When I was 12 years old, Jewel was one of the biggests artists on the radio. Her songs were both heartfelt and catchy. Her album liner notes consisted of poetry (which was, to be kind, mediocre). She was a self-described “sensitive” soul and she had lived in her van. For a brief, shining school year, she was my feminist role model.
We all know what happened to Jewel. Suffice it to say, she was most recently found on Bravo judging the reality show Platinum Hit—a show which does not appear to be coming back for season two.
Despite my role model’s slide from thoughtful star to cultural joke, I did not follow Jewel, selling out my own sensitive side to pursue a career in reality TV. Instead, I started reading better poetry and listening to actual folk music. Now I look on the feminism-lite of the Lilith Fair era with fondness; it introduced me to artistic women who were successful because, not despite, they expressed themselves with strength.
Some of us were lucky enough to be teenagers during the glory days of the approximately three truly popular artists in history who have identified as feminists (some of whom were men). Others come of age for the Spice Girls, Britney Spears or Taylor Swift. Usually, their influence on our trajectories is nil. Instead we view them through a pleasant haze of nostalgia when we’re older.
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So why do we spend so much energy worrying about the feminist failings of the pop star of the moment? If the Spice Girls were on the airwaves today, openly eschewing feminism in favor of “Girl Power!” they’d get a lot of condemnation from the very folks who bop about to their songs “ironically” now. The castigating of pop stars too often becomes an exercise in older women concern-trolling younger ones. It alienates us from a demographic we could engage with by expressing appreciation—qualified—for the culture that matters to them now, and will always matter to them as a signifier of their youth.
I propose a truce in the feminists vs. pop stars wars, which have been raging particularly intensely of late. This week, Mary Elizabeth Williams was understandably frustrated in response to Katy Perry’s ‘I’m not a feminist but’ moment: “Nobody enjoys it more when a woman says she’s not a feminist than a misogynist,” she wrote. Amanda Hess and Nona Willis-Aronowitz, in response to feminist slamming of Perry felt we were too hung up on the label: “‘Are you a feminist?’ is often a nonstarter. But when you ask someone, “What pisses you off about being a woman?” people can’t stop talking. … “ At the same time, Sady Doyle wrote on Taylor Swift’s “narcissistic” approach and decided that feminists can and should criticize pop stars. “A feminism that devotes itself only to critiquing other women’s lack of feminism will get nowhere. Yet when someone is presented as a role model for young women, we needn’t automatically accept her work as empowering.”
I have to wonder: isn’t narcissism part and parcel of the definition of a rock star? And don’t male stars frequently make ignorant comments about the political landscape? And isn’t it also an artistic tic to “reject labels?” Even Dylan was saying this kind of thing as soon as he went electric.
So let’s declare a detente. Team Feminist may’ sport “smash the patriarchy” buttons and fret about pop stars, while Team Pop Star rocks bodysuits and frequently has no idea what our movement means, but we can peacefully coexist.
Feminists can keep pushing politically and socially for a wider range of gender presentations and permutations to be accepted in society. Meanwhile pop stars, those singing and dancing dominatrices of the zeitgeist, can keep aggressively occupying any space that’s been opened up, normalizing it and projecting it onto millions of tv screens.
I’m comfortable with that arrangement: there’s already a lot of mutually-beneficial exchange going on between us. There would be no Beyonce or Taylor Swift without feminism, but they’ve also brought some of the messages of our movement to further corners of the earth than any post-structuralist manifesto might hope to do. So if they call themselves princesses and occasionally want a ring put on it, we can take a deep breath.
This isn’t to say we should not look at pop stars through an analytical lens, but that when we do, we should give credit to the thousands of teenage girls who adore them. Rather than take the stars to task for being “poor role models” and assume that zombie-like hormonal hordes will imitate them forever and always, let’s look at the messages they project that make young women feel good about themselves, and consider what such messaging success says about where we are as a culture—and where we have to go.
