06.07.11

OMG! Women's Sites Need to Grow Up

Legendary magazine editor Jane Pratt and actress Zooey Deschanel have each launched websites aimed at women. But why, Tricia Romano asks, must there always be so much pink and perkiness?

If two new women’s websites are to be believed, women want to read about boys, cute animals, their periods, and they want to read it in a Valley Girl accent. Oh, girls, they just wanna have fun.

The two sites in question are Jane Pratt’s xoJane.com and actress Zooey Deschanel’s HelloGiggles.com. When Pratt announced her new venture last fall, media watchdogs cooed in anticipation. Pratt's first creation, Sassy, attained cult status with the hipster set, and her second venture, Jane, was much loved and considered a major loss for women’s magazines when it folded. Plus, much-admired teen fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson was on board.

But when the site xoJane.com was finally unveiled a few weeks ago—minus Gevinson’s involvement (though she says she will be launching a sister site in a few months), the reaction was less than stellar. Writer Ada Calhoun, on her blog 90sWoman, called out the site for its incessant namedropping (Michael Stipe was mentioned nine times the first day), writing: “The chatty, best-friends-realness voice feels put-on and costume-y, like too-big heels.”

Perhaps part of that disappointment stems from the improbable goal of including 48 year olds and 12 year olds under one roof. The result is a seemingly permanent state of girlishness that any professional woman over the age of 30 should cringe at, but one that Pratt pushes with abandon.

“I actually blame Bonnie Fuller,” said Anna Holmes, the founder of Jezebel.com, referencing the former Glamour and Us Weekly editor, whose penchant for bright pink cursive handwriting scrawled all over the pages of her magazines and websites has nabbed her million dollar paychecks—and, unfortunately, permeated the lady mag and gossip set.

With such tickle-me-hormonal content online, it makes one wonder, where is the content for women who want the equivalent of GQ, with sharp articles about powerful women and fascinating trend stories, written by writers as good as Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion? Where are the fashion spreads that make you feel aspirational, not inadequate? Must everything be shot through with a shade of red or pink? And does everything have to end with an exclamation point?

Perhaps it does. As “Mr. Magazine”  Samir Husni, Ph.D, pointed out in an email, Cosmopolitan, the bullseye target of Jane and her ilk, remains numero uno with readers. “The better question to ask is if what they say is true, how come then Cosmo is the No. 1 selling magazine on the nation's newsstands month in and month out? I have yet to see any so-called online magazine entity for women with no print component either drawing the big numbers or making money, or even providing content you can write home about.”

But Holmes thinks there’s hope. After all, her website Jezebel dared to go where no other women’s website had gone before: writing about ideas and issues, rather than what makeup to buy.

“I suspect that people who are funding these things, they want a sure payoff,” she said. “So they're going to go with what's tried and true as opposed to trying something new. I think it's a failure of imagination and ultimately fear, because I think that the demographic is there.”

And, added Holmes, while we’re at it: “Let's stop using exclamation points,” she said. “By design, when you read them, the voice in your head, as you're reading them, goes up a couple of registers. It's hard to take it seriously and it sounds kind of ditsy. Why can't we just talk like grownups?”

XoJane.com is not the only new entry into the women’s online space that traffics in girlish content. Zooey Deschanel, the doe-eyed actress who has a lock on playing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, has just launched HelloGiggles.com with two partners, Molly McAleer and Sophia Rossi. Barely a week old, Hello Giggles is just as adorable as Deschanel herself. The cutesy illustrations on the smartly designed site are paired with the wry wit featured in columns like “Misogynist Soup.”

“We want to in some ways make a PG version of Bridesmaids—but the website,” said McAleer.

Categories like “Cuteness,” “BFF,” and “He Haw” might be a turnoff for those women who don’t aspire to talk like a teenager. But, said McAleer, Hello Giggles is not meant to have universal appeal.

“Not everything has to be for everyone,” she said. “We are willing to admit that not everyone on the planet is going to be crazy about our tone or our content. We don't write in MLA format. We're not journalists.”

