Hey, remember Babe.net? The site was a spin-off of The Tab, the university news site conglomerate that managed to turn not paying its student writers into the kind of hot-shot business model Rupert Murdoch was delighted to invest in. Joshi Herrmann, the editor-in-chief, took over that role in 2016 after time at the Evening Standard. Babe as supposed to be their version of Jezebel, a hot-shot no-holds-barred site for young millennial women that sought to replicate the mouthy transgressive feminism of their internet predecessors. Think the filter-free frenzy of xoJane crossed with the social earnestness of Tumblr.
But the chances are you mostly remember Babe for that Aziz Ansari piece. In January 2018, a woman using the pseudonym ‘Grace’ told her story to Babe about a night she spent with the comedian and the sexually uncomfortable nature of it. What could have been used as a moment to talk about issues of consent, power dynamics, and celebrity quickly became a lightning rod of controversy and Babe’s mishandling of the story essentially threw Grace under the bus in the name of clicks.
In early 2019, it was reported that The Tab were seeking to sell off Babe, which surprised nobody. However, few of us could have foreseen the sheer carnage left in Babe’s millennial pink shadow, as documented in a stunning and devastating profile in The Cut. Written by Allison P. Davis, who also wrote the amazing Lena Dunham profile from last year, the article digs into the troubling workplace dynamics at Babe HQ, the way various young women writers were treated, the problematic power misbalance created when a ‘feminist’ website for women is run and dictated to by men, and the near parodic downfall that occurred after that Ansari piece.
Davis details a visit she made to the offices of Babe in the spring of 2018 after the Ansari piece went viral. Above an archway ‘hung a tweet that a staffer had printed out and enlarged: Overheard in LA (at my dinner table): What the fuck is babe dot net?’ This tweet, David would later discover, was put up especially for her visit. The offices of Babe seemed to be struggling with the attention brought onto them by the Ansari article and ‘some growing pains, maybe even an identity crisis. The site, Ross told me, was pivoting to more serious investigative journalism, though it would still have the content the people craved, like “What percent hoe are you?”’
“So I think I want to do a story where I ask men to be my slave on Tinder, like as reparations,” said Ari Bines. Bines was a few months into her job at Babe and had quickly become one of site’s top traffic-getters. During college, she’d started her own blog about being big and black; at Babe, she’d added “… and likes to fuck” to her personal brand.
“Yes! Assigned,” yelled Ross. A young woman with a cool-girl Soviet-era mullet haircut pitched a Man on the Street video asking men if they knew where the clitoris was. Another staff writer wanted to use the corporate card to buy a haunted doll from eBay — for a story, of course.
Katie Way, the reporter who had written the Ansari piece, said she was working on catching pedophiles on Reddit, and launching a series of articles by a young woman she’d reported on, Skoop Hernandez, who was imprisoned for killing her mom’s abusive boyfriend. Babe.net had officially tapped Hernandez to be its prison correspondent.
Davis’s initial visit is described as a delightfully petulent mix of young writers (being over 25 is considered ageing out of the demographic) who do what they want, say what they want, then go out for drinks to celebrate their lack of f*cks. But Davis ‘would find out later that most of that day had been carefully calibrated to impress me […] Pitches for the features meeting had been prearranged, and my one-on-one meetings with the writers had been so heavily coached Mitzali and Ross could have been producers on The Bachelor.’
One former Babe writer, given the pseudonym Jane, details being encouraged by editors to ‘write things like “Embracing Your Walk of Shame,” ignoring her protests that she’d never actually had a walk of shame. And she wasn’t paid, of course, for her work.’ On her spring break, she alleges starting a romantic relationship with Joshi Herrmann, and the women of the office ‘looking at me like I was Monica Lewinsky.’ The frat-house like atmosphere and total lack of professional boundaries at Babe are discussed at length, and how ‘interns and supervisors, underage and of-age partied together, and gossiped about who had hooked up and who slept with whom.’
There’s also the unavoidable issue of this site, intended for young women, being run by men. Another former writer, under the name Chloe, described this issue:
‘“The portrayal of being a woman or woman-identified person on babe was very much through the lens of what Joshi, and by extension the female editors that he had hired, wanted it to be,” she told me. ” All of our content just felt very male gaze-y to me. It was like a woman who was obsessed with having sex with men and performing sex for men.”’
This seemed to become an even bigger problem when the lack of boundaries between employer and employee came to the forefront. Chloe describes an alleged incident where she got drunk and made out with Jack Rivlin, the CEO. The next day, she alleges that Joshi Herrmann ‘started to recap the events of the previous night. “It was very much just like a joke to them,” she said to me. Herrmann told her, she says, that ‘“I think that if Syra [Aburto] wasn’t there you would have fucked him.’” (Herrmann denies this).
Eventually, a group of five staffers decided they had had enough with this melting pot of unprofessional behaviour, dodgy managerial incidents, frat culture, and various other workplace issues, and so they decided to write a letter expressing ‘he group’s perception of racial and gendered power imbalances at the publication, along with their concern over the porousness of boundaries at babe.net.’ Management decided to respond to each staffer individually, with Herrmann heading the process, something that led most of the women to quit in frustration. Babe then tried a membership initiative but audiences weren’t interested, even before Facebook’s notorious algorithm allegedly got in the way, so in December, Babe.net quietly stopped making new content.
Katie Way, the then-22 year old writer of the Aziz Ansari piece, is featured prominently in the profile. It’s hard to get away from the horrifying reality of this site and just how young everyone involved was. How did anyone expect a site with this much money behind it, essentially no critical oversight, and an average staffer age of about 23 to not fall apart? Nobody wanted to steer this ship, and it just seemed easier to let these young women sink to the ocean floor on their own. Way told David that she ‘had been disappointed by the way the site had handled the aftermath of publication, she told me as she drank her beer, and felt that she’d been pushed out in front of the situation in a way that she wasn’t prepared for.’ But, as Davis herself puts it, ‘this was just what happened when 28-year-olds managed 24-year-olds who managed 20-year-olds, right?’
I encourage you to read and reread the entire profile. Davis is easily one of the best profile writers in the business and she captures the contradictory nature of the site, equal parts thrilling in its recklessness and utterly infuriating for the same reasons. Babe.net could have been something special, a natural heir to the likes of Jezebel, but in an age of a frantic need for clicks and companies that refuse to allow writers to unionize, its downfall seemed almost pathetically predictable. The adults abandoned the sandbox and left these very young and inexperienced women to essentially fend for themselves, encouraging them to believe that brashness and a refusal to play by the rules is admirable as long as you get those page views. Perhaps it’s unavoidable that a site intended for feminist women as run and styled by men could not help but be a parody of itself. I can’t say I’ll miss it, but damn I wish I was more surprised by the news of fratty men using women’s hopes, dreams, and beliefs as their own personal pick-up artist training ground.
Header Image Source: Babe.net