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Book Review: We Were Feminists Once

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from Amazon: Feminism has hit the big time. Once a dirty word brushed away with a grimace, “feminist” has been rebranded as a shiny label sported by movie and pop stars, fashion designers, and multi-hyphenate powerhouses like Beyoncé. It drives advertising and marketing campaigns for everything from wireless plans to underwear to perfume, presenting what’s long been a movement for social justice as just another consumer choice in a vast market. Individual self-actualization is the goal, shopping more often than not the means, and celebrities the mouthpieces.

But what does it mean when social change becomes a brand identity? Feminism’s splashy arrival at the center of today’s media and pop-culture marketplace, after all, hasn’t offered solutions to the movement’s unfinished business. Planned Parenthood is under sustained attack, women are still paid 77 percent—or less—of the man’s dollar, and vicious attacks on women, both on- and offline, are utterly routine.

Andi Zeisler reveals a media landscape brimming with the language of empowerment, but offering little in the way of transformational change.

“Arguments over whether a movie [or anything else] is ‘feminist or not feminist’ suggest that feminism is not a set of values, ethics, and politics, but merely an assessment of whether or not a product is worthy of consumption.”

    We Were Feminists Once is a documentation of where pop culture and media went wrong in the recent embrace of feminism, written by a woman whose love for both pop culture and feminism made her hope for better things to come out of Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift and Emma Watson’s f-word revitalization.

Andi Zeisler has dared to make an argument that most people shy away from nowadays, because to say it aloud is to face furious backlash: Neoliberalism has hijacked feminism. In the post-Reagan world, we talk about women making “choices” as though every woman – regardless of race, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, or educational opportunities, etc. – is able to choose her destiny without any limiting factors nudging her one way or the other. If women choose to give up their careers to be housewives, that definitely has nothing to do with a lack of maternal leave, a lack of adequate childcare services, or sexist office politics that drive women from the workplace. Instead, it’s their choice, and choice is feminism. Period.

Zeisler remarks that “the insidiousness of [implicit] gender bias – informal exclusion, lack of mentors and role models, fear of conforming to stereotypes – colluded with the ideological spread of neoliberalism to recast institutional inequity as mere personal challenges.” If women now have the right to do anything men can, then the inability of women to achieve equal presence in politics, in art, in journalism, et cetera, has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with individual failure. Women just need to work harder!

We believe simultaneously that anything a woman does is feminist and that nothing a woman does affects the bigger picture. Zeisler points out that our choices are portrayed in media trend stories as being “value-neutral, with no relationship to a larger, indelibly gendered culture.” Women are told to believe that their choices have no impact on the way women are treated in society at large, but Zeisler points out, “Why offer college scholarships or medical fellowships to women, after all, if there’s only a 50 percent chance of a return on investment?”

She covers how advertisements have hijacked the feminist movement, co-opting it for the sake of profit. When literally anything from yogurt to push-up bras to Maxim to Mad Max can be labeled as “feminist,” then effectively nothing is feminist. Zeisler writes, “after all, if everything is empowering, nothing is.”

Zeisler points out that if celebrities can make ‘feminism’ less of a taboo, then that’s great. “But there’s a fine line between transforming the controversial into the mundane and simply refashioning it into a hollow trend, and celebrity feminism is too often falling ass-first on the wrong side of it.” Celebrity feminism risks “reducing [feminism] to a buzzword that will be out of style by the time next year’s awards season rolls around.”

She highlights how celebrity endorsements of the feminist cause require less than endorsements of any other cause. The word itself is enough; anything else might actually be too threatening. Imagine if the war on climate change required only Leonardo DiCaprio going, “I’m an environmentalist!” And then announcing that his next role would be as a heroic CEO of BP, or as a scientist realizing that coal is the energy of the future.

And yet that’s exactly where feminism begins and ends within Hollywood. As Zeisler writes, we get excited over articles like “6 Times Daniel Radcliffe Was Loud & Proud About Being a Feminist,” not asking whether he does anything at all to actually promote equality. This is “setting a low bar and getting excited that it’s not actually touching the ground.”

The media talks about the bravery of claiming the identity, but they’re not interested in what kind of actions one should then take in the name of feminism. Media has long been interested in killing feminism off, in fact, in no small part because the movement scrutinizes media’s role in maintaining systemic inequality.

It was fascinating to read about how the feminism-is-dead myth has been conjured up by the media and sold as reality. Newspapers have gobbled up any study – no matter how botched – that links unmarried women to unhappiness, or independent women to depression. Between 1983 and 1986, 53 featured articles in major U.S. papers bemoaned “the lonely state of career women (and feminism’s role in their unhappiness),” compared with five articles during the previous three years. Anxiety has always been the response to social change, partnered by a desire to quell the ferocity of that change.

As Zeisler mentions, the backlash in the 80s is reminiscent of the more recent Women Against Feminism fad, in which young, mostly white women went to Tumblr with handmade signs that read things like, “I’m against feminism because feminists are guilt of virgin shaming,” or, “I’m against feminism because I only want to be paid as much as a man if I work as hard as one.” Zeisler points out that the media clings to these antifeminism movements because they make for better clickbait than all of the stories out there about feminists working together to make real change. Zeisler writes, “When it comes to women’s and gender equality, backlash will probably always sell better than consensus, individual exceptionalism better than collective effort, and choice better than almost anything else.”

I get a nasty taste in my mouth whenever celebrities talk about feminism in the shallow, often ill-informed ways that they do. Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once helped me understand why.

Highly recommended.

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