If HelloGiggles.com seems light on gravitas, that’s because it’s supposed to be. Though it’s not yet clear, it’s a comedy site—and will eventually prominently feature sketch comedy. Explained McAleer, who has made her name as an online humorist, the site will be more video-heavy in weeks to come.

“This is, for the most part, just something that's supposed to be light and enjoyable. We don't break news. We're willing to admit we put together something that we think people would like to kill time with at work, if they are 25 years old and they don't have any friends in their area that talk like we do. If you're 45 years old and scholarly and you are looking for information in journalism, yeah, I would say Hello Giggles at this juncture is not for you,” said McAleer.

But at least Hello Giggles’ over-the-top cuteness is backed up by “Fresh Giggles,” which features actual 12 year old girls (including, full-disclosure, a blog by a friend’s daughter, Ruby Karp). Still, it’s not clear that women of all ages should be reading the same web site; women want and need different things at different points of their life. The 12 year old talks about annoying things 12 year old boys do. The twentysomething talks about twentysomething men who give her cocaine on the first date.

McAleer defends their decision to run the latter piece in the same online space where 10 year olds blog. “I think what's important to remember about that post… was she was mortified that a guy did that to her,” she said. “To hear a successful, interesting woman say that she was mortified that a guy offered her drugs on a date and would not go out with him again, I think is not a terrible message for a 10, 11, or 12 year old to read, especially in today's world." She points out that 12 year olds today are less naïve than they used to be.

It’s still early. Eventually, Hello Giggles will likely become more focused than the broad 14-to-34 demo that McAleer says is their target, mused Holmes: “Maybe they just need to find their way. I would assume that they would be informed in many ways by who ends up reading the site and commenting and emailing them, and then maybe they'll kind of hone it and have a better sense of who their audience is.”

While Hello Giggles’ comedic, light-hearted approach at least explains its quirky tone, xoJane.com has no excuse for blog posts written in the voice of a tween, but which are actually penned by middle-aged mothers and career women. Headlines like “I Always Think I Want to Kill Myself, But It Turns Out I’m Just Getting My Period,” and “How To Wear Pig-Tails After Your Playground Years,”are just the tip of the Tinkerbell iceberg. (But, notes Christina Kelly, you can’t wear miniskirts after 40.  Madonna would beg to differ.)

“I would assume it's for 16 year olds or even younger,” said Holmes of xoJane.com’s target demographic. “It doesn't feel adult or mature. Teen girls want to read stuff that is aspirational, not in terms of, necessarily, the products that they'll buy, but the life they may have. When I was a teenager I didn't read Seventeen when I was 17 years old. I read Seventeen when I was 12. I read Glamour when I was 16 years old.”

So why are articles about more intense issues like “My Rapist Friended Me On Facebook (And All I Got Was This Lousy Article)” written in the tone of a post on Oh No They Didn’t, a Livejournal message board which is populated by actual teenagers?

“Oftentimes with women's media stuff, they make the mistake of underestimating their audience, by unintentionally talking down to them,” guessed Holmes.

Though Pratt plans to launch a teen sister site with Tavi Gevinson, perhaps the confusion as to Tavi’s whereabouts on xoJane.com stems from the fact that it already reads like it was written by—and is for—barely pubescent girls, not for women in their thirties. Maybe someone should let Pratt know that her teen site is xoJane.com and, in the meantime, could she produce something for adults?

Perhaps Pratt should spend more time reading Gevinson’s own blog, Style Rookie.In a recent post about pink and frilly things titled “Alien She," the 15 year old writes, “It should be noted that I don't equate 'girl' with pink and red and bows and dolls and babies, the entire aesthetic is more about mocking those connotations, though I would be lying if I said I never really just wanted to indulge in bows and glitter and sickening cheesiness.”

It irks Gevinson that "smart" and "girly" have to be mutually exclusive, so she probably wouldn’t agree with the notion that women shouldn’t aspire to behave as if 19 (or 21) is forever. But what's illuminating is that, even as she refutes this notion of girly being equated with silly, she writes in such a way that is wise beyond her years. And there’s nary an exclamation point in sight.