Indeed, the way artists like Rihanna, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift craft their images can be dissertation-worthy at times. The outlandish costumes of artists like Minaj and Gaga play with and subvert images of beauty and femininity. Rihanna’s overtly sexual personal projects abject desire, Beyonce’s focus on financial independence echoes through her music over and over again, and Swift has become a reliable bestselling artist by having romantic relationships and then writing about them–with gleeful honesty and a sometimes smug self-regard that was supposed to be the sole province of male singer songwriters.
But none of these artists are overtly political. Even the most subversive or empowering pop personas stop short of direct confrontation because the artists have mostly managed to find ways make themselves acceptable to the broader culture, which reeks of sexism and all the other isms, while pushing the envelope just a bit each time they reinvent themselves.
So when we express our wish that these divas could go further, challenge more, make art that pushes even further against norms, we’re identifying and naming cultural frontiers. Instead of wringing our hands, let’s get on the dance floor and get motivated for the next fight.
Matt McGorry spoke with Rewire about his experience working at the intersections of Hollywood and activism, how personal fitness is nothing like social justice awareness work, and why more men should care about targeted regulations of abortion providers.
You may have seen Matt McGorry’s face splashed across the internet today along with his co-stars promoting season four of Netflix’s hit show Orange Is the New Black. But this interview isn’t about that series’ latest premiere or McGorry’s role in one of my favorite ShondaLand productions, How To Get Away With Murder.
In the past year, McGorry has become an outspoken advocate for gender equality, Black Lives Matter, the importance of sexual consent via the White House’s It’s On Us campaign, and reproductive rights. And I have to admit: I’ve been a bit skeptical of all the headlines about him. For women—especially Black women, who are constantly being talked over—seeing white men praised in the media for talking about what we’ve been talking about for decades with often zero recognition can feel about the same as when partners are praised for “babysitting” their own kids or for making dinner. As even McGorry will admit, “it can be triggering,” and the actor said that he was planning to pause interviews about his social justice work so he could actually “reflect and figure out a way to have deeper impact.”
But after speaking with him before the annual Gloria Awards in late April and then again in May via phone about everything from the film Captain America: Civil War to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, I can report that McGorry’s not mansplaining or looking for applause. It’s the media that must focus less on how much of a bae he is and more on how other aspiring allies and accomplices can learn from him. So that’s what this interview is about.
McGorry and I spoke at length about his experience working at the intersections of Hollywood and activism, how personal fitness is nothing like social justice awareness work, and why reproductive rights is a men’s issue.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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Rewire: You talk a lot about being an advocate for gender equality. What does that mean, and what does that look like in practice?
Matt McGorry: There are obviously many different ways to do it. I think as a man, a big part of it is learning to understand and parse apart my privilege and my understanding of that, essentially how it influences my life and the choices that I’ve made in the past and the choices I continue to make even in doing the work. And continually learning and reading books and reading articles. It’s really about listening, and part of that listening is self-education. And part of that is talking to and being open to conversations with people in my life who are women or people of color when it comes to racial issues, but still being aware of the fact that it’s not women’s responsibility or people of color’s responsibility to educate me about these things.
I have to be careful that I’m not requiring that of people that I’m talking to who are marginalized. Sometimes I won’t be wanted or invited to conversations, and that’s OK too. And sometimes they won’t even tell me that they don’t necessarily want me in the conversation, and I have to be aware of that and take that into consideration as well.
I have been fortunate enough to have a platform due to acting that, since I have a certain number of followers [on social media], as I’m educating myself on these issues, I can retweet or repost articles or videos. I think that’s valuable for people to do even if they don’t have a following of my size.
One of the friends who got me very interested in Black Lives Matter was posting about these issues—and, unfortunately, it took my friend who’s a white man … to get me to pay attention. But sometimes that is the unfortunate nature of privilege.
