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Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the World Wide Web

bridgetmartha's picture

Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the World Wide Web: Accessibility, Education, and Dialogue in xoJane

When studying intersectionality, the spread of information via the internet is crucial. Especially in academia, where these ideas and theories are commonplace and at times borderline assumed, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that, one, they are not commonplace in the outside world; two, the type of education we receive is inaccessible both because of the institution it occurs in and because the language it comes in is accessible only to those with a formal education; and, three, for all of academia’s discussions about institutionalized inequality, no change will come if this information never passes the gates of the ivory tower. To study the role that internet and social media has in education about intersectionality, I have looked closely at the online magazine xoJane. In order to re-examine a web site I was already familiar with through a critical lens, I read through the web site’s mission and decided to focus on three recent articles:

  • “I’m the Paralyzed Bride, and I’m Getting Naked, Enjoying Great Sex, and Having a Baby,” by Rachelle Friedman
  • “I am a Porn Star Asking the Porn Industry to Stop using the Term ‘Shemale,’” by Chelsesa Poe
  • “I Participated in the #MillionsMarchNYC, and I Saw a Lot of People Who Thought They Were Helping Who Were Actually Hurting,” by Brook Obie

In doing so, I will draw from major themes that we have discussed this semester across our classes about how we define and enact accessibility, engage in conversation, and create spaces that are conducive to listening and learning. It is equally necessary that we then allow room for these voices to emerge, and xoJane, largely due to its accessibility by form, content, and engagement, provides a model for how these spaces might be created.


Accessibility as a publication

As an online magazine, xoJane is a more accessible publication for reader and writer; as a result, it is able to take on an agenda that sacrifices widespread appeal for honesty, the valuing of diverse identities, and the inclusion of voices which might not be “of interest” in mainstream publications. Newsstand sales of printed magazine—“often seen as the best barometer of a magazine’s appeal,” according to one online New York Times article (Haughney)—have been dropping dramatically with the growth of online entertainment as well as the need to save money. As a result, there is a greater need to have a relatively widespread appeal and low-risk content so as to maximize the number of subscribers from an already shrinking pool of those with the financial means and desire to purchase. Although it goes without saying that the Internet is by no means completely accessible, online sources have the potential to bridge more people have the opportunity to read online for free than those who can order or impulse-buy a monthly printed one (and who are in a location that provides access to it) and read content that is printed on paper, unable to be altered or taken in in any way besides reading.

With a wider audience, then, comes the capacity to target a more niche approach; rather than having to ensure that opinionated articles aren’t “too” anything—too aggressive, too opinionated, too off-putting—both writers and the magazine itself can be more assertive in what it stands for. xoJane’s description states, “ is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded -- regardless of age, size, ability, location, occupation... [It] is written and created by an entirely devoted community of women (and some token males) who have strong ideas, identities and opinions, who are living what they are writing about. This is a nonjudgemental (sic) platform where honesty trumps all” (“About”). In this case, honesty trumps widespread appeal in a way that is enabled by its accessibility.


Accessibility as a method of learning

xoJane, in addition to being accessible as a publication, is accessible in content; many stories in the “Issues” section deal with identity or intersecting identities in the context of current events and come in the form of first person essays. For me, these essays are essential because they are opportunities for us learn about intersectionality by listening to those who live it every day: who experience microagressions every day, who are continuously misrepresented, who are judged, insulted, and pitied before they are given space to speak. xoJane prides itself on looking at women’s “unabashed selves,” and does so with pieces that are compelling and interesting to read while also presenting important and relevant information in a direct, clear way. For example, the writers of the three articles I looked at address themes of disability and sexuality; transmysoginy and fetishization of trans women in pornography; and race in social activism, all while drawing on their own experiences to highlight that oppression doesn’t only exist in textbooks and statistics.

Furthermore, all three have clear bottom lines, purposes and lessons they wanted readers to take away: Friedman pushes back against the desexualization and unique brand of sexism she has faced since acquiring her disability (“I’m the Paralyzed Bride”); Poe calls for the abolishment of slurs such as “shemale” from porn (“I am a Porn Star”); and Obie advises allies in the Black Lives Matter movement to set aside their egos so as to not redirect the movement’s focus and, in the process, continue silencing black voices (“I Participated”). All three are highly relevant in today’s world. Countless academic articles and discussion in conferences and university classrooms can show us that they are not the only ones with these experiences, that these are systemic injustices, all the while discussing possible ways to rectify systematic oppression. However, Friedman, Poe, and Obie all take an active role in informing readers about these issues, why they happen, what readers might be doing to perpetuate them, and what they can do to stop them, turning ivory tower theory into practice.


Accessibility as a contact zone

xoJane’s policy on comments further enables accessible learning through connecting with other readers while also making clear both that it encourages these conversations but is actively intolerant of any form of prejudice. The commenting policy reads:

We value our community here at xoJane, and we want the comments section to unfold naturally. We value the heated debates and tete-a-tetes in the comments section. That said, we don’t want the comments to turn into a free-for-all of negativity and unpleasantness where people are reluctant to participate. (“xoJane Commenting Policy”)

Arranging the comments section to encourage conversation is, on xoJane's part, an important step towards how we discuss identity and intersectionality in the context of the wider world as well as on the Internet. Their policies foster a safe environment in a space that otherwise prompts no accountability. As a result of encouraging civil commenting (or, as is often said at Bryn Mawr, encouraging commenters to attack the idea and not the person), the comments section is able to function as a contact zone. Already, there is a wide range of accessibility, as anyone with access to an electronic device with Internet can read and comment; by promoting an intentional discussion platform, xoJane creates a contact zone for a large body of readers in which they can discuss articles and essays from varied perspectives, exchanging opinions and ideas.

