Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an online-first feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
This forum will also appear in print in the Autumn 2017 issue of Signs. We Were Feminists Once was published in 2016 by PublicAffairs.
Andi Zeisler's We Were Feminists Once
Marketplace Feminism: About the Menz
The Diverting Seductions of Marketplace Feminism
Susan J. Douglas
Marketplace Feminism: A Crucial Intergenerational Conversation
Celebrity Feminists Have Problems, Too!; or, #FirstWorldCelebrityFeministProblems
Marketplace Feminism: About the Menz
In her new book, We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler writes about what she dubs “marketplace feminism,” a powerful, corporatized, depoliticized version of feminism that’s developed during the past twenty years. As she documents, entire industries continue to appropriate the language and imagery of culture-challenging activism to create what are, in the end, superficial and ultimately conservative narratives of self-actualization. The pop culture that she describes, one that as a founder of Bitch magazine, she herself had great hopes of leveraging to raise feminist consciousness, has done an excellent job of lulling people, especially women, into thinking that feminism is fun and games, unnecessary, harmful, or reduced to personal choices. In any case, the world is, by these estimations, largely represented in media as “postfeminist”—the word with perhaps the longest index entry in the book.
Zeisler’s analysis comes at a particularly consequential time in terms of how feminism and gender relations are portrayed and perceived: the first presidential election in which a woman is a major party candidate and a race that is defined by identity issues. Her analysis focuses on women and the effects of marketplace feminism’s messages on collective and political sensibilities. However, what this election demonstrates vividly is that if marketplace feminism sold women a bill of goods, it simultaneously appears to have utterly bankrupted men.
Marketplace feminism has, in fact, depending on who it’s being sold to, also been marketplace antifeminism. A recent Pew Research Center study revealed that more than half (56%) of American men surveyed think sexism has been eradicated in the United States. Sixty-three percent of American women say sexism still generates meaningful obstacles in their lives, while only 41 percent of men believe that women face gender-based problems that make it harder for them to succeed.
Bathed from birth in hypergendered and segmented media of every stripe, millenials have one of the biggest gender gaps in understanding of feminism and sexism among any demographic cohort: 63 percent of millennial women think sexism is real and demands institutional responses compared to only 38 percent of men.
Studies show that both teenage boys and girls, as well as people in their twenties, go out of their way to portray sexism as equally affecting men and women—a marker of the strange kind of “equality” that is a hallmark of marketplace feminism, which has everything to do with the fact that terms like “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism” aren’t automatically dismissed by most people as incoherent blatherings. Boys and young men today routinely underestimate their female peers, are less likely to think women can be engineers or leaders, and often believe that women are, in fact, oppressing them. Sixty-eight percent of women who grew up in the era described by Zeisler think institutions should have policies to address discrimination and improve diversity. Fifty-three percent of men agree, but only 46 percent of white men, those for whom feminism has mainly been portrayed as a zero-sum game.
As more and more companies and messages encouraged women to see feminism in terms of making their own (limited) choices and spending their (still-lower) salaries, men watched from the sidelines, growing increasingly anxious, because what was conveyed to them was that the thing that was for sale was actually their manhood. What marketplace feminism meant to men was a very different feminism, one that, for many, translated into loss, denial, identity crises, and ignorance. While it is true that today it appears that there is more widespread reluctance among women to acknowledge or confront systemic sexism or misogyny, the same is exceptionally true of men. Women might not be moved en masse to challenge what are clearly pressing inequalities, but men don't even see why they would do so in the first place. That’s an entirely different sort of Stockholm Syndrome.
Men’s mystification over sexism and its enduring power, and their anger over feeling left behind in an era of rapid and transformational change, has shaped a new political reality. We are in the throes of a violent conservative contraction largely fueled by conservative white male disorientation and anger. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 52 percent of white men have a “very unfavorable” view of Clinton—20 points more than the percentage that said the same of Barack Obama in 2012. Today, more conservatives, of either gender and any age, think that white men are more discriminated against than women. While there is no measurement of the effects of in-your-face sexism, social scientists estimate that the nation’s first serious woman contender for the presidency faces up to a 24-point loss due to implicit voter bias.
