“So here we are,” writes Andi Zeisler — founder of feminist culture ‘zine Bitch — towards the close of her new book, We Were Feminists Once:From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. We’ve got feminist underpants and feminist romance novels, feminist gifs and feminist jokes. We’ve got 12 feminist cocktails to make the world a better place, 10 reasons why The Mindy Project is a feminist masterpiece, and nine quotes that explain why Game of Thrones is actually empowering.”
At such a moment of feminist cultural saturation, it’s crucial that Zeisler’s book have the critical title it does — because she correctly identifies the downside of the bubbly moment we’re in, using the term “marketplace feminism” to describe the packaging of empowerment in our brave new feminist world. Although Zeisler praises individual moments like Beyoncé’s feminist coming out, she warns of corporations and even media companies repackaging the girl-power, sexually fluid zeitgeist to sell it back to us, as has happened with so many countercultures before.
Zeisler’s book catalogs how this is happening, from ads for cellulite creams that use curvy models to an over-obsession with the Bechdel Test. She also cautions against the current tendency of coming up with a marketable “thinkpiece” thesis explaining why every choice we make is or is not feminist. She addresses the first-person voices of the internet thus: “If you like high heels, wear them. If you want to get married in a white dress or watch women get choked with a bunch of penises, go on with your bad self. But don’t use a personal essay about it as a hair shirt.”
Bitch is where many of today’s feminist internet denizens (yours truly included) got our start reading and writing about culture with a critical eye. In many ways, Zeisler’s book is a call to arms, asking us to return to a rigorous, systemic analysis. Zeisler spoke to Flavorwire about challenging the narrative around feminism, the pop culture takeover of the last few years, and how to productively challenge ourselves to look deeper at what gets labeled “empowering” or feminist.
Flavorwire: Do you worry that your book is going to get a negative reaction since it sort of punctures some of the relentless positivity we see around online and pop feminism?
Andi Zeisler: This is the first book I’ve written since social media became what it is now, and the first time I’ve written a book with the criticism of many voices in my head. I was trying to anticipate, “What is going to be the pushback against this particular point?” Because there’s so much that verges on prescriptiveness in terms of feminism, how people do it, what it means and I was straddling a line between describing what’s happening and talking about the downsides of it.
There are a lot of problems with feminism as a mainstream concept. Because “choice feminism” is the thing that people take away, the idea that if you do this as a feminist, it’s a a feminist choice. Carly Fiorina said feminism means living the life you choose. That’s really not it; in fact, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism as an ethic.
Unfortunately the feminism that’s the most widely embraced asks the least of everyone. I want the takeaway from the book to be “let’s think critically about what it means for a mainstream consumerist culture to use feminism for its own ends.”
I recently made a similar criticism — that feminism doesn’t just mean everything women do is great and we should all be narcissists, and I got pushback in the form of “feminism is about personal liberation” rather than solidarity.
Sure, feminism is about personal liberation — but what does personal liberation mean when it’s just you being liberated? And what does it mean when it’s actually about consumerism?
I sometimes think that the problem is that we can’t seem to settle on a middle ground. There has to be an answer. To use your chapter on beauty culture as an example, there’s “makeup is bad,” which shames women who use it, and on the other hand “makeup is feminist,” which, just, is not true.
Yes. The idea you see often is, “If it’s not bad, it must be feminist,” or “If it’s not misogynist, it must be feminist.” But nope, there’s this whole huge span of nuance and grey area between, “This is bad for women” on the one hand and, “This is super feminist and we should all support it” on the other. Marketplace feminism gives the marketplace the power to say “If this is not actively harming women or discriminating against them, we can call it feminist because we can feel okay about consuming it,” and [this idea] applies from movies to magazines to porn. As consumers, we look for ways to rationalize our interest in traditionally feminine or gendered things by twisting ourselves into a pretzel to find a way in which [those things] can be feminist.
I see this a ton in media listicles. I’ve been keeping a little log of titles and screenshots of Google alerts for feminism, and you see things like: “Why Deadpool is actually a feminist movie” or “15 ways Drake is your new favorite feminist.” These [pieces] are using feminism as this metric to justify choices we want to make anyway.
