In the age of TL:DR a way to summarize what follows could be to say that whatever feminism set out to accomplish it all too often can be seized by marketing that transforms the lofty ideals of feminism into targeted advertising and conspicuous consumption as identity.
By Josephine Livingstone
July 19, 2018
This week Refinery29, a lifestyle website for women, came crashing into the public consciousness via an unpleasant installment of its “Money Diaries” column. In it, a 21-year-old HR intern making $25 per hour gives us a blow-by-blow account of her financial life. She pays $2,100 a month for her share of an apartment in the West Village. She pays $23 for a goat cheese and avocado wrap. She goes to the Hamptons with her “girl squad” for a weekend of overpriced parties, but it ends up being a bust. “Finally we arrive at Sunset Beach,” she writes. “The water is rough, and we wish we hadn’t taken out the dingy [sic]. I would’ve much rather been on the big boat. All the rosé is gone by the time we raft up.”
How does the unnamed intern afford these expenses, all while going to college? Her rent, health insurance, phone bill, and entertainment subscriptions are all covered by her folks, who also pay for her college. Furthermore, as she writes, “On top of my intern salary, my parents give me a $800/month allowance, and my grandpa also wires me $300 every month (#blessed).”
Aka "privilege"? Sometimes a person has to wonder if it's ever gone the other way and if the "kid" ever had to wire money to the "adult". Since I don't actually read anything at Refinery29 this is all a little bit abstract to me but the "privilege" part doesn't seem hard to infer from the narrative evidence at hand.
The column has raised hackles, through a combination of the subject’s lack of self-awareness and her financial privilege, lightly worn. But our anger at the diarist disguises a deeper and more diffuse anger, over the way that companies like Refinery29 exploit a branded version of feminism to make money off us, the casual reader.
If that is the case—and this latest Money Diary certainly does feature a lot of brand namedropping—then the problem is not just the article, but the platform itself.
Or perhaps we should say that the problem is an entire industry. Women’s media has run on advertising dollars forever, after all. There exists not a single mainstream women’s magazine that does not rely on money from the fashion and beauty industries. Not Vogue, not Cosmopolitan. All these magazines compromise their editorial freedom to maintain relationships with their advertisers. Vogue cannot run a huge story criticizing a brand that advertises in its pages. This is an open secret in journalism, but one so old that people barely care.
One of my friends was approached a few times when she was a teenager about being a model. She continuously shot down all the recruiting attempts. What she told me was she had seen enough fashion magazines and learned just enough about the beauty industry that she felt it was not ethical for her as a Christian and a woman to join an industry whose whole point was to make women feel insecure about their bodies and from that then buy a bunch of beauty products they didn't need. She wanted to be a wife and mother in her twenties and focused on how to maintain her health and to, if it could happen, have children in her early to mid-twenties so her body was optimally able to bear the physical stress of childbirth.
In a way it's just Captain Obvious to say publications are beholden to the advertisers and sponsors but Livingstone's point seems to be that this is even more suffocatingly true about the beauty and fashion industries than may be the case across institutional journalism.
Women’s media has also run on the first-personal travails of women. Though it sets a wildly different editorial tone, the Money Diaries invoke the ghost of xoJane, which exploited readers and writers alike by holding a “contest” for the best “It Happened To Me” first-person story. What happened was that it ran an endless stream of unpaid blog posts in which readers were invited to offer up their most traumatic experiences in return for zero dollars. The site came to represent the worst of the Personal Essay Industrial Complex, in which a publication creams the profits off women’s trauma, especially women of color, in the name of feminist solidarity.
The difference between today’s women’s media scam and yesterday’s is that the advertising is now hiding in “native” content, and the scummy clickbait is packaged better. Instead of sitting in a box next to a trashy article about celebrities, lucrative advertising these days lurks inside content that simulates ethical, feminist journalism.
We could cue up any number of thoughts about the first-person industrial complex here.
on Bennett's essay
on the applicability of the first-person industrial complex ethos and praxis as a way to understand Mark Driscoll's persona or brand
on Joe Carter's piece about "pseudo-events", how these are publicity stunts, and how evangelicalism is probably as reliant on the first-person industrial pseudo-event for its kind of branding as mainstream womens' media is.
on Merve Emre's observations about the first-person essay and two paths it could take.
another piece cross referencing Brad Sargent's work on peak-personal-essay and how in the wake of the 2016 election one of the mistakes that got made was conflating the personal essay with actual journalism, which has application for watchblogs.
To be clear, I'm not against first person essays or personal experience essays. They're fine. The concern I began to have over the last decade was how in American journalism and blogging the personal essay was at times treated as being coextensive with actual journalism. There's two ways to put this. The first is to repeat what my journalism professor said about editorials, that nobody cares what "you" think in your editorial, they want to be able to make informed decisions based on what the facts are and editorial pieces are where you say what you think people should do and that has to appeal to evidence which is where journalism is supposed to come in.
