Author Archives

Soraya Roberts
I am a writer based in Toronto and the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life.

‘We Are All Responsible’: How #MeToo Rejects the Bystander Effect

CSA Archive / Getty, Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (2,357 words)

Halfway through Dirty John, the Bravo series based on the life of sociopathic con artist John Meehan, the titular character’s first wife, having discovered her husband of several years has been cheating and shooting up, meets one of his friends in a diner. Sitting stone-faced across from her husband’s grinning college buddy, she learns how “Dirty John” got his nickname through an ever-expanding laundry list of scams his classmates witnessed: being a “dog” with women, conning old people, credit card fraud, insurance fraud. She says nothing, but it’s clear from her face that she is getting progressively more enraged at this man for having repeatedly stood by and watched as the father of her children mistreated a succession of people. At one point, it seems to kind of dawn on the guy that the fruits of his failure to act might in fact be sitting right in front of him, so he issues a half-assed mea culpa: “I lived with him that year and we had good times, or whatever, but he never talked about things and I never asked.” Read more…

Teen Girls Finally Get to Touch Themselves

Netflix / Netflix / Hulu

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,569 words)

There was a time when people believed masturbating would leave them blind, hairy-palmed, and STD-riddled (okay, the last one was me — I was a kid in the nineties). The ancient Sumerians were down with it — for both men and women — but two centuries of moralists ruined masturbation for everyone. Even now, the act isn’t especially celebrated, particularly if you’re a girl. It’s hard not to think of boys specifically when studies show that kids learn to jerk off from their friends and the media, rather than from their parents or schools. And while I can’t think of one teen movie where a boy isn’t caught with their hands full (of semen), I can barely think of one where a girl is. I read Deenie like everyone else — apparently Judy Blume’s balls-out approach to female masturbation is still rare in YA 46 years later — but there was a dearth of girls getting themselves off in pop culture and, perhaps accordingly, a dearth of girls talking about it in my actual life. This made me feel all those things that have since become stereotypical themes when it comes to women and masturbation: shame, guilt, like there was something wrong with me.

Read more…

The New Scabs: Stars Who Cross the Picket Line

Invision / AP, Matt Rourke / AP, MediaPunch / AP

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,439 words)

“Maroon 5 is just Red Hot Chili Peppers for virgins.” “This is the Fyre Festival of halftime shows.” “Anyone else think Adam Levine looks like an Ed Hardy T-shirt?” The Super Bowl halftime show was worth it for the social media stream it kicked off; otherwise, it was notable only for the fact that Maroon 5 (along with Big Boi and Travis Scott) turned up at all when so many others (Rihanna and Pink and Cardi B) turned the gig down. “I got to sacrifice a lot of money to perform,” Cardi B said. “But there’s a man who sacrificed his job for us, so we got to stand behind him.” Though she ended up appearing in a Pepsi commercial anyway, Cardi’s heart seemed to be in the right place, which is to say the place where protesting injustice is an obligation rather than a choice (of her other appearances around the Super Bowl, she said, “if the NFL could benefit off from us, then I’m going to benefit off y’all”). The man she was referring to was, of course, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee in 2016 during the national anthem to protest systemic oppression in America and has gone unsigned since opting out of his contract. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” the ex-San Francisco 49er said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Read more…

The Lost Boys of #MeToo

Lee Roth / AP, Herman / Corbis, Dave Hogan / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)

At the end of An Open Secret, the 2015 documentary by Amy J. Berg about child sex abuse in Hollywood, a card reads: “The filmmakers emphasize that this is not a gender based issue. We chose to tell these specific stories, but they are representations of a greater issue that affects both boys and girls.” It was an odd thing to read after watching a 99-minute film — one that could not secure a distributor and was self-released on Vimeo — in which no girls were mentioned. Whether or not it was intentional, the statement had the effect of equating the two genders, erasing any nuance that might exist in a male victim versus a female victim. It leaves the impression that the abuse we predominantly talk about  which, in our current climate, targets girls and women  is the standard. So the way girls and women are mistreated and how they react to this mistreatment is how all of us do. The fallout from Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and R. Kelly is the fallout from Michael Jackson and Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer and Gary Goddard. Read more…

The Classroom Origins of Toxic Masculinity

KC Noland / Youtube, Saul Loeb / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 8 minutes (1,974 words)

Covington Catholic High School, St. Michael’s College School, Georgetown Preparatory School. All three are Catholic, mostly white, mostly rich, all-boys, and all three have recently made the news. At Covington, student Nick Sandmann went viral after a video emerged showing him, surrounded by a bunch of white classmates in the same glaring MAGA hats fresh off the same anti-abortion rally, mocking Native American Indigenous Peoples March attendee Nathan Phillips. At St. Mike’s school — Canadian, suggesting we may be less nice than we are similar — several students were charged after a video appeared on social media in which their fellow classmates were assaulted, one with a broomstick. Eight boys were eventually expelled after several incidents were investigated, all, according to reports, involving football and basketball players. Georgetown Prep, meanwhile, made the news when Christine Blasey Ford accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers while fellow Georgetown student Mark Judge watched. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said. The quote reverberated across social media once again after the Covington video went viral.

Read more…

True Crime and the Trash Balance

Netflix, Noam Galai / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 9 minutes (2,514 words)

In his satirical 1827 essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” Thomas de Quincey called himself a connoisseur of murder before assuring us he hadn’t actually committed one himself. In her new book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, late author Michelle McNamara also ensures that we know her interest is personal, not prurient (it originated with an unsolved crime in her childhood neighborhood). Most of us have excuses for our interest in true crime, as though enjoying it offered real insight into our own predilections. The quasi-religious impulse to consider this a perversion of society’s innate morality has led to a flurry of theories about the source of our fascination, with four main hypotheses recurring: true crime can be a cathartic conduit for our primal urges, a source of schadenfreude, a controlled environment to experience the thrill of fear, and way to arm us (women particularly) with the knowledge to keep ourselves safe. A psychologist, speaking to NPR in 2009, provided the perfect précis: “our fascination with crime is equaled by our fear of crime. It’s two sides of the same story.”

