Lived Through This

Here’s What It Was Really Like to Work at a Women’s Website

I felt nothing. So I headed to my desk for another busy day of browsing online sales and waiting to die.

A folded “Female equals future” shirt, jeans with a phone in the back pocket, white canvas shoes, nail polish, and an iPad.
A folded “Female equals future” shirt, jeans with a phone in the back pocket, white canvas shoes, nail polish, and an iPad.
Photo: Emma Matthews Digital Content Production via Unsplash

I was running two hours late to work on the day I figured out I was really, truly, finally about to get fired. The whole “two hours late” thing wasn’t, like, an eerie portent of doom or anything. I had been pushing my start time back later and later for months until I was here: waking up at 9:30 for a job that started at 9, then finally swanning into the office at 11, with big black sunglasses and a giant takeout coffee, like I was a glamorous drug addict rock star instead of a writer employed to churn out articles like “If You’re Such a Big Feminist, Why Don’t You Fart in Public?” By that point in my career as a blogger, my morning posturing was the only part of the job that I really enjoyed.

Usually, the building’s lobby was jam-packed every hour of every day with various bright, hopeful young persons clutching various bright, hopeful $14 deli salads. Every floor of our office building was filled with vaguely hip, youth-oriented businesses, so not everyone was headed to labor with me in the “women’s issues” gulag on 12. Sometimes the young salad-toters would get off at eight (cryptocurrency?) or 9 (sports bras that were feminist for some reason).

But that day, it was just me, dourly sipping my vanilla sweet cream coffee and grimacing like I was about to get a Pap smear.

I anticipated a quick and direct ride to my day of faux feminist outrage on the 12th floor. I wondered if today would be one of the days when we were supposed to write about how The Bachelor was sexist, or if it was going to be one of the days when we decreed that it wasn’t sexist, and in fact, it was actually sexist to not like The Bachelor. It mostly depended on which articles were doing well on Facebook at the moment.

But as the doors were closing, someone yelled for me to hold them.

Two harried women, both with identical camel-colored overcoats and blonde Brazilian blowouts, rushed toward me. I could tell they were publicists from the way their high heels clacked across the lobby; everyone who actually worked at our website — like everyone else who works at any website — dressed like a 12-year-old boy. But publicists occasionally clacked their way into our offices to try to tempt us into covering their latest allegedly feminist deodorant, or allegedly feminist financial planning company, or allegedly feminist mini-fridge manufacturer. Sometimes, they’d give you something fancy to bribe you — a marginally designer purse, ugly yet expensive sneakers. But mostly, they’d try to bribe you with weirdly baroque and useless gifts: cookies with a specific editor’s face frosted onto them, sun hats with the name of a yeast infection medication embroidered across the top, a cake shaped like an enormous container of morning-after pills. Things you didn’t want at all, but still made you jealous when you didn’t get them.

I assumed these publicists were here to do just that: to corner some bright-eyed 24-year-old and give her boxes of high-end olive oil until she agreed to run an article about their new allegedly feminist sitz bath. So, I held the door. One blonde ran in, pressing “12,” while the other wedged her body against the elevator door, holding it open, and holding it, and holding it… until in breezed Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In case you were wondering: No, I have not always been this much of a dick. I mean, okay, actually, I have always been this much of a dick. But not about my job. When I first got hired at the women’s website, I felt like Lana Turner getting discovered at Schwab’s, or Channing Tatum getting discovered at that nudie bar in Tampa. Not necessarily because I was excited about our subject matter, which catered to 23-year-old women who are sexually active but also still care about Disney princesses. But because I thought it meant something about me. I felt like I had been plucked from my terrible fate, sprinkled with stardust, and pushed toward the greatness I’d always secretly thought I deserved.

At one point, I had thought the website would fix my life. Even though, honestly, it was not even the best website catering to 23-year-old women who are sexually active but also still care about Disney princesses. Sometimes it felt like we weren’t even a real website — it felt more like we were a tax write-off for our owner, a 28-year-old frat boy millionaire who looked like a water-logged Cabbage Patch Kid. But it was the first time I’d ever really had a career.

