photo by Jeff Walls

LONG BEFORE the current boom in online spaces focused on feminist-informed pop culture criticism, Portland's Andi Zeisler co-founded Bitch Media, setting the tone for future blogs like Jezebel and the Hairpin. (Full disclosure: I have written for Bitch.) Zeisler's latest book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, explores marketplace feminism, which Zeisler defines as co-opting "the language and the imagery and the associations of feminism... in the service of capitalism, while not necessarily doing anything that substantial or transformative with the issues that are still really crucial for feminists and for gender equality." It's a consequence of feminism's ubiquity, sea changes in media, and advertisers' realization that the appearance of feminism can move product. Here's what Zeisler told me about marketplace feminism, progressive media, and better things to talk about than whether or not Taylor Swift or Beyoncé are "really" feminists.

MERCURY: I'm wondering if you could speak to how marketplace feminism is enabled by a shallow, hot-take news cycle.

ANDI ZEISLER: A lot of marketplace feminism has really come about because the economics of media have changed so much. There's so much more media, there's so many more content producers, and there's definitely a dearth of original—and certainly analytical—reporting. So what we have is a bunch of content producers... all competing for very similar audiences.

So how that enables marketplace feminism is... something that a celebrity says—like a very, very offhand comment, like, "Of course I'm a feminist, I mean, I love my mother!"—that kind of stuff gets really elevated beyond reason because it's much easier to do that when talking about feminism than to talk about a less celebrity-driven, less sexy, less easy kind of issue.

There are a lot of people getting into so-called progressive media, and definitely women's media in a broad sense, who are doing it because... they've realized that women can make money for venture capitalists, so it's this very cynical thing, where we've seen places like Bustle or Ravishly.

And I'm not saying they're terrible. But I am saying they are two of the chief practitioners of this kind of listicle feminist journalism, where it literally is, like, "Five Reasons Deadpool is the Most Feminist Movie This Month," where it's like, that is just patently false, why are you trying to make that happen? It's not there to really make a difference, it's there to make money, and I think sometimes we can see that difference in media outlets more starkly than with others.

That feeds into our discussion about Willamette Week's coverage of your book.

I'm still unclear whether the writer read the book. The piece really was reverse-engineered to seem like it was indicting me for not being sufficiently jazzed about [Beyoncé's] Lemonade, when I hadn't written anything about it at all. I really can't tell, honestly, because the writer's response was [also] pretty disingenuous. I was gratified to see that I wasn't alone in being like, I don't think this is a book review. I'm still not sure, honestly, what the thrust of the piece was supposed to be, but it was a really good example of exactly what I tried to make a point about in the book, which is that we spend so much time talking about individuals when we should be talking about the systems that make those individuals possible.

You know, I'm not interested in being like, well, here's why Beyoncé is not really a feminist, or here's why Taylor Swift is not really a feminist. I'm much more interested in what does it mean when people [who] are made possible by industries that are intrinsically inequitable... become mouthpieces for feminism and for progressivism? And how far can their feminism and their progressivism really go when it's so entrenched within capitalism and within the need to sell stuff? But I think as a culture we're much more comfortable talking about individuals than we are talking about systems, because then we're not implicated in it as much.

If the writer of that piece had actually contacted you for comment, what would you have told her?

I would've told her that I am very open about thinking that Beyoncé is a much more thoughtful feminist than a lot of people give her credit for. You know, nobody talks about the fact that Beyoncé wrote for the Shriver Report. Nobody talks about the fact that she does a lot of very quiet activism around gender and race and self-sufficiency. So that's definitely what I would've said.

And as far as Lemonade, I would've said it's not really my lane to get into, because Lemonade itself is so specifically about the experiences of black women, the experiences of context—both in the South and in the current political and cultural climate of police brutality and this very weird balance of implicit and explicit racism. I probably would have said I can think of 50 people you should talk to, but none of them are me.

Do you think that white writers and commentators have an obligation to step back with regard to something like Lemonade? Do you think there's an okay way to respond to it?

I definitely think there's an okay way to respond to it, but I also think—again, in both this media and cultural climate—there is really no excuse for non-black writers or commentators to attempt to construct a kind of comprehensive response or put themselves forth as having the sort of one true perspective.

And I know that's not necessarily a perspective that's shared by everyone, but I think when an artist really does make it clear that their piece of art is by and for a specific group of people, people who are not in that group should take that moment to reflect on why they feel it's so important for their voice to be in there. You know, what are they adding?

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