True crime is less embarrassing, like so many things, when it’s scrubbed clean. On my shelf, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping and Dave Cullen’s Columbine stick out for how unobtrusive they are amidst the loudly stylized spines of Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, among others. With their unadorned print (no drips) and minimalist art (no claret), these tasteful soft covers pass for literature. They are comparable to “prestige” podcasts like Serial and S-Town and series like Making a Murderer and The Keepers, Netflix shows in which the classic hallmarks of true crime programs — overly explicit, overly emotive — are massaged into character-driven narratives for the graduate set. In the midst of this influx of classy crime content, watching throwbacks like Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, in which survivors are tasked with reliving their abuse and tear-stained grief is the closeup du jour, starts to feel like an ignominious act.

In 2016, at the beginning of the true crime renaissance, The New Yorker asked Popular Crime author Bill James whether, regardless of the highbrow livery, it was fundamentally “distasteful” (New Yorker for “trashy”) to transform tragedy into entertainment. “Well, certainly there is something distasteful about it,” James said, but, “When there is a car wreck, we ask what happened to cause the car wreck.” That is to say: The crime itself is distasteful (or trashy), therefore it’s necessarily distasteful (or trashy) when we address it. So, either we can refuse to interrogate crime, full stop, or we can ensure that the grief we cause is for a greater good. It is a sort of trash balance — less exploitation, more justice — with only one bad ending instead of two.

* * *

True crime was lurid straight out of the birth canal. Born in the mid-sixteenth century, it was the offspring of

Elizabeth Brownrigg, seen here in action, was hanged in 1767 after one of her abused servants, Mary Clifford, died from her injuries. (Hulton Archive / Getty)

two relatively new developments: criminal justice and the printing press. Historic crime reports’ graphic nature is typically associated with a depravity believed to appeal to the unrefined, uneducated, and unmoneyed, but that was not the case with these early publications. Though they were often branded with explicit woodcuts that would have been understandable to even the illiterate, they also boasted rhyming text and only went to those who could afford them, predominantly the upper echelons. In “True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism,” published in The American Historical Review, Joy Wiltenburg writes that “emotive language, direct dialogue, building of suspense through circumstantial detail, and graphic description of bloody violence were common in the genre.”

Favored cases were in-family and usually involved multiple deaths. The focus was on the victims, while the moral of the story was that sin begat punishment. “The combination of truth with appeals to the heart underlined the religious focus of these works,” writes Wiltenburg. “Virtually all crime accounts published during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries connected their stories with an edifying Christian message.” This message associated brutality with the devil and positioned public order as the path to virtue. “[Sensationalism] has had religious, political, and cultural impact,” Wilternburg sums up, “promoting the ready acceptance of punitive government actions, the advancement of religious agendas, the internalization of mainstream emotional expectations, the habit of vicarious emotional experience, and the focus on distinctive individual identity.”

With a reputation for being insensitive to and financially exploiting both criminals and their victims, true crime is often accused of sensationalism, but that term wasn’t coined until the 19th century, a time that favored rational thought over the emotive prose of journalists. “While sexual scandals and other shocking events have become staples of modern sensationalism,” writes Wiltenburg, “its chief focus has always been crime, especially the most bloody and horrifying of murders.” The 1800s also gave us our first detectives, who inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin stories and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, the latter not only centering crime fiction as a genre, but granting it a modicum of respectability. The gutter was still within spitting distance, though. Penny dreadfuls arrived — demon barber Sweeney Todd in tow — as early versions of popular culture in the form cheap mass-produced serials for young, increasingly literate working-class men, featuring salacious gore; like the true crime paperbacks of today, they supplied affordable, digestible scandal to entertain tired people with no time. The last gasp of the penny dreadful coincided with the precursor to O.J. Simpson’s so-called trial of the century: The Lizzie Borden case. The 32-year-old Massachusetts woman’s trial for the axe murder of her parents spawned a media phenomenon and firmly established the mass appeal of true crime. The next century saw the trash-fired genre shooting off in various directions, from tabloids like The National Enquirer to paperbacks like Lacey Fosburgh’s Closing Time to shows like America’s Most Wanted.

Then there was In Cold Blood.

“Until one morning in mid-November 1959, few Americans — in fact, few Kansans — had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” Before In Cold Blood, this is not how real crime stories read. What Arthur Conan Doyle did for crime fiction, Truman Capote did for true crime. His 1965 experiment was released as a four-part serial in The New Yorker and became the reference point for every other high-brow true crime work in every other medium. “The motivating factor in my choice of material — that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case — was altogether literary,” Capote told The New York Times. “It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.” He believed only those with the “fictional technical equipment” — novelists, not journalists — like him could do it. The factual inaccuracies that have since emerged suggest that Capote’s belief in his own skills — he neither taped nor took notes during interviews — were as sensational as the genre he was hoping to reinvent. His book is still, however, considered the pinnacle of crime lit.

It was Capote’s book that the Times referred to when designating Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line a “nonfiction feature film,” per its distributors, in 1988. This exercise in lyrical fact was groundbreaking in its own right: an elegant piece of true crime as an advocacy tool. The subject of a false conviction, Randall Dale Adams had his case thrown out with the help of evidence Morris uncovered. It’s a straight shot from The Thin Blue Line to Serial, which blew up true crime podcasting in 2014. But while an appeal followed this program’s highly subjective long-form reexamination of Adnan Syed’s conviction for killing Baltimore teen Hae Min Lee in 1999, it was Capote — “a leap in narrative innovation on the scale of In Cold Blood” — who was once again cited, this time in The New Yorker. Serial’s executive producer has said they were trying to avoid an exploitative “Nancy Grace type of a titillating thing,” but the program was serialized with its own version of a cliffhanger each week, and provided its own hero, the avatar in our ears, reporter Sarah Koenig. Yet Koenig bristled at the suggestion by the Times’ Magazine that this was entertainment. “I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “I’m still reporting.”

As though the two were mutually exclusive. As though true crime could only be trash if it were

MP Christopher Atkinson in a pillory (with his hat) in London in 1783 after being convicted of perjury. (Hulton Archive / Getty)

entertainment, and could only be entertainment if it weren’t journalism. Of course, this negates the nature of media. To entertain — to entertain a thought, for instance — is merely to take it into consideration, to allow it to hold one’s attention. Journalism is made to entertain; if it weren’t, reports would not be called “stories” and there would be no need for inverted triangles or kickers or pull quotes or anything else to catch our attention. Because to deliver the news there has to be someone to deliver it to, and that necessitates their entertainment. Otherwise the news is nothing but fact; there is no story.

