In December, we learned that xoJane’s legendary founder, Jane Pratt, was leaving the company and that the famously controversial personal essay hub would fold into InStyle, signaling the end times for the overly confessional hate-read. (Hearst’s The Mix, more or less cut from the same cloth as xoJane, quietly died last summer.) Throughout the years, xoJane continually found itself in the spotlight, usually due to some absurdly controversial first-person essay published by a contributor—hall of famers include “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” and “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina.”
It was always a bumpy road for xoJane, and not just due to its content. A year after Say Media, xoJane’s original owner, announced it would sell all its sites, Time Inc. acquired xoJane and its beauty site xoVain in late 2015. Thanks in part to Jane Pratt’s media prowess—the outspoken Sassy founder, once perfectly parodied in an episode of Daria for the way she exploits a certain brand of adolescent edginess—knew how to make headlines. Founded in 2011, xoJane has been a media fixation since its inception. The site’s cartoonishly controversial content immediately became great fodder for not only feminist blogs, but less women-centric sites like Slate, Salon, Mediaite, and our late sister site, Gawker. The site played a key role in defining what content for women looks like on the web—something Slate once called “the first-person industrial complex.”
Make no mistake: many of these essays were rather exploitative. The site asked women to give up their most personal stories—tales of getting raped, the death of their loved ones, and ectopic pregnancies—and compensated its contributors, who were often women, with a measly $50. The recurring “It Happened to Me” column was usually home to these confessional pieces. Mandy Stadtmiller, the vertical’s former editor, later said her experience working there was like being a “first-person human trafficker.”
In an essay for The Daily Beast on the end of xoJane, Stadtmiller wrote that even she thinks “the site’s death is a blessing.” Former xoJane writer Anabelle Bernard Fournier told Stadtmiller that xoJane was a part of a “first-person industry” that commodified “women’s stories for commercial gain.”
“It’s not about the quality of the writing or connecting personal experiences with the human condition anymore,” Fournier said. “They’re not essays: they’re anecdotes.”
Even at their worst, the “anecdotes” that xoJane centered its identity around always sparked lively online debates. It provided readers and other members of the media with an infinite stream of hate-reads, some more fun than others. xoJane’s death reminds us that the excessively spicy takes and oversharing that were once hot commodities online are no longer as relevant. Perhaps we’re becoming numb to controversy.
The fall of xoJane doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly started only taking in primo content online—but the internet’s trends rise and fall, and the first-person industrial complex appears to be in its decline. So to honor the death of xoJane, let’s take a tour through its biggest moments.
Shortly after the site launched in 2011, xoJane introduced the world to the at-first-entertainingly drug-addled Cat Marnell, who used her position as the site’s Beauty and Health Director to tell the world about her love of angel dust and trying out the type of bath salts that can allegedly inspire face-eating. The site capitalized on Marnell’s openness about her various drug addictions and her willingness to do virtually anything, publishing blogs like, “I’LL TRY ANYTHING ONCE: Kleenex Eating For Appetite Suppression!” Seemingly unconcerned with its beauty editor’s serious substance abuse issues, they took her gritty (and giddy) drug tales, beauty tips and musings on her Adderall addiction and gave them a massive platform.
xoJane propelled Marnell into internet infamy and lined up a $500,000 book deal for her. Marnell’s memoir, How to Murder Your Life, was released just a month after the site shuttered.
Professionalism is overrated, but letting your employees snort bath salts for content just might be overkill. The number one rule of the online media business: You can’t profit off the suffering and pain of your employees forever.
Another ill-advised personal essay, another day in the life of xoJane. This time, the site gave a platform to white writer Jen Polachek’s internal crisis—“It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It”—triggered by the presence of a black person in her usually white yoga class.
“I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my...skinny white girl body,” Jen Polachek wrote. “Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”
After the piece received enough bad media attention to warrant a post by the assigning editor explaining that while she doesn’t “give a fuck about pageviews,” she thought Polachek’s tale of realizing her white privilege was important for the world to see.
This raises an important question: Was it really?
In March 2014, xoJane accidentally published the real name and photograph of the author of an “It Happened to Me” essay penned by a woman still living with her abuser. The author asserted she had never reported her abuse and “given the opportunity, he would abuse [her] again,” and the essay was swiftly removed from the site. The xoJane editors issued one of their legendarily empty apologies. xoJane fans did raise over $5,000 for the author of the essay to escape from her abusive situation, but as far as fuck-ups go, this might have been xoJane’s most damaging.
xoJane certainly made a habit out of screwing up stories of sexual abuse, but in late 2014, the site inadvertently gave birth to a scandal when a woman named Joanie Faircloth accused Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst of rape in the comments section of an xoJane essay by a woman who had an abusive rockstar boyfriend. The site eventually removed Faircloth’s comments, but screenshots from the site circulated around Tumblr, turning her claims into a major news story. Faircloth’s story, however, had many holes in it, and the internet soon discovered she had a history of propagating falsehoods online.
Faircloth eventually recanted her claims, telling Jezebel she never realized her story would go viral because she considered xoJane to be a “safe community.” We can now see with the utmost clarity that it is not.
In the fall of 2015, xoJane fell further down the rabbithole of virality, publishing “IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina,” a simple, graphic tale of the union of two unique pussies (I’m so sorry). While some doctors doubted the medical likelihood of such an event occurring, we’re still haunted by the screeching cries of the author’s realizing her cat’s fur got tangled in her IUD:
“HOLY SHIT THAT IS CAT HAIR THERE HAS BEEN A BALL OF CAT HAIR INSIDE ME FOR A MONTH THAT IS CAT HAIR AND IT WAS IN MY VAGINA A HAIRBALL HAS BEEN CAUSING MY DISCOMFORT HOLY SHIT AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
In May 2016, we hit peak xoJane after the site published a horrifically cruel essay by “writer” Amanda Lauren about how the death of her former friend, who suffered from schizoaffective disorder, was actually—wait for it—good?
“Her death wasn’t a tragedy, her life was,” Lauren wrote, after paragraphs of complaining about her ex-friend’s typo-laden unhinged Facebook posts. She mused that her friend—who died after hitting her head and drowning in her bathtub—would’ve wanted to go that way. “Big and dramatic with an obit in the New York Times. Her better self would have been strangely proud,” Lauren mused.
After the site was inundated with criticism about the utter malice of the piece, they removed the essay and published an apology by Jane Pratt in its place.
As someone who suffers from mental illness, I was horrified by the piece when it went up. Now that some time has passed, I’m strangely grateful for it. It was the hate-read of the year! The fateful day after it was published—May 20, 2016—everyone online banded together to shout, This! Shit! Is! Bad!
“My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing” was so profoundly Bad, it transcended being a mere piece of hateful trash, reminding thirsty bloggers, online activists, and anyone who likes to be outraged of the delight of the hate-read. There’s a perverted pleasure that can be derived from disliking people and their terrible takes. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just human nature. xoJane was always good at reminding us of that special type of joy, of bringing a diverse crew of content fiends together in solidarity to tear apart the site’s most malicious shitposts.
When Jane Pratt founded the site, its tagline was “xoJane.com is where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded.” The applause has finally come to its logical end. May she rest in peace.