We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement

By Andi Zeisler
New York: PublicAffairs, 2016, 304 pp., $26.99, hardcover

Reviewed by Paula Kamen

In her new book, We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler is as adept as one can get in capturing—and contrasting—specific moments in pop culture. In one chapter she looks back at the landmark 1977 international women’s conference in Houston. “The brainchild of Bella Abzug and Patsy Mink” and funded by the US government “to the tune of $5 million,” writes Zeisler, it drew between 15,000 and 20,000 attendees. The keynote was by Texas Congressional Representative Barbara Jordan, and the conference’s resulting political action plan focused on such substantive issues as sex discrimination, wage inequality, childcare, abortion, and the rights of minority women.

Then she fast-forwards to describe what such an event would like today: “I’d like to think it can have the same galvanizing spirit,” Zeisler writes,

but I’m also 99.9 percent sure it wouldn’t be funded by the government, but by a slate of multinational corporate sponsors: Verizon, Estee Lauder, Gucci. It would be held not at a convention center but at an extremely posh spa, all the better to pop out for a quick seaweed detox wrap if needed. Paparazzi would be camped out to get snaps of celebrity attendees Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, and Amal Clooney.

Zeisler goes on to imagine that the event would feature a “special conversation between Hayek and Jolie that adds $175 to the conference ticket price but does include a gift bag containing chia-seed energy bars, a luxury skin mask, and a coupon for Activia yogurt.”

Zeisler’s fantasy reveals the mixed blessings—and strange bedfellows—created by today’s “bizarro world” of “marketplace feminism”: the intersection of capitalism and feminism. “It’s decontextualized,” she writes. “It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably feminism’s most popular iteration ever.” With wit and imagination, she traces the evolution of marketplace feminism during the past twenty years, and its assimilation into mainstream society, for better and for worse.

Zeisler writes for both an academic audience and the rest of us; all may appreciate her big-picture perspective, as she connects the dots across decades and political movements, while she provides critical tools to enable even the most dedicated Entertainment Weekly subscriber to navigate the perplexingly mixed media messages that surround us. After reading this book, no reader will ever hear the words “empower” or “choice” the way she did before.

As a co-founder of the widely respected Bitch magazine (its tagline, “feminist response to pop culture”), Zeisler has long been at the forefront of delivering brainy and entertaining cultural critique. Bitch, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2016, has accomplished the impossible, surviving as an indie publication with minimal advertising. It has even expanded: the magazine is now a part of Bitch Media, which includes online-only content, a blog, and the Bitch on Campus partnership. This year, for the first time, Bitch Media offered fellowships to four diverse writers from across the globe.

Zeisler’s book reflects a major engaging feature of the magazine: a healthy dose of informed irony. You can see it right away in magazine headlines like “When the Dove Tries: The Latest ‘Real Beauty’ Gimmick” (about a Dove soap ad campaign) and “Of Woman Borg” (about female robots). Humor is almost unavoidable in analyses of the contradictions in today’s pop culture—such as in Zeisler’s discussion of the promotion of Spanx “shapewear” as “empowering” to women.

In its media focus, this book is in many ways the successor to the nerve-hitting 1991 blockbuster Backlash, by Susan Faludi (1991), which exposed often subtle media attacks on women’s progress. Even some of these books’ content overlaps: both cite notorious media instances of blaming feminism for the woes of single women—such as in the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, in which Michael Douglas is stalked by the homicidal, bunny-boiling Glenn Close; and in the 1986 Newsweek report, “The Marriage Crunch,” which warned young, single women that their odds of marrying dropped to minuscule the older they got, so that by the time they were 35, it claimed, they were more likely to be attacked by terrorists. “This narrative not only had legs, it had control-top hose and running shoes,” Zeisler says, describing how wildly popular and quoted the article became.

But Zeisler’s book has key differences from Faludi’s, notably, what Zeisler calls a “constant game of Good News/Bad News.” Her book both celebrates progress and notes setbacks, often within a single sentence. This is so fundamental to Zeisler’s worldview that her book is organized into two parts: the first, The Embrace, about advances; and the second, The Same Old Normal, about gains yet to be made. This rhythm is useful for describing today’s complexities, such as Nike’s 1995 advertising campaign, “If You Let Me Play,” which took feminism for granted, instead of seeing it as a novel trend. Beauty industry ads are especially full of contradictions: “A key feature of marketplace feminism is its earnest dialogue about broadening beauty standards,” writes Zeisler. She cites as an example Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” in which depictions of “real women” of various body sizes were posted in splashy venues, including on a billboard in Times Square. But, “Oh yeah,” Zeisler reminds us, “those beaming women on Dove’s groundbreaking billboards were shilling a line of lotions and creams meant to smooth out cellulite.”

