Rayne Fisher-Quann grew up with no shortage of feminist influences. There was her mother, who brought home a book about the problems with Barbie and banned the actual dolls. There were websites transmitting the wise and world-weary voices of fired-up millennial thinkers — the women’s blog Jezebel, the teen site Rookie. Now that Ms. Fisher-Quann is establishing herself as an independent writer focused on girlhood and identity, she wonders how her career might unfold if there were a more cohesive online community for Gen Z feminists like herself.
“What I thought was so cool when I was 15 and looking at these writers on Jezebel and Bitch is that there was a built-in community,” said Ms. Fisher-Quann, 22, who writes a Substack called “Internet Princess” (with more than 72,000 subscribers), and recently started on an essay collection combining memoir and criticism. “A lot of feminist work has become more individualized and splintered.”
Last week’s announcement of the shuttering of Jezebel, which shortly after its 2007 debut surpassed 10 million monthly views and later overtook its sibling site Gawker.com, served as a fresh reminder to young writers like Ms. Fisher-Quann of how much things have changed. The other feminist sites she used to read have closed, too.
Now, even as conventional magazines and Hollywood cheerlead pop feminism — the type splayed on Girl Power T-shirts, Notorious RBG mugs and billboards for blockbuster hits — the collapse of blog-y media leaves a hole.
“If you go back to the ’90s, there were zines where young women got together in rooms and talked things through,” said Susan Faludi, author of “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.” “Feminism needs the slow-cooker approach of building a movement over time, of figuring out what you really believe, of being willing to change your mind.”
Members of a new generation — most of them too young to have regularly read Gawker — are searching for their own versions of the publications that shaped their predecessors. But the Gen Z feminist internet, like the digital media ecosystem that contains it, has become increasingly atomized, defined by newsletter writers, podcasters and social media influencers preaching to their followers. The voices finding platforms and followings are getting more diverse — though some of them are struggling to find a sense of support.
“I don’t think there’s as central of a community as I grew up with reading Rookie,” said Remi Riordan, 24, who created Crybaby Press, which has a focus on feminism and social justice. “It’s smaller, individual creators.”
Lately the internet has exploded with viral forms of girlhood: “girl dinner” (scrounging meals from the fridge), “girl math” (justifying impulse spending), “hot girl walks” (going on walks). Meanwhile, Jezebel’s parent company said its women-focused site couldn’t withstand the media industry’s “economic headwinds.” That’s a blow that many digital media sites, like BuzzFeed News, have suffered, although feminist corners of the internet always took particular comfort and strength in their digital communities.
“That’s the ‘girl math’ — the money is still not there,” said Samhita Mukhopadhyay, 45, a former Teen Vogue executive editor who now works for the feminist media company The Meteor.
When Jezebel’s parent company, G/O Media, announced the site’s closing, it became the latest in a long string of feminist publications that folded, including Bitch Media and The Washington Post’s site The Lily, which both shut down last year. Feministing, which at its peak reached 1.2 million visitors monthly, closed in 2019, as did Vice Media’s women-focused vertical, Broadly. Along with those came the closings of The Hairpin, Lenny Letter, The Establishment and Rookie, which at its own peak had nearly five million monthly views. (There are also new upstarts, like the nonprofit newsroom The 19th, begun in 2020, and the feminist magazine Lux, started one year later, as well as old stalwarts like Bust, publishing since 1993.)
These websites tackled everything from political rage to idiotic memes — one day publishing a wrenching interview with a woman who had an abortion at 32 weeks, another day an analysis of unretouched images from a photo shoot of Lena Dunham.
Jezebel, which tended to punch up at traditional women’s media like fashion magazines, stood out for its feverishly devoted readership and smart, rowdy writing. It was parodied on “30 Rock” as JoanOfSnark: “It’s this really cool feminist website,” said Liz Lemon, the protagonist played by Tina Fey. “Women talk about how far we’ve come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies.”
If Gen Z’s answer to Jezebel is more diffuse in shape and reach, its guiding voices also sound different from their predecessors’. They’re still irreverent, still riled up and probing, but a little more tortured — sometimes bending so far backward to accommodate nuance that they don’t seem to know where they want to land. The fact of their feminism is taken for granted by them and their peers. (Julia Hava, who co-hosts the Gen Z podcast “Binchtopia,” said she felt “you almost have to be explicit about it if you’re not” identifying as a feminist.)
More young women identify as feminists than their baby boomer or Generation X counterparts. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of women between 18 and 29 identify as feminists, compared with 58 percent of women between 30 and 49 and 57 percent of those between 50 and 64.
But their thinking about the impact of feminist activism and political organizing can feel murkier.
It’s a group of young women who came of age during some of the most turbulent years for the women’s movement in recent history. They saw tens of thousands take to the streets to march in pink hats after Donald J. Trump’s election to the White House, followed millions sharing #MeToo accounts of sexual harassment and abuse and then began college noticing that despite that resistance, the day-to-day conditions of women’s lives seemed stuck. Then came the pandemic’s crushing effects on working mothers, which ignited a caregiving crisis.
Those events have shaped them in unexpected ways. Some, for instance, are cynical about the way Hillary Clinton made gender and sexism touchpoints of her 2016 presidential campaign.
“Just by nature of you being a woman and me being a woman doesn’t mean I think you’re a queen, girl boss, slay,” Ms. Hava said.