It’s almost as if “feminist” has become a generic stand-in for “cool.”
Yes. For instance, Maxim got a new female editor, put Taylor Swift on its cover, and got Roxane Gay to write intro to its hot list, and suddenly you saw the headline: “Maxim is your new feminist Bible.”
You know what? No. As media critic Jenn Pozner said: “The absence of misogyny is not feminism.” We are in this culture of hyperbole and clickbait, and people want to get eyeballs by working that word into their headlines!
Bitch magazine has been around for 20 years as a “feminist response to pop culture.” Is it strange to see the entire internet and entertainment media start doing what you have been doing for so long?
I would not be so presumptuous as to say Bitch pioneered this, but it is a zeitgeist that came about because for my generation, alternative culture in the ’90s was co-opted and made into pop culture. And then this new generation made pop culture the center of their politics, which coincided with the creation of the 24/7 media cycle, the cult of infotainment. Basically, the lines between high culture and low culture are blurred, and pop culture has become important and central, which is a massive, massive shift.
Just this week we have big media columns discussing pronouns for trans people, and at the same time, we have discriminatory anti-trans laws being introduced throughout the country. This kind of sums up your thesis, which is that in many cases there’s a superficial veneer of social justice that’s undermined by actual stalled progress. When you look at the contrast between actual rights for women, minorities, LGBT folks, and the way the media now reacts to these issues, would you call the reaction a backlash? Or is it just one thing (media progress) obscuring the other (stalled out reforms)?
It’s complicated. A lot of people are engaging in feminism in more than one fashion. Actual feminists are often engaging on activist level, and also engaging with feminism as a cultural thing or as a meme. When feminist concepts and action are filtered through the media, particularly in terms of Hollywood and celebrities, what stays in is the stuff that most people already know: broad, basic concepts like empowerment and inclusion and “no slut-shaming.” That stuff is getting plenty of airtime. But the things that aren’t fun [and] that aren’t sexy are getting left in the bottom of the strainer. [This is] erasing so many issues, so many women, so many populations that simply aren’t sellable.
Abortion is one issue where I still feel like when you actually talk about it, people’s eyes glaze over, and that’s partly because there’s no way to package it as empowering or put a capitalist spin on it. But how can we ask people to engage in this critique without making them feel guilty for loving their lipstick or their selfies or their porn?
It reminds me of when environmentalism became the hot talking point. There was a level of defensiveness because people didn’t want to be told “Shit, I’m killing the earth.” At the same time, green was absorbed into the marketplace, and we as regular non-celebrities have benefited by environmentalism being made popular in Hollywood.
To me, the focus on systems and not ragging on what individual people are doing is the way to go. For instance, whenever we talk about media ownership and ask who is controlling the media narrative, those are interesting discussions. I expect people to think I’m criticizing Beyoncé or Emma Watson, but I’m not.
Were you watching that Beyoncé moment?
When I was a kid, I couldn’t imagine the biggest pop star in the world sticking that flag in the ground. We all talked about Madonna implicitly as a feminist, but she went out of the way to distance herself from that word. So with Beyoncé, it was momentous for the idea that young girls and young boys were exposed to feminism as a concept attached to someone they love who is successful and beloved. Google searches for “feminist” shot up in the days afterwards!
And it’s amazing considering how many of us learned about feminism attached to something negative. That’s a paradigm shift. For instance, the conversation around sexual assault has very much been made popular, not only because celebrities are talking about it, but because the [wider] culture is reflecting a lot of stuff happening in the feminist blogosphere. The Bill Cosby case is a huge example. Yes, it was a dude who brought [Cosby’s history] to the forefront. But at the same time, the resulting conversation and the cultural shift towards “Let’s be on the right side of history here, the right side of justice” is a conversation facilitated by this kind of ambient feminism. And yet, all we have to do is look at Jian Ghomeshi case to see that we’re only halfway there. [We’re still] swimming against a tide of historical sexism and historical marginalization.