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We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to…

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and… (2016)

by Andi Zeisler

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This book is a cultural overview, and as such, it didn't dig as deep as I personally would have liked. That is probably because nothing here was news to me; I lived through this.

However, I could not agree with Zeisler's thesis more:

"There is a very fine line between celebrating feminism and co-opting it. The central conflict, which I hope has been made clear throughout this books is that while feminist movements seek to change systems, marketplace feminism prioritizes individuals. The wing-woman of neoliberalism, marketplace feminism focus is on casting systemic issues as personal ones and cheerily dispensing commercial fixes for them. You could focus on bummers like the lack of workable family leave policies for low wage workers, but wouldn't it be a lot easier to cease your power and tap into your inner warrior? Marketplace feminism presumes that we can be clean, blank slates with no residue at all of the sexism or racism that defined the lives of those who came before us. It encourages us to believe that if we hit walls at school, at work, in relationships, in leadership it's not anything to do with gender but with problems that can be resolved with better self-esteem, more confidence, maybe some life coaching."

Amen, sister. I am going to recommend this to my freshmen because I think it will really speak to them and highlight cultural "events" such as 'Sex and the City,' or Dove's Real Beauty Ad Campaign, that they probably take at face value, and unpacks recent history. ( )
  DFratini | Apr 23, 2018 |
Solid, broad reading of contemporary feminism with critiques of consumerism and the prioritization of the individual success over structural change. Very accessible writing. ( )
  triphopera | Apr 14, 2018 |
Very detailed and interesting book about the watering down of feminism to be whatever you want it to be and whatever will sell....well, anything and everything, not to mention some very contradictory and unfeministic ideas and products. Well worth a read and one I will be revisiting in the future. ( )
  RivetedReaderMelissa | Mar 22, 2018 |
Zeisler puts into words all of my discomforts around marketplace feminism and empowertising. She critiques many industries, celebrities, and campaigns without sounding "holier than thou" and still leaves space to appreciate the positive effects many do have. I love Bitch Media's feminist critiques of pop culture and Andi Zeisler did not let me down! ( )
  KendallBall | Nov 27, 2016 |
Strictly speaking, much of this book shouldn't be surprising if a reader was not willfully ignorant of current marketing and consumer trends. However, the pervasive misogyny in US culture (which reveals itself in everything from the reaction to the horrifying prospect of a womman president, to the pathological Gamergate dudes) and the numbers of people (especially young women) who inhabit the happy "post-feminist" fantasy world means that this book contains several much needed kicks up the bum. And they are delivered with relish by Zeisler; I anticipate this book by itself should supply me with a year's worth of smack-down quotes for the clueless and callous.

The chief virtue of this book is that Zeisler uses her extensive experience following and critiquing a variety of media trends to connect a lot of dots. She provide a useful and very accessibly overview of how Capitalism marketed products to women, and specifically the different stages in its use of the women's movement to sell stuff.

The focus of her analysis is what she refers to as "marketplace feminism." If you haven't come across the term before, you will recognize the phenomenon instantly when she begins to describe it. If you have ever heard anyone wittering on about "choice" and "empowerment" when trying to sell you a "product for women" (one of the elements of her analysis is the way in which, in contrast to the late 70s and 80s, our kids are actually growing up in a product world that is more highly gendered today) then you have encountered marketplace feminism. There are some undoubted benefits to greater exposure to the concept of feminism, especially after so many years of pretending (in the US at least) that it didn't exist, and Zeisler doesn't hesitate to point to these benefits.

However, the main reason she is pissed about marketplace feminism, and she is right to be pissed, is that what it does is take a movement that since its inception was predicated upon collective action for the collective good, and make it all about individual gratification. In the process, the possibility of making value judgments is all but eliminated. If you are a woman and you are exercising your "choice" then that is awesome and therefore feminist and therefore awesome all over again! The possibility that your choice might be a lousy one that damages others is irrelevant. Likewise, if your purchase makes you feel "empowered" then that is an automatic good; the fact that your powerful pink "This is what a feminist looks like" iPhone cover was probably made by women earning starvation wages in dangerous factory conditions (ditto your phone) is irrelevant. Zeisler argues strongly for moving away from the focus on feminism as something one is, in and for oneself, and putting the emphasis back on feminism as something you do for others.

My only criticism is that I wish Zeisler had spent more time connecting the trends she identifies with larger political and cultural forces. A perhaps inadvertent side-effect of the numerous (often discouraging) examples focused on feminist controversies and marketing, is that it can sometime make it seem as if these elements were created only to try and co-opt and contain feminism. Some of them of course have been applied in exactly that way. But what she is talking about here is a larger shift in modern capitalism. We are way beyond Marx's concept of alienated labor now. What we have instead is what we might call "alienation of affection" in which capitalism takes many of our own best impulses, strips them from us, and sells them back to us. Choice and empowerment should, after all, be unproblematically good things. In a capitalist world they become key mechanisms for moving units of product. And the fact that these are larger trends will be recognizable to anyone who has ever encountered the bright and shiny face of a twenty-something who has just discovered Ayn Rand and is reveling in the fact that at last (At Last!) someone is justifying their own self-absorption.

For these marketing trends to work PR firms need to elicit the power of the mass media, and Zeisler uses her familiarity with the media world to point out the many ways in which feminist concerns are either routinely mis-handled by the mainstream press, or (more disturbingly) artfully manipulated by new media outlets whose only goal is to stir up the kind of controversy that will generate page clicks. This also probably shouldn't be news to anyone, but given the number of my highly educated friends and colleagues who seem powerless to recognize or resist reposting clickbait or falling into the cycnical cycle of the outrage machine, I suspect that Zeisler's examples here will prove shaming. They probably won't change people's practice, however, and here as elsewhere I found myself wishing for embedding the specific feminist project here in a more thoroughgoing criticism of the practices of the larger media sphere and their links with capitalism consumerism.

And yet I still found myself hopeful after reading the book, because the book's subtext is that we were feminists once, but we could be so once again. ( )
3 vote BornAnalog | Jul 21, 2016 |
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To my sweet Harvey—
May your generation be the one that finally figures this shit out.
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I didn't set out to write a book about the commodification of feminism, though I guess you could argue that I've been waiting for it to happen for twenty years. (Introduction)
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"A critical assessment of feminism today by the founding editor and creative director of Bitch magazine draws on the stories of institutions and everyday women to illuminate how feminism has been compromised by market forces, subversive politics and popular culture, sharing strategic recommendations for how to reverse marginalizing trends,"--NoveList.… (more)

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