“There’s a classic Gen Z nihilism,” Ms. Fisher-Quann said. “My generation has spent a lot of time in a sort of destabilizing, regressive wave.”
Still, with Dobbs v. Jackson, the Supreme Court ruling that rolled back abortion rights, many young women realized that some of the battles they thought their mothers had squared away would have to be their struggles, too.
“When we found out Roe v. Wade was overturned, I felt this shock of being like, ‘Half the stuff I talk about doesn’t matter,’” Ms. Fisher-Quann added.
To an older generation of feminist writers, there’s a painful irony in seeing their websites shuttered just as that fight for reproductive access, which Jezebel covered regularly, gains new urgency.
It’s also galling to some to hear that websites like that can’t make money, even as they see constant reminders of how much certain forms of feminism sell. “Barbie,” which pulled in more than $1 billion at the box office, featured patriarchy as its villain.
“The ‘Barbie’ movie wouldn’t exist without feminist blogs,” said Anna Holmes, 50, the founding editor of Jezebel. “A lot of the topics that were covered on sites like Jezebel and Feministing, and a lot of the writers and editors who worked on those sites, have now been absorbed into mainstream media.”
Traditional women’s publications like Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Vogue now seem to operate their websites from roughly the perspective that Jezebel did 15 years ago, and multiple former Jezebel staff members now work, for instance, at The New York Times.
Ms. Holmes recalled a meeting she had with Gawker executives about her vision for the blog. They urged her not to use “the F word” — meaning feminist — thinking it would scare away readers. Ignoring that, Ms. Holmes encouraged her writers to explore gender politics so often that readers would come to expect it, trusting that Gawker executives weren’t paying close attention to what she was building.
Eliza McLamb, 22, and Ms. Hava, 26, are the hosts of “Binchtopia,” which assesses lowbrow cultural fixations with a highbrow vocabulary, summed up in their tagline: “If Plato and Aristotle had internet addictions and knew what ‘gaslighting’ was, they’d probably make this podcast.” Since starting it in their Los Angeles apartment in December 2020, they’ve amassed more than 40,000 weekly listeners and roughly 8,000 paid Patreon subscribers. Their subscriber tiers range from “Bestie Vibes Only” at $15 a month to “Sweet Baby Angel” at $5, bringing in roughly $40,000 monthly, which they said they also used to pay their two editors, manager and social media lead.
“As someone who did not grow up with money and always thought I would have to do something boring to survive, it’s very affirming,” Ms. McLamb said.
Ms. McLamb and Ms. Hava developed their internet sensibilities as teenagers on Tumblr, following posts about female artists like Lana Del Rey, whose “sad girl” self-expression they felt defied social expectations for perky and polished femininity. They didn’t read Jezebel or Rookie regularly, but they now sense that their social media feeds were shaped by older feminist bloggers.
“It was trickle-down feminism,” Ms. Hava said jokingly. “The larger feminist consciousness influenced what younger people were talking about.”
In college, Ms. Hava took classes on gender theory and sociology, reading Catharine MacKinnon and Simone de Beauvoir, and relished late-night, after-the-dorm-party conversations in which she and her friends connected the feminist theories they were learning about to pop culture. That was the type of conversation she wanted to have on “Binchtopia” — which she and Ms. McLamb have fostered in episodes about motherhood (“Honey, I Monetized the Kids”), incels, sex dolls, eating disorders, gender fluidity, homesteading and, of course, Barbie.
“It was like, ‘We miss those conversations you used to have in college where you hit a joint and talk about society,’” Ms. Hava said.
They’ve struggled with how to label their own enterprise. It’s sometimes political, but more often personal and unabashedly unserious.
“We don’t want to be like, ‘We’re the trailblazers of the whatever wave feminist movement,’” Ms. Hava continued. “It’s just like, yeah, obviously we’re feminists. Everybody should be a feminist. It’s not something radical to label yourself as.”
The “Binchtopia” hosts have their own corner of the internet; they’ve bonded over social media with writers like Ms. Fisher-Quann and Charlie Squire, who writes the Substack “Evil Female,” which has more than 18,000 subscribers. Other feminist influencers have separate digital communities, each one vexingly insulated.
“One of my pet issues is, I think all of it needs to be a bit more connected,” said Annie Wu Henry, 27, a social media strategist who served as a “TikTok whisperer” for John Fetterman’s U.S. Senate campaign and shares a mix of personal stories and political commentary on her own Instagram, which has more than 80,000 followers. “Most of us are fighting for the same things, fighting against the same things.”
When Ms. Henry reads about grim news events, she finds herself turning to social media to process her thoughts — an impulse that has also built her following. Right after reading about the fall of Roe v. Wade, she made a TikTok, liked by more than 300,000 people, in which she cried while reading abortion stories aloud.
“It’s sometimes easier to, well — not put pen to paper, but type out your feelings and articulate them that way,” Ms. Henry said. “There’s this ability to be vulnerable with an online community. Even though they’ve never met you, you know they care about you.”
That’s a familiar sentiment to an older generation of feminist writers, who also channeled their grief into blog posts that were funny, fervent and raw. Members of that generation also know that low points in feminist media can lead to unexpected new beginnings.
Rebecca Traister, a writer for New York Magazine and its site The Cut, noted that in the past when those voices have been sidelined, something new arose: “The explosive rebirth of feminism on the internet.” In other words, she said, “none of this is permanent.”