“The fight for gender equality has transmogrified from a collective goal to a consumer brand,” sighs Andi Zeisler, creative director and co-founder of Bitch magazine, in her new book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. There has been, in her words, a “shameless co-option of the language of feminism in the service of capitalism.” And from the evidence accumulated in her book, it’s hard to disagree. Killer Queen, Katy Perry’s 2013 flagship fragrance, was described by the performer as “royal, rebellious, and feminist.”
In 2004, Dove soap launched the Campaign for Real Beauty, an attempt to challenge commercial standards of beauty through various advertising outlets—for example, in the first phase the company replaced their billboards in major metropolitan cities of professional models looking “contorted, pained, or simply frozen” with everyday women “of various sizes and skin tones” looking relaxed and smiling.
“The commodification of feminism” has also proven a lucrative gambit in the entertainment industry. A large neon sign reading “FEMINIST” turned Beyoncé into an on-stage silhouette at MTV’s 2014 Video Music Awards. Mad Max: Fury Road was lauded by viewers and critics alike for its brawny female roles. The protagonist for the latest Star Wars trilogy is an independent and (at least for now) asexual female character. The all-female reboot of Ghostbusters is set for release this July. And, on the flip side of female advancement, cultural products glorifying the debasement and humiliation of women are more and more treated with ridicule and contempt. In her own review of Wolf of Wall Street, Zeisler derided Scorsese’s film as affecting edginess by simply “amping up the Roman-orgy hedonism we all already associate with Wall Street” while in fact just “reifying Hollywood’s love affair with men’s stories.” Although Zeisler in the book sympathetically quotes another writer who besmirches Game of Thrones as “a show for Star Wars fans who thought Princess Leia should have been raped,” much of the show’s power-pushing—as well as some of its most compelling dialogue—are in fact done by women.
So are these cultural changes victories for emancipatory politics or are they merely stand-ins for real but unobtained successes? Or can they perhaps be a bit of both? In We Were Feminists Once, Zeisler herself seems unsure. After all, the various waves of feminism, according to Zeisler, have always been “historically anticapitalist—questioning advertising messages, consumer imperatives, and commercialized, Caucasian standards of sex appeal.” Now we have corporate brands adopting the language of feminism and widening their profit margin from doing so. (In the ten years since they launched Campaign for Real Beauty, Dove revenue went from $2.5 billion to $4 billion.). As usual in America, the principle of morality appears to yield high returns for those who follow the principle of self.
Critics of feminism no doubt consider these cultural changes to be victories for emancipatory politics and failures of society as a whole. In near perfect congruence with the profit-making potential of feminist rhetoric, feminist-bashing has also now started keeping the lights on for many people. Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, a more sensitive and bratty version of your careless uncle (it’s just a shtick, but what else is new?), is currently touring college campuses across the country reminding us men how tough we have it. Right-wing institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute—previously only interested in matters of war and economy—have started hiring “resident scholars” to tackle issues of sex, gender, and power. Then there are obviously still the standard mainstream torch-bearers. Outside the few examples mentioned above, most women in film and in television are still either feckless damsels or oversexed manipulators.
In proper form, Zeisler questions why such flimsy clichés for either sex are still so ubiquitous in both mass and minor entertainment, “Why do daytime talk shows treat adolescent female sexuality like an epidemic to be contained? What’s with men in sitcoms and commercials being portrayed as hopelessly bumbling ding-dongs who can’t read a grocery list?” Here, Zeisler could have easily repeated a convenient answer or two from the activist’s psalm book. But she doesn’t. A complex, tortured answer is required—one probably far less glamorous or piercing than any of those.
There are a few instances of the old maxim whereby, if one isn’t careful, the prism through which one sees the world can quickly turn into a prison for which one can’t see any other way. Parlaying the domestic violence of sports athletes with the offensive jokes of stand-up comedians is in-itself offensive, not to mention vain. And an analysis of neoliberalism as simply laissez-faire economics reborn and run amok is wrong no matter how often it gets repeated.
Zeisler can at times contort herself into such an anti-consumerist pose that it become difficult to tell exactly what position she’s trying to take on a subject. After referring the reader to Lean Cuisine’s 2004 “empowertising” pitch for its diet frozen pizza (“The vote. The stay-at-home-dad. The push-up bra. The Lean Cuisine pizza”), Zeisler professes a rather bizarre utopian vision, “There’s a vast difference between using the language of empowerment to suggest that being able to choose between three different kinds of diet frozen pizza is a radical accomplishment and helping to create a world where diet frozen pizza isn’t something that needs to exist in the first place. (Or, at least, isn’t something marketed solely to women.)” Why exactly we wish for the abolition of frozen diet foods is something I haven’t much pondered, and, I suspect, Zeisler hasn’t either. It’s odd that her statement will be interpreted as some sort of radical pronouncement—much less that it undoubtedly will appeal to some readers as a satisfactory one.
A common rhetorical maneuver for defenders of the status quo has always been to ask those in opposition what exactly it is they wish to achieve. What do you want? What shall we do? In retrospect, it seems odd hearing this when the concerns seem so concrete (abolition, suffrage, labor laws). Since the 1970s, however, many of the demands have, in truth, become more ambiguous and thus more open to legitimate inquiry. A similar fear of co-option—either by business interests or political parties—to that of Zeisler’s is partly to blame. Another cause has been the bewildering identity obligations imposed on these movements, whether from within or from without. Unseen hazards of privilege and illegitimacy line every potential course of action, leaving real alliances in unreal compromises.
Feminism “as a political movement,” says Zeisler, “has never been widely popular.” It’s hard to disagree. Throughout the years, feminism has been portrayed by conservatives and many official liberals as tyrannical, humorless and emasculating—responsible for everything from the loosening of moral bonds to poor military performances. In addition, other radicals and reformers have found its insistence on prioritizing gender first off-putting or distracting. Zeisler acknowledges that this “non-intersectional perspective” (as she calls it) has been “shortsighted”: “First-wave feminists didn’t want the presence of women of color to put the kibosh on gaining suffrage; second-wave feminists didn’t want lesbian and transgender women ‘tainting’ the movement with fringe identities.” Boxed-in between criticisms of not being radical enough and accusations of causing civilizational decline, feminism as a movement and as an ideology basically disappeared in the 1990s. What replaced its “set of values, ethics, and politics” was “merely an assessment of whether or not a product is worthy of consumption.” The result has been a “decontextualized,” “depoliticized” “marketplace feminism” in which “image is removed from theory and the fund kind of liberation is the most valuable.”
At the founding of Bitch magazine back in 1995, Zeisler had high-hopes that popular culture could be both a gateway to addressing struggles peculiar to women’s lives as well as a platform for which contesting solutions to those problems could do battle in plain sight of the general public. We Were Feminists Once is her coming to terms with the partial disillusionment of this proposal. It also demonstrates a precise issue with modern radical dogmas. Ideas are easily transmogrified when they are imprecise.