by the editors
“In Autostraddle, I expect a performance of complexity from a publication covering issues that are not saccharine. I do not know how to accept my values reflected in a voice I do not recognize as my own. I don’t expect the voice of the subaltern to sound like a cheerleader. You no longer have to be straight to be square.”
-Diana Clarke, Cosmo for Queers, Or How To Sell A Woman To Herself
We spend a lot of time around here thinking about what we’re doing wrong and how we can better represent and engage the rapidly expanding Autostraddle community. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to make our site more appealing to the “mainstream” or how to perform a style of tentative, giggly womanhood popularly considered a patriarchal convention. So yesterday, we were surprised to find ourselves accused of doing precisely that in a full-length article written on an intelligent non-profit literary-minded website we respect, The Baffler.
The article, by writer Diana Clarke, who (as far as we can tell) has never publicly identified herself as a member of the queer culture she accuses us of degrading, argues that Autostraddle is effectively “mainstreaming” queerness because we have a colorful site design, publish a mix of serious content and fluffy content, sell merchandise and sometimes employ a chatty and conversational tone. The article is misrepresentative, chock-full of unsubstantiated points, void of constructive solutions and also confusing, frustrating and hurtful. The things Clarke chooses to praise and to criticize about our site suggest a selective understanding of our content and business practices overall, and the majority of what she links to was published within the last two weeks.
Normally we’d ignore this and move on with our lives, but we feel it’s important to talk about because this is about more than Autostraddle and because maintaining and building a readership for our important, complicated and chronically under-trafficked work is incredibly important to us right now. Using the platform of a magazine founded by men in academia who likely hadn’t heard of Autostraddle before now, like The Baffler, to criticize independent women’s media doesn’t indicate a good-faith interest in pushing women’s media to better itself and more suggests a recognition of the fact that feminine internet infighting is good for pageviews. More troublingly, Clarke’s piece fits into a larger and older feminist tradition: that of policing the groups of marginalized women within mainstream feminism and imposing standards of required behavior and rhetoric in order to be considered valid and appropriately feminist.
The Queer Cosmo
Clarke’s essay opens with a few factual misrepresentations, such as describing Autostraddle co-founder Alexandra Vega as a “writer” despite the fact that, as Alex reminds us every time we ask her to write something, she is not a writer, she’s a designer who “went to Fashion School.” Clarke then immediately describes us as “the queer online equivalent of Cosmopolitan.” In fact, The Baffler tweeted the following promotion of this article:
Even Cosmo magazine has realized feminism is marketable. But why are other (actually feminist) mags imitating Cosmo? http://t.co/rYuzYyZxKz
— The Baffler (@thebafflermag) May 8, 2014
Obviously, it’s difficult to “imitate” a magazine none of us have even read since the ’90s and it’s also insulting to suggest that five years of extremely hard work by many legitimately talented writers was merely our silly little attempt to sound like Cosmo. I mean, at least accuse us of trying to imitate Sassy, whose tone undoubtedly influenced our own, or call us Lezebel, as others have done. It can’t be Cosmo‘s sudden interest in feminism that we have in common because we’ve identified that way since launch, and it’d be ignorant to suggest that whatever “marketability” feminism has in the context of straight magazines would be true about queer magazines. One thing we do have in common with Cosmo is that we also publish sex tips, but somehow Cosmo‘s able to do that and still snag millions in ad revenue whereas a fundamental discomfort and pornographic association with lesbian sexuality means that our commitment to providing accurate sex info to an underserved population is why those same companies refuse to advertise with us.
But no, the reason Clarke calls us “Cosmo for Queers” is because apparently we don’t talk like Women, we talk like Girls (like cheerleaders, even!!!):
Like many community-oriented websites, it hosts an open comment thread on Fridays. The pre-jump text on last week’s post reads, “It’s Friday which means it’s time for the Friday Open Thread! The article that is just like your journal but also someone else’s journal and also it talks back to you!” There’s something consistently trivializing about the breathy, hyperbolic tone of Autostraddle’s language.
Absolutely, our tone is trivializing sometimes, but it’s not a conscious choice we made in order to better “sell” our queerness to this elusive “mainstream” — it’s just how we actually talk. Yup, the two most senior editors for this publication are in their early thirties, and that’s how we talk. We can’t change, even if we tried, even if we wanted to.
