This week Refinery29, a lifestyle website for women, came crashing into the public consciousness via an unpleasant installment of its “Money Diaries” column. In it, a 21-year-old HR intern making $25 per hour gives us a blow-by-blow account of her financial life. She pays $2,100 a month for her share of an apartment in the West Village. She pays $23 for a goat cheese and avocado wrap. She goes to the Hamptons with her “girl squad” for a weekend of overpriced parties, but it ends up being a bust. “Finally we arrive at Sunset Beach,” she writes. “The water is rough, and we wish we hadn’t taken out the dingy [sic]. I would’ve much rather been on the big boat. All the rosé is gone by the time we raft up.”
How does the unnamed intern afford these expenses, all while going to college? Her rent, health insurance, phone bill, and entertainment subscriptions are all covered by her folks, who also pay for her college. Furthermore, as she writes, “On top of my intern salary, my parents give me a $800/month allowance, and my grandpa also wires me $300 every month (#blessed).”
The column has raised hackles, through a combination of the subject’s lack of self-awareness and her financial privilege, lightly worn. But our anger at the diarist disguises a deeper and more diffuse anger, over the way that companies like Refinery29 exploit a branded version of feminism to make money off us, the casual reader.
Refinery29 combines lifestyle content (fashion, skincare, diaries, work advice) with inspirational feminist sentiment and an embrace of queer identities. It also eases up the boundaries of journalism so that the lucrative world of marketing and PR and branding can seep in at the edges. The combination sits uneasily. The “MyIdentity” section, for example, currently leads with an article titled “How Fashion Helps These 3 People Express Pride [Paid Content].” It’s an ad for H&M, dressed up as an article about queer and trans people finding their voice through clothing. There’s also “The Old, Secret Style Language Of The LGTBQ+ Community,” a mere click away from an advertisement by Free People on what to wear to an outdoor summer concert.
As Digiday has reported, Refinery29’s employees freely hashtag products from sponsors on their personal accounts. The line between editorial and “editorial content” seems minimal to nonexistent. Per Digiday, Refinery29’s editorial teams both create branded content and work as influencers for brands on social media. The Refinery29 office hosts branded pop-up events and lectures. Readers don’t seem to mind. An agency source told Digiday: “It’s something we expect users to push back a little bit more on, and they don’t.”
But the Money Diaries column did get pushback. It made people wonder: Is this even real content? How stupid does Refinery29 think we are? As Gabby Noone has theorized on Twitter, there is a possibility that Refinery29 embedded sponsorships into “Money Diaries” columns, with one contributor suspiciously citing the services of a company called Thrive Market numerous times.
If that is the case—and this latest Money Diary certainly does feature a lot of brand namedropping—then the problem is not just the article, but the platform itself.
Or perhaps we should say that the problem is an entire industry. Women’s media has run on advertising dollars forever, after all. There exists not a single mainstream women’s magazine that does not rely on money from the fashion and beauty industries. Not Vogue, not Cosmopolitan. All these magazines compromise their editorial freedom to maintain relationships with their advertisers. Vogue cannot run a huge story criticizing a brand that advertises in its pages. This is an open secret in journalism, but one so old that people barely care.
Women’s media has also run on the first-personal travails of women. Though it sets a wildly different editorial tone, the Money Diaries invoke the ghost of xoJane, which exploited readers and writers alike by holding a “contest” for the best “It Happened To Me” first-person story. What happened was that it ran an endless stream of unpaid blog posts in which readers were invited to offer up their most traumatic experiences in return for zero dollars. The site came to represent the worst of the Personal Essay Industrial Complex, in which a publication creams the profits off women’s trauma, especially women of color, in the name of feminist solidarity.
The difference between today’s women’s media scam and yesterday’s is that the advertising is now hiding in “native” content, and the scummy clickbait is packaged better. Instead of sitting in a box next to a trashy article about celebrities, lucrative advertising these days lurks inside content that simulates ethical, feminist journalism.
The design of the new generation of moneyspinning sites is good. Glance at Bustle and you’ll miss the fact that it is a cynical enterprise. Since 2015, a large flurry of women’s lifestyle websites and newsletters has splattered the internet in response to digital media marketing trends. “This is a massive opportunity,” Bustle founder Bryan Goldberg (who recently purchased the archives of Gawker.com) told AdAge in 2016. “The pie is enormous ... We’ve been kind of wondering why more people haven’t been jumping into this demographic.” In the same article, Jonathan Adams, chief digital officer of Maxus Americas (now Wavemaker), said, “It’s a great time to be marketed to as a woman.”
Women’s media, as a result, has never been scammier. The product sold by Refinery29, Bustle, PopSugar, and TheSkimm is bad. I asked a group of women journalist friends to name the worst villains in the game off the top of their heads, and the answers flowed easily: the GirlBoss publishing platform, Babe.net, the Lily.
Once we had ads for shampoo—now we have sites pretending they aren’t secretly running a branding agency from inside their feminist publishing project. It’s like Coca-Cola trying to sell you self-care. Seen from its most depressing angle, the rise of these websites is part of a wider deterioration of choice, quality, and consciousness across the all media products branded “feminist.” It’s every woman in New York wearing the same mediocre makeup. It’s a co-working space that buys off its critics with free memberships in order to maintain its perfectly pink, girly, Teflon brand. It’s a quality outlet like The Cut running Sex Diaries, the lowest-hanging fruit in all the land.
If there is a takeaway from the storm in a gilded teacup that was the great Refinery29 scandal of July 2018, it must be that there is no ethical consumption of women’s media in an industry where feminism has become a product, and where your engagement with the product is exchanged for branding dollars. The “feminism” brand is making media stupider, its consumers less rather than more cynical. Save your outrage over $23 goat cheese wraps, and steer clear of clicking the ads.