With this quote from her latest book, Portland author and co-founder and editorial/creative director of Bitch Media, Andi Zeisler lays out her vision of feminist praxis, in contrast of what she has previously deemed “feel good feminism,” now calling it “marketplace feminism.” This version of feminism combines “choice-feminism,” the tendency to label choices feminist simply because women make them, with the prerogatives of the capitalist marketplace. It is a phenomenon which has admittedly resulted in more general awareness of feminism, but also in the watering down of feminist messages and the transformation of feminist activism from collectivist pursuits to individual activities and consumption.
This isn’t good enough for Zeisler, although she is in a precarious position. She believes in the power of pop culture to be an effective system for political messaging, but she also knows that capitalism does not align with the goals of many social movements. Those two premises are in constant tension, and Zeisler draws that out in her book in ways that are poignant, insightful, and often laugh-out- loud funny.
My takeaway from We Were Feminists Once is that there aren’t any easy answers. Anyone coming here to seek platitudes and a clear way forward will be disappointed. Readers looking to think more deeply about where feminism is right now will be delighted.
Noise and Color recently had the privilege of sitting down with Andi Zeisler to discuss her new book and the relationship between feminism, pop culture and politics. The following are highlights from that conversation. For further reading, check out the unabridged transcription here.
N&C: Can you trace the evolution of your position regarding feminism and pop culture from when you founded Bitch to now?
Andi: I think so much of it has to do not with my position personally but with how much pop culture itself has changed, and how much feminism has changed, and their symbiotic relationship. It’s difficult to talk about this without talking about the larger context . . . Everything about it has changed, the amount of pop culture has changed, the delivery systems have changed, the cultural landscape, the political landscape, the way in which pop culture is taken seriously, all of that has changed.
That said, the one thing I think hasn’t changed is: I think pop culture can be a really effective delivery system for concepts like feminism and other political and social movements.
… For me the quandary was, what happens when you are really a true believer in the power of pop culture to change people’s minds, but are simultaneously seeing popular culture is co-opting something, and not necessarily for good. How do I reconcile my own feelings of loving pop culture and wanting it to be better and seeing its potential with seeing feminism being sold as just another product? I tried to put a lot of that self-reflection into the book, and not let myself off the hook, or Bitch off the hook, but talk about this complicated dynamic, about what it takes to make a movement successful without watering it down beyond recognition.
Pop culture is immersed in capitalism. Could any of your arguments be interpreted as anti-capitalist?
All of them, or almost all of them. That’s the general matrix of the book, is that we have become a culture that stymied social progress because we look much more at individuals than we do at systems. Market-place feminism is a part of that system, which is a byproduct of a more general neoliberal society where everything has to do with the market, and the question is “What is possible” rather than “What is good?” … Most social movements are basically incompatible with capitalism. We’re complimenting an anomaly in that system. If we keep complimenting the anomalies, there’s no real incentive to change…
. . .My editor told me I needed to tone down the Marxism in the book.
I did, yeah.
Was that a capitalistic decision?
Absolutely. This is my job, this is what my organization does, so it behooves me to try and make the messages accessible, but not to pull too many of punches. It was a moment where I thought, “This is ironic.”
Could you describe your ideal relationship between feminism, pop culture, and politics? If you’re not satisfied with the status quo, is there an ideal configuration?
. . .I would like people to think critically, as much as possible, about what we are told that we can’t change. It’s very easy to just parrot the line, “You can’t fight capitalism.” This is the way, the new math, we’re all living under it, let’s just deal. When we say things like “Oh well, sex sells,” or “This is the way it’s always going to be,” I feel like there’s a lack of imagination there, its underachieving. It is really hard to swim against that tide. Everyone else is doing it, we aren’t encouraged to critique that, and it benefits us individually to not critique that. I’m guilty of it myself. Being able to understand what media is, why it exists, how it intersects with capitalism and neo-liberalism, and being able to think critically about its messages. I would hope that we are all capable of that. . ..
What is your first memory of becoming aware of patriarchy?
Probably my mother explaining to me that she had stopped working after she had kids because my father had said something along the lines of “No wife of mine is going to work.” She had a really high powered career, she was a Vice President at Revlon. Before that she had a long career in the fashion industry. I didn’t have the language for it, but as I grew up I realized it was a profound thing, because she had this thing that defined her identity, and that she loved, and where all her friends were. All her friends were still working. The older I got, the more I connected her anxiety and her unhappiness to that, and that was really painful to realize. . .
Regarding work and politics and compromise, if you were to make a list of issues important to you, could you pick one that is a central concern?
No, I feel like they are all so connected. I guess bodily autonomy and reproductive rights are crucial because it is so connected to women’s economic potential, and their ability to not live in poverty, and to get an education. Everything is fundamentally connected to being able to make decisions about your body and your life.
While writing your book, did you consider the state of the current Presidential election?
Yes, there’s a chapter about how, even starting in 2008 with Hillary’s primary run, and then Sarah Palin, there was this very weird dynamic in which the mainstream media, who had been happy for years to say, “Oh, feminism, femi-nazis, bleh,” all of a sudden were very excited when someone like Sarah Palin, who didn’t fit the stereotypical feminist, claimed it on her own terms. All of a sudden it was “Sarah Palin is a feminist, let’s talk about feminism.” That didn’t scan. You had Hillary Clinton and Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein being called radical feminists for having very common-sense stances on universal childcare, and then you had a woman whose platform was literally about regulating other women’s autonomy. That speaks to a very specific agenda, and a very specific interest in co-opting feminism for very anti-feminist purposes. I was definitely keeping an eye on that.
Do you feel any tension between Hillary Clinton’s potential as a feminist candidate, if she even is one, her neo-liberal stances and her inclination to compromise?
Definitely. But I also think that when we are talking about politics at that high of a level, it is all compromises. She’s not Shirley Chisholm. She’s not someone that progressives can unequivocally be excited about. I think for most people and citizens who are not wealthy, who are not elite, neo-liberalism has been the biggest lie we have been sold. And I don’t necessarily see a Clinton presidency mitigating that in any way. On the other hand, the fact that she has intentionally or not, really shown how having a woman in that office could be a game-changer is important. In one of the debates she was talking about Social Security, and she was talking about how it is such a particularly crucial issue for women, because so many women outlive their husbands. I saw people on Twitter saying that had never occurred to them. That’s because we’ve never had a female presidential candidate, so we have not had this intersectional lens on economics. Economics have been treated as a universal, i.e. universally male, issue. So the fact that she’s even able to put that lens on it is important. It doesn’t necessarily make her a feminist candidate, but it inches us closer to a reality that lines up with more than half the population.
Thanks again to Andi Zeisler for taking the time to speak with us. Check out her book, We Were Feminists Once, at your local bookstore or through most online retailers.