I mean, of course, I’d worked before then. I was 33 when I started there, nine years older than pretty much all of my co-workers and all of my bosses. I’d spent the previous eight years working at a low-rent publishing company that only published low-rent books about alien abductions and dog reiki. Before that, I’d worked at a literary agency, where I got fired for secretly living in the conference room for two weeks when I was between apartments (or possibly for having sex on my boss’s couch) (or possibly for graphically describing a sex act in front of Sarah Michelle Gellar, who just happened to be at the office that day for some reason) (or possibly for graphically barfing sangria at the office Memorial Day party)(it was a really busy period of my life).

Before that, I’d had a disappointing run selling my underpants on Craigslist, and once had a seasonal gig putting together elaborate, luxurious-looking holiday gift boxes that contained only tubes of Michael Kors leg shimmer. But none of those were careers. They were just methods of making money that didn’t conflict with my then-extremely-busy drinking schedule.

Publicists would make tedious small talk and ply you with brie and prosecco, all while trying to get you to agree to write about some new hand soap or ‘Trolls 2.’

But in my last year at the dog reiki publishing company, I dialed down my drinking. Not knowing what to do with the seven free hours I suddenly had each day, I started writing. A few of my articles went slightly viral, I bantered with a few C-list comedians and Jeopardy! champions on Twitter, and suddenly, I was getting called up to the big leagues. Or, the medium leagues. Or, whatever league writing articles like “Why We Need a Disney Princess With a UTI NOW” was in.

But I didn’t care. I had never been in any league. I had never even had a job where I had been hired because of my alleged talent, rather than because management thought I seemed too clinically depressed to negotiate my salary. It all felt like a miracle.

For the first time in my life, people were paying attention to me — and not because I had gotten so drunk I’d shoved my hands down a barback’s pants, but because they thought I was doing something correctly. They liked my writing! I got fan mail from strangers. I got invited to luxurious corporate parties — strange events where you’d show up at some ultra-swanky hotel and have to pass some security guy with an earpiece and everything, like he was guarding the Pope, instead of a bunch of publicists and cheese plates. He’d take you to some fancy ballroom with a picturesque view of the city skyline, where publicists would make tedious small talk and ply you with brie and prosecco, all while trying to get you to agree to write about some new hand soap or Trolls 2. Sometimes there would be some celebrity there who had no connection to whatever product was being pushed — a second-tier Olympic swimmer, an actress who had gotten famous from being on a Disney Channel show 10 years ago but now just made Lifetime movies, that kind of thing.

“GRL PWR” written on a mirror in lipstick above a kiss mark.
Photo: Polina Kovaleva via Pexels

These parties were incredibly boring and also, to me, completely transcendent. I’d sip my prosecco and eat my cheese plate, and look at all the normal people around me, normaling around. They were the kind of people I had always been intimidated by, ashamed to exist in front of. They were people who had always felt like my exact opposite — people who had worked hard in school, then worked hard at work, and then ended up here: their final reward, their complimentary-cheese-laden Valhalla. People who believed in the system because it worked for them.

After dodging these people my whole life, suddenly, I was surrounded by them. Most of my co-workers at the website were focused young women who believed that life was good and fair and that all you really had to do to reap its rewards was be honest and work hard. I mean, I was older than them, so I knew they were wrong. But it felt good to be among them, with their hopes and dreams, their kind hearts, and tight ponytails. I had always been revulsed by these kinds of women, but only because I’d always assumed they’d be revulsed by me. No one had ever let me wander among the good girls before, let alone consider that I might be one of them.

I had been raised to believe that the system, the normal world, didn’t exist for people like me and my mother — confused, angry people who lived in a suburban Grey Gardens, infamous to our neighbors for our many downed trees and poorly trained dog. Maybe we were better than the normies of the world, maybe we were worse, I never knew, but the indisputable fact was that we were not of them. I believed that long after I had stopped believing everything else she’d told me about how life worked.

But in this moment, with these people and this skyline and this brie (if you eat enough, you can just call it dinner and be done with it!), I wondered if maybe the problem had never been the system, for my mother or me. Maybe we had been the problem because we hadn’t tried to be normal. We hadn’t even known you could try.

