Andi Zeisler’s ‘We Were Feminists Once’ coopts the very movement it purports to mourn

we were feminists once

In 1995, Andi Zeisler founded Bitch — a zine that became a magazine — as a means to “take pop culture seriously as a force that shapes the lives of everyone, and to argue for its importance as an arena for feminist activism and analysis,as she explains in her new book, We Were Feminists Once.

I had a subscription to that magazine for at least a few years in the early-to-mid aughts, when I’d been taking Women’s Studies classes for some time, but had yet to become truly radicalized. I’d wanted very much to be a part of the “cool girl feminism” club that made feminist pornography and sought out agentic “sex workers” for edgy research projects. I took burlesque classes, went to strip clubs with male friends late at night, and wrote papers about the subtle feminism of romcoms. I was, early on, an ideal Bitch reader, straight out of the third wave, aware of feminism only as it existed in undergraduate Women’s Studies classes (which, while incredibly informative and impactful, had slowly begun moving towards the idea that “subverting” rather than destroying oppressive structures was the best way to address systems of power — a perspective that appears to have been embraced wholeheartedly by what are now called “Gender Studies” departments). I was also more inclined to find “agency” and “empowerment” than assess the dark realities of women’s lives under patriarchy.

Eventually I read Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, Dworkin’s Pornography, and Sheila Jeffreys Beauty and Misogyny, and bored of Bitch‘s ongoing efforts to neutralize BDSM and to “queer” pornography. Analyzing TV shows became less interesting to me than looking at the foundations of and connections between rape and porn culture. As I got older and became more familiarized with second wave texts and the work of radical women, the postmodernesque idea that simply shifting the lens could have a real impact on systemic oppression didn’t have the same pull it once did. I realized that the problems women faced due to the ever-ubiquitous male gaze and socialization into femininity could not be resolved without an understanding of why those experiences existed and how they connected to real-life male violence against women.

I met movement women here in Vancouver like Cherry Smiley, Trisha Baptie, and Lee Lakeman, and became allied with groups like the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution and Vancouver Rape Relief. I interviewed radical women from around the world and realized I no longer had to force myself to adopt an ideology that never really made sense, despite its simplicity. I ended my subscriptions to Bitch and Bust and started saying what I really thought. I no longer cared to join pop feminism and no longer wanted to fake it in the face of real issues and with the support and sisterhood of a real movement.

Not everyone found that path. “Fun feminism” remained more desirable than the radical kind, so today, the apparent aims of Bitch magazine have been achieved: “Feminism,” Zeisler writes, “got cool.”

When I began writing about feminism, it was a little later than many others, who’d been in the blogosphere for a few years longer than I. I was lucky — I’d had time to think, to read, to study before launching myself into the public realm. Undoubtedly I would have published some incredibly stupid things had I begun my writing career at 25 instead of at 30. What drove my work was frustration at the third wave’s rejection of second wave and radical feminism, in favour of a sexier, more sellable, “fun feminism” — the kind that didn’t make you feel bad and made everyone feel welcome. Feminism, as I saw it, had become watered-down to the point of uselessness and was in need of a re-radicalization. I explored this loss of radical feminism and the impact of these efforts to popularize the movement in a radio documentary back in 2011, and basically have continued to repeat myself ever since. Feminism wasn’t just an identity or a word; it was a real thing that meant something — it was a movement.

It seems Zeisler has discovered this analysis herself. “Great!” you might think. We need as many women we can get to do the hard work of pushing back against neoliberal co-optation and the empty mantras that have replaced actual analysis, critical thinking, and front-line work. But it felt odd to read an analysis put forth by the radical women Zeisler rejected in her work in favour of a liberal media circle that could better support her career ambitions (but who have offered a toothless analysis for over a decade, in exchange for jobs and mainstream acceptance), minus those women.

