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.
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.
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There's a big problem with the trailer for Morbius, Sony's upcoming Marvel outing that is definitely not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe even though it has Michael Keaton reprising his role as Vulture (please let us keep our license, Disney!).
See if you can spot it.
MORBIUS - Teaser Trailer www.youtube.com
If you answered, "Sampling Beethoven's 'Für Elise' to line up with blue-tinted action shots is the absolute lowest effort, brain-dead attempt to signify 'gothic vampire movie' in the entire history of movie trailers," you're correct, but that's still not the biggest problem with Morbius. No, the biggest problem is that Morbius is played by Jared Leto.
I don't see Aziz Ansari as a sexual predator
I don't know if I want to write this article.
I don't want to be the woman that defends a sexual predator and I really don't want to be the woman that doesn't believe another woman's account of what happened. The not-believing is half of the problem, it's gross, disturbing, and infuriating. People don't believe women's accounts of violating humiliating incidents. That disbelief, makes the incident seem as if it didn't happen and then the woman is alone with her pain. I have read the articles about Aziz Ansari and I am here to tell the woman who wrote it, Grace (a pseudonym) that I believe you, Grace. I believe every detail you described. Everything Grace described sounds realistic and much like something I have experienced before - at a frighteningly much younger age. And yet…here I go.
I feel like a traitor to women when I admit that at this very moment, with the facts that I have available to me, I don't see Aziz Ansari as a sexual predator or a man I would be scared to be in a room with. I do see him as a man that seemingly behaved in a very unattractive, desperate manner, and I completely understand why Grace was sad, scared, and felt violated. Because of my obsession with critical thinking, and justice, I do feel the need to explore my current understanding of the situation that Grace was in. I want, perhaps, to understand why Ansari can simultaneously be an idiot, sexually and socially challenged, and also, MAYBE NOT a sexual predator. MAYBE.
Have I mentioned that I am scared to write this? That I will one day smack myself on the forehead wondering why I was compelled to write an article that even remotely calls into question a woman's words scares the crap out of me. I need to repeat, Grace, I believe everything you wrote/said/accounted/texted. It's the title "Sexual Assault" that is flagging many of the articles, including your own that I want to better deconstruct, because it's a heavy label that can and should have real consequences. Consequences like legal ones that prevent perpetrators from repeat aggressions. I am writing this article…because I think Aziz Ansari needed to hear everything Grace told him, but I am not yet compelled to understand why he should receive legal recourse. If we call Ansari a perpetrator of sexual assault, we need to recognize that we want legal action taken. I do believe all sexual assault situations should be subject to legal recourse, if the victim wants, and always if it could prevent further illegal acts. This includes ass grabs, inappropriate sexual comments, threats, etc. I don't mean every sexist joke should send someone to jail, but it should have a repercussion. If someone steals a pack of gum from a drug store, there is supposed to be a repercussion. Illegal behavior is illegal for a reason and in our democracy should have corresponding legal recourse. So, the question is -- what recourse does Aziz's actions deserve?
This is the text Grace* sent Aziz Ansari after their date which left her feeling “violated”. She tells Ansari how u… https://t.co/5NICo8OhgP— babe (@babe)1515940919.0
Let's segue to racism for just a second. Gone are the days that progressives don't admit to being occasionally racist; not because of individual racist acts, but because we acknowledge that we participate in racist systems, systems of privilege and systems that benefit you if you are white. Even the most "woke" white person still benefits from racism, like it or not. This doesn't make them a bad person, it makes them a privileged person. What they do with that privilege can be powerful, subversive, and positive. At it's opposite, it can further serve to perpetuate racism and harm. Most white people probably fall somewhere in between that spectrum, not overtly perpetuating racism but not consciously disrupting racist systems or redistributing power. So what is my point? My point is, we live in a world that benefits white people and until you acknowledge this, if you are white, you don't even realize you are participating in racist systems. It's not your fault you are white and born with this privilege, however once someone explains this fact to you, it is your opportunity to disrupt these racist systems, act affirmatively, and do your work to redistribute power. People of color forgive white people every day for messing up and getting it wrong.They also have to deal with processing the difference between dumb white people who just don't get it (I love black people! I had a black roommate in college for a week!) and those who are actively harming them.
Again, what's my point? I'm not entirely sure. I already feel the urge to apologize to all the Graces out there, but I am going to press on. We give leniency to white people, including white women, allowing them to get it wrong, to not understand their white privilege, to not realize how they may have hurt someone's feelings, or frightened people of color with their actions. In this #Metoo movement, I want to dare to ask a scary question: is there room for men to learn? Is there a space for men to realize, maybe for the first time, that they are GETTING IT REALLY WRONG, without being called a perpetrator of sexual assault? Don't get me wrong, I would like legal action to be taken against all child molesters, Harvey Weinsteins, Charlie Roses and every other sexual assaulting predator. I even want Aziz Ansari to be called out for behavior that he didn't realize scared someone. But I also want to talk about the difference between sexual assault and just being an "un-woke" man who has no idea the power he holds when in an apartment, alone, with a woman.