So, okay, obviously the woman in the elevator wasn’t the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg — though it was 2019, so I guess it could have been. But she didn’t have any security staff around her and, upon closer inspection, she was wearing a wig. But still, she was a pretty good impersonator. She had the right glasses, the right height, the right bearing. She was even wearing judicial robes with the same lacy collar Ginsburg was always running around in. I was confused, but impressed. I assumed the site had hired her for some photo shoot — maybe she was supposed to pose with a B-list starlet in order to convey that the starlet’s new line of medium-cost party shoes was essentially as important as ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges.

As the elevator rose, the two blondes and Ruth quietly conferred in the corner. One blonde picked lint off the judicial robes, while the other put something into Ruth’s hand. We hit 12, and the blondes plus Ruth swept out ahead of me.

Everyone at the site worked at these long tables that, depending on how charitable a mood you were in, either looked like they belonged in a middle school cafeteria or the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. But right when you got off the elevator, you couldn’t see any of that. The tables were hidden by a huge video screen that blasted images from whatever photoshoot we’d most recently done, with whichever Hollywood starlet we were trying to push down America’s throat this week. The whole front of the office was supposed to have a party atmosphere, to make an exciting impression on our visitors, who would then be quickly swept into a conference room and never have their senses assaulted by the sight of writers actually doing work.

The walls in the front of the office were painted matte black, split up by a mirrored, moodily lit “selfie wall.” There was a bookcase with all of its books organized by color, and doughy white leather couches that none of the employees were allowed to touch. I think the vibe was supposed to be orderly yet fun, like Reese Witherspoon’s vagina. But really, it all just looked like a place where a senator’s daughter would buy ketamine. It was a hell of a thing to look at first thing in the morning, especially if your morning was starting at 11:45.

Ruth — or, “Ruth” — waited in front of the selfie wall, while one of the blondes waved down some 24-year-old editor I didn’t recognize. I didn’t even know who worked there anymore, they seemed to hire new people during each of my daily three-hour lunch breaks. And then, I saw what they’d handed Ruth in the elevator: tampons. She was holding a fistful of tampons, proudly, like she was the Statue of Menstrual Liberty.

I wanted to feel something — outrage, horror, shame that I had been duped into believing that this place had any answers, that there was a better version of me waiting here, or anywhere. But I felt nothing. So I just headed to my desk for another busy day of browsing sales at Nordstrom.com and waiting to die.

And then, one of my 24-year-old bosses was like, “Downstairs in 10 to meet the new editor-in-chief!”

Okay, upon reading the last section over, it occurs to me that I should probably clarify some stuff. Like, when I said I wanted to die, I wasn’t actually suicidal or anything. It was more like… it seemed life would be so much simpler if I didn’t just keep waking up every day, you know? There would be no more questions about if you’d screwed up, or if you’d ever live up to your potential. Once you were dead, things had either worked out or they hadn’t.

If having a bad job had made me a loser, then having a great job had to make me something else.

And now you were just over and, depending on which religious tradition you followed, you were either living on some cloud with Jesus (Christianity), decaying in the ground (Judaism), or a gross rotting skeleton who could still play electric guitar (Metallica). Whichever it ended up being, it wasn’t your problem anymore.

It was probably my third year at the website when I realized that working there hadn’t changed me. You know, inside. It had given me access to free hair vitamin gummies and the occasional designer T-shirt that someone in the fashion department hadn’t wanted. But it had not made me a different person when I woke up in the morning. I thought it would because of course it would. If being part of the system didn’t fix you, didn’t change you, why would anyone do it?

I thought the attention and the good girls and the being normal would clean me, fix me, launder my soul. I thought the cheese plates, or the regional public radio appearances, or the emails saying that something I wrote was “brave,” would fix something, anything. If having a bad job had made me a loser, then having a great job had to make me something else. I know, I know. It was like I had never watched a single movie about media in my entire life!

