We Were Feminists Once, Dammit

Andi Zeisler thinks we’re selling out. And she’s right.

We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler. Published by PublicAffairs, May 3, 2016.

The title We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement sounds like a pretty straightforward condemnation of the sea change that has taken place in American culture regarding feminism. But as with all political movements, nothing is ever simple.

Feminism has become a buzzword. It garners clicks for celebrity interviews and can sell anything from building blocks to underwear. How has a word so long associated in the mainstream consciousness with angry, unattractive malcontents become a marketer’s dream? This is the convoluted journey Andi Zeisler tackles in We Were Feminists Once. There are many paths to trace in the search for the shifting meaning of a political movement, but one thing is for sure: they almost always lead to money.

Zeisler, former riot grrrl and one of the founders of Bitch magazine, turns a harsh lens on the many industries that have coopted a political movement about equality in order to strip it for parts and make a profit: the fashion industry, Hollywood, the Internet and social media, even food and soap brands. When once it was a real challenge to find almost any female role models in the realm of popular culture, it’s now all too easy to choose among Strong Female Characters in various bland, marketable flavors. Food companies that once appealed “family values” now peddle female empowerment in a jar. Celebrities who have distanced themselves from feminism and its “anti-men” clichés now clamor to endorse it and adopt it into their personal brand. The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other; the middle ground passed through only to get from point A to point B.

We are seeing a rise in interest in gender parity and diversity in film, television, advertising, politics, and other public arenas, but are we seeing any genuine gains in this inclusion? With marketing smoke and mirrors it is really hard to say. If you go to Buzzfeed and type “feminist” into the search box, it will return with dozens of lists and articles with titles like “40 Things Only Internet Feminists Will Understand” and “15 Reasons Taylor Swift is Secretly a Feminist.” But, you may ask, isn’t this visibility a good thing? This is where it gets the most complicated, as the answer is both yes and no. The increasing visibility of feminism makes it feel open to more people and a wider discourse, but at what cost? Usually, as Zeisler makes increasingly clear, the cost is substance and legitimate political engagement.

Feminism is not the only buzzword that is rapidly losing meaning as its use increases. Another casualty Zeisler chalks up to the linguistics of marketing is the word “empower.” Once a signifier of self-sufficiency in the under-served and underprivileged, it can now be tacked on to anything woman-related. Have you ever been empowered by lipstick or deodorant? Well, now you can be. In 2003, The Onion announced “Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does,” and the marketing chant of empowerment continues to ring in our ears more than a decade later. As Zeisler points out, “[advertisers] use the term as an all-purpose adjective, Mad Libs-style; pop it anywhere in that sentence, it’ll make sense.” And the overuse of the word isn’t the most troubling aspect of its saturation; rather, the gendered way it allows people to talk about women and power without using the actual word power is the really frightening bit.

The market’s embrace of feminism is riddled with cynical strategy. One of many of Zeisler’s examples: in order to be seen as a company that cares about women’s issues, CoverGirl cosmetics donates (loudly and visibly) to breast cancer research, while making no effort to ensure their products are free from known carcinogens. This is where the façade breaks down and feminism becomes just another tool. Are there companies that legitimately care about women’s issues? Sure, but the sheer volume of the market drowns them all together into white noise and leaves us to dig for the truth among the competing and contradictory sounds.

The capitalist marketplace adoption of feminism and the systematic devaluation of it as a movement are both tied to a very particular permutation of commercial feminist values: the idea of “choice feminism” (also known as white feminism). The market is all about choice (or at least the illusion of it) and feminism, in its mainstream-embraced version, has followed suit. It seems that every choice, Zeisler highlights, can be considered feminist if made by a (self-proclaimed) feminist. There is no wrong way to be a feminist! You want to be a stay at home mom? Feminist! You want to work? Feminist! You don’t have an option because you’re poor? Uh…feminist? Choice is a privilege that comes from having options — a privilege bought by feminist organizing and activism — that now negates that activity by reframing it as choice. Choice feminism mirrors capitalism in a disturbing way: trickle down theory fails in both arenas, and yet we keep treating it like it works.

To say there is only one way to be a feminist is categorically wrong. But to say that there is no wrong way to be a feminist is equally misleading. As Zeisler notes “[m]arketplace feminism is seductive. But marketplace feminism is not equality.” And ours is not the first generation to “market” feminism with an eye to the mainstream. Near the end of the book, she breaks it down with harsh truth:

“The feminist movements we’re all most familiar with are ones that were able to be easily understood by outsiders with a minimum of difficulty. Optics mattered: First-wave feminists didn’t want the presence of women of color to put the kibosh on getting suffrage; second-wave feminists didn’t want lesbian and transgender women “tainting” the movement with fringe identities. Both movements were selling a branded image to wary buyers.”

This buyer’s-market sensibility creates an environment of exclusion that has continued to plague feminism from its beginnings to the present day. People of color and LGBTQ individuals still find themselves often on the outside of mainstream feminism, despite the attempts made to bring intersectional feminism forward, and marketplace feminism entrenches the problem further by forever appealing to a mass audience of mostly white buyers with disposable income. In other words, using feminism as a commodity makes it more palatable for the masses but ineffective for those who need it most.

So should we throw away our “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts? Despite her unflinching dissection of the problems inherent in using feminism as a marketing tool, Zeisler is not immune to the charms of seeing feminism portrayed positively in the media; representation matters, after all. Hers is not an all or nothing argument, but rather a call to do what good consumers and activists should always do: look for the truth behind the ad copy and don’t buy everything the media tries to sell you. If “[f]eminism these days really does look brighter and funnier, cooler and easier than ever before” you must also remember that

[t]he problem is — the problem has always been — that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable. The root issues feminism confronts — wage inequality, gendered divisions of labor, institutional racism and sexism, structural violence and, of course, bodily autonomy — are deeply unsexy.

What comes after our current climate of marketplace feminism? “Postfeminism” as a concept came to the fore in the 80s, to suggest that feminism was over and we had “won,” since we had a few token females in the major fields and more “empowerment” than ever before. If we can’t actually be post-feminist — and we certainly can’t anytime soon — Zeisler hopes we can instead embrace post-marketplace feminism. To sum up, she gives us this:

I want idealism to be more than a passing fad. I want feminism to be meaningful long after no one is singing about it, or name-checking it on red carpets, or printing it on granny panties…. A post-marketplace-feminism world may not be as headline worthy, but it will be a world that benefits more than a commercially empowered few.

I’ve always considered myself fairly knowledgeable about feminism and how easily the media warps women’s issues for it’s own purposes, but We Were Feminists Once uncovered facets of the current state of things that I have been blind to and articulated sentiments I have not been able to put my finger on. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for all that clickbait about feminist comebacks and however many times feminists did something on Tumblr. These things don’t necessarily need to go away — most are simply for laughs and internet solidarity. But while we’re laughing and patting celebrities on the back for making feminist statements, we also need to be legitimately engaging with equality (and the lack thereof) in the real world.

We were feminists once. So let’s be feminists again.

(We Were Feminists Once is scheduled to be published for wide release May 3, 2016 by PublicAffairs.)

Originally published at atroskity.booklikes.com.