Gabrielle Korn Questions the “Feminist Utopia” of Women’s Media

Gabrielle Korn, author of Everybody (Else) Is Perfect: How I Survived Hypocrisy, Beauty, Clicks, and Likes (Photo credit: Lauren Perlstein)

After Donald Trump was elected, the tide began to turn in women’s media. Though women’s media didn’t flip entirely—there was still money to make and rules to follow—there was a noticeable shift: Teen Vogue “got woke” and became the “voice of the revolution.” The girlboss began to call herself a “nasty woman.” Magazines that once carefully tiptoed around political content positioned themselves as confident sources for credible and authentic political reporting. But by 2020, women’s media is once again beginning to lose its footing. Books like Andrea Bartz’s The Herd and Leigh Stein’s Self Care, both released in 2020, explored how feminism has been rebranded to market and sell merchandise. There was also a racial reckoning in women’s media—and media at large—that forced editors to resign and chipped away at the sheen that once shielded these so-called feminist websites from criticism.

In a 2020 piece for Vox, Rebecca Jennings wrote about women’s media being called out for not living their stated values. “In modernizing its content..women’s media often failed to extend the same progressive values to its own employees,” she wrote. “Even when publications have tried to hire diverse staff members to create more inclusive content, those workers have been boxed out. Traditional feminist advice, like speaking up about workplace discrimination and attempting to ‘lean in’ and climb the corporate ladder, hasn’t seemed to apply when the employee is Black.” Though there was a lot of coverage of media’s reckoning, it felt as if the conversation was missing something specific: an insider’s perspective about what it’s like to work in media, specifically women’s media, at a time when it can feel sometimes empowering, sometimes demeaning, and sometimes destructive.

That’s the reason Gabrielle Korn’s debut essay collection, Everybody (Else) Is Perfect: How I Survived Hypocrisy, Beauty, Clicks, and Likes, is so gripping. Korn, who’s the former Director of Fashion and Culture of Refinery29 and editor-in-chief of Nylon, invites us into her personal and professional world, pulling back the curtain on women’s media. She writes about struggling with disordered eating, being sexually harassed by coworkers and assaulted on the subway, and navigating the ways in which her sense of self shifted when her existence became so tightly wound with her professional persona. Along the way, Korn asks broader questions: Why do we give our all to companies we don’t own? What is it like being a lesbian in spaces that are only beginning to contend with queerness? How can we know and understand ourselves when we’ve been commodified and have commodified ourselves? Bitch spoke to Korn about burnout in women’s media, privilege, and why transparency is still so rare though we know how important it is.

Your collection handles time in an interesting way. Sometimes you delve into a time you’ve previously explored through another angle. How did you organize this book?

The order changed so many times. [Figuring out] how to arrange the book was actually what I struggled with most. It didn’t start out as a memoir; it started as essays that were a lot more solidly based in cultural criticism. As I was working on it, it started to feel like there was no way to make the arguments I was making without my own experience. Then it pivoted to being more of a memoir. But I still wanted essays that were thematic versus a chronological timeline of things that happened to me—I don’t think I’m interesting enough to do a book that way [laughs]. In terms of time and themes, I was thinking a lot about how memory actually feels. When we look back at our lives, we don’t look back on it and feel like this happened and then this happened; we think about an idea and then all the things that inform that idea. That might be very specific to queer people because as we grow, come out, and explore out identitiers on our own terms, it makes the past seem different. I wanted to honor that while not rewriting my own history.

A question of the self is at the center of the book: What does it mean to be the “face” of a media company that you don’t own? How did you approach this massive idea, especially given that it’s still so pervasive in media companies?

I was very critical of that. It’s really important for people to know what goes on behind closed doors at media companies. I don’t think women’s media is as powerful in the cultural conversation as it was even five years ago, but it [still] holds a certain weight. It gets away with external branding and doesn’t hold itself accountable for those values internally. That’s ultimately why I had such a hard time at various jobs: We were telling readers that editorial was woke, but the staff was treated the way staff at magazines have always been treated—pretty terrible. When I became EIC [at Nylon] it was very complicated. I’m happy in leadership positions and in guiding visions, but I’ve never wanted to be in front of the camera. Once I realized it was up to me and that I could say no to certain things, I really focused on elevating other people. I was very aware that though I’m a lesbian, I’m really just another skinny white woman in media. I was so sick of that. I also think that decision to not put myself out there as much as I could have didn’t serve my career in the long run; I met people all the time who had no idea who I was.