All of this idealistic goal-setting can be written into a mission statement, but its worth only comes if these goals are achieved in practice, and, from my observations, they are. One comment thread on Obie’s article revealed the section to be a promising way for readers to ask questions that probe into the themes discussed in the articles and for those who feel comfortable with doing so to provide answers:

big reader: There is a question that "well-intentioned" people forget to ask, whether it is in movements, or personal relationships, or charities: How can I help? I wish people would just ask this question, and listen to the answer. It's the only way that actual support can take place.

birdie>>big reader: How can I help?

big reader>>birdie: If you are talking about the protests, since I am not a leader in the movement, and I'm white, I'm not qualified to answer that. Sorry. But it's a great question for the main thread.

Lucy Charms>>big reader: Except that when people do ask "how can I help?" they often get the "I'm not here to teach you how to be an ally" kind of response. I'm not criticizing that response, just saying. As a white woman, I just sit out all of the discussions/marches, etc about these issues, because when I have participated, I've been shouted down. I try to be an ally by supporting positive legislation, sharing helpful information on social media, looking at my own racial baggage [emphasis added], etc and that kind of behind-the-scenes activity.

Meow>>Lucy Charms: This is good you're working on your own baggage and I think you're headed in the right direction but I think there is a way we can ask "how can I help?" Without putting the burden on POC to educate us. I can ask "how can I help" and then consciously seek out articles/spaces to listen [emphasis added]. …if I make a mistake my worry shouldn't be my own ego but how I can fix my mistake so that I can be a better ally [emphasis added].

Kellye>>big reader: It's an important question, but it's also a question that could be directed to Google. The information is there, we've been writing about this stuff for years.

 Other comments on this article, and threads on the other articles, showed varying levels of support and validation, comments on new pieces of technical knowledge (e.g., medical terminology in Friedman’s piece). All of these pieces of information come together in a cohesive whole that shows the effectiveness of these pieces in educating readers about the background behind and misconceptions regarding the issues at hand, the impact their actions towards someone with one of these identities might have; how to act as an effective ally, and ways to share this newfound knowledge. Moreover, they reveal the value of xoJane’s mission and policies in fostering an environment where this newfound knowledge can be discussed and disseminated.



Many of the conversations on the articles I examined closely mirrored those I have seen on many social networking sites or, at the very least, echo major themes that are disputed in less civil, less conscientious environments. The major difference between these two is the reception and attitudes: readers of xoJane both complimented the writers themselves and turned their thoughts into productive conversation, asking questions and being open to the answers instead of trying to assert that their opinions were “right” or making personal attacks. They are productive conversations, highlighting the powerful impact that online spaces can have in educating through a variety of way.

From what I have seen, the role xoJane (and other sites that fall in line with its missions and attitudes) has in education about intersectionality is twofold. First, it makes “ivory tower” theory more accessible by being presenting it in a new location, with a new framework, and for a different—and wider—audience. Second, it create spaces for the individual voices that are so often more powerful than theory in discussions of intersectionality. Statistics can tell us about incidences of violence against Blacks or unemployment rates among trans women, but I find that personal accounts are just as, if not more, important because of the vivid picture they give of exactly how a “variant” identity is lived every day as well as how two or more identities mesh, meld, and conflict. They reveal felt and lived experiences which can’t be quantified—pride and shame, division and exclusion.

Although I am a college student, I rarely self-identify as an academic. I feel false and forced when I talk in what Nnaemeka referred to as “trendy jargons”—about hegemonies and postmodernism, paradigms and cleavage. As I discussed in my reflection, the setting of the 360 has enabled my learning by both allowing and encouraging us to reach beyond books to learn—to learn through listening, discussion, narratives, and lived experiences. For this reason and for many more, I greatly value the impact that xoJane has and the importance of utilizing online magazines (and other public, accessible sources) as sources of information which can be seen by those outside of the ivory tower and, moreover, can be absorbed by them as well, for information that doesn’t rely on buzzwords and abstracts and instead utilizes intentional creativity, for information that is not trying to tell and teach—it is sharing and discussing.


Works Cited

"About." xoJane. Say Media, Inc., 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

Friedman, Rachelle. "I'm The Paralyzed Bride, and I'm Getting Naked, Enjoying Great Sex And Having a Baby." xoJane. Say Media, Inc., 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Haughney, Christine. "Women's Magazines Lead Overall Decline in Newsstand Sales." Media Decoder: Behind the Scenes, Between the Lines. NY Times, 07 Aug. 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Obie, Brooke. "I Participated in the #MillionsMarchNYC, and I Saw a Lot of People Who Thought They Were Helping Who Were Actually Hurting." xoJane. Say Media, Inc., 15 Dec. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Poe, Chelsea. "I Am A Porn Star Asking the Porn Industry To Stop Using The Term "Shemale"" xoJane. Say Media, Inc., 8 Dec. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

"XoJane Commenting Policy." xoJane. Say Media, Inc., 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.