An investigation by The New York Times found allegations stretching back to 1990 about Mr. Weinstein's treatment of women in Hollywood.
Just like white people are born into a system of racial privilege, men are born into a system of gender privilege. Men need to understand that when they sit there at the board room table, in their black suit that likely a woman helped them pick out, at a job they got over hand shakes and golf, they carry a ton of power whether they want to or not. From what I read, Aziz has no game, he sounded desperate and overly eager, but he didn't sound like he knew his date was scared. I'm not mad at Grace. I don't think she "should have" said this or "should have" done that. Grace was raised in a world where being alone in an apartment with a man can mean anything from snuggling on a couch holding hands, to being aggressively violated. Sadly, both scenarios happen to women every day. It's okay for Grace to be disappointed that this man just wanted sex. It's also okay that Aziz just wanted sex, this is not a crime. While it was very annoying to Grace that he kept trying and trying, from what I read, it was just that. It was annoying, disappointing, and not how she hoped the night would go. However, I have no doubt that Aziz has found other women who were thrilled to come back to a famous comedian's apartment and get down to business. It's also okay that Grace was scared, as many men don't just wind up being annoying. Many men do become aggressive when a women says "no" to sex. This does happen all the time.
Guess what I also want to say. IT'S OK IF WOMEN GET IT WRONG. Yep, it's okay if women speak up about things that are not rape, but almost, or things that are not illegal, but just plain felt gross. I was reading some Facebook comments on the Aziz issue and someone wrote something about Aziz basically staying "just inside" the lines with respect to the law. I disagree. I think there will always be people who beg for sex, who try too hard, and who come off as desperate and only interested in one thing. The sad part of this story is that Aziz didn't realize Grace was scared, because likely he has never been scared that a woman was going to rape him. If in his mind he was never going to violate her, so in his mind she was safe. It's just not a great excuse. He should know. But he didn't.
Again, it's okay that Grace called him out. I am not asking us to have a black and white conversation on what men are now allowed to say or do, and please don't jump to "so now basically we can't even ask to have sex?" in a dude-bro accent. You can, and you will. What I am asking for is to understand this gray area. If you are white, or have money, or are a man, you hold invisible power and it is your job to understand this. If you are a man, alone with a woman (or even another man) who doesn't know you well, don't forget we have usually assessed our escape route. We know that chances are we will just talk with you, remain colleagues, or date you, or have consensual sex with you, or whatever the arrangement is supposed to be…but we also know you could rape or kill us if you wanted to. Do you know what that's like? To have a "casual" conversation with someone you wonder these things about? Will this be a fun dinner or will he rape me? Will this be a cool professional opportunity, or will he try and have sex with me? Is he reviewing my resume or my ass? It's confusing, so give some grace to Grace.
Don't be that person who shames Grace. We have been not-believing women for decades, and most sexual aggressors are never prosecuted and most victims say nothing. So I repeat, don't be mad at Grace. We need more women to speak up. For so many years men have abdicated their power to stop sexism, and white people have abdicated their power to disrupt racism. Grace is asking Aziz to do his part. As a feminist, a woman's marching progressive, anti-racist, mother of a son and daughter, I am asking more women to speak up, for all of us to say I HEAR YOU, I BELIEVE YOU. I am also asking us to create a space to understand the difference between the Weinsteins and the Azizes. One used coercion, threats, and manipulation to get what he wanted and one just begged for it and promised nothing, failing to realize his power could be threatening.
If I have offended anyone, including Grace, I am deeply sorry. If you think I have gotten it wrong, I am open to your feedback. If I have missed something, please point it out. My only hope is to focus less on "what counts" as mentionable and reportable. I hate that a woman needs to have corroborative evidence before she feels entitled to talk about a terrible night. Less evidence, more believing. Men- know your power and know the power of the fellow men in your life. Disrupt this power and privilege.
To the Graces in this world- please keep speaking up. I believe you. To the Azizes in this world- maybe work on your game and when it's not working, know when to help her out the door. Not in a patronizing way, but in a way that says, I want to get laid, you don't, so let's call it a night.
By Rachel Hall, Rachel has a Masters in Cultural Gender Studies, and a BA in Communication & Culture, is a Certified Life Coach, and can often be found hiding in her laundry room from her two children. More about her on her website.
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