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Behind the name Jezebel

The word “feminist” is not the only loaded word to be associated with the website. The site’s name itself is a word with an extensive history and meaning, which has been co-opted by the site to be used as a form of self-identification.  The negative meaning of the word “Jezebel” stems back to biblical times, to the story of  Queen Jezebel present in the New Testament, and “throughout the ages Jezebel’s very name has carried sexual connotations, become a term of serious become linked with prostitution and become a term of derision and abuse.” (Gaines 1999:xv) Jezebel has been characterized as both a maleficent and martyred character in the way that many strong female biblical characters have been (Gaines 1999 16-18).

According to Biblical stories, Jezebel was the beautiful young Phonecian wife of King Ahab, ruler of the Israelis (Gaines 1999 xiii). The Israelites did not approve of her polytheistic beliefs or luxurious lifestyle, and when the country was said to devolve into sin, Jezebel was used as a scapegoat and was killed and left to be eaten by wild dogs. (Gaines 1999 xiii) Jezebel clashed with societal standards, as “ feminine influence was equated with evil, for Jezebel’s wickedness undermined patriarchal authority to enforce societies’ rules.” (Gaines 1999 xv)This story has lead to the characterization of a Jezebel as an overly sexualized women: prurient and beautiful, drawing men astray.

Today “Jezebel is firmly ensconced in popular culture,” portrayed in various forms of media from the name of a deadly weapon developed in WWII to a style of push up bra, accompanied by salacious advertising. (Gaines 1999 xvi) It can be seen in plays, poems and stories from throughout the ages, and with an overwhelmingly negative context (Gaines 1999).  It has been a logical transition to extend the word to newer media platforms such as blogging.

However, by calling their website “Jezebel,” Gawker Media  is clearly doing something that has become culturally common in recent years: co-opting the use a word used to shame a community, controlling its social power. To reduce the social power of a damning insult, the community that it hurts the most will often adopt it and alter the use to a more positive form of social identity (Celious 2002 88). A word with similar connotation the Jezebel that is a common part of lexicon is bitch, a word which some view has been co-opted by females as a form of strength and power (Celious 2002 90). Many posts on Jezebel use the word bitch, in quotes from other women or even in the titles of stories. In her article, Celious argues that the use of “bitch”  in this fashion is empowering because

“one, the act of naming or defining oneself is empowering; secondly, access to these representations and what these women represent make them empowering; and third, the perceived group identity of the consumer and the [creator] makes it possible for the definition of “bitch” to be viewed as benign and even empowering when used by individuals perceived to be members of the “same group.”

In a context like Jezebel, where the product is catered to a specific group. (For just how narrow, check out this post) the understanding could be positive, using Celious’s definition. Conversly, there are many who view the use of insulting words like Jezebel and Bitch, even by women, as further hurtful and a sign that the negative views have been internalized.  As Celious points out in her article, some believe that sex and power are so intertwined in society that in “ such a cultural setting, it is impossible to use the same tools, like one’s sexuality, which is used to oppress one’s self, to empower one’s self in a way that is not debilitating.” (Celious 2002 91) In Jezebel, editor Anna North also wrote a post about the same subject, entitled “Has The Word ‘Bitch’ Lost its Bite?”  In it, North discusses the different uses of the word bitch, not drawing any conclusions. (2009) She also recounts the first time that she was called a bitch.  Instead of being insulting, North found it empowering, implying that she was a women with conviction and intelligence. ( 2009)

It is important to unpack the meaning behind the title of Jezebel to fully understand the angel of the content. The use of co-opting a negative word pairs with the edginess of the content, and frames the information the blog shares.

Sources:

Celious, Aaron. “How ‘Bitch’ Became a Good Thing- or At Least Not that Bad” University of Michigan Perspectives 8.2 (2002): 90-96. Web. 11 April 2012 <http://www.rcgd.isr.umich.edu/prba/perspectives/fall2002/celious.pdf>

Gaines, Janet Howe. Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel through the Ages. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. Print.

North, Anna. “Has The Word “Bitch€”Lost Its Bite?” Jezebel. Jezebel, 17 Dec. 2009. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://jezebel.com/5428773/has-the-word-bitch-lost-its-bite>.

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About mollyrfriedman

Junior. Sociology and Communications: Media and Society Major . I'm interested in social issues. This includes pointing these out in popular culture, much to the chagrin of those who watch movies and tv with me.

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