Four Questions for 'We Were Feminists Once' Author Andi Zeisler

Andi Zeisler

Ever notice how the media has finessed the feminist message by reducing the movement into small, individual stories rather than addressing the big picture? Andi Zeisler, founding editor of Bitch Media, has, and she talks about it in her new book “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement,” which I recently discussed with her.

Zeisler will also be talking to Viva la Feminista’s Veronica Arreola on June 9 for an author reading at Women & Children First; and with journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore on June 11 at Printers Row Lit Fest.

Janet Arvia: In your book, you refer to marketplace feminism. What exactly does that mean?
Andi Zeisler: Marketplace feminism is the process of harnessing and celebrating the language, imagery, and energy of feminism while depoliticizing and decontextualizing it…It’s about picking and choosing and taking on the parts of feminist ideology that appeal to you and ignoring those that don’t. Instead, of changing any systems with an eye toward gender equality, it’s about encouraging women to work within those systems and telling them how great they have it.

JA: But when leading ladies such as Amy Adams (who received fourth billing and less pay than her male counterparts in “American Hustle”) are undervalued, what message does that send to everyday women in less high-profile positions?
AZ: I wrote about this at the time when Jill Abramson, the first female editor of The New York Times, was fired after, among other things, realizing that her pay was considerably lower than her male predecessor’s. Meanwhile, everyone was talking about Leaning In and how important that was—my feeling is, when one of the most powerful women in media is punished for wanting to be paid equally to her male counterpart, what chance does the average woman have, especially when her job is the difference between feeding her family and not? It can feel opportunistic when celebrities suddenly start speaking out on wage equality, but it speaks to systems of inequality that in many ways we accept unquestioningly.

JA: Like ignoring the fact that the ERA has never passed in this country. Without an Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution, can women really expect equal treatment and equal compensation?
AZ: I speak at colleges and universities a lot, and it always kind of surprises me how few people know that women are still technically, constitutionally, unequal. And how few people know that the ERA was once a bipartisan issue. There’s this belief now that passing it would be a merely symbolic victory because we have legal measures like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, VAWA, etc., as well as social understandings about, say, married women not being their husbands’ property. But there’s definitely a case to be made that the ERA is needed because it so specifically restricts discrimination on the basis of sex, and legislators who are trying to make it a rallying point.

JA: Does the saturation of feminism in pop culture undermine the legal need for women’s rights?
AZ: I would like to think not. There have always been and will always be people who consistently work—whether at a grassroots level or in Congress—toward women’s rights. The problem is that systemic issues aren’t really sexy enough for mainstream media, and most of the unfinished business of feminist movements is about systems, whether it’s the system of toxic masculinity or prison systems. If feminism’s high pop culture profile right now can be harnessed to draw attention to systems, rather than just individuals, that’s great—and I think, on some level, that’s happening. But there are also a lot of people who assume that feminism’s work is done, and then it just becomes another label.

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Ms. Arvia is a freelance writer, former filmmaker, artist and Janet-of-all-trades who is pleased to serve as Arts & Culture Editor on our magazine since she’s always been Rebellious.

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