Marketplace feminism has everything to do with the fact that the presidential campaign of an entire national political party, a virtual tsunami of misogyny, xenophobia, and racism, has derived its biggest support from what The Atlantic’s Peter Bienart recently described as men who fear emasculation at the hands of a powerful woman leader. T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters emblazoned with “don’t be a pussy,” “hillary sucks but not like monica,” and “finally someone with balls” attest to everyday sexism but also clearly illuminate the desire to restore men to a position of supremacy that they feel has been lost. Anti-Clinton sentiments such as these are as much the hallmark of marketplace feminism as the depoliticizing feminist industrial empowerment complex Zeisler describes.
Any next-generation feminist movements have to come to terms with this reality.
If marketplace feminism sold women a bill of goods, it simultaneously appears to have utterly bankrupted men.
Soraya Chemaly is a writer and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media. She is the Director of the Women's Media Center Speech Project and organizer of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition, both of which are involved in curbing online abuse, media and tech diversity, and expanding women's freedom of expression. She writes and speaks regularly about gender, media, tech, education, women's rights, sexual violence and free speech. Her work appears in Time, the Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, The Atlantic and Role/Reboot.
The Diverting Seductions of Marketplace Feminism
Susan J. Douglas
So here we are in the fall of 2016: feminism seems to be everywhere, with its celebrity ambassadors from Taylor Swift to Lena Dunham and others brandishing it and making it cool; badass female heroes in blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Mad Max: Fury Road; Verizon running its “Inspire Her Mind” campaign about empowering girls; and, of course, the first female candidate of a major party running for president. But misogyny is everywhere too: on the pages of Reddit; in the appalling threats against women campaigning against sexual violence in video games (not to mention the coiling together of racism and misogyny that Leslie Jones recently endured on Twitter); in the skyrocketing number of bills passed round the country since 2010 curtailing women’s reproductive rights; and, of course, in the truly disgusting forms of sexism, both subtle and blatant, that Hillary Clinton has had to (and will continue to) endure during the campaign. And all of this is personified in the form of a rank sexist and racist running against an antiracist feminist for president.
Andi Zeisler’s book burrows into these crosscurrents, and Zeisler questions herself and others of us for embracing the following hope: if we saw more strong women in the media, if the stereotypes about feminists as antifashion, humorless, and man-hating were punctured—indeed, if we saw the embrace of feminism in some precincts of popular culture—wouldn’t that help propel policy changes that would further equality for women in our country? After all, Zeisler was one of the founders of Bitch Media, first a feminist zine and then a magazine and website dedicated to exposing sexist stereotypes that helped reinforce pay discrimination, the glass ceiling, and sexual violence against women. So this was her hope, and one many of us shared. Given where we are now, were we wrong?
Zeisler lays out her analysis of what she’s labeled “marketplace feminism,” a “cool, fun, accessible identity” (xiii), a feel-good, hip feminism that is about style, attitudes, and words: think Taylor Swift and her posse of female friends and those “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts. Marketplace feminism is stoked by “femvertising” (25), when ads co-opt the word “empowering” to sell tampons or cell phones. Along with other feminist writers, Zeisler rightly notes how neoliberalism (a word I think we should ditch in favor of what it really is, neoconservatism), with its antigovernment insistence that the market is the best arbiter of delivering goods and services to people, has paired up perfectly with postfeminism. In this ideological framework, individual women are responsible for their own successes and failures and must craft an ever-adapting identity, with the aid of multiple consumer goods, to make it, still, in a man’s world. Marketplace feminism’s emphasis on individual transformation depoliticizes feminism and averts our gaze and our energy from confronting “ deeply entrenched forms of inequality” (xv). Indeed, I’ve been concerned about this myself—how the overrepresentation of women on TV as surgeons, law partners, district attorneys and the like make it seem as though equality has been fully achieved when it hasn’t.
