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When her story for xoJane went live last night, Amanda Lauren was getting ready for an interview with Good Morning America about another essay she had written for the site YourTango.
Lauren’s first story, “Staying hot for my husband is ESSENTIAL to a successful marriage,” garnered a lot of criticism and an interview with the morning show program.
But her next piece, “My Former Friend’s Death,” published on xoJane, unleashed a wild furor across the Internet. The article recounted Lauren’s relationship with a woman she described as mentally ill and her relief when her friend committed suicide. She wrote: “Some people are so sick, they are beyond help.”
Lauren, who spoke to the Daily Dot over the phone, says she just moved into her apartment four weeks ago, and between the two stories and the ensuing controversy, she’s barely had time to charge her phone.
Regardless, Lauren agreed to talk about the public outrage over her story. xoJane initially published the article under Lauren’s name, then made it anonymous, until the site took it down this afternoon after all the backlash, and replaced it with an apology from Jane Pratt.
I apologize for an article that was posted here yesterday, entitled “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing.” I deeply regret the hurt that this article has caused and understand that it has perpetuated stigma and diminished the lives of people with mental illness. I am committed to immediately reviewing our vetting process to ensure that this experience has a positive influence on the ways in which we at xoJane present all women going forward. I appreciate all of you who took the time to let us know how you felt about this issue.
But Lauren isn’t sorry. She told the Daily Dot that she wrote the article to bring attention to our country’s problems with mental illness. “Do you know the laws in America?” she said. “You can’t just put away mentally ill people even if they need help. My goal in writing that essay was to bring light to the plight of the mentally ill.
“There are some people who thrive and survive in the face of mental illness,” she continued, “but some people don’t, and that’s what I was getting at in the essay.”
About those who might be triggered by her article, Lauren said: “Well, if that’s an issue for you, if it triggers you, why would you read the article?”
She said if she had to do it all over again, she would have published the article anonymously, but she wouldn’t change the words, or even the title.
She said that xoJane editors made the article anonymous after she asked them to, because she has received death threats and angry emails since the story was posted.
“Those people though, they aren’t reading my real words. All they are doing is reading the headline,” explained Lauren. “They say I shamed my friend for being a sex worker, but I didn’t do that.”
When I asked Lauren about people who are mentally ill and how the article might be triggering for them, she said, “Well, if that’s an issue for you, if it triggers you, why would you read the article?”
In the days leading up to the xoJane controversy, Jennifer Pozner, founder and director of Women in Media and News and author of Reality Bites Back, wrote an article for the Establishment criticizing Lauren’s YourTango article and the clickbait economy that asks women to sellout the worst parts of themselves for attention. She notes, “There’s always an outlet eager to throw a bit of cash at any woman willing to bang out some ‘[whatever outrageous thing I choose to do this week] works for me, so let’s make a huge logical leap and pretend this is true for and about the female half of the population’ confessional essay.”
In response to Pozner’s (and many other’s) criticism of cashing in on the clickbait machine for personal gain, Lauren said she was speaking to her attorney about possibly pressing charges against Pozner for her comments. “Feminism is different for everyone,” she explained, “so it’s hard to say what feminism is. But I can tell you what feminism isn’t, it isn’t bullying other women for their choices.”
Lauren’s essay aside, xoJane has a history of publishing problematic and provocative essays that seem to sellout a writer’s worst inclinations for rage clicks. Starting with Cat Marnell’s advice to women to use Plan B as their only source of protection instead of condoms or the pill, to more recent essays like “There are no black people in my yoga classes and I’m suddenly feeling uncomfortable with it” and “My friends and I beat up my rapist, and I will never apologize for getting revenge.”
“Because women and minorities are locked out of other places in media, they are told that in order to get clips or get noticed that they have to write these essays,” said critic Pozner.
In an interview with the Daily Dot, Pozner accuses xoJane of embodying the worst of what she calls the “poisoned tree” of content. She said, “In the 22 years I’ve been working as a media critic, this essay is one of the most irresponsible I’ve ever seen.” But Pozner doesn’t believe xoJane is the only offender, she mentions YourTango, which assigns “clickbaity” tiles to its writers, and The Mix, a network for Hearst writers, where bloggers write essays that fit an assigned title and are only paid when their essay is chosen from the pool.
And Pozner doesn’t necessarily see the problem as just a problem that affects women and personal essays. “Clickbait is a problem across an industry that regularly gives stories misleading headlines or embeds videos of police shootings.”
But Pozner believes that women and minorities pay the most in the clickbait system. “Because women and minorities are locked out of other places in media, they are told that in order to get clips or get noticed that they have to write these essays.”
Pozner doesn’t necessarily blame the writers in many circumstances. She notes, “If there was more personal equity, and if women and minorities were more proportionally represented in media, they would be too busy writing real journalism to write these essays.”
However, in Lauren’s case, Pozner believes she is using the outrage machine to benefit, noting that her writing is evidence that Lauren will “exploit anyone or anything for personal gain.”
Lauren, for her part, says people are willfully misunderstanding her. She addresses the criticism, saying, “I could write about how puppies are cute and people would still disagree with me. It’s the Internet, that’s what people do.”
Lyz Lenz is currently the managing editor of the Rumpus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Jezebel, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Mashable.