* * *

“Many of the differences between trash culture and high culture show only that storytelling adapts to changing economic, social and political conditions,” Richard Keller Simon writes in Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition. It’s something to consider when watching Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly. The series was produced by a network for women branded by its schlocky aesthetic and penchant for frothy romance. An exec at Lifetime has admitted it has “erred on the tabloid side” and Surviving R. Kelly, which has a number of black women recounting the decades of abuse they say the singer has inflicted on them, exhibits the familiar tropes: the inflated score, the voyeuristic set pieces, the abused women on display. In an interview with Complex earlier this month, showrunner dream hampton revealed that she received a number of notes from Lifetime and that she was pushed to find more victims. “I didn’t like the salaciousness of stacking up all of these people who survived him,” she said, “but I got the corroboration part.” The result is a series that orchestrates rescue attempts and highlights the explicitness of Kelly’s brutality, while only gesturing vaguely at the cottage industry he has fostered over the past three decades in order to victimize black women and at our collective failure to see these women as victims at all.

When I watched it, I couldn’t shake a feeling of ickiness, particularly when one of the victims was asked to describe her abuse and dissolved into tears. We didn’t need to see that scene from the pee tape so many times, we didn’t need a tour by one victim of the room where she was allegedly tortured, we didn’t need to watch as one mother reunited with her daughter. (I’m not even including the questionable stylistic choices). The whole endeavor read trashy, old-school Lifetime. “I saw someone kind of try to drag me about why isn’t this on something more premium like Netflix. But this to me is the perfect place for it,” hampton told Complex. “I know that women watch Lifetime, and that black women make up the majority of those viewers.” Reading this made me doubly uncomfortable. It suggested that to get black women’s attention you had to feed them trash. And, okay, maybe black women weren’t trying to mute R. Kelly over The Chicago Sun-Times’ original reporting, but none of us were! The world has changed since 2002, and all of us — including black women — have become more sophisticated about predation.

“The average American today has greater familiarity with the legal process, thanks in part to procedural dramas and the round-the-clock media coverage of splashy crimes that began with the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s,” writes Lenika Cruz in The Atlantic. “And people are more aware than ever of flaws in the criminal-justice system, including police brutality and wrongful convictions.” This means that true crime has had to hustle to keep up with its audience, reframing from the crime itself to seeking its closure. NPR noticed the new true crime formula in 2015, with programs like Serial and HBO’s The Jinx (and later Netflix’s Making a Murderer and APM’s In the Dark) concentrating on ongoing cases that could be affected by new reporting. Andrew Jarecki, director of The Jinx, called this subject matter “live ball,” and so here we are in the live-ball era of true crime in which Robert Durst literally burps up a confession on camera before he is charged with murder. “Can the genre sustain this? Can they really sustain true crime as an advocacy medium?” Michael Arntfield, founder of the Cold Case Society, asked The Pacific Standard. “The success and the legitimacy of the medium hinges on being able to stay within this framework of advocacy ahead of strictly sensationalism or profitability.”

But even advocacy has its limits. Netflix’s runaway success Making a Murder eschewed Serial-like narration and Jinx-like reenactments, but contorted almost 700 hours of footage into supporting a theory that the filmmakers had already formulated, that convicted murderer Steven Avery was innocent despite everything pointing to the contrary. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos told the Times they secured interviews where others didn’t because of their “tempered approach.” Like those books on my shelf, this refined series passed for high culture.

The most balanced true crime isn’t actually true crime. Last year, American Public Media launched the second season of their hit podcast In the Dark, hosted by Madeleine Baran. Over 11 episodes, it examined the six trials of Curtis Flowers for the same murders. Even though the precipitating incident was the crime, the attention was on everything else; the reporting team embedded itself in Flowers’ Mississippi hometown for a year, ultimately producing not only a strong — dare I say entertaining? — sense of place, but a rigorous analysis of the systemic failures of the investigation. “For us as reporters, we’re here to look at the people in power and look at the systems in place that raise questions about whether or not the criminal justice system is fair, whether it is just using facts,” Baran told NPR. “So what that results in is not our place to say. But certainly, in this case, what we’ve shown is that the evidence against Curtis Flowers is weak. So this becomes a question now for the courts.” While other podcasts rely on their relatability, this one doesn’t have to — the story is enough. In the aftermath of Baran’s team’s exhaustive reporting, the Supreme Court has agreed to reconsider Flowers’ conviction. It is a rare case in which the balance seems to be moot. It’s all justice.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

The Laws of the Awards Podium Protest

Getty Historical, John Shearer / AP, Matt Sayles / Invision / AP, Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 10 minutes (2,437 words)

Imagine Bradley Cooper won the Oscar for A Star Is Born. And imagine that, in his place, a beautiful young Mexican woman in traditional huipil dress — white tunic, floral embroidery — calmly approached the podium and held up her hand to block the award being extended to her. Imagine that woman stood at the microphone and told a room full of Hollywood celebrities and an audience of millions, “Bradley Cooper very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award and the reasons for this are the treatment of Mexicans today by America.” What would the response be? Would they boo like they did in 1973 when Marlon Brando sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather on his behalf and she basically said those same words but swap out Mexicans for Native Americans? Since then the Hollywood awards season podium has increasingly become a place of protest, though not without some parameters. It would not be unexpected over the next two months to see a woman of color holding the industry accountable on stage — Regina King did just that last week at the Golden Globes — but seeing a white man — a representative of the population largely responsible for oppression within Hollywood — addressing not only the problems within his world but his own complicity in it? That’s not the way things are done. But to quote Cooper himself in A Star is Born: “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” Read more…

How Famous Women Clean Up After Men

Evan Agostini, Invision, AP / Jordan Strauss, Invision, AP / Evan Agostini, Invision, AP

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 8 minutes (2,007 words)

She looks like your mom. The way she does when you’ve fucked up. She’s already shaking her head before he comes out. He knows he’s done something wrong. She does too. And when he finally shows up her anger is as hot as the arterial hue of the set around her. “Take Me Back Cardi,” says the flower display he has rolled out into the middle of her performance — a request, but not really. This is a declaration, the kind of display you see in a children’s parade. Because that’s what this is: infantile and garish and impersonal. And when Offset advances, his head bowed, holding a bouquet of white flowers I could never afford, his wife, mid-concert, is not having it. You can’t hear her, but you can see her holding up that index finger, and you can read those lips: “Stop.” But the damage is done.

