A Festschrift for The Toast
Dames Nation, we thought we were ready. We were not ready.
The stylish sonic BOOM heard 'round the world.
Back in May, Mallory Ortberg & Nicole Cliffe, founding editors of The Toast, announced they were closing up shop after three years of glorious lady Internet perfection, and yeah, we took it pretty hard.
We thought we’d be celebrating THIS milestone in a few years, waaaaaah!
For those of you who read us, but don’t know The Toast, it is/was a website that featured writing that was comic, literary, esoteric, deeply felt, endearing odd, and passionately centered on marginalized voices-- women, POC, LBTQIA… it was a place that felt created by and for people in those communities the way the whole popular entertainment industry feels like it’s by and for straight white men of middling intelligence. Our heart is breaking for you right now, because you are finding this Heaven on Internet Earth on its very last day of active existence. You have a lot in front of you. SUCH A DEEP BACK CATALOG, SO MANY RICHES, we are almost envious of you even as we weep for the moments you didn’t get to experience in real time!. One thing you might miss on first reading is how vitally important the community Nicole, Mallory, and Nikki (the site’s founders and its managing editor, respectively) created has been to the readers it sheltered. For that, you may want to check out the reader’s own words on how the site’s existence changed their lives, OR MAYBE those of presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, on how it brightened hers (a piece for which said candidate received The Toast’s standard freelancer rate of $50).
The Toast has always been great--just pure, delightful fire from Day One--but in the weeks following the closure announcement, we noticed that they were publishing extra-strong pieces, an upward trend that culminated in two mind-blowing pieces this week, If Barack Obama Were Your Dad and then today’s valedictory note by Hillary.
Now, Dame Sophie has pretty much been holding it together since May. Y’all know Bowie’s death hit her hard (still not remotely over it), followed by Prince(grief status: sighing deeply), and what 2016 has taught her is that even a highly sensitive person such as herself has grief limits. She packed away her Toast sadness, determined to just enjoy the remaining pieces as they rolled out, appreciating each one in turn. But that Barack Obama piece undid all the quality compartmentalizing she’d been able to pull off in one fell swoop of gleeful, loving Dadness and anticipatory sadness for the end of the Obamas’ time in the White House. It was the first time she’d cried since the closure announcement, and it’s a piece she knows she’ll return to whenever she needs a feels bomb to explode in her heart.
So, here we are. Mallory, Nicole & Nikki are probably enjoying a very well-earned adult beverage or three, and Your Dames are going to celebrate their work and the community they built the best way we know how: in conversation, and with a truckload of links & GIFs. Enjoy.
Your Dames, both pre & post-Toast.
Dame Sophie: Well, here we are again, in this garbage fire Year of Our Lord 2016, which seems determined to take from us every cultural thing & person we’ve ever loved. I’ve been postponing my feelings about The Toast going out of business, ever since Nicole & Mallory announced its closure in March, but the hour is nigh. There’s already been a #ToastWake on Twitter, but the grieving is not over. What has The Toast meant to you over the last three years (how has it only been three years?!), Dame Margaret?
Dame Margaret: It has meant that there was a site I could go to every day and find four pieces of original writing I could never have imagined and needed desperately to read, and laugh over, and cry over, and think over. Before The Toast came into my life, I missed it so bad. And you should know that.
S: Your Carly Rae allusion is super-apt, as I am definitely feeling E*MO*TIONal about this. Yeah, The Toast was (and is! And will be!) such a huge inspiration to us both. They seemed to spring, Athena-like, out of the head of Zeus, in this explosion of idiosyncrasy, wit, humanity, intellect, and silliness. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there would be no Two Bossy Dames without The Toast having planted the seed that such a thing was possible, and would find an audience.
M: So much of what they’ve done best, we desperately aspire towards or echo in our work here. For example: The Toast has always been a place for masterful recontextualization. The Toast has always been a place where revered objects were picked up, loved up, and moved around in ways that revitalized my whole understanding of the originals, whether it was the pure inspired silliness of Mallory’s “Bible Verses Where ____ Has Been Replaced with ____” series or the heartfelt alternative storytelling of Femslash Friday pieces.
S: I just love seeing how good & valuable (and valued) it is to be deeply silly and deeply erudite at the same time. Seeing all that space and time devoted to both earnestness and pointed satire, all driven and embraced by women of all types...I’m going to cry again, aren’t I? (YEP, YEP, I SURE AM.)