It’s not that I need to be telling Black people about Black Lives Matter and I don’t need to be telling women about gender issues, but I need to be telling the people who are in my position. Some people have said that it’s useful to be able to point to me when talking to their white male friends about these things … I think there is some value for other men to see a man who says, “I am a feminist.” But it’s now asking myself the question: How do I make a deeper impact?
Rewire:You’ve written and spoken about how it’s only been a year in your journey as a feminist. Tell us what that experience has been like up to this point.
MM: I’m starting to examine my own views on the world … I don’t care how well your parents raised you or how inclusive your parents are—and my parents were very inclusive. You still grow up in a society where your media, your peers, and all these outside forces are pushing you toward sexism, racism, and all these things in a very insidious way. So … I then said I want to hold myself to a higher standard, but you don’t even know what that looks like at that time.
As you start learning about injustices, you start to realize aspects of your own self that are problematic. And that can be painful because, in these moments of realization, someone calls you out and you already feel like this is a risk. Obviously, the risk that I take in speaking about these things is relative to the risk that people who are not white or men or cis or straight take in this.
Rewire: I do wonder if there is a bit of a tension between the celebrity aspect of your identity, which may be about promoting the self, and the activist aspect, which is about lifting up other people who are not as privileged. How do you navigate that?
MM: I’m always thinking about it and always trying to figure out what might be the best way … as I have had opportunities like this or getting on the Nightly Show to say these things, it was important for me to have enough education on these topics, and conversations [with people] in real life to know how to not fuck up something like that, and to hopefully be more of service to any of these movements than to make it about myself, therefore excluding people and not being able to have as much of an impact.
There’s not any [clear-cut path with these things] … I can ask women in my life about issues of feminism, and they are going to disagree with other women. And there are people online who don’t think that men should call themselves feminists. It was a conflicting moment for me actually when I was nominated [through an online poll, by supporters] as a potential “Feminist Celebrity of the Year.”
It’s a tricky conversation and has to be had with the right people because … essentially feminism is about gender equality. I think even in the community the word does tend to be gendered … and there were people, even friends of mine, who were like this [nomination] feels wrong.
I said, what if it was “Gender Equality Advocate of the Year,” would that feel different? And a lot of the time they would say, yeah maybe, which is very telling about our own perception with how we gender the word that we know is not really supposed to be gendered.
Bridging the gap between celebrity culture and [advocacy] is tricky … [but] if we’re not making ourselves uncomfortable, then we’re not really growing and we’re not forcing other people to grow too.
Rewire: It’s like when you decide to go on a diet, right? In order to go on this diet, you need to change your lifestyle. You want to exercise more, you want to start eating healthier, but often the people around you will say, “What is wrong with you? You’re acting strange.” Has that been your experience?
MM: I’ve never inherently been someone who likes confrontation. I was a personal trainer for ten years and even then I never really liked to force anyone to do anything. I would have clients come in and say, “Well, how much should I weigh,” or “What body type should I be”? I would answer, “Well, it’s whatever you want it to be. If you’re happy the way you’re now, then that’s great. Let’s work out, have fun, and keep you healthy. But if you have an issue with the way you look or with your health, let’s examine that.”
But social justice work is different from the world of personal training. In the world of fitness and personal training, it’s all very much personal preference. I do believe there is a right way of treating other peoplein this world, and I think that’s why activists and social justice work can quickly get so radical. It’s because, as soon as you see that you’ve been doing things wrong for a long time and then essentially, if there is a right way to do the things, it’s hard to pace oneself in terms of how much you try to turn other people to that as well and—I’m only a year in doing this. I’m engaged to see how the journey evolves over time, but I’m in a optimistic stage right now.
I feel like it’s quite possible that two years from now or a year from now, I won’t be arguing with someone like Piers Morgan because I’ll realize that he might not ever get it.