The zeitgeist Zeisler has put her finger on is that the often fleeting, surface celebrations of feminism that have changed the conversation about and image of the F word—Beyoncé’s instantly iconic performance at the 2014 MTV music video awards with the word “FEMINIST” emblazoned behind her, Gretchen Carlson’s recent sexual harassment victory over Fox News—have not yet translated into further, much-needed structural reforms for millions of women who are neither rich nor famous. A January 2016 Washington Post poll reported that 60 percent of women described themselves as either a feminist or strong feminist, as did 33 percent of men. Seventy percent agreed that feminism is “empowering.” But the challenge Zeisler has identified is whether that feeling translates into doing the in-the-trenches political work to change laws, policies, and workplace and institutional practices that still make so many women second-class citizens. And the question Hillary Clinton raises is, if elected, can she (an ultimate branded feminist) be the one to fuse marketplace feminism with actual political reforms for women?
I’ve been concerned about this myself—how the overrepresentation of women on TV as surgeons, law partners, district attorneys and the like make it seem as though equality has been fully achieved when it hasn’t.
Susan Douglas is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Communication Studies, and former department chair, at The University of Michigan. She is author of The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild (2010); The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Undermines Women (with Meredith Michaels; 2004); Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (1999), Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (1994) and Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (1987). She has lectured at colleges and universities around the country and has written for The Nation, In These Times, The Village Voice, Ms., The Washington Post, and TV Guide, and was media critic for The Progressive from 1992-1998. Her column “Back Talk” appears monthly in In These Times.
Marketplace Feminism: A Crucial Intergenerational Conversation
Andi Zeisler is a wise, learned, and funny woman. She is also a prophet, in the sense of one who points to the evils and injustices of her time. Her book, We Were Feminists Once, lays bare the waxing and waning of feminism in American popular culture since the 1970s as context for evaluating the current feminist zeitgeist in which numerous major public figures from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift, not to mention major corporations like Dove and AOL, have embraced the label.
Zeisler clarifies the deep dilemma of feminism’s relationship to mass media. Early on, feminists understood the power of the media to shape women’s self-perceptions and frame their possibilities. Betty Friedan eviscerated the advertising industry’s efforts to shape the spending habits of female consumers by tying them to their domestic responsibilities, inducing and using insecurity to plug household appliances, cake mixes, deodorants, makeup, and soaps and detergents for every possible surface of home or body.
Feminists fought back both by opting out of consumption and by creating their own media: journals, book publishers, music. In part as a result of those interventions, Zeisler’s generation came of age with new and insurgent possibilities (zines, riot grrrls, etc.) that offered girls and young women a sense of possibility. By the mid-1990s all of this was amplified by the emerging Internet. Yet, her narrative makes clear that the antifeminist backlash never lost its power, even in the face of feminist resurgence following Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas.
Since the 1970s, the dominant message in the mass media has been that feminism is antiquated, unnecessary, and even dangerous to women, while the right-wing media continuously roils with venomous antifeminism. Though feminism itself, of course, was never absent, just off the page or in the background (academic debates, nonprofits plugging away on issues like reproductive rights and equal pay), the recent embrace of feminism by celebrities and corporations alike has been startling for veterans of those earlier wars. After reading Zeisler, I have a much clearer understanding of what is happening and its dangers.
Zeisler traces the periodic reemergence of feminist impulses in the media, some insurgent and some cracking into the mainstream. For decades she has been an acute observer of this scene, and her deep knowledge is a revelation to people like me, whose lives rarely intersect with the world of mass media and popular culture. I seldom watch TV and am not a consumer of current popular music. The changing cultural messages for generations of girls has meant that each cohort has experienced a new mix of opportunities and challenges that are too often opaque to older generations. The result is that conversations across generations of feminists have always been difficult and complex. We see the world through different lenses depending on when we came of age.
An underlying drumbeat of this analysis, however, is the power of marketplace feminism. Each upsurge of protest has led to a new backlash (antifeminist, postfeminist) in which the media has actively denigrated feminism and in each case the market has found ways to redirect feminist impulses in an individualistic, consumerist direction where “choice” displaces justice, rights, and equality.
Zeisler, as a long-term advocate of the power of media, ends up in a sobering place. The recent rise in celebrity feminism seems worth celebrating, at least in contrast to a time when any association with feminism was a stain on a celebrity’s brand. She argues that celebrities provide validation for movements. Individual celebrities can do a great deal to legitimize feminism, as long as they don’t simply wear it as a self-enhancing piece of their own brand. At the same time, as individuals with their own quirks and flaws, they never fully embody the ideal the movement wants to communicate. For a movement as diverse as feminism, with its long and sordid history of trashing its own leaders, no public figure can meet every standard. With every flaw magnified in the lens of social media, fallible women who emerge into the spotlight will inevitably suffer both scrutiny and blistering attacks.
Similarly, Zeisler explores the apparent embrace of feminist goals by numerous corporations and corporate leaders. I not only appreciated her excavation of ads from companies like Dove that openly challenge culturally imposed standards of beauty but ultimately and unsurprisingly place those challenges in the service of selling something (soap) that somehow promises to make the viewer more beautiful, whatever her version of beauty. In the process, the empowering (oh, yes, Zeisler really does a job on that word “empowerment”) messages turn in on themselves to provoke the necessary insecurity that drives beauty product purchasing decisions. Ultimately, of course, we all knew that marketplace feminism would be about consumption, holding out individual choice as a goal that erases equality or the shadows of hierarchy and injustice from the feminist agenda. But to see it all laid out so very clearly—and wittily—is deeply unsettling. This is a wake-up call. The current flood of feminist-positive media is not only sure to be temporary, it also undermines the necessarily hard work that feminism as a social movement requires.
Zeisler, in the end, counterposes the fun and self-enhancement of consumerist choice to the hard work of collective action required by social movements. She is right that there is hard work to be done. She has also given us a brilliant analysis of the astonishing power of marketplace feminism to subvert and deflect, warning against any easy assumption that the current feminist-positive media world is a sign of deep change on which we can count.
If we redirect the conversation to underlying structures that shape the hierarchies of gender, race, and class, the enormousness of the struggle is certainly daunting. But I would argue that social movements can also generate an intensely satisfying experience of community, purpose, and even fun. Reclaiming the powerful experience of collective action (Black Lives Matter is one of the current examples) and finding ways to do that that are strategic and effective is clearly a task that still awaits, but there are thousands already in the trenches laying the groundwork. Thank you, Andi Zeisler, for helping us better understand the terrain on which we must fight.
This is a wake-up call. The current flood of feminist-positive media is not only sure to be temporary, it also undermines the necessarily hard work that feminism as a social movement requires.
Sara Evans, Regents Professor Emerita, spent her career teaching women’s history at the University of Minnesota. Her research on the history of feminism as a social movement grew from her own involvement in civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights activism. Her publications include Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (1980) and Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End (2003).
Shortly after Monica Lewinsky’s tryst with Bill Clinton consumed our headlines and welfare “deform” rolled out in the United States, the Spice Girls came to fame with their catchy song “Wannabe.” Many feminists cringed at these scantily clad “girls” named Posh and Baby for misrepresenting feminism. To mark its twentieth anniversary, the song was recast in a short music video proclaiming what girls “really want”: equal pay, quality education for girls, and freedom from child marriage. Weeks after I saw (and promptly loved) the video, I coincidently met its creator, Kate Garvey, and learned how explicitly political it was—her goals were to raise money, create laws, and hold governments accountable. Miraculously, popular media was affirming who I was and what I want for girls and women.
Meghan Trainor’s catchy song “No,” Beyoncé quoting Chimamanda Adichie, Transparent awaking America to trans people, and Charlize Theron demanding pay equity could only happen as a consequence of an increasingly feminist-infused world. More people identify as feminist today than ever before, and more people have found ways to challenge what we have otherwise been told was inevitable. That said, I’m not naïve; I know that change happens too slowly, that success brings increased resistance, and that celebrities shouldn’t be household names any more than those on the front lines of feminism, such as police chief Val Demings or NASA scientist Ellen Stofan.
In the wake of this newfound appreciation, I read Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once and was dismayed that it would assert that there was ever more feminism than there is today. Zeisler—just like feminism—is at her best when helping to make sense of what we have been told to watch, read, think, or do. Before feminism, women—or any marginalized group—weren’t even afforded the opportunity to challenge or reflect upon what was presented as a given. That is perhaps the greatest power of feminism—being able to vocalize what we do and don’t like. Zeisler fails to name or even own that power as a feminist benchmark. We still can’t fully control what is created, but we now have full control over how we react to it.
Personally, and perhaps lazily, I just accept these creations for what they are—art reflecting life. The difference today is that feminism has altered what life is, which has empowered more feminist-minded people to be the creators of art, not to mention to expand the art forms themselves.
From my perspective, if feminism feels limited, it’s because feminists ourselves haven’t better articulated what it means to be a feminist. If women seemed more feminist in another generation, it’s only because the definition of what it meant to be a feminist was much narrower. One of the only hints Zeisler gives as to what defines someone as a feminist comes when she suggests that Daniel Radcliffe might actually be a feminist if he were to “single handedly construct… a school for girls in a remote village somewhere using cast-off scraps of Gucci” (124). I actually did go to Zambia a few months ago to build schools for girls and provide menstrual products, but I would never consider that contribution more valuable than Geena Davis using her celebrity clout to hold Hollywood accountable for the number of speaking roles given to women.
After I finished Zeisler’s book and before I wrote this, I read a New York Times article that I couldn’t stop thinking about: “Defining, and Proclaiming, A New Black Power.” For weeks, I carried around the ripped-out article trying to understand why it was considered a net positive that civil rights as a narrative thread had seeped into mainstream culture—from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to the TV hit Black-ish to the Broadway success Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed—whereas any feminist equivalent is almost always considered commodification. “The black people shaping the culture have grown not just comfortable in their blackness but also defiant in its depiction, insistent in its inextricability from art,” reported the Times. Even referring to these creations as “art” is progress compared to feminist critiques, which primarily refer to popular “culture,” which makes the thing itself sound predetermined.
The question of “comfort” really struck me when it came to discerning why feminism couldn’t better embrace popular media the way black power can: are we comfortable enough with who we are? Feminists have made tremendous gains, but we have been better at articulating a political mandate without changing our personal habits. And as much as we have been keenly aware of the resistance to equality, we have been overly focused on women’s empowerment without dismantling male overempowerment.
Systemic obstacles are very real, and feminism must continue pushing through those barriers—yes, vote, sign an occasional position, and support groups that work on issues you care about. But changing laws won’t necessarily change consciousness. People are moved by stories more than statistics. Feminists must get comfortable and embody the changes they have fought for: personally enact what we have politically argued. Do all feminist institutions offer paid maternity leave? Does every feminist disavow conventional beauty standards?
Girls gleefully singing “No” and stating what they really want might sound cliché, but owning one’s sense of self hasn’t yet been in great abundance. Women in other generations frequently lamented that you can’t be what you can’t see; seeing (and singing) it—in all its clumsiness—can lead to being it.
If women seemed more feminist in another generation, it’s only because the definition of what it meant to be a feminist was much narrower.
Amy Richards is the executive producer of the VICELAND series WOMAN and the president of Soapbox, Inc. She has authored several books, articles, and essays on contemporary feminism, including Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (with Jennifer Baumgardner) and Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself. She is a longtime consultant to MAKERS and is the chair of the board of the Sadie Nash Leadership Project.
Celebrity Feminists Have Problems, Too!; or, #FirstWorldCelebrityFeministProblems
At the moment, Lena Dunham is giving me problems. In the overblown hothouse of social media, she has, once again, sparked the ire of the Twitterverse. In her newsletter, Lenny, Dunham projects her own insecurities onto professional football player Odell Beckham Jr. When Dunham and Beckham were seated at the same table at the 2016 Met Gala, Dunham perceived Beckham’s disinterest in her, and deep interest in his mobile phone, as a sexist determination that she was unfuckable and, thus, not worth chatting with. Later, in an apology via Instagram, she acknowledged her own insecurities and the role they played in her projections onto a stranger in the context of sexualized racism and white privilege—and extremely typical mobile phone addiction.
I say that Lena’s giving me problems not because I know her personally—though that stops no one today from having deep, parasocial relationships with celebrity strangers—but because she’s my imagined favorite women’s studies student. She has resources. With feminist knowledge and, to some degree, self-awareness, she’s been set loose on the world to influence popular culture. So when she messes up, I am more than willing to say, “Hey, look, white girls got problems, too.” That’s a flip, Twitter-friendly way of saying that, despite our gaffes, we’re all still in this feminist tugboat together. The tugboat might still have seating divided by physical ability, race, class, sexuality, and gender, but it’s the same boat. And it’s less the serial gaffes and attacks on feminism in pop media than the pace of conversations about, and not with, feminism that frustrate me. Bold statements (Beyoncé and Taylor), denials (Shailene and Katy), intimations, and missteps shape yet another very public conversation about feminism and the feminist brand that’s over before I get around to seeing the original posting in context.
Andi Zeisler, author of We Were Feminists Once and cofounder of Bitch Media, sees fit to try to steer us through the latest waters of feminist resurgence and opposition. Zeisler does us a service that we need at least once every ten years: a roundup of the major developments, arguments, and schisms in feminist ideology. It’s a funny challenge she’s picked up on. Whereas feminist writers such as Francis Beal, Shulamith Firestone, Brenda Eichelberger, and Joan Morgan had to fight for the right to assert feminist politics and ideas, Zeisler finds that feminism today, at least the pop culture kind, is mired in a struggle over who gets to claim feminism and whether one is “doing it right” (130). She’s tackling the ascendancy of feminist lifestyle politics, which, as the most visible form of feminism, makes it appear that feminism has won, leaving little room for thinking of feminist politics as cyclical, actionable, and requiring vigilance.
Confession: I left academia several years ago frustrated with a few things. One was, in my own research, the perhaps misguided idea that critique meant only pointing out discriminatory thinking in popular culture. Where was the joy? I realize now that this misperception was down to my own fault: assuming that dismantling texts and creating transformative ones were mutually exclusive. My other frustration was the glacial pace of academic publishing and of the dissemination of potentially life-changing ideas derived from the inclusive study of women’s lives.
When I step back and take in the big picture, I see that Zeisler manages to capture most of that picture in her analysis of television, Hollywood, advertising, and news. I see that many of the ideas we fleshed out in the academy decades ago are coming to fruition, as are students of women’s studies and feminist theory, who are now writing for television, critiquing media, and becoming social media critics from within the medium. Deep understandings of neoliberalism as structural policy and personal experience, of postfeminism’s metamorphosis, of the slipperiness of choice discourses, and of the vagaries of empowerment language are all being exposed and discussed more widely not despite Internet technologies but because of them. In highlighting these key concepts, Zeisler offers new vocabularies of oppression and liberation in anticipation of the next metamorphosis of feminism’s presence in popular culture.
It’s less the serial gaffes and attacks on feminism in pop media than the pace of conversations about, and not with, feminism that frustrate me.
Kimberly Springer practices digital engagement in public radio. Her books include Living the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968 to 1980 and the edited volumes Still Lifting, Still Climbing: African American Women’s Contemporary Activism and (with Trystan T. Cotton) Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture. She publishes a periodic newsletter on digital culture, Notes from the Echo Chamber. You can also hear her podcast, Let’s Review, a short series on current events, pop culture, identity, and the tricky art of navigating life.
It is a humbling, somewhat frightening prospect to be treated as someone who knows a thing or two about a subject like contemporary feminism—especially, perhaps, because contemporary feminism is as plural and wide-ranging as it’s ever been, and certainly, from the inside, just as contentious. I thank all of these writers, a few of whom I have known for years and admired for even longer, for their thoughtful and sharp considerations of We Were Feminists Once and for their own work, which inspires me.
One reason I wanted to write this book is because, as someone who spends a great deal of time both on college campuses and on the Internet, I find myself thinking almost constantly about the historicity of feminism and feminist activism in an increasingly digital world—and, in addition, one in which both chronology and facts themselves are treated as less absolute than ever before. I am gratified that so many of these responses, especially those from Sara Evans and Kimberly Springer, appreciate that in structuring this book, my impulse was to capture a moment in contemporary feminism—but also to stop, look back, and point out that while we might coin new, publication-friendly terms and have snazzier new tools with which to disseminate them, there’s very little that’s new in the impulse to co-opt, glamorize, and cash in on feminism.
