Q&A: Jane Pratt On Shamelessness, The Diminishing Influence Of Print Media, And Much More
After running Sassy and Jane magazines, Pratt launched XOJane.com. A little over a year into her latest venture, she speaks to BuzzFeed Shift about the Internet, her infamous writer Cat Marnell, and why she'd do a reality show.
Do you feel like you ended up with what you set out to establish with XOJane? Or did it change as you went along?
Coming from a magazine background, I felt like the content that was there the moment we launched was so critical. I think now there’s more of a rhythm to it. At first it was like, work all night through the night and just try to keep up. And now I feel like there’s a little bit more of a pace now. Putting up 15 or so posts a day is great, and I’m super happy with that. One thing I had envisioned and that I would still like to do more frequently is some of the things that are a little bit longer lead time. Like our make-unders and stuff like that or some of the galleries we’ve done, like fatkinis or show us your morning faces.
We started a couple months ago doing some shorter posts that are more reactions to things going on in the news. I always try and have the writers bring a personal perspective, so we’ll send out an email first thing in the morning saying these are some potential stories we could cover, does anyone have any personal relationship to them?
That’s what the site is really known for – the first-person pieces. I feel like you guys do it in a way that no one else does.
It’s funny because it’s really what I’ve always been interested in reading myself and what I’ve always published, whether it was in Sassy magazine or Jane or here. I’ve always liked to know what the writer was going through more than what they are reporting on.
Getting writers to reveal very personal things in stories can be very difficult, and yet XO Jane's always do. Is it worth all the fear and anxiety?
What I find is that the more people do share the things that they feel like they shouldn’t share — whether it’s an image of themselves that they don’t feel is their most flattering — the more positive feedback they get.
It can be especially hard when so many jerks comment on the Internet.
Yeah. I don’t care so much if it’s negative feedback as long as it’s feedback. As long as people are engaged enough to want to respond and comment, I like that. I like them to feel passionate about what we’re doing.
I’ve found that the more that we’re involved in the comments — like I’ll go in there and respond to people — the more that they feel like it’s not just a free-for-all. They feel like we are people and we are engaged in what they’re saying to us.
What is it like working online where you get instant feedback as opposed to doing Jane or Sassy in print where you didn't?
You would convince yourself that this article was the reason that the issue sold really well, just because it was something you were personally really passionate about. But now, it’s all right there. The numbers are right there to know what’s driving traffic and what’s not. So now, you can’t even fool yourself into thinking that the intellectual piece you threw in is [drawing readers].
Does it surprise you, seeing what does well?
No. But sometimes it’s a little disheartening. Like, oh yep, eating disorders do well.
What do you think of the girls protesting Seventeen and Teen Vogue?
These teenage girls can see all of these images of all different types of women in many other media — all types of bodies, and we don’t know how retouched they are, but they're more real [than many fashion magazines]. It's interesting that still the impact of print is great enough that they would feel like this is how damaging it could be to their self-esteem and their body image. I feel like the impact of print is diluted now.
Do you think the internet has emboldened this backlash?
There were protests and we’d get letters — not so much at Sassy — but teen magazines have been getting letters from readers about the models and lack of variety forever and ever. But now there’s just much more awareness of their arguments because of the all the platforms.
Do you think it’s a problem that magazines do tend to overwhelmingly portray thin, white, one-note image of beauty?
I definitely think it’s a problem. I’m really surprised at in many ways how little has changed in print magazines over so many years.
One of the things I liked when we did this fatkinis gallery was that even when you see the plus-size models in the print magazines, it’s great that they’re there but their skin is still ultra smooth and so they’re larger but they’re still really fitting into a specific mold. And the images that we showed are very real — there’s cellulite, there’s no retouching at all. And the difference is really startling.
What do you think about how the "can women have it all" question is almost guaranteed to come up in every discussion about women and career achievement nowadays?
It’s so funny how much that comes up. I’m not saying in any way that we shouldn’t be doing everything that we can do societally to make it easier for women to work and have kids — with good day care and all that — of course we should. But I feel like men make choices too. There’s some kind of victim mentality in it that I just don’t feel personally.
It doesn’t really — or at least, very seldom — come up with discussions about men and career.
No, and yet I talked to a guy this morning who was changing jobs because he wants his daughter to stay in school where she's happy. Men make those choices too. And I feel like the whole focus on gender — it’s becoming a thing of the past. What about two gay men raising kids? I just don’t get the whole focus on women and having kids. It feels dated to me. I was surprised when I saw that on the cover of the Atlantic. I was like, oh really, people are still talking about that?
