‘We Were Feminists Once,’ on a Movement Co-Opted


There was a time when many women would sooner have an organ removed than declare themselves feminists, so tainted was its name. But today, by golly, these crazy, self-proclaimed liberated gals are everywhere, like an army of Maidenform Women — you never know where they’ll turn up — and there’s no rhyme or reason to their behaviors, either: They’re speaking at the United Nations; they’re running for president as Republicans; they’re roaring; they’re singing; they’re twerking.

This broad, promiscuous appropriation of a label is precisely what Andi Zeisler, co-founder and creative director of Bitch Media, finds so worrisome.

“There’s a mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism that positions it as a cool, fun, accessible identity that anyone can adopt,” she writes in her introduction to “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement.” Ms. Zeisler calls this transformation “marketplace feminism,” though it has also gone by other names. “It’s decontextualized,” she continues. “It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably feminism’s most popular iteration ever.”

You could argue that this widespread embrace of feminism is a symptom of progress, a sign that the word has finally been decanted of its stigma. The problem, Ms. Zeisler fears, is that the revolution has become privatized: In her view, feminists today are all about the right to make individual choices — any choices, choices that may be wholly estranged from the original objectives of feminism, which once meant collective action to change whole systems.

“You could focus on bummers like the lack of workable family-leave policies for low-wage workers,” she writes, “but wouldn’t it be a lot easier to seize your power and tap into your inner warrior?”
This feel-good feminism is being sold to women, Ms. Zeisler writes, in all kinds of shrewd ways. Through our consumer products. (Which isn’t new, but femvertising, an actual term, now makes improving female self-esteem the actual message of its campaigns, like “don’t apologize so much.”) Through slickly produced girl bands (Spice Girls, anyone?). Through women’s leadership summit meetings (“I have a bad case of empowerment fatigue,” the author warns, before strafing the conference-industrial complex).

Whatever its manifestation, this emphasis on choice and individual self-actualization, Ms. Zeisler writes, reflects a greater shift in the culture at large, which in recent decades has deregulated itself to high heaven. Until the 2008 election, when Barack Obama rolled into town, it was also suffering from a dire case of feminism fatigue.

Ms. Zeisler is an incisive, tough-minded writer, attacking her subjects with a diamond cutter. (For her descriptions and eviscerations of “The Bachelor” alone, I’d like to hand her a rose.) But I warn you now: You’ll have to have patience for her occasional name-checking of people like Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak and other grandes dames of the poststructuralist and postcolonialist canon. (If you can’t, there are emergency exits at the sides and rear of the aircraft.)
When Ms. Zeisler starts to defend the good intentions of Antioch College’s code of sexual conduct from the early ’90s — which rather impractically required students to ask verbal permission for every intimate act (“May I unbutton your blouse?”) — she reveals how much of her thinking still remains informed by campus politics and policies. And those policies, as we know, generally do not withstand the test of vertical integration into the noncampus world.

Which brings me to another quibble: Much of Ms. Zeisler’s analysis, as trenchant as it is, often focuses less on ground realities than on epiphenomena — questions of how women are represented in popular culture, questions of what is and isn’t a feminist issue. (Which, now that I think about it, is also reminiscent of the feminism of my college days.) Beyoncé: Feminist or not? Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty: Sincere or cynical?

Ms. Zeisler is as aware as anyone that many of these questions are distractions. She deplores the way ersatz feminist debates have become clickbait, revolving around such trivial questions as: “Does Waxing Make Me a Bad Feminist?” But to make the case that waxing has “had more ink devoted to it than more urgent issues” — wage equality, access to decent health care, programs to fight domestic violence and racism — Ms. Zeisler must herself devote space to the subject of pubic grooming. Three full pages, to be precise. Yet she devotes not a single page to the issues she repeatedly invokes. (Except to say they’re more urgent.) Her only chapter about structural inequality is about women in Hollywood. Which is important, certainly, but not as important as the other problems she mentions.

I understand that “We Were Feminists Once” is a book of pop culture and media criticism. But if you chase after every outrage in the media micro-cycle, you’re inevitably, if unconsciously, going to get sucked into the very meta-debates that you’re railing against. Before you know it, your own commentary becomes a whistling, six-burner range of tempests in teapots. After reading Ms. Zeisler so expertly catalog all the fake issues that are diverting women away from the real ones, I personally started to pine for a more substantive discussion about those very issues — and not another analysis of Emma Watson’s feminism.

My final quarrel, which also concerns itself with lived realities: I sometimes chafed at how stringent Ms. Zeisler’s definition of a feminist could be. The most striking instance of this — and surely the most controversial (for her to say, and for me to now push against) — is her insistence that anyone who’s anti-abortion doesn’t make the grade.

I can’t help but think back to my days as a cub reporter on Capitol Hill in the mid-’90s. There were dozens of anti-abortion Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives during those years, including David Bonior, once majority whip. They voted against abortion measures, it’s true. But they also voted in favor of fully funding Head Start and the WIC food program; they supported increasing the earned-income tax credit for poor families; they voted for the Equal Rights Amendment.

To paraphrase the T-shirt, isn’t that (mostly) what feminists look like? I understand Ms. Zeisler’s arguments for resisting an overlarge tent. But I don’t think you want to reduce feminism to a pup tent, either.

So here I am, looking treacherously close to being another trash-talker, a crank who criticizes feminists, when I don’t mean to be. (“From outside,” Ms. Zeisler writes, “it can look very much like a movement that’s eating its own.”) But this stuff, this stuff — it’s just so very complicated. Ms. Zeisler has written a funny, polished, intrepid book. But I ask that she aim for something wonkier next time. Though if she writes about the wage gap, family leave policies and all those other difficult, virtuous things, Lord knows if that book would sell as well.

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