Licensed to bitch
Started as a zine in San Francisco in the ’90s, Bitch Media now brings its feminist critique of popular culture to a readership that’s both global and digital. Founder Andi Zeisler talks about using social media to fight sexism
Andi Zeisler is a co-founder and the creative/editorial director of the Bitch Media group and the magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. She is the quintessential “bitch” of pop culture. I mean that as a compliment, which can be confusing in today’s convoluted climate of misogynistic social and cultural messages about women, men and the roles we are socialized to play out in our daily lives. Of those who understand this phenomenon, Zeisler is at top of the list.
In 2006, Zeisler and the Bitch staff moved their home base of operation from the San Francisco Bay area to their current home base in Portland’s Alberta Street art district in Northeast Portland.
Since the move, a zine that was born from the philosophical, political and social critique of pop culture from a feminist perspective has evolved to include a media group whose presence in the social media and online world has offered a refreshing, feminist critique of all things cultural.
The magazine was conceived by Zeisler and friend Lisa Jervis in 1996 as an all-volunteer publication with a circulation of 300. It is now internationally distributed with a circulation of more than 50,000 — no small feat in a climate where print publications have folded up and retreated from newsstands. I asked her how Bitch Media functions as a response to media and pop culture.
Andi Zeisler: We respond to all aspects of the media and popular culture whether it’s news media or movies and TV, advertising, video games, websites and blogs, art, comics: all of those things are really ripe for analysis from a feminist perspective, some more than others.
Never ending fodder ...?
Yes. Culture in many ways, as progressive as it is, is still very backwards in many places when it comes to gender and when it comes to representing difference or any sort of deviation from this traditional, white, male status quo.
We see that in politics, we see that in who creates advertisements, who creates movies, who creates culture.
The mission of Bitch is to give a voice to how those representations impact real life and to highlight places that are getting it right and are really doing innovative things. Our mission is two-fold: It’s not [only] to complain about what’s going wrong, it is also to hold up what’s going right and celebrate it.
What about Hobby Lobby?
People are calling the decision a slippery slope that will lead to other religious exemptions, but I think there’s another slippery slope: Misinformation has been allowed to stand in for fact in a Supreme Court decision. What other misinformation will be treated as fact in future decisions? There are some scary possibilities.
When I tweeted about the decision last week, I got a lot of responses — from men, primarily — that were like, “[Hobby Lobby] still covers 16 other forms of birth control,” as though that should somehow appease people who were protesting the decision, as though it’s somehow not a problem that corporations are involved in women’s reproductive choices as long as they’re not involved in all of them.
One man responded to me saying, “Even as a man, I think this is a bad decision on the part of the Supreme Court.” And to me, that very mindset, that “even as a man” modifier, that’s part of the problem.
The challenges to women’s reproductive justice and bodily autonomy is a global issue. It affects education, it affects economies, it affects a million little things that people don’t recognize when they see it as simply “her problem” or “a women’s issue.” It is crucial to have everybody, not just women, in the fight for women’s reproductive justice, on all levels. That’s definitely something that this case has underscored.
Print vs. digital media?
We [at Bitch] don’t really think of it as an either/or situation. For us, it is very much a both/and [situation].
It’s figuring out a way to balance what we do. We have the print magazine, but it is not a medium that makes a lot of sense from a practical point of view. It’s really expensive, and it’s really wasteful. We also do digital editions of the print magazine for people who want to read it but don’t want the paper waste or don’t have a permanent residence.
There is just something about print media: It’s tangible, it’s archivable. There is something that has a kind of permanence, even psychological that you don’t get from digital media. At the same time, digital media is incredibly important and really useful.
We find that it’s not necessarily all the same readership. People who read the magazine aren’t necessarily the same people who read the website every day. The people who comment on Facebook aren’t the people who engage on Twitter.
I wonder what’s the best way for people to respond, as feminists, to sexism in media and pop culture and in our everyday lives?
A lot of it is raising awareness. As a culture, [it] gets really easy to just brush things off.
