When Andi Zeisler co-founded Bitch in 1995, she hoped to create a space for thoughtful responses to pop culture’s portrayals of women. Bitch became an empire, developing from zine to magazine to non-profit media organization, then adding a website and podcasts.
Zeisler’s commentary has stretched beyond Bitch to outlets like Mother Jones, Ms. and BUST. Her first book, Feminism and Pop Culture, was published in 2008 and has become a 101-primer in the subject for women and gender studies courses. Now, with We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl™, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, Zeisler dives deep into the history of advertisements being used to appeal to women, and explores how feminism is becoming “just another consumer choice in a vast market.”
The Rumpus spoke to Zeisler by phone to discuss her new work.
The Rumpus: Your book is largely about capitalism, and you aptly point out that everything’s now a brand. It’s unavoidable; we even brand ourselves. Can you explain just a bit about how capitalism and feminism connect?
Andi Zeisler: Capitalism is a system that’s ultimately predicated on and depends on some form of inequality. Feminism has always intersected with capitalism in terms of women’s labor and gendered divisions of labor.
There’s always been a way in which capitalism has been able to almost get in on the ground floor of feminist movements and use them for their own ends. I talked in the book about the early part of the twentieth century, when women were working towards suffrage and at the same time, suffrage was about the right to vote but it was symbolically also about the ability to be a whole person who participated in public and civic life. There was this push around smoking by the American Tobacco Company to broaden its audience by capitalizing on the idea that women were chafing against their gendered roles. That turned out to be a really ripe area for co-optation, for taking the act of cigarette smoking and positioning it not as a byproduct of the increased presence of women in public life but as liberation and freedom itself. We’ve seen that throughout the decades in terms of how women are encouraged or discouraged from participating in public life. So much of it is tied into capitalism and what can be sold to women, what can be earned from women either via their labor or via their freedom from certain kinds of constraints.
Rumpus: An important point that you make in the book is that selling choice isn’t anything new. A good cultural starting place for discussion is the 1990s, when the Spice Girls brought about a huge rise of gendered capitalism—their style was “girl power” but with a little pinch on the bum and a wink. How has celebrity feminism evolved since then?
Zeisler: The nineties as a pop cultural sphere was a really fertile time for feminism that was grounded and located in popular culture. I’m talking about before the Spice Girls—Sassy Magazine, riot grrrl, the Beastie Boys, Nirvana. You had this alternative culture that was very much speaking up on behalf of women and in favor of women. Not always necessarily identifying as feminist, but there was this very rich thread of “girls could do anything,” pro-girl stuff. A lot of it was based in consumer products, not necessarily deodorants or perfumes or anything, but music and movies. I talk in the book about how the 90s was an incredibly fertile time for female independent filmmakers and their films. That had a lot of influence on my sense of possibility for feminist representation and for seeing alternate stories out there.
It’s very easy to co-opt subcultures, and I think that scene was very easily coopted, not just on a feminist level but on a capitalist level in general. It’s hard to see now because, to me, now there are so many competing pluralistic subcultures. At the time, there was dominant culture and alternative culture as these two competing formulas. Alternative culture was swallowed up, piece by piece, and a lot of that did take the form of absorbing a lot of the progressive energy and turning it into product, turning it into Alanis Morissette, or Meredith Brooks singing “Bitch,” or the Spice Girls. I don’t know that a lot of us were necessarily thinking, “Oh, this is feminism, co-opted.” I think a lot of us definitely were when it came to the Spice Girls, just because “girl power,” the slogan of “girl power” had been taken directly from riot grrrl. That was definitely a naked cooptation.
Rumpus: We see how representation changes popular culture, so of course feminists want public icons involved. You discuss Beyoncé’s MTV performance in 2014 where she performed with “FEMINIST” behind her on screen and Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech but you say with these moments, that we’re “reinventing a wheel that didn’t get us very far.” What do you mean by that?
Zeisler: I was referring to, I think, Beyoncé’s VMA performance. I wasn’t necessarily talking about the performance itself but the way it was received in the media.
The media is such a huge piece of how we understand feminism, particularly celebrity feminism, and I really do think that so much of how that stuff gets filtered through can be either finessed or really stymied by how media talks about it. Beyoncé’s VMA performance in 2014 was incredibly powerful. But the media reception after—there were these weak, soft takeaways, like, “Beyoncé shows that you can still be beautiful and be a feminist,” or “Beyoncé shows that you can still be a mother and be married and be a feminist.” I was like, “This is not news.”