Furthermore, our “breathy, hyperbolic tone,” often employed ironically, helps us transcend the often self-defeating reality of our daily existence, which is punctuated by articles like this one and other emotional assaults with physical ramifications. Sometimes, we do wrap hard news in shiny packages, like lists, recaps or slangy headlines, but that’s not an effort to make our “queer voice palatable to the mainstream.” That’s an effort to make progressive politics digestible for a diverse audience of queer readers from varying backgrounds, because a well-informed community is a politically stronger one, and we aren’t learning this shit or hearing these stories in school. The overwhelming majority of our content isn’t written in this tone — but on a Friday Open Thread? Come on! It’s a Friday Open Thread. Of course it’s gonna be chatty! We’d also be interested in hearing how our tone is more “basic” than other sites that Diana Clarke writes for, like xoJane.
She goes on:
It’s confusing to read vapid fluff pieces like “I’m Sorry But You Still Can’t Have These Marshmallows” alongside (often smart, serious, articulate) deconstructions of gender identity and social expectation like “Notes from a Queer Engineer: Can Inanimate Objects Be Sexist?,” “Five Things You Should Know About Your Agender Acquaintance,” and a new column on sexuality, religion, and wellness.
Like every popular magazine, we do publish vapid fluff pieces to garner traffic, because we wanna make more than $20 a day on Google AdSense, they’re fun to read and write and ’cause those posts attract casual readers who then, oh-so-conveniently, will consequently notice the (often smart, serious, articulate) article next to it. However, Laneia’s ingenious and experimental meditation on kitten marshmallows isn’t one of those pieces — that’s just us being weirdos, like we’ve been doing on our own personal blogs for eight years. If we’re really going to talk about “vapid fluff,” here are some better examples — although we’d also argue, perhaps unpopularly, that our celebrity stuff has always been an attempt to reinvent and reclaim a style of magazine writing invented by straight men to objectify conventionally attractive straight women for all the wrong reasons. The truth is that many older queer and trans women end up with “adolescent” attachments to various female celebrities and TV show fandoms because we were denied those experiences during our actual adolescence.
Her point about the trivializing nature of the term “girl-on-girl culture” is valid, and it’s something we go back and forth on a lot. We’re also talking near-daily about how to better appeal to our older readers (and older senior editors) and how our language impacts our success in that arena. Her acknowledgment that we’re building a valuable community was also very affirming. But our agreement with her ideas pretty much ends there. The diversity of content on “gender variance” she praises us for isn’t even something we feel we can honestly take credit for because it wasn’t a top-down initiative; it was a response to feedback and submissions from you, our community, and our newer writers.
A Dangerous Double Standard
What’s especially troubling about Clarke’s argument is that she’s defended feminist websites against the same criticism she’s now directing towards us, and uses the 2011 n+1 piece “So Many Feelings,” the very essay she railed against in a 2012 Dissent Magazine essay, in order to delegitimize us:
To be clear, what troubles me is not exactly the language itself—there is plenty of hyperbolic writing on the Internet—but rather what the language stands for, the stereotype in which the language situates itself. Superficially, my argument has a great deal in common with that of Molly Fischer’s 2011 essay, “So Many Feelings.” Fischer criticized the straight “ladyblogs” for baking “pies with low-hanging fruit: they are helpful, agreeable, relatable, and above all likable,” that is, for visibly performing the traditional emotional work of womanhood.
In Dissent, Clarke discredits Fischer’s criticism of xoJane, Jezebel, The Hairpin and Rookie, arguing that “ladyblogs provide an outlet for mixing high and low” which “gives them the potential to make readers who don’t consider feminism integral to their identity friendlier to feminist ideas.” Why is it okay to make straight feminism “friendlier” but not queer issues or queer feminism? Why does Clarke think xoJane’s vacillation between frivolous prose and “serious issues” is strategic and smart, but ours is simply a reflection of our misguided immature desire to conform profitably? How can she deny us agency and call herself a feminist at the same time?
