We Were Feminists Once
(PublicAffairs), the new book from Andi Zeisler, cofounder of Bitch Media, takes aim at "marketplace feminism," a specific kind of politicking that embraces a Midas-like sensibility: if a woman touches it, it must be feminist. In anticipation of her appearance at the Printers Row Lit Fest on Saturday, I spoke with Zeisler about the changes in media that created this phenomenon.
KT Hawbaker-Krohn: What do you think changed most for feminism over the last 20 years?
The media landscape is not even recognizable, especially since there's so much more media in general. The TV channels, the media conglomerates, the Internet, and obviously social media have contributed to a real transformation in not only what kind of media is created, but in how people understand and talk about media. What we take for granted is that media is an economic force. Four or five huge multinational companies have the majority of the power, and that's made a huge impact both on how we consume media and what kind of creators are showcased.
In the book, you introduce the concept of "marketplace feminism" and discuss how it connects with this digital culture. What do you think comes after marketplace feminism?
That's a good question. I don't think marketplace feminism replaced activist feminism. They exist in parallel spheres and don't overlap enough. The parallel sphere is feel-good and seems to believe that we're all done here. It's concerned with empowerment, and is so much more digestible, fun, and attractive than activist feminism. Capitalism, however, is not interested in making social change. Sometimes it might seem caring, but that's not the engine of capitalism.
You write that marketplace feminism could be improved with antiracism work.
That's happening, but it's happening in the activist sphere. It's not necessarily in the corporate, celebrity sphere. On a pop-culture level, we have evolved. Our conversations about television and representation are complicated and nuanced, and they bring up intersections of feminism and race. Capitalism wants to understand the people having these conversations so it can effectively sell to them.
It reminds me of when environmentalism was really hot about ten years ago. It was a Hollywood buzzword; celebrities got involved and everyone drove a Prius. We all saw An Inconvenient Truth
and got better about recycling. But after two years, it was no longer a hot topic, and celebrities weren't being asked about it on the red carpet. At the same time, the culture itself shifted to a more conscious view.
I think that is the best-case scenario for marketplace feminism. I hope it moves the needle in the same way. Hopefully, the people who become interested and invested will stay interested and invested.
How do you think marketplace feminism is shaping this year's election?
The fact that feminism became a buzzword means that we're using a broad brush to talk about candidates and where they stand. There's been an opportunistic use of feminism. Carly Fiorina essentially said, "I'm a feminist because a feminist is just a woman who lives as she chooses." She was able to harness the buzz around feminism. The media responded by asking why other feminists wouldn't let her claim that. She was able to really capitalize on the conversation. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has had feminism applied to her as a concept more than she's spoken explicitly about it. But the complications around feminism and Clinton have led to questions about whether or not she can actually be a feminist.
How did you discover feminism?
I grew up in a pretty traditional family with conventional gender roles. A lot of the things that brought me to feminism were things I didn't really have a word for but knew were unfair. I was always having to sew buttons on my brother's shirt, and it was always my job to clear the dishes. Things became codified once I came to school and started learning the gender map. There's just generally this type of gender policing that goes on. But I was a big reader as a kid and I would find things in fiction books that resonated with me.
I think the first time I encountered the word "feminism" as something kind of positive was in this book by a young-adult author named Norma Klein, who was along the lines of Judy Blume. She wrote about urban, Jewish teenagers discovering their sexualities, and she wrote about feminism a lot. I was intrigued with the word because it was associated with ideas and behaviors that resonated with me.
Did this lead you to the riot-grrrl movement?
I was never really part of the riot-grrrl movement. Chronologically, yeah, I was around the same age and certainly aware of the riot-grrl movement. But I always thought I was way too uptight and nerdy for it. I was doing zines at a time when a lot of riot grrls were also producing them, and there was a sense that this was the tenor of feminism at the moment.
What do you make of the resurgence of zine culture and DIY publishing?
Zine and DIY culture has never really gone away. When we started Bitch
in 1996, there was a lot of mainstream attention on zines. That was a time when alternative culture in general fascinated mainstream culture. Zines were a part of that moment. It wasn't as if zine culture went away after that—it's just that the mainstream sort of turned its focus elsewhere. Digital media is fantastic, but there is something about the tangible, hands-on aspect of zine making and distribution that I think is a powerful form of feminist consciousness raising. That's how a lot of young feminists at that time realized their experiences were not singular and individual but shared. I think it's always been a really potent way to connect with people and with ideas.
Which young feminists do you think are carrying that torch?
There are just so many. It really bothers me when I hear feminists ten or 20 years older than me say, "I don't understand where all the young feminists are." They're everywhere. You're not seeing them because you're looking for something different. If you're looking for a classic-movement feminism, that might not be the most visible. I speak a lot on college campuses and I'm constantly blown away by the level of sophistication and activist engagement of the young women—and the young men too. And the young trans people for that matter. They are incredibly engaged, and they're thinking about feminism and its intersections with race, class, and disability. I think that's one of the benefits of growing up in a digital culture: you get to access multiple points of view in a single day.