How do we actually push forward if the narrative is still about how these women are changing the optics of feminism? You know, they are, but so have so many women in past decades. If we’re just going to concentrate on that, we’re just going to keep having the same groundbreaking revelations every few years. “Oh my God, a beautiful, beloved, powerful woman is also a feminist: let’s all freak out!” To me, that’s not really driving anything forward, that’s just stating the obvious.
Rumpus: Opinions of feminism—“are they or aren’t they?”—is very good way to stay in the news now, which is interesting because it was so taboo.
Zeisler: Media economics now are so dependent on people saying controversial things and an entire mini-news cycle springing up around this thing that that person said. It really behooves people in the public eye to know what’s in the zeitgeist and to have opinions on it. It becomes a thing of is this genuine, or is this just a way for celebrities to keep themselves relevant in a time when this is obviously a hot topic?
Rumpus: Do you think that feminism’s popularity will bring actual cultural change that will give women actual, systematic equality?
Zeisler: I definitely think the tenor and the level of conversation around feminism can boost the signal. These conversations are happening on two levels. One level might be, “Oh my god, Taylor Swift is so brave to call herself a feminist. Let’s talk about that.” But then there’s another level that’s like, how can we harness conversations that Taylor Swift is bringing to otherwise non-affiliated people and really turn them towards raising awareness of feminist issues that are still unfinished? Hopefully the people who are truly invested in feminism beyond an identity label are going to stick around, even after it’s not popular anymore.
The analogy I’ve been using is to the environmental movement of ten years ago, where there was this big green movement. That was the hot buzzword. Everyone was like, “Oh I drive a Prius now.” Movie premieres had a green carpet instead of a red carpet. That was a trend, and it kind of petered out, but it wasn’t as though people then went back to not caring about the earth. They were still recycling, they were still driving Priuses; it just wasn’t as much of a media talking point. I think if that could be the after-effect of the feminist movement, that’s great, because it still means that people are going to be talking. People who are invested in feminist movements are going to be talking about it regardless. Because we have such powerful tools to disseminate information and share resources, especially via social media, I don’t see it going back to a point where people are like, “Oh, whatever, feminism, that happened.” I still think that it’s going to be out there, it just might be that no one’s asking about it on the red carpet anymore.
Rumpus: It’s been normalized to a new generation and the discussion around feminism—to be a feminist—seems very normal. There are all of these new people tuning in now, perhaps for the first time, because of celebrity icons. Your book doesn’t say, “No, non-scholars, you’re not welcome here,” it’s more, “Hey, this is a really complex movement. It’s too dynamic for one mold or one brand, or to be bought and sold.”
Zeisler: I recognized in writing it that a lot of people were likely to take it in some ways as an indictment of a particular kind of feminism. What’s important is that we do have ways to meet everyone where they’re at in terms of feminism. I’m a huge believer, obviously, in pop culture as a way, as a delivery system. I think in many ways, it’s getting more rich and more rewarding, especially television as a medium. That’s one place where I really feel like there are innumerable opportunities to put these ideas out there.
We shouldn’t just be talking about individuals—“What is Beyoncé doing? What is Taylor Swift doing?”–we should be talking about the systems that bring them to us, and how those systems interact with things that we already believe, and how especially the capitalist system really rewards people for not thinking too deeply about systemic issues rather than individual ones.
Rumpus: You coin “empowertizing,” or empowerment advertising, which introduces an idea that corporations can serve as some kind of feminist BFF. It’s smart advertising—but why is it dangerous?
Zeisler: That’s the thing: advertising is brilliant. It’s an industry that spends billions and billions of dollars to get you to react the way it wants you to react.
I don’t necessarily think it’s a terrible thing that advertisers have realized that it’s better to sell to women by appealing to their confidence and their sense of possibility rather than depending on their insecurity and their sense of shame. It shouldn’t have taken that long for them to realize, “Oh hey, we’ll sell more stuff to women if we don’t make them feel like shit.” That, to me, should not be a revelation.
We are conditioned to be consumers since birth. I still think it’s kind of incumbent on us as consumers to know the difference between something that’s truly progressive and something that’s just trying to get us to buy a product. Capitalism, ultimately, it’s not about equality, it’s not about social justice. It doesn’t care about fixing fundamentally unequal systems that impact humans on an everyday level. Critical thinking is the really important skill, to [ask], does it seem like this is a company or a brand that really cares about women? Look at their business practices. Look at what else they’re selling. There’s a way to bring to bear a critical lens on particular companies or particular ads or particular brands, and then figure out, are they trying to get us to do the work of multinational corporations by spreading these viral videos, or do they really seem to have a stake in women’s equality?
