Is Mainstream Feminism Bad for Women's Rights?

We talked to Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler, whose new book argues that celebrities and brands are preventing feminism from making strides on important, but less sexy, issues like abortion rights.

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May 4 2016, 8:25pm

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Over the past few years, feminism has gone from a dirty word to... a slightly less dirty one, at least. The majority of people still don't identify as feminists, but a number of high-profile celebrities do, and gender equality is a popular enough cause to become the subject of advertisements like Verizon's 2014 "Inspire her Mind" commercial.

There's a dark side to feminism's growing mainstream visibility, though: To gain acceptance, the movement has had to make itself palatable within a capitalist, patriarchal culture.

It's this double-edged sword of "marketplace feminism" that Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler examines in her new book WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl©, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, out from PublicAffairs on May 5. As celebrities and brands profit off championing women's liberation, Zeisler argues, they water it down, sometimes to the point that the movement is barely recognizable as feminism. While Instagram stars take nude selfies in the name of empowerment and celebrities show off their "squads" as symbols of female solidarity, reproductive rights are under attack, economic inequality persists, and women throughout the world live in danger of sexual violence.

We spoke with Zeisler about the feminism-lite pop culture feeds us, the issues it leaves unaddressed, and how women can nevertheless use feminism's new popularity to their advantage.

Photo courtesy of PublicAffairs

BROADLY: How did you first notice "marketplace feminism," and why did you decide to write about it?
Andi Zeisler: I started realizing feminism was becoming more and more decontextualized from politics. It was becoming much more of a way to talk about identity rather than a way to talk about action. By 2014, there really did seem to be this massive, almost overnight, mainstream breakthrough, with Beyoncé and Emma Watson. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to talk about feminism. I realized [this fact] was an important thing to talk about because it [was] about to become a trend, and when things become trends, that has a real effect on how people relate to them and understand them as political movements.

It's interesting that feminism has become a trend, yet there are still so many negative stereotypes associated with it. How is it that these two popular conceptions exist at once?
I do think they are related. When feminism kind of did break through in 2014, that didn't happen in a vacuum. It happened because, over the past couple of decades, there has been a real ground flow of feminist activism both online and offline. And certainly, [the Internet] has been a real space of feminist consciousness-raising, and a space for concepts that have always been nurtured within feminist movements to be brought to a more mainstream and larger audience.

If you think about stuff like the Steubenville case in Ohio a couple years ago, that was something a lot of feminists were writing about and covering in a way that mainstream media was not. They were talking about it [using] a conversation that was very steeped in a history of how women's bodies are treated as property and how we cultivate toxic masculinity in boys. These were feminist concepts, but because of current events, they came into a mainstream context.

The volume of conversations that were spilling over from feminist spaces into mainstream spaces really opened up this space for feminism to become something people saw in a different way and something that other people and industries sought to capitalize on.

Would you rather there be fewer feminists if that preserved the movement's meaning?
It's kind of a mixed bag. There's the feminism that's a bright and fun and sexy kind of identity, but there's also the feminism that's not pretty. We still have these really scary, really fundamental inequalities, so really, to me, it's not about if feminism being trendy is a good or bad thing. It's more like, how can we harness the trendiness of feminism and take it beyond selling stuff to people? It's still not a done deal; we still have issues to resolve, and they're not all something that can be marketed to people.

What feminist issues have been lost to the movement's commercialization?
It's not that they were lost... they were probably never really on the mainstream radar to begin with. But a lot of [the less commercial issues] certainly have to do with the lives of women who, for instance, are not working in corporate jobs that can be "leaned into" like Sheryl Sandberg said. [These issues] are about women only being able to access really low-wage, at-will employment in fast food or factories or waitressing, where the conditions are such that no matter how hard they work, they're still living in poverty and vulnerable to sexual harassment and predation and unfair wages and the inability to be given time off or time to breastfeed. These are realities that have always existed for women, but this kind of upscale, individual-power-focused feminism has really made it so that those aren't topics that are out in front of us as much as they should be.

One phenomenon that has received a lot of attention is the use of sexualized images as a means of empowerment—for example, Kim Kardashian's nude selfie. Do you think women showing off their bodies can be feminist, or is that just marketplace feminism at work?
Certainly, in Kim Kardashian's case, she is herself a brand. She's not about women's empowerment on a grassroots, societal, or global level. She's about women's empowerment such that it's her career and she makes money off it. If Kim Kardashian didn't look like Kim Kardashian, she would not be posting nude selfies and calling them empowering. There certainly have been movements that have used the unapologetic presentation of female bodies as empowering, but I'm a little bit skeptical about the aims of Kim Kardashian's naked selfie. To me, it was much more about her own personal brand than it was about liberating all women.

It's not that we should censor or be down on individual women for doing things that make them feel empowered, but the larger question shouldn't be about individuals. It should be about systems. Why do we live in a world where the easiest way to be empowered is to put your naked body on display when that's not true for men? Why is that something we commodify? Why do we have such a limited set of options to begin with?

What would empowerment look like without these cultural constraints?
It's almost hard to imagine because, if you really think about it, most of women's public lives have been lived in a marketplace setting. As long as there have been feminist movements, there have been institutions and industries that try to capitalize on them right away and try to turn systematic issues into ones that are individual.

I think a world in which we think of empowerment more holistically would be one where we talk about women being empowered by things that don't have to do with their beauty, that don't have to do with things that explicitly mark them as female.

Where do we go from here, then? Is the goal to move beyond marketplace feminism, or should we just embrace it?
I certainly see its upside. Anything that gets feminist concepts and the importance of feminism in front of a critical mass of people is great. I just don't think it can stand in for a more wide-reaching feminism. Ultimately, I would like to see marketplace feminism just be a continuation of past feminist movements and encourage people to look deeper: What isn't being addressed by ads? What issues are we not getting when we just hear famous people talking about their stances on feminism? For me, it's about critical thinking. It's about identifying what can be changed by marketplace feminism and what can't be changed and looking for ways to boost awareness and actions around things that are less newsworthy, less attractive, and less trendy.