Throughout We Were Feminists Once, familiar lines show up. Indeed, even the description of the book sounds eerily like one published last year, called Freedom Fallacy (which includes a chapter I contributed, called “I do what I want, fuck yeah!: Moving beyond ‘a woman’s choice'”), which reads:

“Feminism is back in fashion. From female celebrities to male politicians, it seems almost everyone is keen to use the f-word. But are there limits to this ‘pop feminist’ approach to liberation? Taking on topics from pornography and prostitution to female genital mutilation, from women’s magazines and marriage to sexual violence, contributors in this collection argue that the kind of liberal feminism currently rising to prominence does little to challenge the status quo. Aiming to revive a more radical analysis, the chapters in this book confront the dangers of reducing feminism to a debate about personal choice and offer the possibility of change through collective action.”

Zeisler relabels what radical feminists have called “liberal feminism,” “mainstream feminism,” or “popular feminism” as “marketplace feminism.” The description of her book reads:

“Feminism has hit the big time. Once a dirty word brushed away with a grimace, ‘feminist’ has been rebranded as a shiny label sported by movie and pop stars, fashion designers, and multi-hyphenate powerhouses like Beyoncé. It drives advertising and marketing campaigns for everything from wireless plans to underwear to perfume, presenting what’s long been a movement for social justice as just another consumer choice in a vast market. Individual self-actualization is the goal, shopping more often than not the means, and celebrities the mouthpieces.”

The description explains that Zeisler’s book will address the way in which “feminism has been co-opted, watered down, and turned into a gyratory media trend… brimming with the language of empowerment, but offering little in the way of transformational change.”

Her introduction continues on in this vein, plucking phrases left and right from work published by women Zeisler neglects to even acknowledge, never mind quote. She says this popular feminism is “cool” and “hot,” but most of all “sellable” — an “accessible identity anyone can adopt” that was “decontextualized” and “depoliticized.”

Was I having deja vu? Unfortunately not… This language, this analysis, and these phrases were ones I’d written dozens of times before. I’ve argued that “feminism” is a real thing that means something, “not simply a word or a marketing campaign,” “not a malleable word, a logo, or a marketable product,” nor is it “about being cool and fun and attractive.” I’ve warned that attempts to popularize the movement by making it palatable, sexy, and easy to digest don’t work because that means watering it down to the point where it loses all meaning. Years ago, I argued that re-branding feminism was unlikely to address any of the actual reasons that feminism exists and issues it needs to resolve, “as these issues are not particularly glossy or sellable,” and that feminism will only become popular when it becomes “sexy and untroublesome.” Consistently, I’ve said that feminism wasn’t anything any individual said it was and, further, that “if feminism is everything then it is nothing.” I went through article after article, comparing them to paragraphs and lines in Zeisler’s book, wondering if I was crazy. But I wasn’t.

Of course the idea that feminism was about more than women’s personal choices — more than just a buzzword — was not something I came up with on my own. In this movement, women have developed and built on this analysis together, as we are working from the same ideology and towards the same goals. We discuss together, we read one another’s work, we attend or watch each other’s talks, we march together on the street. We are political allies and, as such, we articulate a cohesive analysis. But Zeisler and her circles have not joined us in this — rather, they have intentionally distanced themselves. They were (and remain) afraid of being associated with the unpopular, unsaleable, unmarketable feminists — the very ones who gave the movement a “bad name” (too boner-wilting!) as they refused to water down their message in order to be more palatable to liberal media.

In 1990, Catharine MacKinnon began an essay entitled, “Liberalism and the Death of Feminism” (part of an anthology edited by Janice Raymond and Dorchen Leidholdt called, The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism) with the words, “Once there was a women’s movement.” She argued that, at one time it had been acceptable to criticize prostitution, pornography, and rape with the understanding that we were criticizing the practices, not the victims. She wrote that this movement criticized “sacred concepts… like choice,” as it “knew when material conditions preclude 99 per cent of your options, it is not meaningful to call the remaining one per cent — what you are doing — your choice.”