Rumpus: Then there are the companies that are set up specifically to encourage women to succeed, like Lean In, which you describe in the context of a feminist “uncanny valley.” It’s a fascinating concept.
Zeisler: The concept itself refers to this phenomenon in artificial intelligence, the point at which something ceases to give you a good feeling and instead makes you feel very alienated and creepy. It’s an aesthetic concept, ultimately, but you can apply it to stuff like feminism, in the context of capitalist industries.
There is a way that things from a distance, or in a certain context, seem really progressive, but then you look closer. For instance, in 2004, when the Dove campaign “for real beauty” started, it was very exciting. Dove had these billboards in major cities of women who were bigger than a size two. They were curvy; they were different races. But then you look closer, and what’s the product they’re actually selling? It’s firming cream, which is a product that Dove has created, and that’s the only reason they’re using bigger models, because the firming cream is supposed to be for people who [societal beauty standards insist] need firming.
Not to totally go in on Dove, but Dove’s parent company, Unilever, is also the parent company of Axe body spray, which of course has these very reductive ads that reduce women to these insatiably sexual play toys who just can’t resist any doofus who puts some Axe body spray on. Unilever is also the parent company of Fair and Lovely, which is a skin lightening cream that is pedaled through southeast Asia to perpetuate this white beauty standard, to basically be like, “You’d be a lot lovelier if you were lighter.” When you look at the whole context, that’s where it becomes the uncanny valley.
It’s a big part of critically thinking about what we’re consuming and what we’re encouraged to unquestioningly consume.
Rumpus: Was there one particular ad campaign that stuck with you throughout all this research?
Zeisler: There was one that I really wanted to include and I couldn’t find the ad. It was this for breast implants that had come out in the mid-1990s. I can’t even tell you how many pages of breast implant things I Googled through, looking for this one ad from this company called Mentor. It was set up like this dating profile that was like, “Amber’s 25. She’s very calm; she has a great career. She’s buying a condo. She’s making all these personal decisions. Her next step is breast implants.”
This is so unbelievably contrived, this idea that you’re equating taking control of your life with building your confidence by conforming to this very specific beauty standard. It was kind of killing me that I couldn’t include it because I couldn’t remember the wording and I couldn’t find the original ad. It was just another item on a checklist of things to do, and there was no sense that this was part of a bill of goods that women get sold.
Rumpus: It equates the size of your boobs to your ability to get a line of credit to buy a condo, or to take a step in your career. Let’s talk about the book process for a minute. You’ve been writing for a long time—how did this particular work come to be?
Zeisler: I had written a book that came out in 2008 called Feminism and Pop Culture, and it was on the academic arm of a feminist press. It ended up being used in a lot of college classes, and there were a bunch of instances where, when I would go to speak at colleges, students would say, “I really liked your book but I feel like it didn’t go far enough. Are you planning to update it or expand it?”
So much had happened even between the years of 2007 and 2011, just in terms of how social media had impacted feminism online, how blogs and grassroots organizations were using digital tools to grow. I felt like this does really have an effect on how we understand both feminism and media and popular culture, so that was the book I started shopping. No one wanted the book, not even the publisher that had originally published it. I think maybe the problem was that it wasn’t controversial enough. I started thinking, well, “I don’t feel like I have a ton of controversial opinions on feminism, but the one that I do have that can be hard to voice without feeling like a killjoy is the idea that maybe the pop cultural media embrace of feminism could be taking away from the need to focus on systemic work.” Maybe this emphasis on feminism as an identity might be a little, I don’t know—tunnel vision. Short sighted. That definitely interested me. That’s when it really did seem like feminism all of the sudden broke through to the mainstream. The conversations got a lot more interesting, they got a lot more frustrating, and they got a lot more challenging. I thought, “Perfect: this is my book.”
Rumpus: Aside from spending our dollars wisely, are other solutions out there for others who want to resist the effects of advertising?
Zeisler: As a founder of Bitch, I’m very invested in the idea of independent media, in the creation and support of independent media. One of the really gratifying things about living in this pluralistic, pop culture world is that media seems more democratic. On a financial level, it’s really not—independent creators can’t really compete with huge sums of Hollywood money, but there is the sense that because we have differently delivery systems like streaming and web series and things like that, it is possible for independent creators to get traction that they would not have gotten even twenty years ago. I think being aware, keeping an ear to the ground in terms of the creators, the people boosting the signals of the creators, and the organizations that are funding and enhancing that kind of creation is really important.