I think there was a value to having that conversation about what he thinks of as “reverse racism.” Having that conversation publicly in a way that other people can see it as well, even if he doesn’t get it. But it’s a very strange process. Because, it felt like the moment that I understood how bad things were, was the moment I felt compelled to act. There’s a bit of a disconnect for me [when I see] people that do understand it or that have some understanding of it or are starting to understand it, but that don’t act.
And what I’ve found is anyone who doesn’t take action on these things doesn’t really fully understand them yet. We can understand there is a problem with how our criminal justice system is run in our country, but I think understanding it in a really full and deep way and understanding how … someone like me gets to benefit from the criminal justice system that essentially keeps us safe but doesn’t keep everyone else safe in quite the same way.
Rewire: So, you have aligned yourself as an ally with various social justice movements. Are there any issues in particular within these movements that you’re most concerned with?
MM: In terms of racial justice issues, I would say that The New Jim Crow has had a profound effect on me and my view of the criminal justice system, and according to [its author] Michelle Alexander, that’s the biggest issue of our time, or what she calls the New Jim Crow. And so that’s been the thing that has stood out the most for me—how the “war on drugs” disproportionately has had negative effects on communities of color.
People are still serving lifetime sentences for first-time nonviolent drug crimes. And getting to meet in Washington, D.C., a number of these people who have received clemency from different administrations and are now free and are now really incredible members of their communities who are advocating for at-risk youth and other incarcerated individuals—I mean it’s incredible.
We have these internal biases—a lot of us do—that if someone ended up in prison, [we think] they must have done something that was terrible and violent. It’s not to say that drugs are good, but people make bad choices and people are more likely to make bad choices when they don’t have a lot of choices available to them.
Understanding what other people don’t have the luxury of has made me appreciate and understand more what I have had the luxury of growing up. Things that I didn’t even particularly like—I didn’t really enjoy much of classes in college or being tutored in high school or taking SAT prep classes—but those things are actually all privileges. And it does put me in a more advantageous position to succeed if I do have those opportunities available.
The criminal justice stuff for me stands out in a very big way because it’s just something that I’ve been totally blind to my whole life. I think what the book is very successful in accomplishing is forcing us to look at how we discriminated against criminals or people who have been incarcerated and how we justify the tactic, and we think that that’s okay.
MM: A lot of men don’t understand it, or that this group is under attack, because of the TRAP laws and all this new legislation that people are trying to push. And again, as it always is with any of these issues, it’s really important to have people with privilege give a shit and say something and stand up against [bad policies].
These are not just women’s issues: They are human issues and human rights issues. In my mind, staying silent on this stuff when you have an opportunity to say something is essentially just telling women, “It’s your problem to deal with pro-choice issues.” That’s not fair and it’s not right.
We [as a society] need more men who care, and who care enough to say something. I’ve come to believe that if you say that you care about a thing but you don’t actually do something about it, you can’t really say that you care that much.
You might feel like you care. You might, if you had the choice to make abortion legal everywhere, you might wave the magic wand and say yes. But if you’re not willing to take a risk on for yourself, then you’re really not doing the work that needs to be done.
And I actually lost an opportunity because of the shirt. But it’s important for people in my position to be willing to make those sacrifices. The more men we have speaking out about these things, the less anyone else has to take the brunt of all these attacks.
If enough men gave a shit about women’s reproductive rights, these clinics would be staying open, and these TRAP laws wouldn’t be going into effect. The problem is, ultimately, not as many men care about these issues as women do.
Rewire: You spoke in a recent interview about how important it was to your gaining a deeper level of consciousness that you are working on shows like Orange Is the New Black and How to Get Away With Murder that allow you to wave your intersectional feminist flag with pride. What about the folks who aren’t in those environments? Just thinking about what it might be like if your next gig isn’t as “woke.” How do you see people navigating those spaces?
