How are you supposed to use “The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things”?
It’s not a book you read cover to cover, editor Anna Holmes thinks.
It is a book you may keep on the coffee table, or in the bathroom, for moments when you want to know some euphemisms for the world “female” or look at a funny, detailed illustration of what makes a “cat lady.”
But — like the Web site it came from — it could be, co-writer Kate Harding says, a vessel for young women to discover that they might be feminist after all. “I hope it elevates young women’s standards for how they should be treated and allowed to engage in the world,” she told The Washington Post at an event for the book in the District on Saturday.
“And taken seriously,” Holmes chimed in. “Being able to be a totally well-rounded human being that is able to be taken seriously and also be goofy.”
A platform for discussion or entertaining bathroom reading. Hopefully, Holmes says, it will be both.
“The Book of Jezebel,” published last week, covers ideas, characters, movements and people, from fictional teenage sleuth Veronica Mars to the Japanese cartoon Hello Kitty to novelist Zora Neale Hurston. Highlights in the ad hoc rather than exhaustive encyclopedia include quick one-line entries like youth (“Expected of women throughout their life cycle”); women’s work (“Never done”); and loudmouth (“Woman with opinions”).
Holmes, a former columnist for The Post, and five contributors gathered at Politics and Prose in Washington to talk about the book and what the site has meant for its readers.
The audience — which included only a handful of men — enthusiastically embraced the girl-power discussion. They nodded approvingly as the contributors discussed how much the female blogosphere has transformed since Jezebel launched and laughed as the panelists read passages from the book. A description of Katy Perry’s first single, “I Kissed a Girl,” as “lezploitational” was the biggest hit.
In launching Jezebel, Holmes told the crowd that her goal was to make the sort of women’s Web site she actually wanted to read herself — one that didn’t airbrush photos, didn’t offer dieting tips and didn’t depict feminism as a scary, bad term.
“It was a reaction to the women’s magazines I’d read and worked at, which I’d hated,” Holmes said.
Jezebel evolved when, in late 2006, Holmes was approached to create something known simply as a “girly Gawker” — a women’s site that would advance the same unabashed approach to issues as its parent company, Gawker Media. A year later, the site launched and quickly gained popularity as a cheeky antidote to traditional women’s media. Its snarky satire of retouched fashion magazine covers — a special feature on the site called “Photoshop of Horrors” — and biting commentary on daily news garnered healthy traffic.
Holmes ran the site until 2010, and after she left she spoke with Gawker Media about how the site’s humor and feminist sensibility could be expanded and branded to other media forms. After some non-starters, a fake Sarah Palin yearbook among them, a reference guide geared toward the site’s fans was born.
Jenica Greenfield, 24, is one of those fans. Greenfield, who attended the reading, remembers the sense of community the site provided her while she attended college in rural Tennessee.
A faithful reader of the site since age 20, she says her favorite aspect of Jezebel is its snark. She checks the site at least once a day and was happy to add the analog, encyclopedia version of Jezebel to her reading list. She noted that the last encyclopedia she remembers buying was in elementary school.
Though the crowd was mainly a sea of iPhone-wielding 20-somethings, Joyce Sefl of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who said she was “pushing 70,” bought the book and plans to go through entries with her 4-year-old granddaughter. “She’s curious,” Sefl said. “Why not start her now?”
Even though it may be pegged as an encyclopedia of “lady things,” men have also taken an interest in the book. Jake Tapper, host of CNN’s “The Lead” and a longtime friend of Holmes, attended a party after the reading.
He said he was particularly happy to see one inclusion in the encyclopedia: 20th-century suffragist Alice Stokes Paul, after whom his daughter is named. “We come from a very empowered household, so any book that has an encyclopedia entry of Alice Paul is welcome,” he said.
Before the event at Politics and Prose, Holmes found herself in an only-in-Washington (or very unlikely anywhere else) moment:
Browsing in the bookstore before the event on feminism and the Internet started was Justice Elena Kagan.
Book contributor Irin Carmon and Holmes approached the justice, who gamely posed for a photo.
They also showed her the “Elena Kagan” entry in the book, which reads, in part:
“White House domestic policy adviser (during the Clinton administration), and, at age thirty-one, a University of Chicago law professor.”
The justice liked being included in the book. But she didn’t, Holmes tweeted after the event, like the photo.
Which is, perhaps, a perfect Jezebel juxtaposition: jurisprudence and a discerning eye toward pictures.