On “We Were Feminists Once”: An Interview with Andi Zeisler

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Andi Zeisler has a bad case of “female empowerment” fatigue. The cofounder of Bitch Media and the creative/editorial director of its best known entity, Bitch magazine, Zeisler is concerned about how in vogue feminism has become among pop stars and corporations, in Hollywood and in Washington. For the past twenty years, Zeisler has been interpreting popular culture and charting the ways feminism, once a somewhat dirty word, has been, as she puts it, “co-opted and watered down” for personal and financial gain. Yes, feminism has become “cool”—and Zeisler argues that it’s thus suffering a destructive identity crisis. As she explains in We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (PublicAffairs Books, May 2016), “We are letting a glossy, feel-good feminism pull focus away from deeply entrenched forms of inequality.”

Since Bitch’s 1996 founding, feminism has certainly curried mainstream favor. It has also evolved into a driver of advertising and marketing campaigns—presenting what has long been a movement for social justice as yet another consumer choice in a vast market (Girl Power, anyone?). Zeisler, Andi (cr. Jeffery Walls Photography)We Were Feminists Once analyzes the histories of individual touchstones of popular culture—for instance, advertising, Hollywood, and the beauty industry—in an attempt to explain why celebrities nowadays clamber to drape themselves in the f-word, why media outlets laud those shows and movies that pass “the feminist test,” why women’s liberation is all the rage on billboards, websites, and catwalks, and why Dove, Covergirl and even Verizon now base their campaigns around platitudes like “Real Beauty” and “Inspire Her Mind.” While she doesn’t malign feminism’s surge of good press, Zeisler is quick to point out that the core objectives of the feminist movement—think pay inequity, gender-based divisions of labor, staggering sexual assault statistics, and restricted access to abortion and birth control—still endure. And moreover, that all the patriarchy-dissing memes and “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts in the world won’t cure that.

Zeisler draws readers in with her conversational prose and incisive wit, and employs plenty of specific examples to portray the countless ways in which feminism has been co-opted by entities ranging from Lilith Fair to Special K to Republicans to Botox. Her book dissects various marketing campaigns, and traces the surprisingly long history of concepts such as “empowertisement” (wrapping social action into corporate marketing practices), and the rise of “Big Woman,” wherein corporations embrace a “positive, up-with-ladies spirit,” and essentially sell feel-good feminism—thereby profiting off of women in all kinds of shrewd ways.

She goes so far as to wonder whether all this women-centric marketing and empty empowerment language presents “just a new twist on the age-old concept of selling products and ideas with gender essentialism.” Yes, that gender essentialism—the belief in binary, fixed differences between men and women that account for “natural” behavior and characteristics.

The book’s critique of “marketplace feminism” is complex and ambitious, but its message is simple: If you claim feminism without doing anything to actually combat structural inequality, your feminism prioritizes personal advancement, and detracts from the prodigious work that still needs to be done, and is thus counterproductive.

It’s a bold argument, wrapped up in a book so compelling and entertaining that it’s hard to put down. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the author about the conception and assemblage of We Were Feminists Once—and where the movement is headed from here.

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Tell me about the moment you knew you needed to write this book. Was it a particular instance of celebrity endorsement of feminism? A last-straw application of the word “empowerment”?

I do remember that moment. I’m on this listserv for women in media, and a few years ago this woman who works for an empowerment organization wrote to say, Hey we’re partnering with this advertising firm on a campaign to rebrand feminism—and it just kind of set me off. It wasn’t necessarily the project that did it, but the way she was talking about it. Because feminism isn’t a product—it isn’t a static thing, and thus you can’t rebrand it. WeWereFeministsOnceSoon thereafter, a few advertising agencies in London set out to partner with design companies, in conjunction with Elle UK, to do the same thing—to rebrand feminism. What is branding, anyway, but a way to get the largest amount of people to get excited about your message in the most straightforward, simple way? And that’s so antithetical to a complex topic like feminism. So that was definitely a big moment where I was like, “Wow, I don’t like where this is going.”

I enjoyed the way you organized chapters around distinct, pop culture topics—for instance, advertising, Hollywood, apparel, TV, and beauty—and used historical context to trace the manifestations of “marketplace feminism” in each sphere. How did you settle on this particular structure? Were you working with any models?

I wasn’t looking at any models, but I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do this so that it would make sense both to those readers who were new to the subject, and those more familiar with the material. And honestly, I wasn’t sure if the historical sweep would work—I struggled with the question of whether it would be weird if I talked about all the stuff happening now, and then went back to how we got here, or whether people would rather read in the opposite direction. I’m still not one hundred percent sure how I got there.