Though the circumstances vary, within days of each other three famous men — Offset, Pete Davidson, and Kanye West — expressed what could be uncharitably characterized as the male version of hysteria (prostacea?) this past weekend. And in each case, the women who love them — Cardi B, Ariana Grande, and Kim Kardashian West, respectively — bore part of the burden. All three of these famous women showed up to defuse the situation, whether they were still with the man in question or not. Because, despite their celebrity and their power, social mores restrict all of them to a familiar script: when men act up, women clean up.

        * * *

It took less than a year for Offset to fuck up. In December 2017, a sex tape surfaced purportedly showing him in bed with a woman who was not his wife. In a Rolling Stone cover story published soon after (he appeared alongside his group, Migos), he refused to discuss it. “It’s my real life,” he said. “It ain’t no gig. It ain’t no fucking game, you know what I’m saying?” What Offset was saying was that he could choose not to say anything, while his fiancée was bombarded with questions — “didnt he cheat on u like 14 times (this year)? ” “yoooo why is cardi b still with loser ass offset how many times does he need to cheat on you sis”  — about why she continued to be with an unfaithful deadbeat. And it was said wife, Cardi B, who finally addressed it in her Cosmopolitan cover. “I’m going to take my time, and I’m going to decide,” she said. “It’s not right, what he fucking did—but people don’t know what I did, ’cause I ain’t no angel.” But she wasn’t the one with a (reportedly) leaked sex tape. And the issue wasn’t really misbehavior. It was that a man in a public relationship was once again messing up and leaving the woman to tidy up after him.

Nor did it seem entirely true that Offset didn’t consider it a “fucking game.” Earlier this month, Cardi B posted a video on Instagram stating that the couple had split. She spoke diplomatically — “I guess we just grew out of love” — and praised her ex despite the circumstances. Offest issued a glib comment in response, “Y’all won,” which appeared to shift the onus from him to the public. A few days later he tweeted at this nebulous populace again: “FUCK YALL I MISS CARDI.” He then posted a birthday video in which he stated his one wish was to reunite with Cardi B along with one of those I’m-sorry-you-felt-bad non-apologies: “I want to apologize to you Cardi, you know I embarrassed you, I made you a little crazy,” “I apologize for breaking your heart.”

A day later Offset crashed his wife’s gig headlining the Rolling Loud festival (she was the first woman to do so). “All of my wrongs have been made public,” he tweeted, “i figure it’s only right that my apologies are made public too.” The calculus smacked inconsiderate — Offset seemed to be only thinking about himself, how gracious he was being, and not about Cardi B, how his intrusion affected her, how it interrupted her work, how it dumped his emotional distress on her doorstep. That was for her to worry about.

The predominant public reaction to Offset was that he was being manipulative, swiping the spotlight and interrupting a woman on the job — “It’s toxic because it is somebody who has created the negativity in the situation trying to control the situation,” actress Amanda Seales said on Instagram — while a minority of famous men, including 50 Cent, The Game, and John Mayer, argued that Cardi B should take him back. Once again, she was left to handle the fallout. Even before she had removed her costume, the exhausted “Be Careful” rapper went on Instagram live backstage to defend her ex. “Even though I’m hurt and I’m like going through a fucked up stage right now,” she said, “I don’t want nobody fucking talking crazy about my baby father neither.” That same night, she posted another video in which she mentioned Pete Davidson, who had written what many assumed to be a suicide note earlier in the day: “I wouldn’t want my baby father to have that feeling because of millions of people be bashing him every day.”

Ariana Grande is to Pete Davidson what Cardi B is to Offset. The 25-year-old pop star has been mythologized as a maternal figure ever since her response to the Manchester bombing. At that time, there was a patronizing tenor to the accolades she received about her grace, as though she were as responsible as the president to heal a nation. And she embodied that same spirit for her ex. In early December, Davidson, who was recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, posted an emotional message on Instagram about his state of mind in the wake of his split from Grande (they started dating in May, were engaged in June, and broke up in October). “I’m trying to understand how when something happens to a guy the whole entire world just trashes him without any facts or frame of reference,” he wrote. Grande, whose last boyfriend Mac Miller died in September of an accidental overdose, shared the note and politely reminded everyone to be kind, despite having just one month prior been annoyed with Davidson’s Saturday Night Live joke about their failed engagement. “i care deeply about pete and his health,” she wrote. “i’m asking you to please be gentler with others, even on the internet.” Then, just this past weekend, Davidson, who has been open about a past suicide attempt, set off alarms with another demonstrative Instagram post. “i really don’t want to be on this earth anymore,” it read. “i’m doing my best to stay here for you but i actually don’t know how much longer i can last.” Grande, who had been blocked by her ex on social media, rushed to the SNL set. “I know u have everyone u need and that’s not me, but i’m here too,” she tweeted. (Davidson reportedly refused to see her.)

Perhaps the most beleaguered constituent of celebrity coupledom is Kim Kardashian West, though she claims to simply be returning the favor: “He’s put himself up against the world for me when everyone told him, ‘You cannot date a girl with a sex tape. You cannot date a reality-show girl. This is gonna ruin your career.'” But even if a relationship can be measured as a series of transactions, she has paid off her debt to Kanye West multiple times over. Earlier this year Kardashian West defended her husband, who has claimed he was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, as a “free thinker” amid reports that his mental health was in disarray following a split with his manager and lawyer. When West more recently ranted on Twitter about Drake, claiming that the Canadian rapper had threatened him, his wife tweeted at said rapper, “Never threaten my husband or our family. He paved the way for there to be a Drake.” She has even defended West against mere trifles: after he was called out for using his phone at a Broadway show, Kardashian West explained that he was just taking notes. But her most labor-intensive support followed West’s controversial visit to the White House in October, red MAGA hat in tow. In an interview with CNN’s Van Jones, the reality megastar was tasked with interpreting her husband’s “confusing” meeting rather than talking about her own work. “I feel like he’s very misunderstood and the worst communicator,” she said. Jones praised her for her devotion, dubbing her “the Kanye translator.”

