexual assault allegations for the first time." It's an eclectic array of pieces about makeup, the Kardashians, and hyper-modern feminist critiques, all written in the cynical, dada-esque, and sometimes oddly formal language of the social media age.
Though not directly caused by its workplace culture, babe.net's downfall reveals a lot about the modern media landscape. It reveals that the architects of purportedly feminist content are often swayed by pressures beyond their control, pressures which usually stem from profit made from the stereotypes they set out to combat. "babe.net was created during an era when to be a woman saying just about anything online was now, theoretically, classified as feminist," writes Davis. Its downfall reveals that this kind of "women's media" is a fundamentally flawed brand, especially in a world where the confines of gender are rapidly dissolving and where gender cannot be disconnected from other fields like race and class.
A Women's Site for the Male Gaze
This is not to argue that women's sites are obsolete. In today's world, women-only spaces are necessary and important; and websites like Jezebel, Bitch Media, and The Cut itself frequently release the kind of high-quality, nuanced content that gives voice to a wide variety of people and move away from gendered stereotypes. However, poorly thought-out sites like babe.net frequently pander to gendered stereotypes while working under the guise of feminism, fixating on a brash and narrow vision of female sexuality and manufacturing a niche that compromised the women it claimed to elevate.
From the sound of things, babe.net was manufacturing itself to be a very specific kind of women's site—one mostly focused on women and sex, not women as people—and its office embodied that lifestyle of nihilistic quasi-liberation. According to Chloe, a babe.net writer who eventually quit, "The portrayal of being a woman or woman-identified person on babe was very much through the lens of what Joshi, and by extension the female editors that he had hired, wanted it to be. All of our content just felt very male gaze-y to me," she added. "It was like a woman who was obsessed with having sex with men and performing sex for men."
Her comments reveal that one problem with babe.net was that it mass-marketed women's experiences, distilling their sexual lives into stories aimed at clicks and provocation. This kind of marketing will always skew towards money—and in a world where straight men have most of the capital, inevitably, content will swing back towards the male gaze.
Image by Amy Lombard via The Cut
The Internet's Blind, Binary Rage
On the other hand, it's impossible to say that babe.net was all bad. When identity politics are involved, making binary judgments about whether something is good or bad usually ends up draining issues of their nuance and complexity. So it is with the kind of sexually liberated feminism that powers women's media sites like babe.net and with feminism on the whole. Certainly, babe was not a feminist victory, but feminism shouldn't be a competition in the first place, and writing off babe.net's content as shallow and sexist would be devaluing its writers' and readers' interests, something third-wave feminism has worked hard to undo.
Third-wave feminism has also worked to undo the gender binary. Modern science is more and more certain that gender roles are performative, constructed by society and not innate. So, in a theoretical, ideal world where gender does not confine anyone to anything, women's sites would no longer be relevant.
But in the real world, a persistently gendered one where gender-neutral bathrooms are seen as existential threats, we do need women's sites. We need sites that honor the wholeness of the female experience—and of the femme experience, the female-identifying experience, the trans-man and genderqueer's experience, and even the experience of the straight white man who loves makeup and cries in his bedroom to Billie Eilish.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't, collectively, be really mad at straight white men. It does mean that instead of exclusively focusing on what they've done wrong, there should be a conversation about how they might change and about what consent might look like. There should be conversation about how we might collectively create space for femininity and gender-queerness by changing the structure of our institutions and highly gendered society at large.
It also doesn't mean we can't have sites about makeup and female sexuality. What it does mean is that these issues need to be treated with more nuance, empathy, and care, especially when they veer into territories like sexual assault, and companies that tell these stories should ideally be women-led from the top down and not designed to provoke outrage or amass clicks.
Ultimately, the concept that sexually liberated feminism will somehow circumvent sexism and commodification ignores the fact that we live in a gendered world, and it encourages the kind of workplace culture that brought down babe.net. To move past this, there needs to be a movement away from gender binaries, but this needs to be coupled with structural change that addresses sexism and sexual assault, both in the workplace and out of it.