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Sat October 19, 2013
Author Interviews

'The Book of Jezebel': An Honest Look At 'Lady Things'

Originally published on Mon October 21, 2013 3:02 pm

The website Jezebel takes a unique approach to women's media — focusing on politics, entertainment and advocacy issues typically absent from so-called beauty magazines.

Now the site is making its first foray onto the bookshelves with The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things.

"I've been calling it an illustrated encyclopedia of the world," Jezebel founder Anna Holmes says. Holmes edited the new book, and warns NPR's Arun Rath that the volume isn't intended to be comprehensive.

"There is plenty of stuff that I forgot to put in there," she says. "So when I say 'encyclopedia of the world,' — it's an abridged encyclopedia."

She discusses her brainchild and some of the site's best projects to date — including a collection of unretouched photographs from popular beauty magazines.


Interview Highlights

On what Jezebel, the website, tries to reflect

"With the website, what we were trying to do, and I think we did, was to provide an alternative to traditional women's media — and by that I mean mostly women's magazines, but also some websites that existed — that I felt and the staffers felt were patronizing to young American women in that they tended to promote an obsession with romance or the acquiring of a man and the keeping of a man and the pleasing of a man, in addition to things like consumerism, buying clothes, makeup, etc.

"And it's not that we have a problem with clothes or makeup — or men — but women are much more diverse in their interests (and multifaceted) than a lot of women's media was giving them credit for."

On Jezebel's unretouched photo series

"That was, I believe, about a month and a half after we launched. We launched in May 2007 and one of the first posts that went up was a call for an unretouched cover photograph of a women's magazine. Now, these are not easy things to just get. I mean, they're kept under lock and key for a reason. I would assume that maybe five people ever see an unretouched cover photograph of, let's say, Cosmo or Glamour.

"I got a couple of submissions over the following weeks and the best one, meaning the worst one, was a cover of Redbook magazine. It was an image of Faith Hill and comparing it to the cover that was on the news stand, which was out right about that time, it was apparent that they had slimmed her down considerably. They had just done things to her limbs, her skin, her face, her body, her hair that when you compared these two photos side by side it was really quite startling.

"Because in the unretouched photograph, she looked like a regular human being. In the retouched photograph she looked like what we think of human beings who are celebrities look like. Which is to say, somewhat kind of off."

On her favorite entry from the book

"I had wanted to have an entry for the phrase 'crazy cat lady' because I think they get a bum rap. I mean, I'm an animal lover and I have a cat so I wanted someone to do an illustration, a kind of taxonomy of the crazy cat lady that was both honest but loving. So an illustrator named Wendy McNaughton did a full page illustration of the crazy cat lady and within the illustration you see a brunette woman wearing a pink bathrobe. In one of the pockets of the bath robe there is a digital camera for cat pictures.

"There are — one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight — nine other cats in the illustration. One of the cats is dressed up in an outfit. I mean, I don't know anyone who actually dresses their cats up in outfits, but...

"Then at the bottom it says, 'note lack of ring,' meaning lack of wedding ring. Now, that's totally unfair, but it was hyperbole. I don't think anyone really thinks that women who love cats don't get married."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The website Jezebel bills itself as celebrity, sex and fashion for women without airbrushing. On its homepage, a casual internet surfer can find everything from political analysis, celebrity news and even household cleaning tips. And every article is written in Jezebel's signature style: funny, articulate, provocative and often profane. Anna Holmes is the founder of the site, and she's also the editor of a new encyclopedia called "The Book of Jezebel." Anna Holmes, welcome.

ANNA HOLMES: Thanks for having me.

RATH: What is it you are trying to reflect in Jezebel? Start with the website first.

HOLMES: Well, I think with the website, what we were trying to do, and I think we did, was to provide an alternative to traditional women's media. And by that, I mean mostly women's magazines that I felt - and the staffers felt - were patronizing to young American women in that they tended to promote an obsession with the acquiring of a man and the keeping of a man, in addition to things like consumerism, you know, buying clothes, makeup, et cetera.

And it's not that we have a problem with clothes or makeup or men, but that women are much more diverse in their interests than a lot of women's media was giving them credit for.

RATH: I think the first that I heard of Jezebel was when you ran before and after photos of retouched photographs from these women's magazines that you're talking about.