* * *

“I am not a babysitter or a mother,” Ariana Grande proclaimed in May. She tweeted the pronouncement after she was blamed for ex Mac Miller’s car accident (the charge: she had broken up with him and moved on to Davidson). Grande was not having it: “shaming / blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem.” This problem will be familiar to those who are aware of the gendered reality of “emotional labor,” a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983 to refer to the management of feelings in the context of paid employment (the service industry, for instance). Though the expression has become a catchall for every type of emotional admin performed by women, Grande is referring specifically to another Hochschild term, “emotion work”:  This is the support women provide, primarily in their close relationships, that causes needless distress to them. “In general, we gender emotions in our society by continuing to reinforce the false idea that women are always, naturally and biologically able to feel, express, and manage our emotions better than men,” sociologist Dr. Lisa Huebner told Gemma Hartley, who expanded this line of thinking in her 2018 book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. “We find all kinds of ways in society to ensure that girls and women are responsible for emotions and, then, men get a pass.”

Within this paradigm, a number of famous women have defended not just their significant others but their male friends over #MeToo claims. Most recently, a number of actresses have emerged to support NCIS star Michael Weatherly over sexual harassment claims made by actress Eliza Dushku. Lena Dunham has also apologized for defending Girls writer Murray Miller against a sexual assault accusation after claiming “insider knowledge” she didn’t in fact possess. “I had actually internalized the dominant male agenda that asks us to defend it no matter what, protect it no matter what,” she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, introducing the issue she guest edited. The converse rarely applies — unruly women, like Azealia Banks or Amanda Bynes, are rarely publicly defended by men. To this day, Sean Young is remembered primarily for her alleged harassment of James Woods in 1988 rather than her performances. Other women, like Lindsay Lohan and Amber Heard, must defend themselves. I’m sure there are men who have supported women who act out the way Cardi B supports Offset, Ariana Grande supports Pete Davidson, and Kim Kardashian West supports Kanye West, but I consume media for a living and I literally can’t think of any.

This phenomenon is not restricted to celebrities, of course. It contaminates every realm, from politics (see Ashley and Brett Kavanaugh) to tech (see Grimes and Elon Musk). Emotion work implicates all women in the downfall of their significant others (when men triumph, women are rarely given the same credit) and monopolizes the time and energy they could be providing their own work — it compromises women not only personally but professionally. Which is not to say that emotion work should transcend gender: rather, it should not be the norm for anyone. By taking responsibility for our own behavior, we release those around us from a life of hard labor on our behalf. “The solution is not for men and women to share alienated work,” Hochschild told The Atlantic. “The solution is for men and women to share enchanted work. These are expressions of love.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Hollywood and the New Female Grotesque

Lionsgate / Element Pictures / PalmStar Media

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 8 minutes (2,206 words)

The Favourite does not take its women at face value. Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist tragicomedy has Olivia Colman starring as Queen Anne, a crumbling presence plagued by illness and an infantile disposition, neither of which stop her from playing magical beds with her two favorites, right hand woman Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and scheming servant Abigail (Emma Stone). This is not the stuff of the male gaze, though a male is gazing: it is over the top, tilting-into-farce, Grand Guignol panto. In one scene, Colman’s doleful Anne, secluded in her bedroom, morosely sticks a fork into a banquet-sized blue cake, shoves it into her mouth, vomits into a vase (everyone vomits into vases in this film) and then, wet bits of blue staining her mouth, acid-sweet bile in ours, takes another mouthful of that same cake. It’s gloriously grotesque.

The other two actresses are burlesque in a different way. Weisz is dragged so determinedly across the screen by a well-meaning horse that her beauty is deformed into a fulvous pulp. As for Stone, those cartoon-sized eyes are almost beside the point, which is her mouth contorting into various exclamations. They are united by the fact that their muddy, beaten, twisted faces always return to an alluring resting state (scars notwithstanding). Since Hollywood continues to celebrate beautiful women for transforming into ugly women — see Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, Patricia Arquette in Escape at Dannemora, Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots — these actresses can seduce us with their momentary lack of vanity while leaving us secure in the knowledge that they remain appealing.

But this year three actresses are cementing another tradition. Colman, Toni Collette in Hereditary, and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are rewarded not for mutating, but for being, and not just for being, but expanding the “ugly” space in which they dwell to encroach on the sprawling establishment. This is something of a dual subversion: Not only do these women fail to meet Hollywood’s standards, they are lauded for pushing their undesirability to the extreme. It is the new female grotesque, and it supplants our idea of what a woman should be with what she is.

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Five years ago, Colman was passed over by America. In 2013, Fox announced the network was developing a remake of Broadchurch, the British series in which Colman and David Tennant play detectives investigating a child murder in a small coastal town. While Tennant reprised his role in the U.S. version, Colman wasn’t even asked. She was instead replaced by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, six years older but also blonder and with a face that wouldn’t be out of place behind a Fox News desk. Colman reportedly said in response, “if Hollywood calls, I’m going, but I can also see why they haven’t called. I eat a bit too much, my teeth aren’t perfect, I’ve got eye bags. I look like a normal 39-year-old woman — but in England no one minds that.”

It says something about Colman that despite this blatant rejection, she leaned further into normalcy. The now-44-year-old actress put on another 35 pounds to play the imperious, mercurial Queen Anne. “I much prefer these sorts of roles because there is no pressure to be something you are not, and I am obviously not glamorous,” she told the Independent. “For Anne, I wasn’t meant to look nice or be nice, and it was liberating and brilliant.” That her approach is now being praised by the same system that initially punished her for it, suggests that England is no longer the only place where normal can not only be acceptable, but preferable.

Straining to think of farcical performances equivalent to Colman’s in The Favourite, I could only come up with this: “You’re terrible, Muriel.” In the Australian film that made her famous, 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, Toni Collette played the homely titular anti-heroine in garish red lipstick, leopard print, and a side ponytail. In one scene, four of her friends, all of whom look like various Barbie collectibles, break up with her because she is “fat” and unstylish. “You bring us down, Muriel,” one of them says as Collette’s mouth slowly deforms into a grimace and she performs the nonpareil ugly cry: loud bawling, mouth open, teeth out, tongue out, lipstick smearing. “I’m not nothing,” she wails.