Zeisler makes similar claims, selecting convenient bits and pieces — radical-sounding soundbites — but discarding the meat (and MacKinnon herself). She’s unwilling to follow her own argument full-circle, connecting it to either its beginnings or natural completion.

The purpose of these analyses — the ones originated by radical feminists — are to address the root of patriarchal oppression and to contextualize women’s subordination, connecting incest to rape to porn to prostitution to the institution of marriage. The defanging of feminism that Zeisler purports to address (discussed much more accurately and thoroughly by Gail Dines in 2012) is, in fact, precisely what she contributes to in this new book (and has contributed to throughout her career). Zeisler names neoliberalism and American individualism as a problem, but doesn’t mention identity politics or liberal feminism’s embrace of a free market approach to prostitution (one that Bitch and its editor — now creative director — supports). She doesn’t mention the literal commodification of women’s bodies in the sex trade, nor does she touch the fact the personal identities and experiences have superceded class analysis among her ilk (except to briefly defend the notion that those who identify as “sex workers” are best positioned to analyze the sex industry). Indeed, Zeisler chooses to distill the abolitionist movement — that is the feminist fight against the capitalist, racist, misogynist sex industry — down to, essentially, “famous actresses who don’t get it.”

Possibly the most ironic statement in the book, she writes, “The difference between celebrity-branded feminism and a feminist movement as a social and political force is one that is about individuals and the other about systems.” This sentence follows a defense of the identity of “sex worker,” a term invented in order to erase a systemic analysis of how colonialism, capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy connect to naturalize and fetishize the subordination and exploitation of women and girls across the globe. She excuses her decision not to elaborate on these statements because of her “lack of expertise on the subject,” as though the choice to identify as a “sex worker” is the only thing that makes one qualified to speak out against the exploitative sex industry (which Zeisler labels as problematic only because of its “exploitative economics.”)

To intentionally erase and distort a movement of thousands of diverse women, many of whom have been prostituted themselves (but who reject the misleading and decontextualized term “sex work”), with zero financial stakes in the fight, in favour of empty (but catchy) pro-industry mantras, like “listen to sex workers” and “sex work is work,” completely contradicts Zeisler’s professed message. To frame the decades-old radical feminist movement, that has long held a complex, political opposition to the sex industry, as “celebrity feminism” is nothing more than a lie. (This misrepresentation of radical feminist politics reemerges when Zeisler vaguely tries to paint women who attended Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as “not intersectionally aware,” on account of what she calls “gender rigidity” — an odd assertion considering the tradition of gender non-conformity central to the MichFest.)

To complain about capitalist companies using “empowerment” to sell their products while giving the porn industry and prostitution a pass seems a deeply… uh… market-driven choice. As does the decision to critique choice feminism without addressing the way in which women’s “empowered choices” seem to almost always be connected to their sexualized bodies and that the most insidious co-optation of the women’s movement has come from the sex industry itself.

“The body as commodity,” bell hooks writes, “is certainly not radical or revolutionary.” This should be obvious to anyone claiming opposition to “marketplace feminism.” These indiscretions reveal Zeisler to be not only deeply disconnected from the independent women’s movement, but also reveal an unwillingness to risk rejection from the liberals who promote her work and, as she puts it, “pay [her] bills.”

In her talk, “Neoliberalism and the Defanging of Feminism,” Dines discusses the fact that she was once invited, then uninvited, from a segment about pornography set to air on the Melissa Harris-Parry Show. Dines was replaced by a so-called “feminist pornographer,” and comments, with regard to the hypocrisy attached to that descriptor, “If you can call yourself anything you want, what does our movement mean?”

