We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler

Read December 2020
Recommended for fans of media analysis
 ★     ★     ★

I’ve been curious about this book since the very first time I saw the title. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was a longtime subscriber to Bitch Magazine, a feminist mag that Zeisler co-founded “to provide and encourage an engaged, thoughtful feminist response to mainstream media and popular culture.” I was on board for that for a decade or so, until I eventually became too distanced from popular culture to care, and the presentation proved annoyingly challenging to aging eyes. At any rate, I thought this was sure to be interesting but back-burnered it. Then, when it became clear that mainstream media was still stuck in the 1950s by the Wall Street Journal having that gall to publish an opinion piece calling out Dr. Jill Biden for using the ‘Doctor’ as part of her title (non-WSJ link because obvious), I really felt the need to touch base with some feminist deconstruction. These issues are is like weather and erosion, you know–if you don’t periodically check and maintain the foundation, it can get degraded over time.

Unfortunately, Zeisler is a more gifted columnist than book-length writer. Like many who write primarily in short formats, each chapter has a different focus. They are annotated, which means for those who enjoy references, it’s possible to fact-check her claims. In Part One, Chapter One reviews advertising and feminism, Two examines Hollywood and ’empowered’ women through the ages, Three covers the use of feminism in clothing campaigns, Four looks at television, and Five talks about celebrities and naming themselves ‘feminist.’

In Part Two, Chapter Six, ‘Killer Waves,’ looks at the media backlash against the ‘waves’ of feminism. She begins in the 1980s and mentions such works as Fatal Attraction and Witches of Eastwick, and tries to work in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court hearings and Anita Hill and Camila Paglia. I suppose she’s trying to cover various negative media reactions through the decades, because it ends up at a Tumblr/Facebook discussion about ‘Women Against Feminism.’

Chapter Seven discusses the way the word ’empower’ has been diluted, which is perhaps the most insightful thing younger women need to understand: “empowerment has become a way to signify a particularly female way of being that’s both gender-essentialist–when was the last time you heard, say, a strip-aerobics class for men described as ’empowering’?–and commercially motivated.” “Empowerment is both a facet of choice feminism–anything can be a feminist choice if a feminist makes that choice–and a way to circumvent the word ‘feminist’ itself.” This is one of the harder-hitting chapters, with interesting arguments about how ‘choice feminism’ has perhaps backed feminism into corner. It looks into positions on the ‘stay at home’ debates and sex-work and how they were used against ‘the movement.’ It notes that the label of ‘choice feminism’ was inflicted upon the movement rather than chosen, and that in some ways, promotes infighting instead of actual gender inequity.

Eight is a very short piece on the corporatization of the movement, and how the attempts to institutionalize or develop platforms have been tied to corporate sponsorship. Nine talks about ‘erotic capital’ (which seems to be a modernization of ‘The Beauty Myth’), and Ten is a round-up summation of ‘The End of Feel-Good Feminism.’

So I ran into three problems with the book: one philosophical, one thematic and one editorial.

First, philosophical. Zeisler is mixing analysis of marketplace capitalism and cultural story-telling, without really bringing together how they are connected, and using similar framework to discuss both. I’d argue marketplace capitalism is inherently (-ist) of all sorts, and if you are looking for anything else, you are only buying into the model that your value is that of consumer. So images are bound to be more or less problematic depending on how well that marketing group and company is at targeting their demographic at that particular moment in cultural history. Comparing representation in Oil of Olay ads and cinema through the ages doesn’t square well.

Two, thematic. On the personal front, I’m not well-versed in media history. I’ve never been an avid visual media consumer, so I just wasn’t as interested in these sections, particularly when it goes into the evolution of women in Hollywood at different periods of television. (On the up side, since Zeisler and I are both GenX, we share a lot of touchstones, although she clearly paid far more attention to pop culture than I ever did).

Lastly, I think her writing could have used editing for clarity. The ideas were conveyed, but when it came to actual structure, there was something a touch too elaborate about it, something that reminded me of early college writing when it was better to use a three-syllable word than one that was shorter, and to add adjectives and adverbs to bring tension to what is essentially an academic piece. An example:

“Empowertising not only builds on the idea that any choice is feminist if a self-labeled feminist deems it so, but takes it a little further to suggest that being female is in itself something that deserves celebration. The ego, already so key to effective advertising, is indispensable to empowertising, with its emphasis on the “personal sell” that takes the focus off objective value and places it firmly within the buyer’s sense of individual mythology. What Douglas pinpointed as liberatory narcissism wears a different guise than it did in the 1980s–one that’s less concerned with status or possessions than with the very state of womanhood.”

I’m not saying that’s bad–in fact, there’s a very key idea in there, about connecting the ego in advertising to the label of ‘feminist’–but it is quite wordy. True empowerment? Clear accessible writing. And while I appreciate a created word, it should be used thoughtfully if you want to be understood, not just thrown in your text as a way to seem hip.

At the end of the day, it was nice to check in with some feminism, and remind myself where my values stand, even if this wasn’t quite the book I was hoping for.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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