Nobody wants to be that person …
Right! Nobody wants to rock the boat too much and it’s really easy to say, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it.” Or, “You don’t have to buy that magazine. No one is making you do this.” That’s true on an individual basis; no one is holding a gun to your head telling you what to watch.
At the same time, we are affected by messages that half the time we aren’t even aware we’re absorbing. This is especially crucial for young people. They are surrounded by media. They are learning their ideas about the world, how they should act, who they want to be, who they want to hang out with, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. They are learning all of that from media and popular culture. Often the messages being sent are very toxic ones.
There is a “rebranding of feminism” happening. Waves of feminism. What does “fourth-wave feminism” look like?
I don’t subscribe to the “wave” metaphor. I just don’t like it because the idea of waves sort of ends up looking like one wave crashes down and wipes out the wave before it, and that’s not how it should be. It should be more of a building metaphor, the waves — generationally, chronologically — they should build on one and another.
We’re talking about the same issues: equal pay, work-life balance, about sexuality. All of these things are identical. The only difference is there is a slightly different framework.
There is always an urge with feminists to separate yourself from what came before, and so when Bitch first started, third-wave feminism was having its sort of growing-pain struggle and pop culture had a lot to do with that. Second-wave feminists thought, “Why do you care about pop culture, why does that matter?” And third-wave feminists were saying, “Well it matters, and if you can’t see that, we don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
My sense is that we are still in this together. Many of the women who were [involved in the movement then] are still really active. I admire that immensely because this is exhausting work and it can really burn you out.
This next generation of feminists, and really the whole feminist movement, now have social media…
That’s huge. The things that feminism has been able to accomplish via social media [are] incredible. When people complain that the younger feminists don’t care about feminism, all you have to do, really, is point them to Twitter. And I think they might want to recheck their facts, because [young feminists] really do care and they are doing something.
Have you been following the #YesAllWomen?
#YesAllWomen came out of the shooting on campus at Santa Barbara by this young, privileged, disturbed man who was essentially blaming women for not giving him the attention and the sex that he felt he was owed by being reasonably handsome and rich.
It’s very weird that we live in a political climate where the first reaction to an event like this by a critical mass of men is, “Well, I don’t do that, so therefore it’s not as big a deal. This isn’t an endemic issue, this is about this one dude.”
Feminists are saying, “No. We’re living this. It’s not just about this one guy. It’s about a larger culture that really believes that men are entitled to women and their bodies and their attention.” It escalates via social media, but it is a dynamic that has been going on forever.
You might not pull out a gun and shoot me because you are frustrated. Then again, you might. Or you might do something else to subdue or demean women …
Yeah. Right. It’s one of those things, things like this #NotAllMen, #YesAllWomen they’re simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. At the time, they seem really vital and needed, but as time goes on, you realize how many people don’t get it. And how the ignorance ends up taking precedence over the voices of the people who do get it and who do want a change.
Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times and the first woman to hold that position, was fired in May. There was much discussion in the media about her discovery weeks before her dismissal that she was paid less in wages and pension than her male predecessors. The word “pushy” was also used by management at the Times — a characterization that has a gendered aspect to say the least.
I wrote a piece about this for the Bitch site. It was about why her firing matters. It speaks to the whole “lean in” philosophy that people have really embraced over the past couple of years, this idea that the COO of Facebook [Sheryl Sandberg] wrote this book about women “leaning in” and how they shouldn’t pull away from work. As though they were. I’m not sure why she felt the need to write this book, but it was basically a guide for women at work. It spoke specifically to white women in high paying corporate jobs. So when it came out, a lot of the thinking was this doesn’t speak to the majority of women.
When Jill Abramson was fired, my first thought was, “This sums up the problems with the whole ‘lean in’ philosophy.” Because “lean in” presupposes a kind of trickle down feminism where if women at the top have it easier, it will eventually make it so that women in minimum wage jobs or undocumented women [will have it easier, too]. It presupposes that all of these things will get better if women at the very top, in elite professions, change the culture.
