- We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
- Andi Zeisler
The week I started reading Andi Zeisler's We Were Feminists Once, I also began an impromptu rewatch of the classic HBO series Sex and the City. Taking in Carrie Bradshaw's sexual adventures for the first time in years, it occurred to me how much the mainstream depiction of "female empowerment" has changed over my lifetime.
With its steady stream of cosmopolitans and $500 shoes, the show seemed far from the innovative groundbreaker it was celebrated as when I first watched it in university. Beyond the fact that the show's heroine is smoking cigarettes in bars, cars and at the ballpark, her "I couldn't help but wonder" analysis of gender dynamics feels decidedly archaic given the present-day intersectional, Internet-fueled conversations.
Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Frustrating depictions of "feminism" continue to have a firm hold on how the public interacts with the ideology. The mainstream is often intent on dealing in caricatures – a sort of feminism-lite. It dumbs down mission statements into warm and fuzzy feelings, anoints Hollywood starlets as "acceptable" feminists and conjures palatable, non bra-burning versions of the movement's ideals, all designed more to sell products than affect real change.
We Were Feminists Once takes us through the history of this kind of "marketplace feminism," from when credit cards, rings and cigarettes ("you've come a long way, baby") were sold as progress, to when Mad Max: Fury Road was being touted as a revolutionary feminist masterpiece. The book presents us with an array of cultural touchstones, forcing us to pull them up in our Google search bars and take a good hard look at why, for better or worse, they matter to public perceptions of the movement.
The book tackles co-opted feminism via a wide array of examples – CoverGirl, Lilith Fair, Special K and Botox, to name just a few – making important connections through both waves and marketing campaigns. How feminine-hygiene products are sold via politics (as was the case in Always 2014 tear-jerker "Like a Girl" campaign) or why we clamour to get the likes of Taylor Swift to claim the capital-F title – all are fodder for Zeisler's vital commentary. It's an ambitious project to say the least, one where the author pulls off deep, intelligent analysis in a markedly conversational tone.
It's little surprise Zeisler has delivered an accessible, nuanced critique of how representations of feminism have shifted over decades. She's the co-founder and creative director of Bitch Media, an organization that fosters engaged feminist analysis of mainstream media and popular culture, known primarily for its quarterly magazine, Bitch. Originally published as a zine in 1996, Bitch evolved into an important part of the feminist conversation, which takes on everything from the politics of domesticity, to women's health, to fat activism, to Top 40 music divas. In fact, when I received my first copy in the late nineties, it opened up a whole new realm of thinking beyond my largely Internet-less, Sex and the City-consuming worldview.
Part of the book's appeal is how smartly it mines feminism's ongoing identity crisis, and unpacks extreme stereotypes such as "hairy-legged man-basher" or "the chick in the crop top." Using her decades of experience, Zeisler tracks how "mainstream culture sanitizes, dilutes, and repackages radicalism." She cites, for example, how the Riot Grrrl punk of the early nineties was cleaned up by the status quo and delivered as the palatable "Girl Power" of the prefabricated Spice Girls. Zeisler notes that over time, feminism has certainly increased in mainstream popularity, but only the version that didn't demand too much attention to actual systemic equality. While Dove campaigns for "real beauty," and newspapers and magazines argue over which films, TV shows and celebrities pass "the feminist test," pay inequity, staggering sexual assault statistics and limited access to abortion still endure. All the feminist underwear, feminist memes and feminist cocktails in the world won't cure that.
This certainly doesn't mean that We Were Feminists Once is a book-length argument to "worry about more important things." Zeisler is also not deriding individual women's choices, nor is she suggesting that pop culture is not a worthy field of feminist analysis. Instead she is asking us to acknowledge how mainstream media has sanctioned infighting op-eds, how the "is this/he/she feminist" grading scale is a generated distraction from the much more vital issues, and how at the end of the day, feminism is not really supposed to be fun – "it's complex and hard and it pisses people off."
It's difficult for any reader to deny that the self-congratulatory idea of "don't make women feel like shit and they're more likely to buy your product" is not a feminist breakthrough, nor is a mega corporation like Nike tugging at heartstrings by saying young girls should be allowed to play sports. Put simply, the bar is far too low, and people are profiting off women as a result.
"Feminism has to evolve," Zeisler writes. "And capitalizing on its ideology without any action effectively stunts that progress." By looking back at decades of depiction, interpretation and commodification, Zeisler has made an important commentary that, despite what we've been shown and told, we shouldn't be satisfied with the status quo.