What Dines speaks of here — being bumped in favour of the “sexual liberals” addressed in Raymond and Leidholdt’s anthology — has happened to many of us in the independent women’s movement… Yet it’s never happened to Zeisler. Why? Well, precisely because Zeisler has long allied with the very liberals who worked to turn feminism into something that was about “women’s choices” — something inoffensive, that wouldn’t dare take away men’s porn, prostitution, or strip clubs. She positioned herself, firmly and strategically, alongside those who have attacked and worked to silence radical feminists, smearing women who didn’t toe the party line — those who made sure to work within the parameters set by liberal media and corporate America.

There is a reason that Zeisler and the others who wrote or write for Bitch (which, at one point, included Noah Berlatsky) have never been subjected to boycotts, blacklisting, or no-platforming as so many other feminists have: they participated in precisely what Zeisler purports to address now. They chose “media-friendly,” watered-down messages that welcomed men and capitalism into their “movement.” They distanced themselves from the women who pushed back against the individualistic “fun feminism” that erased context and history from women’s current subordinate status. Whether they did this due to a lack of analysis or an unwillingness to risk their careers and popularity doesn’t matter so much when we now see these women trying to crawl out of the hole they dug for themselves, without accounting for the empty space left behind.

Now, the same women who call us witches, in one way or another, who refused to align themselves with our work lest they too be brought to virtual trial by association, want to dip a toe in. But they still won’t go all the way. They can’t. Unable to complete an analysis that would bring into question the objectification and pornification they accept from men in their own lives and/or from the public at large, unwilling to risk losing the social, political, or financial privilege they maintain by rejecting radical women, what they aren’t able to grasp about movements is solidarity.

In We Were Feminists Once, Zeisler proves she knows an awful lot about American media, pop culture, and advertising, but very little about the feminist movement. Even the coverage of her book doesn’t seem to match the content, focusing on a radical message that really isn’t there. While Zeisler offers a valid deconstruction of Dove ads and the Spice Girls, the impetus towards a return to a true feminist movement, as the title of her book and borrowed quotes imply, is missing. It would appear only that she glommed on to an analysis she saw making headway and tacked to it both ends of a book that looks at how “empowerment” was used to sell Vajazzling and Spanx. To co-opt means to appropriate, rather than to work alongside. Zeisler has mastered only the former.

For all this talk of movements, Zeisler resists defining feminism as such, insisting that, “in a time of pluralistic feminism,” it’s impossible to define in a simplistic way. And while I agree that simple slogans are unhelpful (hence my ongoing critiques of the “A feminist is anyone who believes men and women are equal!” mantra liberals keep shoving down our throats), the entire point of saying feminism is a movement is to acknowledge that we — women — share a collective source of oppression and that this movement shares particular aims and goals. While certainly women experience other forms of oppression, not only sex-based, we are all oppressed as females under a patriarchal system.

As I read our decontextualized and unsourced arguments, ideas, and phrases on the pages of a book with Zeisler’s name on the cover, without so much as a nod towards the women who came up with them, it became clear she was just another liberal, unwilling to stick her neck out. She refuses to address that which MacKinnon bemoaned years before Bitch came into existence, failing to make basic connections that are foundational to an analysis of commodification in a patriarchal, capitalist society.

The result of all this is that Zeisler accomplishes precisely what she purports to push back against in her book: co-opting the feminist movement, taking words right out of feminists’ mouths for her own purposes — to defang, depoliticize, and decontextualize, in order to sell her product.

This is, indeed, a tactic used by the corporate and neoliberal mainstream — to co-opt radical ideas and, as Dines put it, “bleed them dry of any politics so they become absolutely meaningless.”

The problem with the third wave has always been that their analysis rejected, rather than embraced, ideologies and arguments developed by their radical, second wave sisters. The identity politics established through third wave ideology are precisely what allowed feminism to become a label anyone could wear — one that had nothing to do with a systemic analysis that demands, for example, a critique of the sex industry and of sex/class-, not identity-based, oppression. But even as third wavers grow up, the more things appear to change, the more they stay the same.

We were not feminists once, we are feminists. We have been all along. The sisterhood is powerful, which surely Zeisler would know if only she had joined us.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.