Jill Abramson’s firing really reiterated the idea that things aren’t changing — even at the top. It is literally the same dynamic. If the first female executive editor of the New York Times can’t get equal treatment, what hope does anyone else have? She didn’t feel comfortable. She spoke up. She was punished for it. And not only was she punished, she was punished using the same language that has been used to demean and browbeat women all through history.
It’s depressing and I think it really does point out that “leaning in” only works if you are already in a pretty golden seat.
And even then … does anyone really think that any editor — no offense — is not “pushy” regardless of their gender?
You sort of have to be.
Right. Like do people think, “That man is being really pushy in the way he’s talking to his employees?” and then, “Well, he’s a man, men are like that.”
I was really encouraged to see a couple of male editors on Twitter saying, “Yeah, she’s pushy and that is exactly what she should be.” If that’s a problem for management, then that’s their problem.
[In June], Reynolds High School in Troutdale [Ore.] became the 74th school shooting since the Newtown shootings in December 2012. That is just shy of a shooting a week. What are your thoughts on gun violence, mass shootings and gender?
I’m really angry. I am so angry that it has become such a partisan issue that it can’t even be talked about. Certainly there is a pattern to these shootings and the pattern has to do with — I forget what writer coined this term — aggrieved entitlement among men. White men mostly feeling like the world is against them. That the natural order has somehow been violated by women becoming educated and empowered and able to speak up for themselves and be their own people.
If you look at the campus shootings over the last 10 years or so, many have been motivated by a form of sexism. It’s really frustrating that the media, every time it happens, refuses to engage with the idea that there is sexism going on and that there is a gendered reason for these shootings. The shooter in Isla Vista [Calif.] was the product of a very sexist society that had taught him a lot of untrue, but very common myths about masculinity and what it means to be a successful, sexual male. ... My son is five. He is going to start public school next year. It is terrifying to think that the statistics are against him. I feel like they’re against all of us.
Advertising and beauty culture: How do we survive it?
Media literacy. The more ads and the more imperatives that exist and the more products exist, the more widely disseminated push-back there is — often by the same people who are creating the products to begin with.
Dove is an incredible example of that. Dove makes beauty products. They are owned by Unilever, which makes all kinds of beauty products worldwide, but they also do these campaigns that demystify things like Photo-shopping [or they highlight] the number of ads that young girls see in the span of a day. They put those out, but at the same time, they are sort of responsible for creating them. It’s a really tricky thing that they’re doing. It has to do with the idea that as a company, their mandate is not to make more women feel better about themselves, it’s to make money. They are realizing that one way to get women to spend money is to make them feel good about themselves.
Realizing that beauty culture is a construction can be helpful. But it’s also important to realize that buying into it doesn’t mean buying into it hook, line and sinker. You can enjoy makeup. You can enjoy looking how you like to look, but not feel like you’re alone. Everyone is affected by it and no one is immune to it.
How has motherhood affected your politics, ideas or feelings about feminism, if at all?
I’ve always been pro-choice. I am, seriously, 500 percent more pro-choice since becoming a mother. Because being a parent is so hard.
This sort of right-wing notion that women go into abortions sort of willy nilly is nuts to me. I’ve never had one, but I know many, many people who have. None of them have taken it lightly. Even if it was an easy decision to make, based on circumstances, no one took it lightly.
If you want to be a mother, you absolutely should have that choice and if you don’t [want to be a mother], you absolutely should have that choice.
In other ways I feel strongly about teaching kids media literacy. It is such a crucial time. It’s a cliche that little kids are like sponges, but they are. They absolutely are.
As young as three they are picking up on the idea that things are gendered, and they’re teaching that to each other. My son really wants to like that movie, “Frozen,” but he feels like he can’t because there are these sort of gatekeepers at his school who are like, “Princesses are for girls. That’s a girl movie.” They don’t know the extent of what they’re doing, but they’re doing it because the media is giving them those messages. It’s just automatic.
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