The Forgotten Pioneer of Teenage Pop-Feminism

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Ask a certain kind of twentysomething woman whether she ever visited, 10 or 15 years ago, a website called gURL.com, and she will almost invariably respond the same way. “Oh my God,” she’ll say, eyes widening. “I loved gURL.”

gURL elicits a fierce nostalgia among those who read it, and there were plenty who did: According to then-editor Heather McDonald, gURL at its height boasted about three million unique visitors monthly, which was an even more impressive number over a decade ago. But even though it was a precursor to the likes of Jezebel and Rookie as a pioneer of youthful pop-feminism, the site is now somewhat forgotten . While Sassy has inspired countless odes (even a book!), golden-age gURL seems to fall into the weird limbo of internet history. Screen-grabs on the Wayback Machine aren’t quite the same as back issues stashed in a childhood bedroom.

Yet there was a period in those early days when gURL, and gURL alone, served a huge need for its audience. Unlike teen mags, gURL didn’t whitewash the experience of being a young woman. It was a place to learn and talk about the things nobody would discuss offline — everything from Morrissey to masturbation, acne to riot grrrl, relationship jealousy to inverted nipples. gURL’s funny, frank tone and zine-influenced, homespun DIY aesthetic cemented its status as the ideal online substitute for a cool older sister. In the millennial limbo between Sassy and Rookie, when teen culture was dominated by TRL’s bubblegum pop and the thin, white women in Teen People, resources for girls who were smart and curious and complicated — but maybe not quite Daria cynical — were few and far between.

gURL was launched explicitly to change that. Growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, founders and childhood friends Rebecca Odes and Esther Drill were increasingly disillusioned with the media available to preteen and teen girls. “We started an ongoing conversation about what we didn't like about Seventeen magazine,” Drill says, “which I pretty much hated and could not stand to read, and which Rebecca had a more love/hate relationship with — hated and could not stop reading.”

By the time they ended up in grad school together a decade later, in 1995, at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Odes and Drill conceived of gURL as an experiment in creating alternative media for girls in a medium that was still decidedly nonmainstream itself. “We thought, ‘Oh, actually, this is where we can do something new for girls,” Odes says. “It’s like a new frontier — we can do anything.” They recruited classmates to contribute, including Heather McDonald, who quickly became a regular contributor and then a third partner.

From the beginning, gURL’s goal was to be a resource. “I had lots of questions that I didn't want to ask my mom or my friends, and gURL was a space where those questions were being addressed,” says Liz, now 27, who was a devoted reader of the site’s advice posts. An early version of gURL’s mission statement included the following: “We are committed to discussing issues that affect the lives of girls age 13 and up in a nonjudgmental, personal way. Through honest writing, visuals and liberal use of humor, we try to give girls a new way of looking at subjects that are crucial to their lives … Our content deals frankly with sexuality, emotions, body image, etc. If this is a problem for you, you might not like it here.” The genius of gURL, though, was that although in retrospect it was clearly a safe and healthy outlet for girls’ curiosity and anxiety about growing up, at the time it felt deliciously grown-up, exciting, a little like stumbling on something — as Liz puts it, “the internet equivalent of sneaking into an R-rated movie for the first time.”

The editorial mix included an advice column written by McDonald — “Girls really felt open asking very specific questions about eating disorders, cutting, sex, or issues in their relationships,” she says — as well as articles, polls, and quizzes under a variety of headings (“sucky emotions,” “after high school,” “daily grind,” “practical matters,” “dead women”); and a very popular game called “Paperdoll Psychology,” which provided tongue-in-cheek personality assessments based on how the user dressed a doll for some situation.

Odes, Drill, and McDonald had a deliberately subversive agenda in mind from the beginning. “It was especially important that we be open, information-positive, nonjudgmental, and non-prescriptive,” Drill says. “We deliberately avoided words like ‘should’ and ‘must’ and ‘need to.’” That principle was borne out in the site’s design, too. “Part of the directive was to not use photographs, because we wanted girls to be able to insert themselves and not compare themselves,” Odes explains; in place of photos, gURL tended toward zine-inspired illustration. “By having it be very cartoony, and by not giving them anything real to position themselves against, we were trying to take a lot of the primary relationship that they had to mainstream media away, and let girls imagine themselves in it.” For Lucy, 26, another onetime gURL reader, that approach felt inclusive in a way teen mags didn’t. “In hindsight, as an Asian girl in a mostly white community, I think the fact that all the graphics featured colored women — not colored as in black, but actually blue, green, etc. — really resonated with me.”

One way the site differed from those that followed: Although gURL.com featured famous people sometimes, like Patti Smith and Judy Blume, Odes says they were wary about celebrity content. “We felt like that’s this whole kind of aspirational fantasy, and we were really trying to be a counterpoint to that,” she explains.

Press attention and traffic followed almost immediately after launching, as did an acquisition offer from Delia’s — before Odes, Drill, and McDonald had even finished the NYU program. They worked out of Delia’s offices for two years before being contacted by PriMedia — the publisher, ironically, of Seventeen.

“It was a little bit of an identity crisis — we were kind of feeling like our sister was the person we had been making fun of all these years,” Odes says. “But it actually ended up being okay; we ended up influencing Seventeen, and we were able to share resources in a way that was useful.” All three partners left the company either during the PriMedia era or just subsequently, when it was sold to iVillage about a decade ago. Since then, the site has switched hands a few more times; it still exists, and is currently owned by teen conglomerate Alloy. But it’s changed: For one thing, the logo is in cursive, with a heart for the u, where once it was just the word gURL stamped in block letters alongside a fist. Today’s gURL is the Coachella to the old gURL’s Pussystock Festival.

I’m sure that if I were 13 today, I’d still find plenty to love on gURL as it exists now. But I also think if I were 13 today, I’d need the old gURL less: I’d have Rookie, and shows like Awkward and Girls, and increasingly self-aware, hip teen magazines, and, God, Tumblr. In the last 15 years or so, “I think girls have started taking themselves more seriously and giving themselves more credit, and girls’ voices are a lot more empowered,” Odes says.

I can’t claim direct causation, but I suspect gURL may have influenced all of the above — or at least the people responsible for them. “Did people actually see the stuff? I have no idea,” Odes says. “But I’m starting to hear from so many women who are making things now about how gURL was important to them, or Deal With It, the book that we wrote that educated them about their genitalia or whatever.” She laughs. “That is a very bizarre relationship that I have with this generation.”

If this generation has taken its time in expressing its gratitude to Odes and her partners, she understands it comes with the territory. “I think when girls were young, they didn’t want to admit having anything to do with it, because it’s very intimate,” Odes says. “When we did book tours, people would not come. Girls would be at the mall, and you would see them, they would be out there, but they would not come in, because they were embarrassed. And I get that! For a while, the only ones I would meet would be people’s kids, and they would always be super-embarrassed to meet me, because I had this weird association for them.”

When I met Odes (whose current project is the video site wifey.tv) over breakfast in the West Village, it took me a while to drum up the courage to tell her that she is responsible for my coming to understand that other girls masturbated, too. Somehow, I expected hearing this to be as mind-blowing for her as learning it was for me. But she just smiled and said, matter-of-factly, “Honestly, I recognize that as my greatest professional accomplishment, on some level.”

She laughed, then elaborated: “To have communicated to girls that they’re normal.”