In the past year, feminism has been Beyoncified, Emma Watson-approved and even Taylor Swift-sanctioned. But if it’s never been as popular as it is now, it’s also never been so, well, tame. Diluted by celeb and consumer culture, feminism has lost some of its activist bite. It’s settled for presenting a shiny, happy vision of largely middle-class female actualization (“You post that belfie, girl!”) rather than agitating for structural changes that would achieve gender equality. Or at least that’s the thesis of Bitch co-founder Andi Zeisler’s new book, Once We Were Feminists: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl, The Buying and Selling of a Political Movement.
Zeisler, author of the 2008 feminist primer, Feminism and Pop Culture, initially wanted to write about the “symbiotic relationship” between feminism and pop culture in an in-depth way. “But as I started writing, I also became aware that there was something pretty significant happening within capitalist culture,” she says over the phone from Bitch’s Portland, Ore. office. Feminism, she says, was becoming “decontextualized from politics and more and more decontextualized from activism and was much more about personal fulfillment, personal actualization, things like that.” In short, she saw the commodification of feminism taking the mainstream by storm.
We talked to Zeisler about the pros and cons of branding feminism, what it means to be a feminist today—and where we can go from here.
Feminism is suddenly very cool. What’s the price of that popularity, though? What have we had to give up in order to be embraced by the mainstream?
It’s not something that can be fully answered right now because we don’t yet totally know. But when something becomes mainstream or popular it necessarily becomes very simplified and I think for feminism that is an incredibly dicey proposition because feminism is not simple, it’s incredibly layered and the way it’s often distilled through media and pop culture is to position it largely about the self-actualization of white middle-class women who already have choices. The reality is that there are so many women, and men for that matter, who are not addressed by a kind of mainstream, shiny corporate embrace of feminism. We’re not talking about people who aren’t necessarily an easy sell. We’re not talking about the single mothers living in poverty, we’re not necessarily talking about the trans women sex workers. Basically, what we lose is a real sense of the scope of what needs to be done so feminism can be a truly inclusive movement.
The form of feminism that’s been embraced in popular culture has been dubbed ‘feel-good feminism.’ You call it ‘marketplace feminism.’ Is there a difference between the two?
I think so. I definitely have used the term ‘feel-good feminism.’ To me, the crux of marketplace feminism and why I use it, is because it really pins down the way that the term ‘choice’ has become the coin of the realm within feminism and how we make choice paramount above the actual substance of those choices. So, marketplace feminism is different from feel-good feminism just in the way it prioritizes personal decision and myth-making around this decision—the idea that because you’ve made a choice and you’re a feminist that it’s necessarily a feminist choice. I think that marketplace feminism also refers to the way in which our culture and our society buys into that idea.
What is feminism when it’s divorced from consumption? Can you redefine it for a culture that has a lot of competing interests telling them what it is.
The dictionary definition, which is [that feminism is] the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, is an inherently neutral, non-marketplace definition and that’s a great starting place for feminism. I think when we talk about the feminism that is happening now, there is definitely an awareness of intersectionality that has to go along with it. Feminism has always been on some level a sort of anti-capitalist movement in the sense that it is really interested in redefining the terms of our society, which is an economic society that is based on gender inequality. I don’t necessarily know if feminism needs to be redefined, there just needs to be an acknowledgment that this kind of very public, celebrity-driven, ad-driven marketplace feminism is related to, but really not the same as, a movement that is essentially about activism, about changing systems and about not accepting the status quo.
The current feel-good incarnation really focuses on body image and appearance …or so it seems to me. Do you ever worry that this brand of feminism has the potential to turn off a lot of young women, particularly because it sort of insists that anger and intellectual frustrations be tamped down to keep things light?
The point of that, from a branding perspective, is to get young women involved and excited. But yeah, there is this possibility that it can turn into just this empty fashion statement. There is this image of a bracelet that has an inspirational saying on it that’s been going around—I’ve seen it on people’s Facebook feeds—the bracelet has this little plaque that says, ‘She thought she could so she did.’ And people are like, ‘Oh my god, feminism!’ And that’s the sort of thing that bums me out. Because yeah, there is the sense that this could turn into this empty sloganeering that’s about a very specific gender essentialist way of being in the world without again really acknowledging that we’re talking about systemic issues. We’re not talking about women needing to seize their inner goddess. We’re not talking about women doing it for themselves; we’re talking about systems that need to change and that change has to come from a structural place. That is more what I worry about than people being turned off.
As I read the book, I began to wonder if it’s not just the feminist movement that’s suffered from our collective decision to view personal choice and consumption as the most significant political act we can perform—rather than, as you point out, to agitate to change systems that oppress or discriminate. Do you think it’s symptomatic of a general shift on how we behave politically?
Yeah, this is the thing. We have become a more neo-liberal society since the early ’80s, and that is essentially a society that prizes individualism, that prioritizes private markets, and that normalizes a kind of attitude wherein the individual is out for themselves and less community-oriented and that naturally dovetails with consumption…I’m not saying people don’t think in other ways but that’s certainly become the primary way that we interact and that we’re encouraged to react [by the culture].
In the discussion about where we’re at now, is there a celebratory aspect, too? To talk about what has been achieved?
Absolutely. That’s part of it, too, that we have this knowledge that things can change…[Now] we understand that women should be able to take loans and have credit cards on their own, we understand that domestic violence should be a crime and not something you work out at home; we understand that girls should have equal education and equal access to sports and stuff like that, so in a lot of ways we can take that for granted. But what is slower to change is actual representation and the mindset around it. That’s kind of a double-edged sword. You see a lot of people being like, ‘Yeah, well, women have this now, women are represented. What more do you want?’ And so when feminists are like, ‘Well, we’re still not equal, there is still a lot of ways that legal reform hasn’t trickled down to the people who most need it—people who are living in poverty, people who are working three jobs just to keep the lights on, people who are having their children taken away because they have to work three jobs’—there’s a whole level at which we don’t necessarily see that change playing out. But because it’s playing out at the highest levels, we assume that everything is cool.
How can we best use this moment to serve the aims of the feminist movement and its political ideals?
It’s a really powerful time because we do have this opportunity to harness feminism as being trendy as a means of drawing attention to the things we aren’t talking about. To say, ‘well you know this is great feminism but can we also talk about X, Y and Z?’ For example, it’s really great we have so many women in leading roles on TV, let’s also talk about what we’re not seeing. Let’s talk about the subjects that still need to be addressed. A show like Orange Is the New Black is a good example of that. It’s this great multicultural show about life in a women’s prison, [which affords] a great opportunity to talk about actual life in a women’s prison and that actually has happened. I’ve seen a ton of writing in the past few years since OITNB has been on about issues that are brought up on the show, but the real-life versions of them, like what happens to trans women when they can’t get their hormones in prison, what happens to non-violent offenders who have a third strike, what happens to women who lose their children because they’re in prison. I think there are ways to use the pop culture embrace of feminism and the celebrity embrace of feminism to bring it back down to the real world. And hopefully, a lot of the celebrities that do embrace feminism aren’t just going to drop it as soon as it becomes not trendy anymore. Hopefully it’ll be something they still talk about.