I admit that I was drawn to the title of Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement because of my own poem “Bikini Kill Villanelle.” In it I chronicle the Spice Girls’ co-opting of the Riot Grrrl movement, in turn de-politicizing “grrrls,” de-fanging them of all those extra “r”s, rendering “Girl Power” an accessory available at the mall. I sensed in a poetic, rather intuitive way how this happened. But Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once gives me (and all other thinking people) the political and historical chops to understand “marketplace feminism,” a vibrant, flourishing oxymoron. Zeisler documents the strong presence of feminism in 1970’s pop culture, with Helen Reddy’s battle cry/hit song, a feminism that captured my imagination as a teenager when I could reconcile my love of pop culture with my budding political views. By the 1980s, the backlash was in full force with movies such as Fatal Attraction and The Witches of Eastwick. Then 1990’s feminism came back strong with The Riot Grrrl movement only to be squashed by Camile Paglia’s A Natural History of Rape, which dropped like an anvil on all of our heads in 2000. Slow-forward, with exacting arguments, humor, and grace, Zeisler breaks down how corporations and media have most recently embraced a surface view of feminism which is all about “empowerment” tinged with just the right amount of stink to capitalize on a woman’s self doubts and make her reach for her wallet.
Zeisler’s most hauntingly describes “the uncanny valley” of corporate feminism that uses the language of feminism to embrace exceedingly un-feminist ideas, leaving consumers a little off kilter. She cites Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In which, using feminist rhetoric, encourages conformity to embrace corporate culture instead of dismantling that culture. Other “uncanny” examples occur when Maxim magazine is described as “feminist” because Taylor Swift is on the cover and she says she’s feminist. Or when The Bachelorette is deemed feminist because it allows female promiscuity. While I agree that there are indeed feminisms (plural), Ziesler makes a rather hilarious observation in which celebrities are asked their definitions of feminism, as if a definition doesn’t already exist. She also deftly and concisely chronicles feminism’s waves (we are on wave four) and the hallmark tenets of each.
In We Were Feminists Once, Zeisler calls out the crazy ways in which feminism is portrayed in the media, all the while keeping real issues of inequality off the table. She cites loophole feminists (those who believe they are so evolved that they don’t need feminism—think Paglia and Naomi Wolf’s “power feminism” which is posited against what she calls “victim feminism”); bizarro feminists (like Sarah Palin and the Washington Post’s assertion “Pro-life Feminism is the Future!”); trickle-down feminists (Tressie McMillan Cottom characterizing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”); and straw feminists (like Polly Vernon who writes about the joys of getting catcalled).
In this book, feminism is also seen through the neoliberal prism that dictates a woman’s choices affect only that particular woman, thus denying the power of feminist community. Zeisler links this to “choice feminism,” a consumer-driven feminism in which women seemingly have the choice to wear makeup or not, get Botox or not (one ad’s tagline is the faux empowering “I did it for me”), wear push-up bras or not. These false choices are, of course, from a narrow menu of conventional beauty standards. And we are left with a sinking sense that a woman’s “choice” in and of itself is a feminist choice so there is no way to judge or evaluate any decision as marketplace feminism flatters and privileges the individual. The book’s analysis of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is especially fascinating. You may remember all those “real” Dove women in print advertising—non-models who agreed to pose in their underwear in celebration of their curvy bodies. This “body boosterism” was embraced by many women, myself included, and I remember talking about the campaign with my friends. But a closer look at the ad strategy revealed that Dove used it to sell a cream to battle cellulite, doing little in the end to change beauty perceptions and perhaps, most depressingly, reaffirming beauty as such an important concept to women in the first place.
Zeisler’s book will make you think and re-think feminism whose very core is at odds with capitalism. So how can we brand feminism? Should we even try? She confirms and explains the strange sensation many of us had seeing Beyonce dance in front of the word FEMINIST in bright lights. Zeisler writes, “there is a very fine line between celebrating feminism and co-opting it.” And after reading We Were Feminists Once, I no longer have just a poetic hunch. Instead I have a much stronger sense of where that fine line is.
We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement