author – activist – faculty – mom
A classic trend in music is the sophomore album where artists grapple with what it’s like to be famous and how much their lives have changed. In this anguished moment, they lament how they’ve gotten the very thing they wanted, and yet have come to find that it has drawbacks and challenges that they could never have imagined. As The Notorious BIG famously and succinctly put it, “mo money, mo problems.”
Andi Zeisler‘s We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl?, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement is such an album for feminism. Released this week by Public Affairs Books, it is a meticulously researched analysis to bust the myth that if only our radical political ideas could get a big enough platform that everything would be fixed.
I have read many great think pieces about specific examples of the co-opting of feminism, but this is the first contemporary big picture analysis that I’ve seen of the current trendiness of feminism. And in deeply committed feminist style, Zeisler lives out her values in the work: her overall strategy isn’t to attack individual women for failing to be feminist enough, but rather to indict neo-liberalism and an exploitative marketplace.
From the publisher’s website:
Feminism has hit the big time. Once a dirty word brushed away with a grimace, “feminist” has been rebranded as a shiny label sported by movie and pop stars, fashion designers, and multi-hyphenate powerhouses like Beyoncé. It drives advertising and marketing campaigns for everything from wireless plans to underwear to perfume, presenting what’s long been a movement for social justice as just another consumer choice in a vast market. Individual self-actualization is the goal, shopping more often than not the means, and celebrities the mouthpieces.
But what does it mean when social change becomes a brand identity? Feminism’s splashy arrival at the center of today’s media and pop-culture marketplace, after all, hasn’t offered solutions to the movement’s unfinished business. Planned Parenthood is under sustained attack, women are still paid 77 percent—or less—of the man’s dollar, and vicious attacks on women, both on- and offline, are utterly routine.
Andi Zeisler, a founding editor of Bitch Media, draws on more than twenty years’ experience interpreting popular culture in this biting history of how feminism has been co-opted, watered down, and turned into a gyratory media trend. Surveying movies, television, advertising, fashion, and more, Zeisler reveals a media landscape brimming with the language of empowerment, but offering little in the way of transformational change. Witty, fearless, and unflinching, We Were Feminists Once is the story of how we let this happen, and how we can amplify feminism’s real purpose and power.
“Zeisler aims to illuminate the route by which feminism arrived at its current state, to draw us all into the fight to make it better by showing us how we might have contributed to making it worse…If marketplace feminism is a way to promise the powerful that feminism poses no real threat to the status quo, this anti-market feminism isn’t afraid to frighten the powerful. It is based in collective struggle. It is the only thing that will make change.” –Sarah Jaffe, The New Republic
“With delightfully dry wit, Zeisler carries the discussion of the portrayal of women in advertising, movies, television, and fashion both in the present day and recent history. …This thought-provoking yet sobering consideration of the current state of feminism emphasizes the need to continue to fight for full equality. Highly recommended for readers with an interest in women’s studies, pop culture, and the media.” –Library Journal, Editors’ Spring Pick 2016
“Zeisler’s analysis of what she calls ‘marketplace feminism’ is acute and endlessly relevant, highlighting the insidiousness of the coopting powers that be, and calling on feminists to direct their resources toward legitimate political action and reclaim feminism as an identity, not something commodifiable.” –Publishers Weekly
Last night I saw her read at Book Passage in San Francisco, and I bought the book (in audio!!) I’m still in chapter one, but I can’t wait to read more. And a light bulb went on over my head last night when she broke down the devolution of the word “empowerment.” What began as a term used to describe economic development in low income communities of color has become a consumer term used to market products to women.
I have been involved in my own “empowerment” dilemma. My debut novel UPTOWN THIEF comes out in less than three months. As I try to come up with language to talk about the book, all the available language sounds hopelessly played out. I can’t say that my protagonist Marisol fights for “empowerment” or “freedom” for women anymore, because there’s a wireless plan or a perfume being sold right now that promises the same thing. Yet terms like “liberation” sound like relics of the 60s. I find myself sticking to the facts, and saying things like “women’s health care” and “wealth redistribution,” because they actually mean something. This is a feminist book but not a marketplace feminist book. It’s not about a woman who finds a sense of power through acquiring wealth, a man with good prospects, and a set of consumer goods. It’s about a woman who pulls together a team of women to steal money from rich and corrupt men to fund her community health clinic because the society is failing to provide a safety net to low-income women of color. Yet it’s also fun and sexy and aimed to compete with these marketplace feminist narratives.
In other words, if Zeisler’s book is a battle call to win back the soul of feminism, count me in.