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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Here’s how Zeisler sums up the disconnect:
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 Bitch post 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.