Jezebel gave us the tampon story when we needed it most

Ask any Jezebel reader who was around in the aughts whether they remember the tampon story, and they will remember the tampon story. It was a long first-person essay written by a young woman who (this gets gross, you have been warned) gets her period at a wedding, attends the reception, takes a late train home, and then, “Some actually interesting things happened during those five hours, but the important part is that at some point in my fatigue I inserted a new tampon without removing the first.”

Hours pass. Days pass. She has sexual intercourse. She goes out drinking. Strange and putrid things start to happen to her body, and then keep happening to her body, stranger and more putrid with each progressing day. A week and a half after the wedding she finally realizes what must have happened, and the culminating scene is somewhere between “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Trainspotting.”

When girls and women frantically forwarded one another this essay in 2008, it seemed like the kind of apocryphal fable you might have been warned of in health class, except it was horrifyingly real — and haunting enough to stick with me for 15 years, apparently, to the point that when I learned Thursday that Jezebel’s parent company would be ceasing publication of the feminist news and culture site, my first thought was, Oh God, the tampon.

That essay was published in Jezebel’s second year of existence, when the site was already loved and hated, dissected and mimicked. The founding editor, Anna Holmes, had come from a world of vapid lifestyle magazines and was convinced that women deserved something better. Jezebel’s opening stunt was offering a $10,000 bounty to anyone who could provide the unretouched version of a celebrity magazine cover. A few months later the mission was accomplished: the site posted side-by-side photographs of Faith Hill, who had been elongated and de-wrinkled in order to grace the front of Redbook. What kind of culture was this, Jezebel demanded in a series of accompanying articles, in which an already beautiful woman was declared not perfect enough? What kind of message did this send to the average reader about her own self worth?

The site was smart and sharp. It launched writer Lindy West into literary and Hollywood stardom. It was Jia Tolentino’s warm-up for a career at The New Yorker. You could find funnier writing in the Jezebel comments section than you could find on late-night television; Erin Ryan was working in finance at Merrill Lynch when Jezebel editors took note of her comments and decided she should be on the editorial staff. She went on to write for “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and now hosts the popular podcast “Hysteria.”

But soon critics — both troglodytes and other feminists, creating the strangest of bedfellows — began to argue that Jezebel wasn’t providing something better.

The troglodytes hated what they always hate when it comes to brazen women: their diffidence, their independence, their insistence on discussing and having sex on their own terms. The feminists hated — well, that’s where it got complicated. Marquee names like Susan Faludi and Katha Pollitt argued that Jezebel hadn’t received the mantle of the sisterhood with enough reverence. There was a disaster of an incident in which two Jezebel editors, during a live interview, appeared to speak cavalierly and jokingly about rape. One, Moe Tkacik (incidentally also the author of the tampon piece) shared that she had been sexually assaulted by an acquaintance. “I got very mad at him,” Tkacik said, but didn’t report the assault to the police because she didn’t want to “go through s—.” Veteran feminist Linda Hirshman published a long essay in Slate arguing that these editors were bad “brand emissaries” for feminism, and appeared to take issue with the assault victim’s failure to report her own assault.

Hirshman died last month. I’d spoken with her several times over the course of my career, and found myself deeply saddened this week at the idea that I wouldn’t get to talk to her again. In 2023, would she still have been so harsh on the ladies of Jezebel? Knowing what we know now, about the very good reasons that rape victims often don’t report their own assaults (they might be disbelieved and re-traumatized), would she still see Tkacik’s behavior as cavalier, or would she see it instead as a young woman working through an appalling incident in public, on the fly, perhaps using humor to deflect and protect? Tkacik’s behavior in that interview was messy, but then again, so is life. Jezebel’s content was outré, but that’s what many people loved about it — the fact that body humor, so long the domain of men, was being revamped as ovarian; the fact that site’s writing brought a Hunter S. Thompson gonzo sensibility to topics from abortion to eyeliner.

Feminism was a movement, but then again, by definition movements should keep moving, reworked according to what each new generation needs.

In the memo that went out to Jezebel’s staff this week, the CEO of the website’s parent company wrote that the company’s “business model and the audiences we serve across our network did not align with Jezebel’s. And when that became clear, we undertook an expansive search for a new, perhaps better home that might ensure Jezebel a path forward.” Discussions were held with many potential buyers, he wrote. “Still, despite every effort, we could not find Jez a new home.”

I don’t know whether Jezebel’s demise says something about the site itself, and its place in modern culture, or whether it’s merely a reflection of the broader media landscape. Publications far bigger and older than Jezebel are shuttering or downsizing, lacking the ad dollars or audience to continue.

What I do know is that hearing the Jezebel news caused me to go back and find that old tampon piece. It feels now like a product of its time. (Readers should be warned, especially, about the final line in the essay. It is a quote that includes a slur referring to intellectual disability, and it’s enough to render the whole piece obsolete.) It seems now like an essay I’ve read copycats and derivatives of a dozen times in the ensuing years — close observations on the bodily realities of women, sometimes written better, sometimes worse.

But back in 2008, reading it felt like ushering in a new and energetic era. Reading it felt brand-new.

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