Her ascent was confirmation. The role won Collette a couple of awards and eventually landed her where she is today, in Hereditary, that same elastic face rewarded for its encapsulation of abject grief. In one scene, her son, sensing she is angry with him, asks that she release herself from her inner burden. And she does; after she yells wildly, we watch her searing hatred and anger slip into sadness, her face dragged down to hell.  As Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety, “She plays Annie as a woman who begins to wear her buried rage and guilt on the outside. It pours out of her, as if she were “possessed,” and indeed she is — but by what, or whom?” This spectacle of disfigurement helps to reframe the way in which women are allowed to express emotion, the preservation of allure  — “I don’t want to cry, my mascara will run” — shouted down into oblivion.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? yields a more quietly ugly performance. Melissa McCarthy plays serial forger Lee Israel as a dyspeptic alcoholic with a shapeless haircut, no makeup, and a perpetual frown — even her smile looks like a scowl. Though the Gilmore Girls alum is known for her jovial on-screen presence, her performance as Lee is a throwback to the role that made her famous, the oversexed, mannish Megan in Bridesmaids. There, she chewed the scenery. Here she just spreads out in it. “She cares about her intellect more than her appearance and doesn’t care about the things that we assign to women as what they’re supposed to be interested in,” director Marielle Heller has said of the character. In McCarthy’s hands, Lee is not particularly likable, but she is understandable. One wonders what she would have been in original star Julianne Moore’s — would the apartment riddled with cat shit have rung false?

Despite her toxicity, McCarthy’s Lee is not drawn asexual. She has a sweet flirtation with a woman who runs a bookstore (Dolly Wells), though her surprise at her interest and the fact that it never progresses past one date does paint her love life as unsuccessful. Still, we’ve come a long way since 1991, when Kathy Bates won the Oscar for best actress by playing a virginal psychopath in Misery. The pre-stan “number one fan” of novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), her character, Annie Wilkes, is a milk-fed matron who turns on a dime, refuses to swear, and wears her hair in a clip paired with pinafores. Her ability to juggle G-rated phrases like “dirty birdy” with X-rated torture makes her one of the top villains of all time, though there remains a superficiality to her ferocity. When Misery moved to Broadway three years ago, Julia Roberts was considered for the lead, but, according to Lisa Rogak’s Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, the author nixed the idea, describing Annie as simply “a brawny woman who can sling a guy around, not a pixie.” Still, Bates, who had been acting for decades, competed with Roberts and Pretty Woman for the best actress Oscar in 1991 — and won. “I’d like to thank the Academy,” she said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to say that.”

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The same year Bates won for Misery, Whoopi Goldberg did for Ghost, heralding work by actresses of color which would in some ways be even more revolutionary. The only black woman nominated for best supporting actress that year, Goldberg took home the trophy for playing Oda Mae Brown, a snake-oil psychic who can actually commune with the dead. Though Goldberg was an established actress by that time and had already been nominated for an Oscar for The Color Purple, this was as rare a role for black women in general as it was for her. Instead of being straight drama or straight comedy, as Goldberg was used to, Oda Mae seamlessly threaded the absurd through the serious. Arriving 40 minutes in, she yanks Ghost out from under its beautiful white leads (“Wanna kiss my butt?”) with her voluminous hair, scene-stealing outfits, foul mouth, and resting wry face.

The quintessential Oda Mae moment comes when she is asked by ghost Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) to withdraw $4 million of blood money from the bank. She arrives in her Sunday best looking like a fuchsia peacock, complete with jaunty pillbox hat and matching clutch (white gloves included). Buoyed by the prospect of becoming a millionairess, she motors out of the bank high on adrenalin only to be told by Sam that she has to pass on the money. He points out a church stand — “I know you don’t think I’m giving this $4 million to a bunch’a nuns!” — and she hands the money over in bad grace before walking off in a huff. Sam watches her go with a beatific expression on his face. “I think you’re wonderful Oda Mae,” he calls. At that she turns around, in the middle of a busy road, her legs almost in gridiron hut stance, and spits in his general direction. Then she harumphs away, holding her purse like a dejected football player cradling his loss.

There are two kinds of performances by black actresses that tend to be lauded by the Academy. Since Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Oscar in 1939 for Gone with the Wind, the preference has been for less Dorothy Dandridge-looking women in morally superior “Mammy” roles, such as Octavia Spencer’s turns in The Help and The Shape of Water. When black women are considered traditionally beautiful, they tend to be recognized by the Academy for being tortured, ravaged — Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Naomie Harris in Moonlight. It’s okay to be less appealing, as long as you’re a symbol of virtue or remain appealing out of costume. God help you if you’re a black woman who is deemed unattractive off screen and you have no redeeming qualities on screen either.

Mo’Nique became the rare exception in 2010 after playing the repellent abusive mother of the titular Precious. Having constructed her career on raunchy stand-up that had an enormous following in the black community (though, as the Netflix debacle suggests, that stature matters less to its white executives), Mo’Nique dropped her trademark hair and makeup to sweat through a camisole and snarl at Gabourey Sidibe. Despite her character’s almost unbelievable vileness, there was a palatability to the “poor black violent single mother” trope for a white audience (and Academy) more familiar with racial stereotypes than reality. But it didn’t come in a presentable package. Mo’Nique was too much — too loud, too assertive, too entitled. In the end her win was overshadowed by the frivolous controversy that ensued when she refused to campaign — “You want me to campaign for an award — and I say this with all the humility in the world — but you want me to campaign for an award that I didn’t ask for?” — which is why, seven years after her win, it made sense that she didn’t feel she owed much to Hollywood. “I think a big highlight for me was when they called me for the first time for the NAACP Image Awards,” she told Variety. “Because as a little girl, I didn’t see people like me receiving the Oscar.”

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In her seminal 1994 book The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, Modernity, Mary Russo outlined the kind of women our culture embraces. “The classical body is transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with ‘high’ or official culture,” she wrote. “The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple and changing; it is identified with non-official “low” culture . . . and with social transformation.” But the transformation to the new female grotesque — that of the unacceptable woman pushing her unacceptability to its limits — is gaining traction. The conversation around gendered exploitation in Hollywood has helped to expand the definition of women’s roles. Lena Dunham, meanwhile, spent much of her ascent exposing her own body on screen to liberate those of regular women (as performance artist Carolee Schneeman once told me, “She’s the ideal of normal”). Women of color are also being recognized for their part in dismantling the white ideal. And the number of women behind the scenes has swelled. Toni Collette co-executive produced Hereditary, Marielle Heller directed Can You Ever Forgive Me? (which was co-written by Nicole Holofcener), and Deborah Davis co-executive produced and co-wrote The Favourite. Perhaps Davis is even responsible for The Favourite’s final scene in which Queen Anne, beset by stroke, barely able to walk, still manages to physically dominate Abigail, her hand on the younger, comelier woman’s head, possibly tearing Abigail’s hair out as she strokes the monarch’s leg. In Lady Sarah’s words: “Sometimes a lady likes to have some fun.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

My So-Called Media: How the Publishing Industry Sells Out Young Women

Sipapre, AP / Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 10 minutes (2,554 words)

On November 30th, Tavi Gevinson published her last ever editor’s letter at Rookie. The 22-year-old started the site when she was just 15, and in the intervening years it had spawned a pastel-hued community of girlhood, which, if not always sparkly, was always honest. The letter spanned six pages, 5707 words. In Longreads terms, that’s 20 minutes, 20 minutes of Gevinson agonizing over the site she loved so much, the site that was so good, that was now bigger than her, that she couldn’t figure out how to save. “Rookie had been founded, in part, as a response to feeling constantly marketed to in almost all forms of media,” she wrote, “to being seen as a consumer rather than a reader or person.”

