Founding editor Anna Holmes launched a women's blog and leveled the digital playing field—now, The Book
Anna Holmes is tall and lovely, slightly tomboyish in her casual hoodie and running sneakers, eyes like saucers and a deep, woman-smart voice. She is the founding editor of Jezebel.com, the lady blogs to launch all lady blogs, and after a few years of laying low following her departure from the site in 2010, she’s back with aplomb to promote The Book of Jezebel. The book is a hefty compendium of pop culture terms and words with decidedly Jezebel-ian definitions (“Xanax: Yes, please.”), edited by Holmes, and written and illustrated by a long and venerable list of contributors, including Amanda Hess, Lizzie Skurnick, Kate Harding, Sadie Stein and Molly Crabapple.
Jezebel the site, first launched in 2007 on the Gawker Media platform—then an already enormously eyeballed online media company and blog network founded by Brit-born entrepreneur Nick Denton—drew immediate attention with its off-color humor (similar in tone to Gawker, but more so a refreshingly new tone altogether), feminine bluster and fearless, pointed criticism of mainstream women’s magazines, an industry in which Holmes worked for many years, for perpetuating unattainable ideals of beauty and an endless (heterosexual) preoccupation with men: “How to attract men, how to keep men, how to sexually pleasure men.” Women’s magazines as a whole, says Holmes, were about “insecurity creation—they would create an insecurity and then they would solve it.”
Holmes’ Jezebel, then, with its commenter-friendly interaction, became a place to call this stuff out for its less positive than impact on those who were drinking the Kool-Aid. But beyond that, it soon became clear that almost nothing was off limits for Jezebel, which some consider the first of its kind to openly and regularly discuss not just issues pertaining to women, but to women of color—and to incorporate conversations and encourage dialog around race. Holmes, who is biracial (her father is black, her mother is white), says that was by design. “I felt that if we just repeated ourselves enough both in language and in visuals—putting up photos all the time of women of color—that it would normalize this to an audience that was impressionable.”
We met early on a weekday morning in late September in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lives and conveniently, I drop my son to school most days. At an outdoor café, a small table and two lattes between us, Holmes pulled a knee up to her chin and talked with me less about Jezebel, neither the site nor the book (indeed, that is all she is talking about these days), and more about interracial identity politics, the Internet and Rick Owens—we talked for so long the battery on my recorder wore out. A week later we picked up the conversation again at her apartment, a small mecca to books and prints and light bulbs.
Rebecca Carroll: You grew up in Davis, California—a small, college town—were your parents professors?
Anna Holmes: No—they had gone to graduate school there, and I think moved there because they felt it was a more hospitable place for them as an interracial couple.
RC: And your dad is black, your mom is white, which is also my racial makeup.
AH: That seems to be the more common combination of black-white couples of that era—but even after I moved to New York when I saw interracial couples, the male was usually African American, the woman was white. It’s interesting to me because that dynamic is a more fraught combination historically. I’m not sure what that has to do with.
RC: Well, I think it has to do with all the reasons that it’s fraught. I also think that black women have felt like we have to keep the culture together, and it would be a more deeply wounding betrayal to step outside of the culture to be with a white man, whereas there is almost an expectation on some deep internalized level that a black man with a white woman is the pre-established, if not acceptable dynamic.
RC: My husband is white and my son is what you would call racially ambiguous looking, although I am of the school of thinking where, I’m black, so my son is black.
AH: So am I—that’s the way I grew up. There wasn’t an option to check on government forms. My mother when she filled out forms for me would check African American.
RC: But even if there were options then, and what about now, when there are in fact more options to check when it comes to racial identity?
AH: I would still check African American, and I would do it for political reasons now—political, and because that’s how I identify.
RC: Speaking of racial politics, did you see the Rick Owens Paris runway show?
AH: I saw a link to it, but I was on my phone and the slideshow wouldn’t work. So I saw one image, and I read the description of the show.
RC: It’s an aggressive step show—and step shows are great, but the dialog that’s happening around it is that this was some next level type shit on Rick Owens’ part. The first responders were mostly mainstream white fashion blogs, and the picture they posted was this image of an incredibly angry looking black woman, with these cheering endorsements of Rick Owens out-of-the-box thinking.
AH: That’s the image I saw, and my visceral response was one of discomfort I think, because of the fact that I’m going to feel discomfort whenever a largely white, elitist industry like fashion does something with a culture that they have no connection to.
RC: In what circumstances could that dynamic ever be OK?
AH: Honestly? If it was a black designer I would be less suspicious.
RC: Black women choreographed the show, and the black women who performed were evidently really happy to be there, all of which was later reported. But the first thing I see or read about it includes Rick Owens’ direction to the women as: “You go out there and be vicious.”
AH: African American women should be able to display the whole human range of emotions without being judged for it—but if that was his direction, to be vicious, I don’t think that’s very helpful, because of the already existing stereotypes about African American women.
RC: If you were still the editor of Jezebel, how would you handle this story?
AH: Well, I’m assuming that if it was in Paris, it would have happened in New York’s morning time. One of the writers covering fashion would have alerted me to it, and then I would probably have that writer do something quickly on it. It happened on a Friday, so over the weekend the commenters would get into a discussion about it that would give me ideas about how to do something bigger on it for Monday.
RC: Do you now read Jezebel daily?
RC: Do you read it at all?
AH: A little bit. Not that much.
RC: Are you on Facebook?
AH: Sometimes. The irony is that I ran a blog where we had to have immediate reactions to things, but the last thing that I’m interested in right now is having an immediate reaction to things… and sharing it with the world. I will express my opinions on things, but I need to think about it. I don’t like just popping off—I’m not saying I don’t do it, but I don’t think it’s particularly meaningful for me or anyone who’s listening if I just declare a position on something immediately. Using the Rick Owens show as an example, I think that my immediate reaction if I were to issue one publicly, was that I felt uncomfortable. But I don’t think I’ll be able to articulate why I felt uncomfortable at that moment, and it would be better if I waited for a couple of hours.
RC: But to me, see, that is a thoughtful response that you just gave. I think the whole social media pendulum is going in the direction of not being thoughtful.
AH: Right, and that’s a problem with all of social media too—people feel compelled to share their first impression of something, and that can get tiring. And distracting. The whole Internet is distracting.
RC: The antidote? A real, hardback book—The Book of Jezebel! It’s a big book, too.
AH: Yeah, it is. But it could’ve been a lot bigger.