MM: I’m not in a place in my life where I have enough money to live even an extended period of time without working .… There is almost a guarantee that at some point in my future where I will work with someone on a project who is problematic, and I unfortunately won’t necessarily be able to call it out in a way that I would want to.
I have thought about that and I dread that day.
I just saw Captain America: Civil War, and there’s a great quote in that movie that resonated for me in terms of the social justice work. The theme behind it is that the United Nations wants to govern the Avengers and some of them do think it’s okay to be governed and some of them don’t want to be governed.
The quote is, “Compromise where you can. But where you can’t, don’t.” That’s not an easy thing to figure out, where you can and can’t. But it is an important part [of the work] and it’s one that’s a continual process.
I also think that part of the thing that scared me initially [about taking a stand] was I’m not always going to know what opportunities don’t come to me because of this stuff. The director is not going to call me up. They are going to go another way and you are not going to know.
I think for people who think they can’t speak out in some way, there is always other work to be done. There is always volunteering, community organizing, and having conversations with people [in small groups and] educating them.
I hope that I’ll be able to stay as much in line with my beliefs as possible as time goes on. It’s a constant process of figuring out and navigating, and I think it always will be. Any time you’re trying to go against the status quo, that’s not going to be a simple task.
Rewire: In the past year, you’ve gone from posting on Facebook about the gender pay gap and writing for Cosmo about your feminism to calling out Piers Morgan on Twitter about his response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. In the spirit of trope-ing, why are you such an angry white man speaking about these injustices?
MM: There is a component of it that I’m never [taking] the direct brunt of this, of speaking out about these issues the way, for example, that Black women are. And I’m not getting that same backlash and hate and threats of violence against me.
So when I do speak to other people about this, I try to remind myself that the less angry I can be or the less angry at least I can appear to be, the more effective I think I am at having these conversations. That has to be the paramount thing, because I am angry but I am not angry from a first-person perspective having to experience these things directly.
There are too many people who don’t listen to Black women for example, and claim that it is because they are too angry. As you know, if someone is telling you the right thing, even if they are not telling you it in the way that you want to hear, it is important to listen to them as much as you can.
Ultimately white people, white men, need to be more outraged with the injustices of racism and discrimination than we are when someone is telling us that they don’t like something that we are doing, for example.
I think if I’m talking to people whose points of view I simply couldn’t help but be infuriated by, I probably don’t need to be talking to them, because they are not welcoming any sort of actual dialogue.
It’s unfortunate that some of the deeply, deeply bigoted people are harder to [communicate with] and are not going to change through social media posts. But most of my work is really focused on how do I activate and change the minds of those people who really are interested in justice and maybe don’t understand these things fully, and don’t understand how to be an ally or that they even can be an ally as a white person. For me, if we can get enough people in these positions to care and to take action, there would be a point of critical mass that would pull the rest of everyone else even further toward the side of progress, whether they wanted to or not.
It’s what Martin Luther King said in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—he said that the KKK is not the greatest stumbling block for the African American; it’s the white moderate who prefers order rather than justice. And who says, essentially what in today’s terms would be, “Whoa, you are being too loud” or “You should not go to these political rallies and yell Black Lives Matter.” It’s the people who prefer the order, who think, “not now, this is not the time or the place.”
I read in an article a while back how the movement [for racial justice] doesn’t need allies; it needs accomplices. That was an interesting way to think about [the work white people like me can do] too. We need to be there getting our hands dirty and taking on some of the risks, even in Hollywood, where we pretend we’re expressing those [messages], but we’re really not.
Again, I’m not saying anything that’s radical or that women and people of color haven’t been saying for years.
This interview, which was conducted in-person and later finished on the phone, has been edited for clarity and length.
In We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler argues that a 2014 Beyoncé performance signaled feminism's "arrival" as a mainstream movement. But, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market has not trickled down.
Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Emma Watson are feminists. So is Miss Piggy from the Muppets. Chanel’s 2014 runway show flaunted feminist imagery, and even Katy Perry’s signature perfume is feminist.