The market had won, but Gevinson was fighting to the death. It was hard to read. You could sense her torturing herself. And she was. Because in truth there was nothing Gevinson could have done, because the failure of Rookie was not about her, or even about the poor state of media as a whole. It was about what it has always been about, which is that as much power as women have online — as strong as their voices are, as good as their work is, as valuable as it is to women, especially young women — its intrinsic worth is something capitalism, dominated by men, feels no obligation to understand. This is what ultimately killed Rookie. And The Hairpin. And The Toast. And maybe even Lenny Letter too.


In her first ever editor’s letter, Tavi Gevinson explained that she wasn’t interested in the “average teenage girl,” or even in finding out who that was or whether Rookie appealed to her. “It seems that entire industries are based on answering these very questions,” she wrote. “Who is the typical teenage girl? What does she want? (And, a lot of the time, How can we get her allowance?)” She claimed not to have the answer but provided it anyway by not asking the question: by not inquiring, like other young women’s publications, whether her readers would like some lipstick or maybe some blush with that. Instead, Rookie existed in a state of flux, a mood board of art and writing and photography on popular culture and fashion and politics and, just, the reality of being a girl. In an interview with NPR in 2011, Gevinson noted the hypocrisy of other teen magazines’ feminist gestures: “they say something really simple about how you should love your body and be confident or whatever, but then in the actual magazine, there will still be stuff that maybe doesn’t really make you love your body.”

Writer Hazel Cills emailed Gevinson when she was 17 to ask if she could join Rookie. In her eulogy for the site, published in Jezebel, Cills described the magazine’s novel concept: “unlike Teen Vogue or Seventeen, we were overwhelmingly staffed with actual teenagers, and were free to write about our realities as if they were the stuff of serious journalism.” Lena Singer, who was in her 30s when she worked as Rookie’s managing editor, thinks the publication deserves some credit for the fact that adults are now more willing to defer to adolescents than they were when it launched. “Part of my role as an editor there was to help protect the idea — and I still believe it — that the world doesn’t need another adult’s opinion about teen spaces, online or elsewhere,” she says. “Teens say what needs to be known about that.” And when they didn’t have the answers, they chose which adults to consult with video features like “Ask a Grown Man,” where celebrities like Thom Yorke answered readers’ questions. The column would have been familiar to Sassy aficionados, particularly fans of its “Dear Boy” series which had guys like Beck offering advice. Which made sense, because Sassy was basically the OG Rookie.

Named by the 13-year-old daughter of one of the heads of its publishing company, Fairfax, Sassy arrived in 1988 and was the first American magazine that actually spoke the language of adolescence. Teen publications dated back to 1944, the year Seventeen launched, but Sassy was different. “The wink-wink, exasperated, bemused tone was completely unlike the vaguely disguised parental voice of Seventeen,” write Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer in How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine. And unlike Teen or YM, it did not make guys the goal and girls the competition — if it had a goal at all, it was to be smart (and preferably not a conservative). Sassy was launched as the U.S. iteration of the Australian magazine Dolly — they originally shared a publisher — and presented itself as the big sister telling you everything you needed to know about celebrity, fashion, and beauty but also drugs, sex, and politics. “The teen magazines here were like Good Housekeeping for teen-agers,” Dolly co-founder Sandra Yates told the New York Times in 1988, adding, “I’m going to prove that you can run a business with feminist principles and make money.”

So she hired Jane Pratt, an associate editor at Teenage magazine, who matched her polka dot skirt with work boots, who donated to a pro-choice organization. Pratt “cast” writers like Dolly did, then went further to reinforce their personalities by publishing more photos and encouraging them to write in the first person, with plenty of self-reference, culminating in a sort of reality TV show-slash-blog before either of those things existed. Sassy became ground zero for indie music coverage thanks largely to Christina Kelly, a fan of Slaves of New York author Tama Janowitz who wrote the way teenagers talk. “I don’t know how to say where my voice came from,” she says. “It was just there.” Like the other writers on staff, she offered a proto-Jezebel take on pop culture, a new form of postmodern love-hate criticism.

At its peak, Sassy, which had one of the most successful women’s magazine launches ever (per Jesella and Meltzer), attracted 800,000 readers. But this was the era of the feminist backlash, where politicians were doubling down on good old American family values. The writers and editors at Sassy weren’t activists, per se, but they were the children of second wavers, they went to universities with women’s departments, they knew about the patriarchy. “Sassy was like a Trojan horse,” wrote Jesella and Meltzer, “reaching girls who weren’t necessarily looking for a feminist message.” Realizing that adolescents were more sexually active, receiving letters about the shame around it, Sassy made it a priority to provide realistic accounts of sex without the moralism. They covered homosexuality, abortion, and even abuse, and were the first teen magazine in America to advertise condoms.

In response, right-wing religious groups petitioned to boycott Sassy‘s advertisers; within several months the magazine lost nearly nearly 20 percent of its advertising. After several changes in ownership, including the removal of Sandra Yates and a squarer mandate, the oxymoronic conservative Sassy eventually folded into Teen magazine in 1997, the alternative press devoured once again by the mainstream.

But Sassy left behind a community. A form of analog social media, the magazine united writers with readers, but also readers with each other. Sassy even had its readers conceptualize an issue in 1990 — the “first-ever reader-produced issue of a consumer magazine” — the same year Andi Zeisler secured an internship at Sassy with a hand-illustrated envelope and the straightforward line, “I want to be your intern.” Six years later, she co-created her own magazine, Bitch, a cross between Sassy and Ms. It had the same sort of intimate community where, Zeisler explains, “there’s somehow a collective feeling of ownership that you don’t have with something like Bustle.”

