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How feminism sold out by becoming cool

Review of "We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement" by Andi Zeisler

Beyonce performs at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards on August 24, 2014 in Inglewood, Calif. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

WE WERE FEMINISTS ONCE: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement

By Andi Zeisler

PublicAffairs. 285 pp. $26.99

When Emma Watson delivered a speech at the United Nations in September 2014 encouraging men to embrace feminism, praise for the young British actress was overwhelming. “A game-changing speech,” Vanity Fair raved. “Emma Watson Gives Feminism New Life,” CNN declared. Even this, via Billboard: “Beyoncé Loses Feminist of the Year Title to Emma Watson.” (Apparently there’s a competition going on.)

Andi Zeisler was unenthused. Although Watson’s remarks were eloquent, she writes, “the bulk of the news coverage was about Watson herself and the impact that her identification as feminist would surely have on feminism.” That’s how it is with celebrity feminism, in which “simply claiming an identity that’s feminist can stand in for actually doing work in the service of equality.” Soon after the speech, the “Harry Potter” star announced that her next film would be a “Beauty and the Beast” remake. “What a great opportunity,” Zeisler mocks, “for the newly crowned Top Feminist of 2014 to make connections between her global cause and a story about a woman who falls in love with a man who overpowers her and locks her in a castle! Can’t wait to hear what she has to say!”

It is the fate of every activist to eventually decry the cooptation of the cause. Zeisler, a co-founder of Bitch magazine, has worried for two decades that popular culture is thwarting, trashing or ignoring feminism. But now that pop stars, corporations, Hollywood and Washington are draping themselves in the f-word, she’s hardly relieved. As she explains in her artful and merciless “We Were Feminists Once,” Zeisler fears that “we are letting a glossy, feel-good feminism pull focus away from deeply entrenched forms of inequality.”

This new mutation can be called “marketplace feminism,” the author writes, “a mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism that positions it as a cool, fun, accessible identity that anyone can adopt.” If any purported feminist campaign is touched by corporate or private interests, it is suspect. For Zeisler, feminism is feminism and capitalism is capitalism, and when they hook up it’s just gross.

[Donald Trump on women, sex, marriage and feminism]

She cites, for example, a 1998 credit card campaign playing off the 150th anniversary of the convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. “Now you can celebrate the anniversary of this milestone in women’s rights, and the strength and conviction of the courageous suffragettes involved whenever you use your First USA Anniversary Series Platinum Mastercard,” it reads. “Celebrate women’s rights. Apply today.” Or the 2004 Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, in which the soap company displayed billboards showing women of all ages, sizes and colors. A feel-good effort to undercut arbitrary beauty standards, Zeisler explains, until Dove used the campaign to pitch anti-cellulite cream and armpit-whitening deodorants. “Dove’s stated goals may be sincere, but the company is still part of a system whose bottom line depends on perpetuating female insecurity.”

The author notes that businesses have long deployed feminist rhetoric, as Lucky Strike did when it branded its cigarettes “torches of freedom” for women in the 1920s, but the use of liberationist language in the service of consumerism is rampant today. Zeisler is sick of “empowerment,” a term that is “apolitical, vague, and so non-confrontational that it’s pretty much impossible to argue against.” It anchored Walmart’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which the author derides as an “ass-covering PR campaign” launched in 2011, three months after the Supreme Court quashed a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against the retailer. “Empowerment” is also the hallmark of self-congratulatory female leadership conferences, networking pow-wows with uplifting names such as MAKERS, Thrive and the S.H.E. Summit.

“Make no mistake, these are not events to empower women, but to sell them to advertisers,” Zeisler writes. “. . . It’s a vision of empowerment that, in many ways, erases the presence of anyone who isn’t empowered in the most crucial sense of the word — financially so.” Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” the 2013 best-selling sensation, commits a similar offense, Zeisler contends, leading women “into what appears to be feminism in every way — except for the part where it asks those women to mold their individual selves to an existing, unequal corporate culture rather than collectively endeavoring to change that culture.”