HOLMES: Yeah. That was, I believe, about a month and a half after we launched. We launched in May 2007. And one of the first posts that went up was a call for an unretouched cover photograph of a woman's magazine. Now, these are not easy things to just get. I mean, they're kept under lock and key for a reason. I would assume that maybe five people ever see an unretouched cover photograph of, let's say, Cosmo or Glamour.

I got a couple of submissions over the following weeks, and the best one, meaning the worst one, was a cover of Redbook magazine, and it was an image of Faith Hill. And comparing it to the actual cover that was on the newsstand, it was very apparent that they had slimmed her down considerably. They had just done things to her limbs, her skin, her face, her body, her hair that when you compare these two photos side by side it was really quite startling, because in the unretouched photograph, she looked like a regular human being. In the retouched photograph, well, she looked what we think of human beings who are celebrities look like, which is to say, somewhat kind of off.

RATH: How much does that cost?

HOLMES: The reward we offered was, I believe, about $10,000. So, you know, the other thing was that a lot of websites at the time that Jezebel started that tended to be very popular with that younger generation, which is to say 18- to 26-year-olds, 28-year-olds, were gossip websites, you know, this obsession with celebrity. But a lot of the gossip websites were horribly sexist in nature. They were always putting up photos of female celebrities and pointing out their flaws. As if Jennifer Aniston having a slight protrusion on her belly was the worst thing that could possibly happen to her or to womankind.

RATH: I want to talk about the book "The Book of Jezebel," which is kind of - it's an encyclopedia of sorts. Is that a fair description?

HOLMES: Yeah. I've been calling it an illustrated encyclopedia of the world according to the sensibility of the site. That said, it's not comprehensive. There's plenty of stuff that I forgot to put in there. So when I say encyclopedia of the world, it's a abridged encyclopedia of the world.

RATH: Well, I was going to - I don't want to be obnoxious about it but there's - I have my own, like, list of heroes that didn't make it. I was going to...

HOLMES: Tell me.

RATH: Well, Hedy Lamarr, Billy Tipton, the jazz pianist who we found out after she had died was actually a woman pretending to be a man her entire life. Susan Brownmiller, I would've thought.

HOLMES: Yeah. Mm-hmm. I know. I forgot all three of them.

RATH: Well, there can be a second edition, right?

HOLMES: Well, I hope so. I hope if it sells well there will be a second edition. And I think also, you know, we had only so much room.

RATH: Do you have a favorite entry from the book?

HOLMES: One of my favorite entries in the book is not actually text, but it's an illustration. I'd wanted to have an entry for the phrase crazy cat lady, because I think they get a bum rap. So I wanted someone to do an illustration, a kind of taxonomy of the crazy cat lady that was both honest but loving. So an illustrator named Wendy McNaughton did a full-page illustration of the crazy cat lady. And within the illustration, you see a brunette woman wearing a pink bathrobe. In one of the pockets of the bathrobe, there's a digital camera for cat pictures.

There are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine other cats in the illustration. One of the cats is dressed up in an outfit. I mean, I don't know anyone who actually dresses their cats up in outfits, but - and then at the bottom it says: note lack of ring, meaning wedding ring. Now, that's totally unfair, but that's really, like, hyperbole. I don't think anyone really thinks that women who love cats don't get married.

RATH: The book is full of these short little definitions of common words. Can you read the entry for the word picky?

HOLMES: Derogatory adjective describing unmarried women over the age of 28.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: See, I kind of love these short and sweet ones. In the case of picky, I mean, I think that's kind of perfect. And whereas an entry about planned parenthood, which is on the facing page, does need to be more substantial and explained more.

RATH: Well, it's fun because you have the history stuff, and then there are things that are just sort of like, you know, the devil's dictionary like the Ambrose Bierce kind of definitions of words, what they really mean in context.

HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RATH: How about, can you read literature?

HOLMES: OK, literature. Read by women who support 80 percent of the fiction market controlled by men who write 80 percent of books reviewed by the New York Review of Books and 80 percent of the reviews of those books. So that's, you know, that's a very pointed take on something and, you know, a snarky, sarcastic one.

RATH: Right.

HOLMES: But, you know, no one really - no one reading this book really needs to know what the definition of literature is. They want to know what the kind of Jezebel take on literature is. And that's hopefully what we're giving them with that sort of the short and sweet take on it.

RATH: Anna Holmes is the founder of the website Jezebel. Anna, thank you.

HOLMES: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.