M: And the way it gave Mallory and Nicole space to be many different kinds of women throughout their run of site! Nicole, for example, was able to publicly go from standard liberal Canadian agnostic to a devout Christian who could unabashedly discuss her personal relationship with Jesus. Where another site, delighted with Mallory’s quick wit and astonishing ability to garner clicks, might have pigeonholed her as a humor writer alone, as editor of her own site, she was able to bounce between producing inspired silliness about classical Western artand curating a series on DUIs.
S: Can we talk a little bit about the existential elephant in the room? One of our shared Most Treasured Toast Things (™) is its assumption of ambition and growth for all participants. What does it mean for The Lady Internet as a whole if its most successful (by my lights, at least) embodiment of daring & doing greatly is shutting down?
M: As we said on the day The Toast’s close was announced, as two ladies making a highly idiosyncratic internet thing, one that takes an enormous amount of time and effort but was never designed to make enough money to support even one of us, it’s certainly…existentially challenging. I don’t think the fear is “If even THEY couldn’t make it work, how can WE?”, because there are myriad ways The Toast could have remained a going concern if that had been Nicole and Mallory’s desire. But it does force us to reckon with…what becomes of a passion project like Two Bossy Dames when the passion that’s fueling it is no longer keen and fresh the way it first was, and the business of running it is growing more demanding, while remaining insufficiently remunerative? Which is a big, scary question to which we have absolutely no answer right now. But also a big permission slip-- Mallory and Nicole leaving The Toast when they did, how they did is a reminder that projects can end healthily. That we’re allowed to say this newsletter may not be something we do indefinitely. But, much like when a favorite TV show is cancelled before its time, but the cast and writers go on to make a million new things for you to love, this is a project that will hold us as long as it can, and sustain its audience as long as it can, until both you and I are ready to put it down and scale a new mountain. It’s a scary idea, but also a heartening one.
S: Yeah, that’s about the size of it! Cheers, L’chaim, and all the rest. We’ll take to the sea with the rest of #ToastieTwitter (and maybe the Toast Slack, which I am sending a request to join as we speak).
A Few of our Favorite (Toast) Things
Just a few. Gather 'round!
As is our wont, we’re going to wrap up with a link round-up for you all. Choosing just a few great pieces from The Toast’s back catalogue was challenging! And look, there are no wrong choices here, only pieces that prompt fond remembrances & delightful rabbit-hole dives more than others. We know you have a bunch of picks of your own & we’d love to know all about them. Hit reply or tell us about it on Twitter!
Margaret's Favorite Toast Points
Truly, America's Sweetheart
One of the best and most delightful things about The Toast was its many running series and, of those, I don’t think any brought me more heart-clutching delight than its “If X Were Your Y” series, wherein different writers described what life would be like if someone famous and wonderful were your girlfriend, boyfriend, dad, best friend, etc. It was such a perfect, heady mix of specific and hilarious observation, celebration of the female gaze (queer, straight, and otherwise), and potent wish-fulfillment. And Nicole Chung’s “If John Cho Were Your Boyfriend” is both one of the strongest examples of the series and the Toast piece I obnoxiously declared MINE TO CELEBRATE the very minute Sophie and I decided on the format of this issue.
SPEAKING OF Nicole Chung/Nikki, her voice in my life may be the greatest gift that The Toast has given me. I love Mallory and Nicole, but I knew them before The Toast, and would have continued to follow their work everywhere I could even if they had not built this beautiful site. But without this beautiful site, I worry that I might never have found Nikki, and Nikki’s writing has made me a better person. This is true of many of her pieces, but I think the one that has sat with me longest, and changed me most is “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism”. To paraphrase what I wrote of this piece when Nikki first shared it in early January, in terms of my white privilege, I find “the right to be understood always in the most charitable light” one of the hardest bits to consciously surrender. I engage in a lot of playful hyperbole and performative boldness in a way that often presumes a kind of “we’re all trusted friends here, every circle is my inner circle” mindset. I love the way this presumption of intimacy often fosters genuine intimacy, but this piece and its incisive illustration of what it’s like to be an “other” even in places you should feel safe really forced me to reckon with how my ability to engage in presumptive intimacy so casually has a LOT to do with my position in the Privileged Class of most rooms I’ll ever enter. It makes me want to abrogate her own privilege, focusing my social influence on building environments that are safe for all comers instead of merely intimate for those already comfortable. I am so grateful to Nikki for her part in getting me here, both with this piece and so many others.