[The book that convinced Dana Perino it’s okay to be a Republican woman]

This book’s critique of “marketplace feminism” offers no wiggle room: If you claim feminism without combating structural inequality, your feminism is counterproductive, prioritizing personal advancement rather than attacking the systems that perpetuate wage disparities or gender-based divisions of labor. And don’t bother suggesting that a movement might benefit from the popularization of its tenets — however superficial the interpretations may be — because Zeisler isn’t buying it. “The diversity of voices, issues, approaches, and processes required to make feminism work as an inclusive social movement,” she writes, “is precisely the kind of knotty, unruly insurrection that just can’t be smoothed into a neat brand.”

Marketplace feminism relies on “choice feminism,” Zeisler argues, the consumerist notion that whatever you choose matters less than your ability to choose. Even Botox injections are marketed with “I did it for me” slogans, attempting to “make an end-run around any existing skepticism about cosmetic surgery, by appealing to free, market-savvy choice and its result, empowerment.” Calf definition, clavicle prominence, the thigh gap, pubic deforestation — all body parts are targeted for improvement and empowerment.

Doing it for you doesn’t make it feminist, Zeisler asserts. Believing so just means you’ve succumbed to “empowertising,” i.e., the advertising tactic of invoking feminism to promote individual consumption.

“We Were Feminists Once” can veer from big-think to small-bore. Zeisler worries that the typeface on the ubiquitous “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts has moved from block letters to “arty, thin, hand-drawn type — a branding shift that involved making the words both less confrontational and more aesthetically attractive.” She trashes Lilith Fair — the 1990s all-female music fest sandwiched between riot grrrl punk and Spice Girls fluff — because it meant that male-dominated music festivals were “off the hook for gender diversity,” as if Lollapalooza was about to book all female acts but backed down after hearing “Building a Mystery.” (Confession: I went to Lilith Fair once in my mid-20s, mainly to show my then-girlfriend what an open-minded boyfriend I was. I may have even said that, thus disproving my point. Still, I never imagined that seeing Liz Phair live would strengthen the patriarchy.)

Zeisler writes in a biting, captivating tone, whether she’s describing Reddit (“notoriously douchey Internet man-cave”), snarking on the popular obsession with Beyoncé’s feminist credentials (“Is she really a feminist? And if she’s not, is it okay that I love her?”), or recalling the boom in early-1990s feminist films (“It was a great time to be a feminist who loved sitting alone in the dark”). Indeed, the prose is so seamless that you find yourself endorsing Zeisler’s role as gatekeeper for a concept she believes has morphed “from a collective goal to a consumer brand.”

That gate is tough to breach. Whatever they say, celebrities are rarely true feminists — “often their knowledge of actual feminist issues is inversely proportional to the reach of their voices.” Opponents of abortion rights are, by definition, out of the club. “A big tent is great and all, but there has to be a line in the sand,” Zeisler writes. And those wishing to join must make sure that they don’t uncritically represent discriminatory industries, such as music or fashion. She praises the move on television toward more black and female faces in lead roles, yet suggests that the shift “may be less a true measure of institutional change than one of big-money potential.”

Doesn’t the fact that there’s money to be made through diverse casting indicate an important ongoing transformation? Zeisler is skeptical. “Some women gaining ground in many areas is not a wholesale feminist victory,” she writes. Besides, she admonishes, “there is a very fine line between celebrating feminism and co-opting it.”

The line between principle and dogma is fine, too. I wish Zeisler had tried harder to reconcile feminism and capitalism. If any cause is to transcend pure activism, it must find occasions to harness the profit motive, not just denounce it. This rapprochement may not be impossible. In her concluding pages, Zeisler argues that “feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard.” But with this challenging book, she’s proved that it can be complex and hard and fun, too.

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