When we read “So Many Feelings” back in 2011, our first thought was, “Oh wow, we are also guilty of all these things, especially our tendency to avoid conflict, we need to pay more attention to this problem.” We also found Clarke’s rebuttal fair and fierce, especially paragraphs like this:
“Jezebel and xoJane are written in a inflammatory, gossipy tone, but if covering celebrity and fashion brings readers to the sites and provides a more inviting forum for discussion of women’s issues than Feministe or Feministing, I can’t object. By placing s.e. smith’s critical pieces on unionizing and the profitability of fat shaming alongside Cat Marnell’s glamorously grody and frantically superficial beauty posts, by covering both celebrity gossip and changing housing patterns among low-income couples, these websites acknowledge the varied reality of modern women’s lives.”
We also agreed wholeheartedly with her take on “the false and harmful division between old and young, lady and woman, frivolity and seriousness” which “classifies certain concerns as irrelevant simply because they are articulated by or for women, and in a roundabout way reasserts a patriarchal censor on the media, with no room for emotion or variety.” We didn’t realize that she was only talking about straight women.
She’s also among many who have argued that the language characterized as “breathy” or “hyperbolic” and most tellingly “trivial” are those speech mannerisms and verbal tics which are most often associated with women and femininity. Why are we still stuck on the preoccupation with policing gendered speech or labeling it superficial? It’s not clear from Clarke’s critique where this sweet spot of “women’s” linguistic performance lies, and in what meaningful ways it’s different from “girl’s,” or “men’s.” Exactly what kind of gendered speech is necessary to be taken seriously?
Clarke then makes some grossly unsubstantiated claims about our business model, quoting very smart people we like, such as Sarah Schulman:
In her very smart 2012 book The Gentrification of the Mind, novelist and lesbian activist Sarah Schulman argues that gays and lesbians—and queer culture as a whole—only became acceptable to the American public when the facts of their oppression and difference were erased or silenced. Schulman points specifically to the queer radicals who died during the AIDS crisis, many of whom were poor, or people of color, or both. She argues that the lack of their presence and their stories in contemporary discourse allows for the (straight) public to be “suddenly convinced that gays and lesbians are white, bourgeoisie, [and] privileged,” and therefore socially acceptable and untroubling.
This passage, I believe, attempts to position Autostraddle as making itself palatable to the “American public” by silencing/erasing “the facts of their oppression and difference.” In fact, we write so much about our oppression and difference that we often require that vapid fluff just to keep our own faltering sanity intact. After reading about systemic economic injustice leveled at queer people, the overwhelming challenges facing LGBT workers of color, the ways in which neocolonialist rhetoric is leveraged in international LGBT news coverage, the reach of the prison industrial complex and the misplaced values of the mainstream LGBT equality movement, is it that unreasonable to want to make a list of five movies with cats in them?
Clarke insists that “by cultivating an unchallenging linguistic similarity to Cosmo, that bastion of white, bourgeoisie privilege, Autostraddle makes its queer voice palatable to the mainstream.” But she provides no evidence that we are actually palatable to the mainstream, quickly moving on to this ridiculous point:
Moreover, a constant among the bourgeoisie and the privileged in America is that they like to buy stuff, and Autostraddle doesn’t disappoint in that department. The Autostraddle store features by-ladies-for-ladies pinup calendars, flasks with “You Do You” etched inside a triangle, and “Straddle This” logo boxer briefs. All cute, appealing merchandise—what easier way is there to adopt and advertise an identity than by buying into it? Like Cosmo, the site makes accessible what once was radical, both by providing personal-branding items to queers who are looking for an easy way to self-identify, and by situating queer culture in the marketplace.
Of course, what she fails to acknowledge is that we don’t sell merchandise in order to to “situate queer culture in the marketplace” or commodify radicalism, but rather, we do so in order to make money to stay in business. (Also, Clarke recently tweeted about her desire to buy a t-shirt from the undeniably excellent website The Toast — why is it okay for them but not us?) Nor can Autostraddle be easily defined as having a universal political philosophy — as we’ve grown, we’ve been able to publish a wide variety of voices, some of whom are radical, some of whom are absolutely not. Despite our socialist hearts beating still, we also have never described our website as universally “radical” because we’re fully aware that our participation in a capitalist marketplace as a for-profit publication categorically excludes us from that label.