I was really drawn into the discussions of money. You go as far as to list your salaries and direct quotes about how much you should or shouldn’t have been making in any given role. This feels rare. As you explain, media is able to pay staff as little as possible because there’s such a lack of transparency. Why is it so important to be open about money?

That was some of the information I was the most nervous about including. There were so many things I wish I’d known when I was younger about how much people make. I had no idea what was reasonable. There was secrecy from my coworkers because people are told not to discuss salaries, and as soon as I started asking people and found out how much people were making, I was like, “I’m not going to continue this tradition of silence around money.” There’s a myth in media (and I’m sure in other places) about the six-figure salary. That’s the bar; if you reach that, you’ve made it. It’s so arbitrary, especially since media happens in expensive cities. It doesn’t actually get you a fabulous luxurious life. You’re still not upper class, and you’re still being forced to participate in this luxury culture you can’t otherwise afford. I’m hoping if I start talking about it that other people will talk about it and we can collectively decide what this work is worth.

Everybody (Else) Is Perfect: How I Survived Hypocrisy, Beauty, Clicks, and Likes by Gabrielle Korn (Photo credit: Atria Books)

You write a lot about ageism in this book. You write, “It was interesting to have gone from ‘too young to be taken seriously’ to ‘too old to be cool’ so quickly. Just like there’s no right way to have ambition when you’re a woman, there’s no right age to be; you’re either too young or too old with nothing in between.” In many ways, it feels like ageism is one issue we refuse to contend with in any real way beyond jokes and memes like “OK Boomer” and “Gen Z will save us.”

I had my own experiences with ageism. That’s the best evidence I’ve had. I became an EIC at a really young age. It was an incredible opportunity, and it also meant the company I worked for got to pay me less. I wasn’t doing less work. I wasn’t doing less of a good job. I was just young and thirsty. This industry is so obsessed with youth for a lot of different reasons and we’re all aware of the aesthetic bias for young people, but there’s also something that happens when you have jobs where your success is defined by how much work you can crank out. It’s specific to really young people; I’m in my 30s and I don’t think I could at this point write the volume of stories I was writing at 24. What happens in media is [that] jobs fill out with young people and they burn out—and then they’re replaced by other young people.

It’s so complicated. The fact that people want content to be free has created this mess in the first place. There needs to be a radical rewriting of what we expect the internet to give us. [Readers’] expectations have to be different. That would allow for people to do a higher quality of work, do less work, and have experience and talent be valued more than youth and energy.

You’ve now essentially left women’s media. You write that “women like me aren’t supposed to talk about things like this, about the ways that all-female spaces aren’t automatically the feminist utopias we want them to be.” You explain that there is real, tangible danger to this: everything from eating disorders to sexual harassment gets swept under the rug in favor of this idea of preserving the utopia. Can you speak more to this?

The conversation around racism in media this summer was so long overdue and so important. I think it was effective. People at the top finally heard that they can’t continue to breed these toxic petri dishes. It was one of the main reasons I decided to leave: I couldn’t continue taking up space in women’s media. There was no ethical way to stay. I do think the intention is there. I haven’t heard that things are incredibly better, but people are starting to listen to marginalized voices.

I first read this book in February 2020 and then read it again after the racial reckoning in women’s media. Looking back, are there any new ideas or concepts you’ve reflected on or anything you’d change about your assessment?

Looking back on it, the things that felt most important to me in the moment don’t feel as important now. My final draft of the book was due three weeks after my last day at Nylon, and I was kind of a wreck. It was so hard for me to leave; I was so so sad. [Ultimately], I had to try to have empathy for my future self and figure out what my takeaway will be once I have a takeaway and I wrote it from that place. Now that it has been a year and a half, my perspective is really different. When you’re in it, going to fashion week, and people are being mean to you [versus] now that I’m in entertainment and I’m on the creative side (I’m not writing about the thing, I’m doing the thing) the world is such a different place.

What can readers expect from you next?

I’m working on a second book—a novel—and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything. I almost wish I had started with a novel. It’s really different and new for me—it’s a very queer, end-of-the-world moment. I’m really hoping there will be interest in it. If I could rebrand fully, I’d rebrand as an author.

A cascading repeat of the Plastic issue of Bitch magazineThe magazine that started it all celebrates 25 years of inspiring feminist readers and media consumers all over the world. Subscribe today and join in the beauty, healing, and inspiration that is Bitch magazine.

Rachel Charlene Lewis, who has light brown skin and dark brown curly hair, wears a white button up and gold jewelry and gold glasses.
by Rachel Charlene Lewis
View profile »

Rachel Charlene Lewis has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.