The second way to put it is that in an era in which megachurch preachers and celebrity Christians leverage pretty much exactly the same kinds of heart-string yanking personal narratives the field of journalism becomes more important. Young guys with a gonzo bent an imagine that the persona of Hunter S Thomson is all they need to be readable and relevant. Hardly anything could be further from the truth as journalism goes. I'm not exactly a fan of Hunter S but he was still doing journalism, and as has been said about the recently departed Tom Wolfe the fact that so very many guys failed to do what Wolfe did may have sprung from their misunderstanding of what he was actually doing. That's all thematically relevant to the subject at hand in the sense that people who have the privilege and opportunity to participate in the first-person industrial complex should be aware that there's this jaded axiom that if the news isn't explicitly bad news then it's probably PR or advertising.
The design of the new generation of moneyspinning sites is good. Glance at Bustle and you’ll miss the fact that it is a cynical enterprise. Since 2015, a large flurry of women’s lifestyle websites and newsletters has splattered the internet in response to digital media marketing trends. “This is a massive opportunity,” Bustle founder Bryan Goldberg (who recently purchased the archives of Gawker.com) told AdAge in 2016. “The pie is enormous ... We’ve been kind of wondering why more people haven’t been jumping into this demographic.” In the same article, Jonathan Adams, chief digital officer of Maxus Americas (now Wavemaker), said, “It’s a great time to be marketed to as a woman.”
Women’s media, as a result, has never been scammier. The product sold by Refinery29, Bustle, PopSugar, and TheSkimm is bad. I asked a group of women journalist friends to name the worst villains in the game off the top of their heads, and the answers flowed easily: the GirlBoss publishing platform, Babe.net, the Lily.
Once we had ads for shampoo—now we have sites pretending they aren’t secretly running a branding agency from inside their feminist publishing project. It’s like Coca-Cola trying to sell you self-care. Seen from its most depressing angle, the rise of these websites is part of a wider deterioration of choice, quality, and consciousness across the all media products branded “feminist.” It’s every woman in New York wearing the same mediocre makeup. It’s a co-working space that buys off its critics with free memberships in order to maintain its perfectly pink, girly, Teflon brand. It’s a quality outlet like The Cut running Sex Diaries, the lowest-hanging fruit in all the land.
If there is a takeaway from the storm in a gilded teacup that was the great Refinery29 scandal of July 2018, it must be that there is no ethical consumption of women’s media in an industry where feminism has become a product, and where your engagement with the product is exchanged for branding dollars. The “feminism” brand is making media stupider, its consumers less rather than more cynical. Save your outrage over $23 goat cheese wraps, and steer clear of clicking the ads.
Even Joan Didion, who infamously declared that feminism had stopped being a cause and had become a symptom, and this back in 1970, is known for brand affiliations as much as for her writing. It may only be less galling in her case because her icy elitist stance was pretty much front and center from the start of her literary career. She was part of a kind of American aristocracy, more or less knew it, and didn't really even hide it, either.
Refinery29 combines lifestyle content (fashion, skincare, diaries, work advice) with inspirational feminist sentiment and an embrace of queer identities. It also eases up the boundaries of journalism so that the lucrative world of marketing and PR and branding can seep in at the edges. The combination sits uneasily. The “MyIdentity” section, for example, currently leads with an article titled “How Fashion Helps These 3 People Express Pride [Paid Content].” It’s an ad for H&M, dressed up as an article about queer and trans people finding their voice through clothing. There’s also “The Old, Secret Style Language Of The LGTBQ+ Community,” a mere click away from an advertisement by Free People on what to wear to an outdoor summer concert.
As Digiday has reported, Refinery29’s employees freely hashtag products from sponsors on their personal accounts. The line between editorial and “editorial content” seems minimal to nonexistent. Per Digiday, Refinery29’s editorial teams both create branded content and work as influencers for brands on social media. The Refinery29 office hosts branded pop-up events and lectures. Readers don’t seem to mind. An agency source told Digiday: “It’s something we expect users to push back a little bit more on, and they don’t.”
The difficulty of distinguishing between actual journalism and "sponsored content" was one of the running themes of South Park season 19 or 20, was it?
But the Money Diaries column did get pushback. It made people wonder: Is this even real content? How stupid does Refinery29 think we are? As Gabby Noone has theorized on Twitter, there is a possibility that Refinery29 embedded sponsorships into “Money Diaries” columns, with one contributor suspiciously citing the services of a company called Thrive Market numerous times.
Perhaps we could propose that there is absolutely nothing that can’t be monetized by the market and the purer the self-designated and self-perceived cause the more readily it can be observed to be leveraged as the foundation of market. If this was so observably true about religion why couldn’t the same be said about feminism?
Now I hope I don't have to unpack the ways in which I think that canard is historically dubious in both cases, but the commodification of feminism and religion in American culture does seem of a piece. Anti-feminist social conservatism seems just as much fixated on branded consumption patterns as indicative of masculinity as feminism can seem permeated by consumption as symbolic of feminism or femininity.