It’s easy to hate on Jezebel, I know. It’s also easy to hate on Feministing and xoJane and, really, any website covering feminist issues, ourselves included. They’re liberals, we’re “whorephobic,” they’re capitalists, we’re “second-wave” (like it’s a bad thing), they’re tepid, we’re a bunch of sex/dick/boob-haters, and so on and so forth. We all talk shit and oversimplify, whichever way that shit is thrown. I do it, you do it, admit it. All that said, sometimes there are very good, very political reasons for that “shit-talking.”
I haven’t intentionally sought out and read Feministing in years because I find it boring and consistently seeped in liberal politics which simply don’t mesh with mine. Jezebel, on the other hand, I read often. Sometimes, admittedly, for the celebrity gossip, and sometimes because they do some good work and have some good, witty writers over there. Some. Lately I try to ignore the bad in favour of paying attention to the good, when it comes to Jezebel. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were. And I really do, on many occasions, appreciate the snark. That said, yesterday’s big fat fail was too much for me to ignore and is significant in terms of the great political divide in feminism and, consequently, feminist media today.
Last night, a writer by the name of Rachel Veronica Cote published a post mocking a recent open letter drafted by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), addressing Amnesty International’s attempts to push through a policy on “sex work” that endorses the decriminalization of pimps and johns. The letter was signed by hundreds of women and organizations, namely, individual feminists, academics, lawyers, survivors of prostitution, experts, activists, journalists, and human rights advocates. Gloria Steinem signed, so did Rachel Moran, so did Meagan Tyler and Trisha Baptie and Eve Ensler and Julie Bindel and Ruchira Gupta and many others. Thousands more signed a petition connected to the letter, asking Amnesty International to consider the fact that full decriminalization of the sex industry will result in an increase in trafficking and exploitation and supports the idea that men should have the right to legally buy women and girls.
Some celebrities signed on too! Lena Dunham, Claire Danes, Kyra Sedgwick, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Debra Winger, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway, and a bunch more. Just today, Ashley Judd tweeted her support for the petition.
ME, TOO. https://t.co/vcxZwSgSMZ
— ashley judd (@AshleyJudd) July 28, 2015
This is all great. Celebrity endorsements are not the backbone of our movement and they never will be, but they help, in terms of pressure and exposure. This is the reality, whether we like it or not. As such, media has highlighted the “big names,” which I get. It’s a headline, it’s a story. But it’s not the story.
This letter and this movement is about regular women. It has been built by survivors, rape crisis shelters, equality-seeking organizations, researchers, groups representing women of colour, and feminists from all around the world and it has not been easy. Women do this work with no reward — they do it because it matters. Our lives matter and the lives of women and girls all around the world matters. It is not silly and it is not a joke. It is real. The sex industry has devastating impacts on women and girls everywhere, every day. Particularly marginalized women. Particularly women with the least social, economic, and political power. The ones who don’t have a media presence.
Despite all this, here’s how Cote chose to cover the issue:
Amnesty International, one of the most powerful forces in human rights protection, has just issued a proposal to decriminalize sex work and, predictably, it has been met with opposition. But fear not: learned gender studies scholars like Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt, and Kevin Kline are here to tell you that it’s a bad idea.
No mention of the decades of research behind the Nordic model, no mention of who, actually, was behind the letter. No mention of the fact that it is, in fact, feminists, who oppose Amnesty’s proposal. No mention of the reasons why the proposal is being opposed and what it is we are advocating for instead.
“As long as sex work is illegal, those in the industry remain vulnerable to a host of abuses,” Cote writes, leaving out the fact that all of those who have signed on to and otherwise supported the letter have advocated, relentlessly, for the decriminalization of prostituted women.
This is all a big joke to Cote, who pretends as though a few silly celebrities came up with this letter out of the blue, expecting an ignorant public to blindly jump on a bandwagon:
But here’s the thing, guys: Amnesty International has probably not contemplated this issue with the careful discernment of, say, Lena Dunham or Kate Winslet. We need them to guide us as we come to our own conclusions. You could read Amnesty’s proposal, available here, but isn’t it more compelling to know that celebrities like Anne Hathaway—you know, she won an Oscar for that role—are voicing their disagreement?
I can’t tell if Cote simply elected not to do any research at all on the issues before snarking away dismissively or if she’s intentionally masking the truth in order to manipulate readers, but either way it is abhorrently offensive and shows a complete lack of integrity, journalistic or otherwise. It is Cote, not these celebrity endorsers, who is ignorant and who assumes her readers are as well (based on the comments, it’s clear they are not).
Initially, Cote didn’t even bother to link to CATW’s letter, though she added the link in later after complaints from readers.
Further along in the post, Cote concedes, “To be fair, 400 individuals and organizations are protesting this proposal, not just celebrities,” but still doesn’t bother explaining what it is those individuals and organizations want and why, in any way that could be called fair or accurate.
She concludes by stating, as though she wants to give the impression this is something she’s thought through for longer than two minutes, “decriminalization will require thorough and methodical planning,” before her final jab: “But as debates brew, we can take comfort in the A-listers who raise their voices, shepherding us dewy-eyed lambs to the light of knowledge.”
Now, it’s one thing to disagree about the best way forward with regard to prostitution legislation. I mean, we’ve been disagreeing about that in and outside of feminist discourse since forever. It is another thing to mock an entire movement that has integrity, research, decades of grassroots activism, and real-life experience on their side. Cote, quite literally, is joking about women’s humanity and lives.
Beyond that, while I’m not opposed to covering celebrity going-ons, as they can be entertaining and can speak to cultural trends and debates, I find it enormously ironic that a media platform that publishes dozens of stories a day about fashion and celebrity gossip would dare mock the work of thousands of feminists because a few actors and actresses supported that work. This is a site that treated bell hooks as a curmudgeonly old prude in order to blindly worship at the altar of Beyoncé, after all.
Jezebel does not have a single leg to stand on with that “Ooooh who cares what dummy celebrities think anyway” critique. Beyond that, the very least they could do is a smidge of research before shitting all over something that matters enormously in terms of the global rights and status of women and the actual real, day-to-day lives of women and girls everywhere. It is incredibly insulting, disrespectful, hypocritical, and anti-feminist.