Something has happened to feminism.
“It was hot,” Andi Zeisler writes in the introduction to her new book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “And, perhaps most important, it was sellable.”
It’s the moment Zeisler, one of the founders of Bitch magazine, has been fighting for for 20 years: the tipping point. Feminism has arrived.
“I always believed that the realm of media and popular culture was where feminism would truly change hearts and minds,” Zeisler writes. “Theoretically, this was exactly the breakthrough my cofounders and I had always hoped to see.”
But as you may have guessed from the subtitle, there’s a catch. Like the wealth promised by President Ronald Reagan, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market has not trickled down.
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As we celebrate the increasing number of female TV showrunners and writers, Senate Republicans have twice unanimously voted against an act designed to close the gendered wage gap. As our tabloid magazines documented every blessed step of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, an anti-discrimination ballot measure in Houston, Texas was defeated thanks largely to TV ads that painted transgender women as child predators, warning, “Any man at any time could enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman.” As we excitedly binge-watch a Netflix series about life and love in a women’s prison, dozens of black women have died in police custody in recent years, with no satisfactory explanation as to why.
In this deeply researched account, Zeisler charts the co-optation of feminism and women’s empowerment over the decades, and shows how this process reached a peak in 2014. In 1929, Lucky Strikes cigarettes were cast as “torches of freedom,” a co-optation echoed in perhaps my favorite of Zeisler’s examples: the 1970 billing of the Liberated Wool Sweater as the “embodiment of the new freedom.” In 1998, First USA offered a Mastercard celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention. But while corporations and popular culture have always tried to sell their ideas of what women want, Zeisler identifies 2014 as The Year It Happened.
It was Beyoncé. On stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé sampled Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and posed in front of the bright, white, glowing word: “FEMINIST.” In a 2014 Bitchpost after Beyoncé’s performance that presaged some of the ideas in her new book, Zeisler wrote that the performance “positioned feminism as Beyoncé’s official brand.” While its impact was undeniable, Zeisler wrote that “the branding of feminism as an attractive product for consumption is very different than the work of feminism as a progressive movement.”
To be clear, Zeisler’s book doesn’t diss Beyoncé; it draws a distinction between what she calls “marketplace feminism”—the “mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism,” which is often about selling us something—and the less visible work feminists (including Beyoncé) do every day to advance gender justice. In fact, the best part about Zeisler’s writing on pop culture is that she doesn’t hate it; she’s a connoisseur, which makes her the most entertaining, well-informed of critics.
She applies an almost encyclopedic knowledge of film, television, music, and advertising to reveal the funhouse-mirrorlike results of mainstream culture’s co-optation of radical ideas. Take what pop culture did to the punk movement Riot Grrrl, with its out-of-bounds, anti-capitalist, “girls to the front!” ethos: “The phrase ‘Girl Power’ was harvested from Riot Grrrl zines and re-emerged, a marketplace-feminist Frankenstein’s monster, in the juggernaut of the Spice Girls.” And what happens when even consumer products like underwear can become feminist? An “uncanny valley,” filled with objects that kind of look feminist: “In the uncanny valley, those granny panties are feminist because they say so on the butt.”
In one of the book’s strongest sections, Zeisler unpacks how even feminist ideas like choice and empowerment have been co-opted to sell damaging mythologies, like poverty as an individual, not a societal failing, or the notion that women make choices about work and family in a vacuum. Zeisler writes that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, “shifted the language of bodily rights from demands to choices.” After that, “the advent of neoliberalism did the rest, normalizing the self-focus and singularity made ever more possible by a booming free market. The parlance of the marketplace became the default way to talk about almost all choices made by women.”
