'Bitch Media' Co-Founder Andi Zeisler on Commodifying a Movement
Andi Zeisler is the co-founder of “Bitch Media,” the independent magazine that served as “sharp-witted feminist responses to pop culture” and is now a major non-profit media organization. Zeisler based her Oct. 4 lecture at ODU on her latest book, “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl.” She explores feminism’s shift from the third-wave underground punk movement to marketplace feminism, defined as a process of harnessing and celebrating the energy of feminism while depoliticizing it, and it’s change from a movement to a brand.
Riot Grrrl was a women-led movement critiquing marginalization in punk scenes, a subculture whose “progressive facade” concealed much sexism. After belittling coverage about boyfriends and outfits instead of demands and opinions, Riot Grrrl stopped talking to mainstream media, allowing them to misinterpret the movement however they see fit. Thus, the core ideology of “girl power” was stripped of all political bearings and, as Zeisler put it, “Frankensteined into the biggest pop culture narrative of the decade.”
This major shift in gendered commodification began with the Spice Girls, who made the motto their own. With no political stance and relatable, legible identities, the group was “created to be a vehicle of marketing to an audience of preteen girls,” Zeisler said.
“One-stop girl power shops” made the motto less about “the power of actual girls, but the power to sell things to them,” Zeisler said. Products evolved into a less pro-girl, more anti-boy narrative that heavily influenced now deep-seeded gendered markets.
“Girl Power” is only one of many troubling elements taken from legitimate political movements that Zeisler said become “endangered by the demands of capitalism.” “Femvertising” is a new wave of advertising, which previously shamed women into consuming. Whether dishes weren’t shiny enough, whites not bright enough or skin not luminescent enough, ads have historically made women buy products to fix problems. However, campaigns from Dove and Secret use preconceived notions of beauty standards and the wage gap to “reap the rewards of flattering women instead of shaming them,” she said.
Dove’s infamous campaigns to conjure up self-esteem and ask women to “#ChooseBeautiful” tell us “beauty is a choice, and the power of this choice is in your hands.” Dove, owned by Unilever, who markets the less empowering Axe products and Fair & Lovely skin lightening cream, shouldn’t “get to be the progressive brand simply because they had acknowledged beauty standards were a thing women we subjected to,” Zeisler said.
Secret’s ad used the same tactic, taking on gender wage gaps. A woman musters the courage to ask for a raise in their commercial, suggesting this is the “brand of choice for progressive customers.”
While “femvertising” is well-meaning at heart, agencies pat themselves on the back and award “progressive” campaigns such as RAM’s, which merely acknowledges women drive trucks. Zeisler said true change would be the “number of women heading up advertising agencies, [and]…changing the way we think about beauty as standard measure of what women are worth.” Collective changes like these are hard, incremental and kind of a bummer, while marketable feminism is quick, digestible and optimistic.
Feminism in general has been embraced in the 21st century more than ever before due to celebrity endorsement.
“We’re all encouraged to imitate famous people in everything we do,” Zeisler said, from beauty regimens to political ideologies. Beyonce branding herself as “feminist” at the 2014 VMAs sparked a revolution of acceptance, channeling a chain of celebrities to speak up.
When these women define feminism, it’s about going for your dreams and happily being who you choose to be. Headline-grabbing feminism is an “individual identity,” Zeisler said, “rather than…an ongoing movement for political and social transformation.” Does Kim Kardashian’s naked selfie empower all women, or just Kim Kardashian? “The difference is very important,” Zeisler said.
Moreover, the idea that feminism is finding empowerment in any kind of choice, whether it’s the deodorant you buy, car you drive or naked selfie you post, “the more it obscures the fact that choice is actually not really a reality for a vast number of women,” Zeisler said. Just as brands aren’t speaking out on the institutional oppressing in their own ad agencies or in the messages they project, famous women fail to criticize the inherently sexist industries that make them money.
Genuine activism, Zeisler said, counters feminism “as a style choice that these women have the privilege of putting on when it’s convenient, and take off when it’s not.” While the bright light shined on feminism is more positive than not, “we can only go so far embracing this topical, trendy feminism without really reckoning with the ways in which it has not worked for all women,” she said. After the celebration of how far women have come is over, there’s still much to clean up when the party ends.