Bustle, a digital media company for millennial women, is often cited as the counter-example to indie sites like Sassy, Bitch, and Rookie. It has more than 50 million monthly uniques (Bustle alone boasts 37 million) and is run by a man named Bryan Goldberg, who upon its 2013 launch wrote, with a straight face, “Maybe we need a destination that is powered by the young women who currently occupy the bottom floors at major publishing houses.” While Sassy had to struggle to be profitable and sustainable in an ad-based and legacy driven industry, now corporate entities like Bustle manspread sites like Rookie into non-existence. “The one thing that has stayed the same,” says Zeisler, “is the fact that alternative presentations of media by and for girls and young women is really overlooked as a cultural force.”


Tavi Gevinson was born the year Sassy died, but Lena Dunham arrived just in time. Recalling her predecessor, she described her feminist newsletter, Lenny Letter, which launched in 2015 as “a big sister to young radical women on the Internet.” Delivered to your inbox, Lenny, backed by Hearst, mimicked the intimacy of magazines past, the ones that existed outside Twitter and the comments section. It included an advice column and interviews (the first was with Hillary Clinton) as well as personal essays touching on various sociopolitcal issues. It was more activist than Sassy, more earnest than ironic, more 20-something than adolescent. It even had a Rookie alum, Laia Garcia, as its deputy editor. Lenny’s third issue launched it into mainstream consciousness when Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay about pay disparity in Hollywood, which provoked an industry-wide conversation. Then three years after launch and without warning, on October 19, a final letter by Dunham and co-creator Jenni Konner claimed “there’s no one reason for our closure” and shut down.

Lenny’s demise came nine months after that of another site that had a loyal female-driven community: The Hairpin. Founded in 2010 by Edith Zimmerman under The Awl umbrella, the site that had also published writing by Lenny editor-at-large Doreen St. Félix claimed “a natural end” — the same words The Awl used for its closure. NPR’s Glen Weldon suggested more specific reasons for their termination: the decline in ad revenue online, the sites’ unwillingness to compromise, their independence. “The Awl and The Hairpin were breeding grounds for new writers — like The National Lampoon in the ‘70s, Spy Magazine in the ‘80s, Sassy in the ‘90s and McSweeney’s in the aughts,” he explained, adding, “Invariably they would find, waiting for them, a comparatively small, but loyal, sympathetic and (mostly) supportive readership.”

Two years before this, a similar site, The Toast, founded by former Hairpinners Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Ortberg, also closed. The publication was created in 2013 to be an intersectional space for women to write basically whatever they fancied. They even invited Rookie to contribute. The Toast published multiple features a day, stating, “we think there’s value in posting things that we’ve invested time and energy on, even if it comes at the expense of ‘You won’t believe this story about the thing you saw on Twitter and have already believed’ link roundups.” In a lengthy message posted in May 2016, Ortberg broke down the financial circumstances that left them weighing their options. “Most of them would have necessitated turning The Toast into something we didn’t like, or continuing to work ourselves into the ground forever,” Ortberg wrote, adding, “The only regret I have is that Bustle will outlive us and I will never be able to icily reject a million-dollar check from Bryan Goldberg, but that’s pretty much it.”

It says everything about the American media industry that Bustle, a site with an owner who mansplained women’s sites to women, a site which acquired the social justice-oriented publication Mic only after it had laid off almost its entire staff, has outlived the ones that are actually powered by women. If you look closely, you will see that the majority of women’s sites that continue to exist — from SheKnows to Refinery29 — have men in charge. Even HelloGiggles, which was created by three women, is owned by the male-run Meredith Corporation. That means that, fundamentally, these publications are in the hands of a gender that does not historically believe in the inherent value of women’s media. Women, including young women, are valuable as consumers, but if their interests cannot be monetized, they are worthless. Yet the same year The Toast closed, Lauren Duca wrote a Sassy-style essay, “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” in Teen Vogue which dominated the news and garnered 1.4 million unique visitors. “Teen girls are so much smarter than anyone gives them credit for,” Phillip Picardi, Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director, reminded us. “We’ve seen an immense resonance of political coverage with our audience.” Seventeen and ELLE have also capitalized on wokeness, their spon-con sharing real estate with social justice reporting, blurring the boundaries between protesting and shopping. “The inner workings of those places are not about feminism,” says Zeisler. “They’re about selling feminism and empowerment as a brand and that’s very different from what you would find at Rookie or at The Toast or The Hairpin.”

It seems fitting that a new print teen magazine launched last year called Teen Boss. On the fact that it had no ads, Jia Tolentino side-eyed in The New Yorker, “unless, of course, it’s all advertising — sponsored content promoting “Shark Tank” and JoJo Siwa (both appear in each of the first three issues) and also the monetizable self.”


Teen girls are the “giant piggybank of capitalism,” says Zeisler, and it’s an apt metaphor. Their value is their purchasing power and they are sacrificed, smashed to pieces, to get to it. When Ariana Grande obliterates every sales record known to man, man still asks why she is on the cover of BuzzFeed. Man never seems to ask, however, why sports — literal games — are on the cover of anything. This is the world in which Rookie and Lenny Letter and The Hairpin and The Toast attempt to survive, in which all that is left when they don’t are floating communities of women, because the industry refuses to make room. As Gevinson wrote, “that next iteration of what Rookie stands for — the Rookie spirit, if you will — is already living on in you.” As Dunham wrote, “Lenny IS you: every politician, every journalist, every activist, every illustrator, every athlete who shared her words here.” As The Hairpin wrote, “We hope when you look back on what we did here together it makes you proud and not a little delighted.” As Cliffe and Ortberg wrote, “The Toast was never just a chance for people to tune in to The Mallory and Nicole Show, it was also a true community and it will be missed.”

These publications did not die by their own hand. Zeisler notes that to this day, she sees people tweeting about missing The Toast. These sites died because their inherent value did not translate into monetary value in a capitalist system run by men who only know how to monetize women by selling them out. As bright and as hungry as young women are today, they are entering a world designed to shut them down. And the future looks bleak. “If media as an industry doesn’t figure out how to value [independent sites for young women] in a way that really reflects and respects the work that goes into them,” says Zeisler, “we’re just going to have a million fucking Bustles.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.