You sourced a ton of research publications, and interviewed legions of prominent feminist thinkers. Tell me about your research process.

I started out by doing as many interviews as I possibly could, because right up front, I wanted to hear what other people thought of this general idea—that feminism was becoming more of a brand than, you know, an ethic. And so I really wanted to hear whether people agreed or didn’t agree, and just to see where they took that idea. So I began by talking to as many people as I could, trying to interview them in person whenever possible, but using the phone if I needed to. And then I took what I had and just kind of marshaled all the books that I thought might address this. Luckily, Bitch has a wide-ranging library of about 25,000 books, so it’s a great place to do research. I also tried to get my hands on some more academic stuff, because I know that these intersections I was working with have certainly been a subject of academic inquiry—Angela McRobbie, for instance, has written extensively about post-feminism and neoliberalism, and how they’ve been shaped—and I just kind of started sketching out and outlining the subjects I wanted to cover in the book, the subjects I wanted to devote chapters to, the overarching points, and the questions I hoped to pose, if not to answer.

Which section did you most enjoy researching?

The underpants one  [Chapter 3: Do These Underpants Make Me Look Feminist?] definitely had the most absurdist potential, and it was really interesting to dig into, because fashion actually has a long history of exhibiting feminism. So it was exciting to research the rational dress movement and Amelia Bloomer, and the ways Spanx were marketed—and so fun and deflating to trace the ways that things like Spanx have practically become a religion!

Which feminist writers most inspire you?

I love Susan J. Douglas’s work. She’s written for more than thirty years about feminism and pop culture and how those two things interact. The first one I read of hers was called Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, and she’s a fun writer, but very incisive. I also love Susan Faludi—I just got a copy of her new book, and I kept going back to Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, because it was so masterful in terms of making a case for what so many people were noticing but didn’t really have the name for. In terms of feminist theory, I always go back to bell hooks. Because just in terms of connecting all the dots between feminism and race and representation and consumption, she’s really amazing.

Did you write We Were Feminists Once with a particular audience in mind?

Honestly, this wasn’t something I thought too much about, because I feel like people who would read a book like this are already a self-selecting audience, so I don’t necessarily know that there’s a target. But I do think I wrote it for those who are interested in feminism, but who are a little frustrated with certain kinds of feminist discourse, and then also for people who are interested in what feminism looks like right now. But I didn’t want to open myself to being accused of trying to decree what feminism is or isn’t. I just wanted to address the idea of what happens when a social movement gets co-opted, when there’s still a lot of unfinished business.

On the page, you’re pretty opposed to the ways in which the marketplace has been interpretive and amorphous when it comes to defining feminism—you assert, for instance, that a true feminist cannot be anti-choice, as many self-proclaimed modern feminists are. Did you steel yourself for any backlash, and have you experienced any?

The most common dissenting sentiment is, Look, it’s fine that people are gonna come to [feminism] through pop culture, and you can’t say it’s less real than coming to it through feminist theory. I’ve definitely heard some frustration around that. I agree with that sentiment to some extent, but it still doesn’t absolve people of their individual ability to research feminism further—to do their own exploring—and it doesn’t mitigate the media’s role in the ways they’ve filtered and diluted feminism.

Tell me about the experience of working on such an in-depth book project while working at Bitch, and while doing frequent speaking tours at colleges and universities. How did you balance all that?

I tend to put myself last when it comes to work—I always think I have to do a million other things first—and I soon realized that was a recipe for literally never writing a book. So I took a six-month sabbatical from Bitch to work on this book. I continued to speak at colleges, but I managed to turn some of those talks about media activism and feminism into opportunities to sort of test out some of the ideas I was exploring in the book.

I love how you describe the fourth wave of feminism, in We Were Feminists Once, as “more of a tsunami, sweeping up fragments of feminisms past and deploying them in everything from focused grassroots organization to cynical commercial product pitches.” This may be an overly broad question, but where do you think the next wave of feminism lies?

I have never really been a fan of the wave metaphor, because it gives this sense of one wave wiping out and replacing the next. I think a better metaphor would be building blocks, where you can remove some things and add others, but still keep the whole ethic structurally sound. I think we’ve finally arrived at the point where people have realized that feminism not only isn’t but cannot be a monolith, so whatever comes next, in building on what’s happening now, the movement will have to be more pluralistic, more wide-ranging. I think this is because there’s less of a sense of general limitation than there has been in the past—people are so much more able to find one another, and to share resources, and to be less likely to feel like they’re out there alone, shouting into the void. There’s more of a sense that whatever issue is your issue, there are lots of people who share it, and that you can find them, and work together.

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We Were Feminists Once is available through PublicAffairs Books and through Powell’s.

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