Book Review: We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler (2016)

June 15th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A smart, funny look at the commodification of feminism.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Within a very short span of time, feminism has come to occupy perhaps its most complex role ever in American, if not global, culture. It’s a place where most of the problems that have necessitated feminist movements to begin with are still very much in place, but at the same time there’s a mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism that positions it as a cool, fun, accessible identity that anyone can adopt. I’ve seen this called “pop feminism,” “feel-good feminism,” and “white feminism.” I call it marketplace feminism. It’s decontextualized. It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably feminism’s most popular iteration ever.

“The vote. The stay-at-home-dad. The push-up bra. The Lean Cuisine pizza.”

— 4.5 stars —

When We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement first crossed my radar, I was intrigued but also worried; the book’s description sounded like it could easily devolve into a chiding of Millennials by their older, second-wave sisters for not doing feminism right. (Think: Gloria Steinem’s recent statement that young women’s support of Bernie Sanders is merely a ploy to meet boys and get laid.) Then I saw that Andi Zeisler is the author, which mostly put my worries to bed: I’m a longtime subscriber of Bitch Magazine, which Zeisler co-founded, and it’s pretty trenchant, on-point, and welcoming of diverse voices. As is We Were Feminists Once which, as it turns out, is a smart and funny look at the the commodification of feminism, both in recent times and historically.

Bolstered by capitalism and neoliberalist policies, “marketplace feminism” is the repackaging of feminism as something that’s solely personal vs. political. This “feminism” is decontextualized and depoliticized, made soft and nonthreatening for mass consumption. It is a feminism “in service of capitalism.” With an emphasis on personal choice as opposed to equality and liberation for all, this feminism asserts that all choices are equally valid; a choice is feminist as long as a self-proclaimed feminist (or any woman) is the one making it, as though the choice to wax one’s body or take your husband’s surname or even to marry at all is made in a vacuum. (Enter one of my favorite references: Charlotte York’s desperate declaration, “I choose my choice!,” upon quitting her beloved gallery job after marriage.) Values and ideology become so much products to pick and choose from, as if they were different brands of conditioner. Worst still, feminism itself is presented as a product in need of branding.

So we have feminism (and less threatening code words, such as liberation, empowerment, girl power, and choice) used to sell everything from cigarettes to yogurt, celebrities to thousand-dollar networking conferences. Companies like Estée Lauder and Revlon support cancer research through their charitable arms – while also pushing products that contain known carcinogens. Dove implores women to embrace their bodies through its Real Beauty campaign – and yet creates new problem areas to which they have conveniently devised a solution. (Soft armpits, really?) Perhaps the most egregious example comes from Walmart, which launched the Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative in 2012 – not long after the Supreme Court killed what would have been the largest-ever class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against the company. (If you want to “empower” women, Walmart, why not start with equal pay in your own damn company?)

Zeisler roughly structures the book around various forms of media: advertising, movies, television, celebrities, the news media, music, and the beauty industrial complex, with a fair degree of overlap. As a book nerd, I kind of wished she’d looked at feminism in fiction – especially given the proliferation of “strong female characters” in YA science fiction/fantasy – but I get why she didn’t: these same concerns are mirrored in other forms of media.

While the scope of the topic is pretty large, she does a good job of distilling it down to its most essential parts, and providing timely and relevant examples. (If you’re paying just a little attention, no doubt you’re already familiar with many of the campaigns, products, and kerfuffles referenced in these here pages.) Despite the depressing nature of the subject, Zeisler’s writing is witty, funny, and engaging. More than once I found myself snorting aloud.

It’s also worth noting that, just as feminism is not only about the individual, Zeisler avoids laying the blame on individuals who make “unfeminist” choices (or celebs for their ill-informed riffs on feminism; “hating the player and ignoring the game,” as it were). Getting a nose job, binge watching The Bachelor, or pursuing a modeling career doesn’t make you a “bad feminist”; however, dismissing the context in which these choices are made and validated (or not) does mean you may be an uncritical thinker, at the very least.

As an ethical vegan, I can’t help but compare the two: being vegan in a speciesist world, and being feminist when sexism and misogyny still run rampant. Given our limited choices, it’s impossible to be 100% vegan, to avoid all animal-based products and exploitation altogether. Tires typically contain animal-based stearic acid; medications, including life-saving ones, are tested on animals; and those of us with companion animals must make the difficult choice between feeding them vegetarian, vegan, or omnivorous diets. So you do the best you can, trying to live in accordance with your values as closely as possible.

Likewise, Zeisler isn’t asking us to give up potentially problematic entertainment, fashion choices, or hygienic practices. Do what makes you happy! Just do it through a critical feminist lens, and try to avoid trampling over other women in the process.

To this end, I do wish she’d offered some possible solutions. To be fair, the problem is so vast, it’s hard to know where to start. Social media has proven a powerful platform for pushing back against sexism – as we see in some of Zeisler’s examples – yet it often feels like a drop in the bucket.

For instance, Zeisler cites the hashtag campaign #abbiemillsdeservesbetter as a reason why Fox (supposedly) rethought its sidelining of Abbie Mills after the first season of Sleepy Hollow. Since she turned in the final draft of this book, however, Mills was killed off in the season three finale – to further the white, male MC’s storyline, no less. Granted, it was Nicole Beharie’s choice to leave the show – but only after being sidelined, mistreated, and marginalized by the writers and production team. She chose her choice, sure, but why and at what cost?



Part One: The New Embrace
1. The Corridors of Empower
2. Heroine Addicts: Feminism and Hollywood
3. Do These Underpants Make Me Look Feminist?
4. The Golden Age of (Feminist) TV
5. Our Beyoncés, Ourselves: Celebrity Feminism

Part Two: The Same Old Normal
6. Killer Waves
7. Empowering Down
8. The Rise of Big Woman
9. Creeping Beauty

Epilogue: The End of Feel-Good Feminism

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Zeisler is intersectional in her approach to the topic, including women of color, queer and trans women, disabled women, and sex workers in her analysis.

Animal-friendly elements: Welp, Gardenburger gets a mention, but not in a good way:

And, in 2006, as a wave of state restrictions on both abortion and contraception rolled across the United States (including a controversial statewide ban in South Dakota), Gardenburger decided to debut its new tagline, “My Body, My Gardenburger.” It was part of a winky campaign that borrowed famous progressive slogans (“Make Gardenburgers, Not War,” “Peace, Love, and Hominy”), but there had to have been someone working for the company aware that it was a particularly terrible time to be conflating consumer choice with bodily autonomy.

For shame, Gardenburger. For shame!


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One Response to “Book Review: We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler (2016)”

  1. Jojo Says:

    Thanks for the in depth review. I’ve added this one to my wish list!

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