We built this ship ourselves, almost entirely supported by the community we serve (that’s YOU!), and we are VERY proud of that. We’ll soon be launching a membership program that we hope will improve our financial fortunes, because this is both a transformational and an obscenely stressful time for us, attempting to pay five full-time staff members, four part-time staff members and 20 or so contributing editors every month with about $20k. (About one-tenth of what other sites this size have to work with — maintaining this large complicated beast and its five revenue streams takes a LOT of labor.) Do the math: Nobody is walking home with what they deserve, and we’re still plainly unable to pay all of our writers and columnists. We’ve made some really fantastic ad sales, but not nearly enough. Consistently attracting advertisers has always been a struggle for us — but if it wasn’t, you can bet that we’d have even more of that intelligent, challenging work that Diana likes so much!
Her argument is actually an inversion of what our real editorial and financial realities have been — not only have we never turned away transgressive or politically radical writing in favor of publishing something more SEO-friendly or “mainstream” instead, we’ve done the exact opposite. Whenever we’ve gained some small amount of economic ground from publishing “vapid fluff,” we’ve turned around and used it to pay for writing, putting money in the pockets of writers and boosting their voices. When we’re paid to produce sponsored content for advertisers, we offer those assignments to our underpaid staff at four times the rate we pay them for regular content. Following our redesign fundraising campaign, we were kids-in-a-candy-shop excited to be able to pay dozens of queer trans women writers during our Trans*Scribe themed month. After receiving a financial gift last December, we funneled it immediately into paying our team of queer writers and publishing memorable work from writers like Roxane Gay, Kim Crosby and Arabelle Sicardi. We celebrated meeting a very early traffic goal, in 2011, by dedicating an entire month to talking about our favorite poets.
The goal is, and has always been, to make enough money to be able to feature writing like this, not to bury it under the carpet so that we’re able to buy four-dollar lattes (with kitten marshmallows in them), as Clarke seems to think. This isn’t a new model, either; the model of publishing some less intellectual but relatively profitable work to enable more progressive, less commercial work is older than dirt. It would be very surprising if Clarke weren’t aware of the concept. So why, then, is she so committed to not recognizing it at work here?
Clarke’s invocation of Schulman, especially alongside her apparent repulsion at the idea of our attempt to earn money to live on by selling goods in exchange for currency, seems to suggest a troubling conclusion that she stops short of articulating in the actual essay. It’s confusing that Clarke defends other sites for the same things she criticizes in Autostraddle — until you consider our queerness. Clarke seems to have interpreted Schulman’s critique of bourgeois values as meaning that having profitability or even financial stability as a goal is inherently antithetical to a radical queer political identification. It’s true that radical politics aren’t usually a profitable institution, and it’s possible to hijack radical rhetoric for the sake of a bottom line. But the fact that Clarke’s critique isn’t aimed at feminist websites in general but instead a queer feminist website suggests this isn’t her thinking. Instead, the idea seems to be that the only way for a community’s radical politics to be taken seriously is if they present themselves as abjectly poverty-stricken and marginalized, and make no attempt to change that — because attempting to make a living in order to continue furthering those same political values cheapens them, somehow. The subtext is that queer voices are only valid when they’re articulating their pain and oppression, but never their small pleasures or pop culture interests; that the best and most valuable part of ourselves is our marginalization, and that our marginalization should be accessible to everyone for free.
This last point is the most outrageous; marginalized people creating media is labor, and deserves compensation. The voices we most need to hear from are the ones who are least able to write without pay, and there are a lot of voices we don’t hear enough from on Autostraddle. Clarke’s point is a terrible catch-22; working hard for little to no money as a marginalized person is commendable, but only as long as it’s totally economically draining; but if at any point you work hard enough or become good enough at it that you can support yourself, your politics are in bad faith. When these are the rules of the game, it shouldn’t be surprising if we don’t want to play. And if this is frustrating for us at Autostraddle, who are relatively privileged within LGBT media in a variety of ways because a majority of our team is white and cisgender, what does this dictate mean for queer media created for other intersecting identities?