So what happens when neoliberalism—with its ethos of privatization, deregulation, and individualism—co-opts feminism? You end up with figureheads like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose “lean-in” feminism masks the failings of capitalism by implying that women who fail to break through systemic barriers simply aren’t leaning hard enough. As Zeisler notes, the neoliberal approach to feminism obscures racism, classism, and other barriers that “make grabbing status-quo balls almost impossible for anyone other than the people who are already in closest proximity to them.”
By tackling the false promises of “marketplace feminism,” Zeisler has provided a much-needed counterpoint to Sandberg’s classist vision. Her critique of this exclusive iteration of feminism—and its cozy ties to the corporate powers that be—reaches its peak during her description of the 2014 MAKERS Conference, a corporate-sponsored, invitation-only event attended by Sandberg, Martha Stewart, actress Geena Davis, and more, or what Zeisler sums up as a gathering of “very elite women patting other very elite women on the back for their individual achievements in highly rarefied fields.”
What Zeisler calls “marketplace feminism” could, at times, have simply been called “capitalist feminism” or maybe just capitalism. Its co-optation of social movements is hardly new or unique to feminism. But in an email to Rewire, Zeisler said she coined “marketplace feminism” as a more specific term, “because of the way it invokes picking and choosing, taking on the parts of an ideology or practice that appeal to you and ignoring those that don’t.” In co-opting feminism, pop culture and the market have taken the sellable and left the “thorny, unsexy realities” behind.
Still, Zeisler misses an opportunity to fully articulate an alternative to “marketplace feminism,” perhaps one that encompasses its logical counterpoint: socialism, another idea that’s arguably having its Beyoncé moment right now. For many on the Left, watching Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticize capitalism on a national debate stage has been akin—and bear with me here—to what happened at the VMAs in 2014, albeit … well, not nearly as … hot. The number of young women identifying with socialist principles suggests many potential readers would appreciate an explicit discussion of alternatives to capitalist feminism—beyond equal pay, what about basic income?—but Zeisler largely avoids this conversation, instead alluding more broadly to the need for a “post-marketplace-feminism world.”
In the end, the book’s greatest weakness is that it sidelines today’s grassroots feminist and intersectional social movements, many of which oppose capitalism. While she acknowledges organizations like Know Your IX and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Zeisler’s only explicit mention of Black Lives Matter is to cite the hashtag as a branded entity, lumped in with “Barack Obama’s presidential campaign” and “one-for-one TOMS shoes.” (“By a branded entity, I don’t mean that #BLM is actively selling a product,” Zeisler wrote, when I asked her about this in an email, “but that it has leaders and language and imagery that are associated with it, and the words have become shorthand for something that people feel deeply invested in.”) Yet, it feels like an oversight of one of this generation’s most defining social movements. #BlackLivesMatter caught fire like a brand, but it was created by women of color, not by tobacco or shoe companies. It’s a surprising blind spot for a book that reckons with how “marketplace feminism” can obscure racial and economic injustice.
Zeisler ultimately falls into her own trap, focusing too much on the very things on which, she suggests, we are too focused. In critiquing the fixation on celebrity spokespeople, she writes: “It’s as though feminists are becoming part of a celebrity movement, rather than celebrities joining up with a feminist one.” But the opposite is true: Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, and Miley Cyrus are responding to a movement that has pushed some feminist ideas into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean feminism has been bought. Beyond the rarefied MAKERS Conference, feminists are protesting on behalf of women killed by police and against anti-transgender legislation. The feminists I know watch Beyoncé’s “Formation” video on repeat, but they don’t think the battle’s over because Beyoncé tipped her hat.
I learned a lot from Zeisler’s witty, well-informed prose, and it was refreshing to read a feminist book so openly critical of capitalism. But in the end, I just can’t buy the idea that feminism has been sold. Maybe it’s because I was there on March 2, as thousands of feminists gathered outside the Supreme Court while it heard the most significant abortion case in a generation. People who had had abortions told their stories, on their own terms, and so did abortion providers. That was feminism—not defined by Sheryl Sandberg or even by Beyoncé.