Is there anything you miss about print? Is there anything you think print does better than the internet?
I think that visually, there’s still some really nice things you can do on magazine pages, on paper. I don’t use any stock photography on xoJane — I use only original photography, but primarily, making people take their own photos of themselves with their phones. Partly because I want people to get to know the characters on the site and not feel like it’s a model or it’s somebody that I don’t know.
At first we were doing photo shoots for the site that were like on the scale of magazine photo shoots, with photographers, models, celebrities. In a print magazine, we would spend $70,000 for, let’s say, a six-page fashion shoot. It just seems so funny now. It’s such a huge amount. You could do so much [with that money] — you could be going for a year or something with that.
Have you been approached about a reality show?
Yes, I have. We’ve been approached by a bunch of different people about it. And I read somewhere that I was shopping one and I was looking to do one. It wasn’t something that I was looking for, but we have had a lot of interest.
Have you seriously considered it?
I’ve been meeting with people. I think that it’s a natural fit because we do have so many characters here. In hiring, I did feel like I was casting a soap opera or reality show because I knew I was going to have everybody be very regularly photographed or be on video on the site. I knew people were going to get to know them, not just through their writing, but through how they look and dress and this and that. Emily McCombs, for example, gets recognized on the street at least a few times a week. That’s how much people know these characters.
A reality show makes sense to me. But I would want it to be done the right way.
What would the right way look like to you?
I wouldn’t want it to be manipulated in any way, or trying to stir up controversy for the sake of controversy. We fight enough here that they wouldn’t have to. There’s plenty of drama here. There’s plenty of crying in the office.
We all work so tightly together, and the work that we’re doing is so personal and often emotional that I think it brings a lot of that up. Peoples’ feelings will get hurt or there will be clashes between different people on staff.
There was stuff between Cat [Marnell] and Emily when Cat was here. They would scream and then make up. Emily and I have had ours too. I think it’s also partly because I really like for people to be big personalities. So if you’re going to stick a bunch of big personalities together, it’s going to happen.
What is your advice to someone who wants to disagree with their boss? Is there a right and wrong way to do that?
Immediately I feel like I really like when people disagree with me. I like to feel like people are as invested in this as I am. So if someone’s going to disagree with me because they’ve really thought it through, and are being very thoughtful about it and not just reactive, that’s awesome. I love that. It makes me feel like they really care about it.
I feel like there’s very strong backlash against women putting their narratives in a public space. Lena Dunham's Girls; Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?; anything by Samantha Brick. What do you think?
I feel like that’s always been the case, but now there’s more of it. With blogs, there’s more out there. I think there’s also still this feeling that women are being pitted against each other and made to feel like there are only so many success slots that can be filled by women — whether that means competing for a husband or competing for a job or whatever it might be. So particularly among women, there’s this tendency to feel like another woman’s gain is your loss. So that when someone like Lena Dunham gets really mainstream successful, I think the natural tendency is for other women in particular to want to tear her down. I try to fight against that a lot and encourage women to feel like another woman’s success is success for all women.
The backlash against Cat Marnell is another example.
Yeah, absolutely. A man writing that same stuff wouldn’t have gotten the same kind of attention.
People are still really interested in her, not only because she wrote openly about drug use but also because she left the site because of it. Will she come back?
Yeah, she sent me like 15 texts in the middle of the night last night. We’re in touch, she wants to do stuff. I’m sure she will.
How did you find her?
Through Twitter, which is unusual. We tweeted that we were looking for a health writer who wasn’t so healthy, and she responded to that. And then I had her write a couple things. She wrote something about how she can’t stand water and she gags down water. And I started to see she had a very unique voice.
You do a lot of pretty bold stunts on the site. Did you ever have an idea that was just too much?
I have them all the time. Today I had an idea that I felt was a little old because it was already in the New York Times, but this treatment of putting bird droppings on your face? I had been wanting someone to try that for a while and they’re all balking at me. I’ll end up doing something myself because I don’t mind. I’ll do anything.
You mean, the bird poop facial.
I would go get regular bird poop. I’d get the fancy facial, but I’d also go to Madison Square Park and get real poop too. I don’t mind. I don’t care. There was another menstrual blood facial thing — I thought someone should do that. I don’t know if that’s what it really was. I could be making that up.