Soraya Chemaly’s response to We Were Feminists Once elucidates something I struggled with in outlining and defining the scope of the book—the interconnectedness of marketplace feminism and the attendant rise of marketplace misogyny. To understand why marketplace feminism is so much more seductive than (for lack of a better term) activist feminism involves accepting that much of what has consumed and hamstrung mainstream feminist movements is a desire to play nice with patriarchy, to define what we do as somehow “not about” men when, of course, inevitably, it often is. Susan J. Douglas’s book The Rise of Enlightened Sexism did an excellent job of tracing the way that internalizing and repurposing sexist tropes in the name of “empowerment” has been a hallmark of contemporary pop feminism, particularly among young, white women—that book was one I cited several times in WWFO and had in the forefront of my mind when puzzling through how to talk about marketplace feminism as a phenomenon that privileges individual experiences and identities above systemic lacks. But Chemaly’s point that marketplace feminism has in many ways allowed for a premature assumption of a leveled playing field, one in which men and women experience sexism equally, with equally pernicious results, is crucial, and I appreciate that she contextualizes that point with hard numbers drawn from timely research. From a current standpoint, one characterized by a completely—to use a technical term—batshit fucking bananas election terrorized by the aggrieved specter of waning male supremacy, I regret not being more explicit about the flip side of marketplace feminism, and how the simplistic retorts of “but men experience sexism too!” can so easily derail mere assertions of feminism’s unfinished structural business.
I don’t know that, as Amy Richards suggests, We Were Feminists Once asserts that “there was ever more feminism than there is today”—though it’s true that the title (which I didn’t choose myself, for the record—my suggestions were all much more straightforward and, I can infer from the response, incredibly underwhelming to the folks tasked with marketing this book) does suggest a longing for a more radical time. The question I wanted to put out, if not definitively answer, was this: If everything is feminist—music, movies, strip clubs, energy drinks, underpants—than what does feminism itself become, and what is it for?
Richards protests that the book doesn’t acknowledge the power of being able to “vocalize what was presented as a given…what we do and don’t like.” That’s definitely a criticism that I’m pondering. To me, the issue is less that female consumers have that power to like or dislike and be vocal about it. We do. But I disagree that we have that power to the degree that Richards takes for granted. After all, if female consumers are truly confident that our opinions and criticisms of cultural products created within still-unequal industries like Hollywood or pop music will be taken seriously, why do we spend so much time twisting ourselves into pretzels to justify things as “secretly feminist” or “stealthily feminist”? Why do we still hear that a gender-flipped action movie like the new Ghostbusters is a referendum on all-female casts and moviegoers? Why do we hold black women responsible for the disappointing box-office performance of Birth of a Nation, when all many of them did was refuse to support the director’s erasure, in both real life and fiction, of other black women? Perhaps I’m just more pessimistic than Richards, but while the feminist power to articulate criticism is indisputably robust, our current culture’s ability to treat both the articulation and the criticism itself as valid and warranted is still lagging way behind.
I connect this state of affairs, too, with Richards’s assertion—which itself echoes Chemaly’s—that feminism too often seems to focus on translating feminist theory into individual empowerment “without dismantling male overempowerment.” Considering the glacial pace of change within pop culture and media, the two-steps-forward-one-step-back movement that has only very recently picked up speed, it’s definitely worth celebrating the way that the open secrets of sexism, exploitation, and discrimination in culture industries like Hollywood and pop culture are being increasingly brought forward under the hot, unflattering light of public scrutiny. Part of the long-overdue reckoning involves asking how it is that women can square being both empowered and victimized by a market that, overall, has still not changed what it wants from women—beauty, pliability, and, all too often, complicity.
Much of what has consumed and hamstrung mainstream feminist movements is a desire to play nice with patriarchy.
Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media, the feminist media organization best known for publishing the magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Her work has appeared in numerous periodicals and newspapers, including Ms., Mother Jones, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and more. Her previous books include Feminism and Pop Culture and BitchFest: 10 Years of Cultural Criticism From the Pages of Bitch Magazine. She speaks frequently on the subjects of feminism, activism, and pop culture at colleges and universities around the country and abroad.