The editors of The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things, are carefully unambitious about the aim of the book: “we thought it might be fun to collect our various observations, fascinations, annoyances, and inspirations in one easy-to-use, attractive volume.” On the surface, it seems like a cheeky gift book, a pseudo-serious encyclopedia that juxtaposes cellulite with the Latvian artist Vija Celmins, Clueless with Clytemnestra, the porno Deep Throat and the Native American politician Ada Deer.
But this project is somewhat more radical than its editors claim. An encyclopedia is like a map; it presents the world as the mapmaker wishes to see it. And The Book of Jezebel is a fascinating — and probably futile — attempt to remap the world according to Jezebel. Thus, “Abortion: a safe and legal method of terminating a pregnancy.”
As an avid (if critical) reader of Jezebel.com, I was hoping for a more thoughtful and careful take than the blog posts that — while they deal with important and under-covered issues — can feel like clickbait or sloppy journalism, with inflammatory headlines and a habit of under-citing sources.
In some ways, the book succeeds: It mimics Judy Chicago’s famous art installation, “The Dinner Party,” a triangle shaped table with place settings for 39 real and imaginary women overlooked by history. The Book of Jezebel notes that, while Christian Dior dressed the wives of Nazis in occupied France, his sister passed messages for the Resistance. It posits that Magdalena Abakanowicz matters as much as Alberto Giacometti, that Elizabeth Barret Browning matters as much as her husband Robert, and that Jane Austen did not write chick lit, goddammit.
This serious aim is covered with a veneer of what passes for Sass and Wit, but can veer into simple unpleasantness, as when the entry for Cheney, Dick tells him to “go [expletive] yourself.”
At one point, the editors mention the fictional “Joan of Snark” blog featured on the TV show 30 Rock. Per Liz Lemon, it is a “really cool feminist website where women talk about how far we’ve come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies.” Similarly, The Book of Jezebel isfiercely and rightfully indignant about body- and slut- shaming, but has no problem casually targeting Lindsay Lohan for showing too much skin (see: “nip slip”) or the Olsen twins for their “ersatz homeless” style.
The editors also seem to miss the fact that standing up for women’s bodies means standing up for all female bodies, even conventionally attractive ones. The section on the word “skinny” hints that being skinny is for the unhealthy and/or neurotic, even cross-referencing it with the “pro-ana” (or pro-anorexia) movement.
Jezebel.com has long been criticized for focusing on the problems of white, urban upper middle class women. The Book of Jezebel is rather better at including nonwhite voices, but still has occasional slips, including the entry for a black woman artist that includes the sentence, “But just because she creates representations of black women doesn’t mean her work is all about her.” Can you imagine an art encyclopedia saying, “But just because Titian paints white men doesn’t mean his work is all about him?”
Also worrisome is the book’s habit of leaving inconvenient facts out, particularly troublesome in the two separate entries on Indira Gandhi, which appear to have been written by two different people (or one very confused person). The first makes her sound like a feminist pioneer whose life was “cut short,” while noting that she “didn’t shy away from displays of traditional strength.” The second comes in a special section on female dictators, and makes her sound repressive, despotic and like she probably got what was coming to her.
But much of The Book of Jezebel is genuinely funny: Chocolate is defined as “the linchpin of a massive ‘feeble jokes on bumper stickers and sweatshirts’ industry,” and apt (catfight: “disagreement between women that, for whatever reason, you want to belittle”). It also does a wonderful job of exploring the weird and delightful corners of feminist history, as in the entry on the lawyer and activist Flo Kennedy, who — wonderfully — organized a “pee-in” on the Harvard lawns to protest the dearth of women’s bathrooms.
And for now, Jezebel is the closest thing we have to an engaging and mainstream feminist news outlet. That is something to be grateful for. Jezebel may sometimes be mean, petty, biased, and irresponsible — but it is utterly necessary.