She observes other drags on apparent progress. News outlets widely covered the actor Emma Watson’s November 2014 speech to the United Nations on gender equality, which helped to demystify feminism to a new audience. Yet Zeisler finds bias in the angle of the coverage. Headlines commended Watson’s “bravery” in identifying as a feminist, as they often do when celebrities take a stand. But this moves the focus away from the issues to the stars’ supposed “revelatory lack of fear and disgust about aligning themselves with the word [feminist].”

We Were Feminists covers the major media development since the publication of Backlash: the Internet, and its feminist blogs, websites, and “listicles.” Zeisler herself has a blogger’s sensibility and casual voice, as she makes reference to both high and low culture. She sets the pattern on page one, describing “Twitter feeds that mashed up Judith Butler and the Incredible Hulk.” Doing something like that herself, she follows her description of a lingerie ad as “batshit nonsensical” with a cogent critique of neoliberalism and gender essentialism that employs such words as “reify” and “ineluctable.”

Pop culture may be light, but to analyze it, Zeisler relies upon a deep understanding of global social issues and the diversity of feminist activism. Reflecting the cumulative result of decades of consciousness raising, We Were Feminists (more than Backlash) focuses on international, racial, generational, and transgender issues.

Zeisler’s wide point of view informs one of her most original contributions: her analysis of the evolution of the word “empower.” She traces its emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s to grassroots campaigns for women’s self-sufficiency in the global South and in US minority communities. Barbara Bryant Solomon’s Black Empowerment: Social World in Oppressed Communities (1976) was apparently the first book to use the word in its title. It was widely embraced in the 1990s by Third Wave feminists, reflecting the movement’s “expansive goals,” such as in Rosalind Wiseman’s 1992 Empower antibullying program.

Then came what Zeisler coins “empowertising.” Corporate America began using the word everywhere; it appeared perhaps most egregiously in Walmart’s 2011 Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which Zeisler describes as “an ass-covering PR campaign,” as the company faced the largest-ever sex-discrimination suit against a private company. By 2012, even Forbes was calling the word “the most condescending transitive verb ever.”

While Zeisler reports on generations of feminists, her work will have a special appeal to perennially media attention-starved, Generation X readers (like me!). Bitch magazine (along with the more celebrity-oriented Bust, founded three years earlier, in 1993) was a major “gateway feminist” source for us, raising our consciousnesses about our particular cultural influences. For Zeisler herself, the galvanizing event, when she was in college, was Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony to Congress, during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas:

If there was one event that was poised to refute the lie of postfeminism, it was the televised hearings that found Hill recalling her treatment by Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It’s hard to overstate how groundbreaking the hearings were in the understanding of sexual harassment: they marked the first time many viewers—myself included—realized there was a name of behavior that we were expected to laugh off or be flattered by in our school and work environments.

We Were Feminists rejects mainstream feminism as it is popularly defined: as women making choices. Instead, it dares to assert that some choices are better than others:

As an ideology, feminism…holds that some things—say, social and political equality and physical autonomy—are better than other things, like inequality, domestic and sexual violence, and subservience based on gender. It makes no sense to argue that all choices are equally good as long as individual women choose them. And it’s equally illogical to put a neoliberal frame around that argument and suggest that a woman’s choices affect that woman and only that woman.

Zeisler’s call to high ideals is most evident in her last chapter, “The End of Feel-Good Feminism.” In it, she challenges consumers to not forget the “unfun” and “uncommercial” parts of feminism:

The problem is—the problem has always been—that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable. The root issues that feminism confronts—wage inequality, gendered divisions of labor, institutional racism and sexism—are deeply unsexy.

Feminism is a demand for social change. Some of her critics, such as two recent New York Times reviewers (who were generally positive), have said this means she is ideologically rigid. But I opine that, in the end, she provides a much-needed, independent voice—countering a much better funded corporate one.

Paula Kamen is the author of four books, including Feminist Fatale: Voices from the ‘Twentysomething Generation’ Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement”, which was noted as the first post-boomer feminist book when it was published in 1991. She is the author of the play, Jane: Abortion and the Underground, which has been a popular fundraiser on college campuses. Her website is paulakamen.com.

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