Besides setting up ideals of political realization that actively discourage queers from being financially stable, this critique seems to ignore that LGBT people aren’t just a socially marginalized class; we’re economically worse off in many respects than straight people. Clarke’s laser-like focus on the idea that Autostraddle might try to make some money from its queer readers doesn’t take into account that the money in question would also be going to queer editors, who would then use it to pay queer writers. This isn’t a money-grab with a “radical” label slapped on; this is a community choosing to sustain itself financially, keeping its money within itself. If Clarke can’t recognize the radical potential of that, it might be more likely that it’s because she’s writing as an outsider without firsthand knowledge of these kind of concerns than it is that there’s a bourgeois plot afoot.
Perhaps It Would Make More Sense to Just Talk About Cosmo, Though
The biggest tipoff that the bourgeois plot isn’t real is mostly how hard we’re still struggling every day when it comes to money and solvency and even, still, with maintaining those impressive traffic numbers. If every single queer woman in America read Autostraddle, we’d still have fewer unique visitors than Jezebel. That’s just math. If we were, in fact, the queer Cosmo, if we had, in fact, succeeded in “mainstreaming” queerness in a palatable and commodified way, then perhaps we’d have the advertisers, offices, marketing staff, older experienced reporters, institutional support and resources that make us oh-so-very-different from publications like Cosmo. None of us went into this with business savvy or strategy. In fact, that makes us different not only from Cosmo and pretty much every mainstream women’s magazine with similar traffic levels — even the indies — it makes us different from a lot of LGBT publications too. Whether it’s AfterEllen & The Backlot, Out, SheWired, Buzzfeed LGBT or HuffPo Gay Voices, these are publications that produce great work and put money in the pockets of talented queer writers, but also are owned by large companies that make money. We’re not. (AfterEllen and AfterElton did start out as indies, but were purchased by Logo in 2006.) We’re concerned with telling interesting and complicated stories and we’re also interested in being entertaining and fun. We’re also interested in making enough money to be able to tell those interesting and complicated stories.
If we want to discuss the “mainstreaming” of queer culture, however, let’s talk about how Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and now Cosmopolitan started LGBT verticals only when it became safe and popular, after a civil rights movement and media push that had been tirelessly executed by tiny, underfunded queer publications for decades. Those sites have managed to eradicate our Google News presence, and we obviously have it better than pretty much every other independently-owned lesbian website, so those less popular than us have likely been hit twice as hard. They do produce a lot of fantastic, inclusive and even groundbreaking work, it’s true, but they also don’t do the community work we do (we have an actual CAMP, y’all) and do probably profit enormously on the clickable stories they publish. Undoubtedly, Buzzfeed’s likely gotten major traction on stories similar to stories other queer publications did years earlier, to much less acclaim. All at once, the whole country realized that queer people have money, and spend it, and they used that knowledge to their advantage, not ours. Although one straight editor of queer content from a mainstream website did offer Riese a cup of coffee in exchange for telling this editor what LGBTQ people like to read about. (She declined the offer.)
Ultimately, what seems most troubling about Clarke’s piece isn’t even just what it argues (which isn’t always clear), but where it’s being argued from. For all her claims about the “mainstreaming” of queerness, Clarke doesn’t seem to write for any publications that address historically unprofitable niche queer audiences like ours. The move to try to tear down an independent queer publication rings some serious alarm bells when it’s coming from the part of the playground that has the prestige, the support and the editorial resources. In the ether of the Internet, it can be hard to see the differences in publications’ experiences and backstories. It can seem as though, if a website exists, they’ve “made it” just as much as anyone else. But the truth is that some have had to work much harder than others to even get a seat at the table. So if you’ve had your name on a card marking your place there since the start, the choice to use your platform and power to knock down those who are trying to succeed with much less isn’t a brave or insightful move, but a juvenile one.
There is plenty we do wrong around here, undoubtedly, and Clarke actually missed a few opportunities to further her own point that we’ll politely keep to ourselves. In the end, Clarke makes a very strong argument for why she personally isn’t a huge fan of our website, but fails to provide an example of the real-world ramifications of her characterization, or why her personal aversion to our language is even relevant. Her piece doesn’t end up being as much about what Autostraddle might mean for queer feminism, but about what confusions mainstream feminism and women’s media still have when it comes to queer feminist culture. Baffling indeed.