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

Wednesday, June 15th, 2016

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.

(More below the fold…)