I should also note that nothing I had said on the blog was actually brave, of course. Here are some things that would actually be brave to say on the internet:

  • I have always only been average looking and now that I’m aging, even that is getting dicey. I don’t like that my face is slowly sliding off my head like a poorly assembled layer cake, and no yogurt company telling me I’m born beautiful is going to change that.
  • Everyone knows this “Every choice a woman makes is feminist!” stuff is fake, but no big website lets you say it because then maybe Dannon won’t want to give us a million dollars to run some ad campaign that’s like “My Pussy Grabs Back… With Activa!” You have to qualify everything, so in the end, it all just means nothing. That’s why I spent three years defanging my every thought and couching every opinion in a million qualifiers — so that we don’t have to deal with an angry letter-writing campaign from women who are like “Actually, I CHOOSE to have my husband lock me in a room like the room from the movie Room, and I LIKE when he forces me to save my pee in jars so he can waft it while watching me on a closed-circuit camera, it’s my CHOICE and I CHOOSE it, AND HOW DARE YOU BIG CITY BITCHES IMPLY OTHERWISE!”
  • I tried hard — okay, only sometimes I tried hard, but I did try — to change my fate. I tried to believe in responsibilities and duties and doing things because people asked you to. I tried to be a good girl. I did. But I was pretending, and I could only ever pretend, and being good and following the rules didn’t make me feel happy or kind. Maybe something is rotted inside me, I don’t know. But I realized that the normal world didn’t exist for people like me. Maybe I was better than the normies of the world, maybe I was worse. But the indisputable fact was that I was not of them.

When I got to Deena’s office, the new editor-in-chief, I realized I had seen her earlier that day, right after I’d come in, as she was striding across our open-plan office. Tiny body, giant diamond ring, expensive bobbed haircut. She was the effortful kind of skinny, the kind of skinny where all the cords on your neck are tensed all day because you’re constantly internally screaming at yourself not to eat any carbs. She wore shoes that clacked.

The overall effect was someone performing in a community theater production of The Devil Wears Prada. But she couldn’t be doing that great if she was here. This website was not quite where dreams go to die, but it was definitely not a place where dreams came to fruition unless your dreams were about receiving a lot of free Monistat swag. Deena was in for a surprise, or at least some low-grade depression.

Deena’s office had no furniture yet, just an overstuffed light blue velvet couch left by a previous occupant. All my 24-year-old co-workers and I sat, awkwardly squished on the couch, laptops open, ready to take some eager and earnest notes. Deena sat opposite us in a rolling office chair, like she was there to interrogate us, which I guess she was.

Deena pointed at me with her giant ring. I mean, she actually pointed with her finger, but the diamond was so big, you saw it first. “What do you do?” she asked me. “I, uh, I edit personal essays,” I said. I thought: I order shoes from Zappos and then return them all. I act petulant about having to write yet another piece of outraged clickbait about Brett Kavanaugh. I spend eight hours a day thinking about how it’s impossible to outrun who you are, no matter how many free cheese plates you get. “I also help strategize, um, that is, you know, I conceptualize — ”

“There are,” she said, thoughtfully rubbing her diamond like it was a magic lamp, “an awful lot of people in your department.”

The second we left, I turned to Ellie, one of my 24-year-old co-workers (highlighted hair, gorgeous skin, optimism smeared all over her like tinted moisturizer) and said, “We’re getting fired.”

Ellie was like, “Really?”

I was like, “Yeah, we’re gone.”

Ellie was like, “Oh, they’d never fire you. You’re an institution here.”

As we walked up one of the stairwells, dodging some intern taking a weeping cellphone call, I said, “Mark my words, we’re on our way out. We’ll be gone by Christmas.”

But I was wrong: They didn’t wait until Christmas.

When they called me into the board room to fire me — they’d wanted to fire me at noon, but I was already on my three-hour lunch break, so they had to wait around until 4:00 — I have to admit, I mostly felt relief. Like the part of dying that’s supposed to feel really great? The part where all your endorphins just start shooting off and you maybe start to hallucinate the faces of all your loved ones beckoning you into a perfect, eternal afterlife?

I mean, it didn’t feel that good. But it felt like a weight off my shoulders. I no longer had to figure out what went wrong, why it happened, or if I could fix it by appearing on Leonard Lopate one more time. There would be no more questions about if I’d screwed up, or if I’d ever live up to my potential. Things had either worked out or they hadn’t. Now, I was just over, and it wasn’t my problem anymore.

“I was feeling very depressed, which is how most stories start.” —Amy Heckerling * buy my damn books: https://tinyurl.com/yxd852a2

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