Another long-running series I have passionately loved is the Femslash Friday series. Some of these columns forever changed the way I watched shows I already liked, others convinced me to return to shows I’d previously abandoned, but it’s Mallory’s column on Penny/Amy from The Big Bang Theory that stands out as my favorite among the series. It combines laugh-out-loud funny lines like “I’ve been not-changing the channel sometimes on The Big Bang Theory for nigh-on eight years now, with no signs of stopping” with a searing indictment of the way straight culture invokes girl-on-girl action only to erase its factual existence, classing it as either heterosexual titillation or a hilarious joke. I have never seen a whole episode of The Big Bang Theory, and I don’t have any particular plans to. But, thanks to this piece, it’s going to have a little piece of permanent real estate in my brain. And that’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.
Nicole Cliffe has on written some beautiful and profound things as one of The Toast’s two founding editors but honestly? The piece I love best, the piece I can never get tired of, is her brilliant piece of fan-fiction on dating Benedict Cumberbatch (arguably the template for what would eventually become my beloved “If X Were Your Y” series!). We’ve talked about how The Toast gave everyone the feeling that, no matter how esoteric their interests, there was someone else out there who shared them exactly, and with equal intensity. Reading this piece, right at the height of my own Cumberbatch obsession, made me feel so SEEN and KNOWN.
It may be cheating to share the entire run of Dad Magazine as one “thing,” BUT LOOK, my dad died when I was 16, and this whole goofy joke series made me laugh SO hard and gave me a path into imagining, warmly and calmly, the kind of interactions I might have with my dad if he were still here. And if that doesn’t grant me permission to cheat, then I do not know what does. Jaya, Matt-- thank you for helping me feel a little closer to someone I miss terribly, once a month, every month, for almost three years. [No, Dad Magazine is an immortal classic, this is COMPLETELY within bounds & anyone who says different can come fight me. I will probably disarm them by offering a (lightly poisoned) tea tray. - Dame S.]
Some things are simply perfect, like the image evoked here of The Gilmore Girl’s aggressively useless Christopher Hayden being burned alive during a Wicker Man-style ritual that Stars Hollow performs every eighteen years. Even though this is technically a 6th thing, it was too indelible to overlook.
Sophie’s Favorite Toast Points
A stone fox.
I'll be here all week! Try the veal & tip your waitress!
This essay by a deeply moral dental hygienist is maybe my favorite thing I’ve ever read on The Toast? It’s so specific and humane and personal. It gets at class and the difficulties of health insurance for both the (un)insured & medical professionals. I just love it.
I was deep in a really bad reading slump for most of 2013 and 2014. I’d spent all of 2011 & 2012 reading literary YA for the Printz Award (and then diving right into writing monthly for a blog about the Printz Award). I was burned out on books & had a huge stack of Did Not Finishes to show for it. It was so painful for this bookworm, and I saw no way out, and The Toast lifted me out of that awful funk by steering me towards Nicola Griffith’s mammoth work of historical fiction, Hild, about the early years of St. Hilda of Whitby. (If you have read this book, COME SPEAK TO ME so that we may have historical-fiction-about-politically-powerful-mystics thoughts together!)
So frequently, The Toast would publish something that would remind me of the value of speaking with both authority and vulnerability about things that are important to me. The Nicoles' On Full Financial Aid At Fancy Schools is a perfect example of this combination, which--surprise!--we try to embody here at TBD every week, and which spoke to me very powerfully, because without full financial aid, I would not have graduated from my own beloved fancy alma mater. (See also: How I Pray, written after Nicole Cliffe experienced an unexpected conversion to Christianity, and the full Convert Series of interviews with people who changed or re-embraced religion in adulthood.)
Look, I am an unrepentant Jess apologist, but even I know when a noncanonical love is the real deal. Rory/Paris FOREVER!
I waited a long time for If Tom Hiddleston Were Your Boyfriend & the wait was worth. Every. Moment. Unlike basically the entire rest of the Internet, you owe it to yourself to read the comments. For the GIFs, the humor, the friendly amendments, the follow-up viewing recommendations, all of it.
Adieu, adieu, to you & you & youuuuuu!
PS: We also wanted to share this one amazing Toy Story 3 GIF but the file size is too big for TinyLetter, but also it is 1000000% perfect & a propos, so we're linking to it. Be forewarned, this is a three-hankie GIF.