Just laugh it off. That’s what a former Vice employee was told by human resources after she complained that the head of news had grabbed her breasts and buttocks at a company party, according to a recent piece in the New York Times.
The Times’s expose about Vice echoes something that many female journalists of my generation have long known: This publication holds women in contempt. From its sleazy low-budget porn aesthetic to the angry teenage boy tone and articles on “picking up chicks,” Vice has always thrived on misogyny.
Sure, Vice has done unique reporting and taken real risks. The media company has sent reporters to North Korea, given us an insider’s view of ISIS and investigated police brutality in the United States. They’ve allowed young reporters to use personal and compelling voices, winning over the coveted millennial audience. Vice is a provocative brand, and that’s partly why it’s so successful. It’s also partly why Vice is so awful.
“Edgy” culture has always been a great place for misogyny to hide and thrive. It’s a place where hatred toward women can run freely since it’s all done in the name of pushing the boundaries of respectable society. Any woman who speaks up is silenced by being called a “prude” or a “conservative.”
Take Vice’s non-traditional workplace agreement, which all employees were required to sign until recently:
The message is clear: Anyone who is offended by Vice’s workplace culture is too square. In fact, Vice issued a statement to the Daily Beast saying: “A non-traditional workplace agreement is often used by companies to certify employees’ comfort with content that could be considered edgy.”
This logic extends back to the 1950s, when author Jack Kerouac was making his mark as part of the Beat Generation, which was notorious for allowing men — and only men — to push boundaries. Meanwhile, women were still expected to be wives or girlfriends who put up and shut up.
Go to the 1960s, and you’ll hear similar stories about the counterculture, of women feeling forced into “free love.” In a 1967 essay titled “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” three American feminists discussed the perils for women in hippie culture. Despite the “hip action” of the “New Left,” the position of women “was no less foul, no less repressive, no less unliberated, than it had ever been,” Sue Munaker, Evelyn Goldfield and Naomi Weisstein wrote.
Much like Vice, the eXile — a now defunct English-language alt-weekly based in Moscow — was a publication that mixed some very hard-hitting reporting with misogynistic content. It’s where Matt Taibbi, a progressive darling who made a career exposing financial crimes, cut his teeth, and his co-editor, Mark Ames, wrote about rating prostitutes. Women reporters were often accused of having “fat ankles” and “anger lines.”
In 2000, Ames and Taibbi even published a memoir about the eXile’s first year, which includes scenes that openly describe sexually harassing the female staff.
In the aftermath of #MeToo, Ames and Taibbi have come under attack for the violence and hostility shown against women by the publication, which Ames has brushed off as “satire.” You know, the old teenage excuse of, “Can’t you just take a joke?”
But it shouldn’t be brushed off as “satire” when outspoken women were routinely shamed and silenced. If they raised questions about the publication’s content, these women were labeled as ugly conservatives who hadn’t gotten laid in awhile.
Once, after Ames had written about threatening to kill his pregnant girlfriend because she didn’t want to get an abortion, journalist Kathy Lally expressed concern. At the time, Lally was a Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and a Russophile asked online readers if he should circulate the eXile’s press reviews. In an email, she urged him not to reprint the publication’s work.
In return, the eXile gave Lally the “Gnarliest Elephantine Ass on a Journalist with No Ethics Award.”
The Times of London’s Anna Blundy also received scathing write-ups by Taibbi after she wrote articles about the state of women’s rights in Russia. Taibbi said one of her pieces “oozed such obvious bitterness and desperation that it might as well have been a perpetually unanswered personal ad in the back of Sagging Breast Weekly.”
“The fact is,” Taibbi continued, “Russian women — with their tight skirts, blow job-ready lips, and swinging, meaty chests — scare the hell out of Western women,” who are trying to “reassure themselves that … they still measure up.”
Vice also took to picking women apart based on their looks.
“Please mock this fat feminist,” a former editor of Vice’s women-centered site, Broadly, said in reference to writer Lindy West. The editor, Mitchell Sunderland, was emailing right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
Earlier this year, Gavin McInnes — one of Vice’s co-founders who is no longer at the company — posted a video called “Feminism makes women ugly.” It starts with a photo of the actress Scarlett Johansson at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where she delivered an inspiring speech.
“She looks like s— ,” McInnes, a white supremacist, says in the video. “What happened?”
Vice also collaborated with American Apparel founder Dov Charney and photographer Terry Richardson, essentially creating the Holy Trinity of Hostile Hipster Sleaze. (It’s part of an alternative culture whereby anything offensive is brushed off as irony and any complaints are met with hostile accusations about being too uptight and square. “You just don’t get it,” they’ll say.)
Charney was pushed out of the company he created, and has often shifted the blame for his brand’s pornographic imagery onto people who supposedly couldn’t handle it (i.e., people who were prudes or conservatives).
“This obsession that I should be punished for the advertising is fascistic and anti-woman,” Charney told the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman. “I’m not going to be a victim of sex-shame tactics,” he added.
In another piece, Charney chose to continually masturbate in front of a female reporter. When asked if dating employees causes drama, he said: “Damn right it does. You gotta be very [careful]— certain girls can handle it, certain can’t.”
Charney has faced multiple sexual harassment lawsuits. He notoriously refused to attend anti-sexual harassment training. His message is indirect but utterly clear: Charney feels he is being shamed by people who are scared of openness and sexuality. They are the ones with the problem, not him.
Richardson’s team has used similar tactics for years, claiming that models were surely aware of the salacious nature of his shoots whenever sexual harassment and assault allegations were made against the photographer. Some models claim they were coerced into getting naked and having to carry out sexual acts with Richardson. A New York Magazine profile from 2014 states: “He makes the point that agents and bookers shouldn’t encourage their clients to take on assignments that will make them uncomfortable,” pushing the responsibility onto the offended party, much like Vice’s non-traditional workplace agreement.
This type of man creeps into journalism, fashion and just about every other industry. They are modern day versions of Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson: Men who are too busy “bringing down the man” to be questioned, especially if it’s a woman doing the questioning.
The real irony is that this behavior is almost as conservative as it gets. Women are there to please men sexually, and men are so threatened by vocal, independent women that they feel the need to retaliate through attacks, shaming and silencing. The alternative? They would have to face their own conduct and realize how regressive and un-“edgy” they actually are.