Last year, Andi Zeisler—like so many other twenty- and thirty-something creative types these days—decided to move to Portland. Zeisler, co-founder of the famed feminist quarterly Bitch, figured she'd telecommute, and continue as the editorial director of the nonprofit magazine, while her colleagues stayed in the Bay Area.
Fast forward a few months, and Zeisler and Bitch's publisher, Debbie Rasmussen, are unpacking boxes and setting up shop on the second floor of a green building on NE Alberta (above Bernie's Southern Bistro). The publication's art director and development director will arrive soon, and they've hired a local managing editor and administrative assistant. Portland is Bitch's new home.
"The same things that made me want to move here, everyone else was struggling with those things too," explains Zeisler, sitting on a deck in the back of their office. Though their work at the magazine is fulfilling, staffers have "really low salaries and, up until a few weeks ago, no health insurance. We were experiencing a kind of staff turnover that nobody was happy about, including the people who were leaving."
Zeisler and her husband wanted to head to Portland for the lower cost of living, as well as the creative, DIY vibe among many of the city's residents; over the years of working on Bitch, she'd often meet Portlanders, and she fell in love with the city from Oakland.
"It just always seemed like a cool place, where a lot of people were doing creative stuff. Portland has everything that used to make the Bay Area great—without all the yuppie consumerist corporate stuff that has seemingly taken over the Bay Area."
"Everything just kind of fell into place, and it seemed like a logical time to move," adds Rasmussen, sitting cross-legged on the deck near Zeisler (the office isn't quite set up yet—the deck only has two chairs). "It was bumpy for a bit, but I think people are really happy now." They bid adieu to California in the spring 2007 editors' letter: "We're sad to be leaving the Bay Area, a community that's been all kinds of nurturing and supportive, and we'll miss all of you. (Well, except the guy who pees on the mailbox. You we've had enough of.)"
Birth of a Bitch
Bitch started in 1996, the brainchild of Zeisler and two others—Lisa Jervis and Benjamin Shaykin. Jervis and Zeisler had been interns at Sassy magazine. It's been a nonprofit from the start, allowing the publication to funnel money back into the mission, which is to educate, while "inspiring and encouraging people to think critically about the media culture in which they're immersed," says Zeisler.
"We knew our work would be cut out for us," Zeisler says. "We felt then, as we do now, that something like Bitch is part of a larger media diet. It's not going to be everything to everyone. We don't have the reporting heft of Ms. Magazine, or the timeliness of web magazines. We encourage people our age and younger to really make critical thinking a part of their daily lives. So by the time those people became media executives, that would be part of their vocabulary and they would be able to change the paradigm."
Zeisler and her stable of writers turn their critical eye on everything: pop culture, politics, and media. Compared to 11 years ago, there's just as much to keep the Bitch gang busy—hell, there's even more media these days to keep an eye on, when you include YouTube, MySpace, and the blogs, plus a 24/7 celebrity news cycle.
"We often call out things that seem somewhat insignificant in the larger culture," Zeisler says. The current issue, by way of example, includes a piece on the apparent sexualization of My Little Ponies, and a dissection of cosmetics marketing (alongside bigger pieces on "mommy lit" and a check-in with third wave feminists).
"These are things that cumulatively say a lot about how our culture thinks about women and their presentation," Zeisler continues. "It's important not to minimize those things. It's really important to treat pop culture as a real locus of feminist activism because pop culture has really encompassed everything. What used to be a split between pop culture and politics doesn't exist anymore. Politics is pop culture. If we dismiss pop culture by saying you can just turn off the TV, you don't have to read the magazine... we're saying you're soaking in it. That content gets to you whether or not you choose to read it, so let's talk about it."
Lately, Zeisler—who "consume[s] a perverted amount of pop culture"—is tuned in to "the commercialization of the media, like how product placement is used in movies and television. A perennial issue is selling sexuality to young girls and/or selling the sexuality of women—the commodification of women's and girls' bodies. And the issue I'm most attuned to is feminist bashing in the media."
She's also been paying attention to "the perpetuation of stereotypes about gender in the media, about women, but also about men, and about queer people"—like the rampant use of epithets lately by famous folks (Ann Coulter and Isaiah Washington's use of the word "faggot," Tim Hardaway's anti-gay comments, Michael Richards' racist tirade, Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant) followed by "a whole media frenzy springing up around them, without really looking at the larger structure of what allowed them to use it in the first place."
In a decade-plus of publishing critiques and analyses of the culture—plus, last year, a book celebrating Bitch's 10-year anniversary—has society's view and treatment of women changed?
"In terms of the things we cover, it's usually been a question of one step forward, two steps back. For every movie that comes out featuring strong women in autonomous roles, there's been five reality TV shows like The Bachelor. So it's really hard to gauge progress," Zeisler says.
"From a political standpoint, I would say it's gone backward. The attack on women's sovereignty, a woman's right to choose what she wants to do with her body. That part has been really, really disheartening."
Portland's Got the Right Vibe
Bitch is sure to make its mark on Portland—even if the magazine's pages continue to have a much wider, national and international focus. While Portland's already got a healthy independent publishing scene—see the racks of indie publications at Powell's and Reading Frenzy, DIY classes at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, annual zine conferences—and Portland's liberal, progressive vibe means we've also got a healthy feminist bent (backed up by groups like the folks at In Other Words bookstore), Bitch's arrival on the scene will likely give both worlds a healthy kick in the pants.
While another Portland indie publisher, Microcosm Publishing, is leaving town (citing high rents in Portland as one reason), and another Portland-based publication, Herbivore, is scaling back to two book-style issues a year (backed up by amped web content), Bitch's subscriber base is growing, and they're reaching 50,000 readers with each issue.
Though the move to Portland "doesn't lower the cost of business for us," Rasmussen says—and the publication does plenty of fundraising to stay afloat—the magazine has "been lucky." And moving to Portland may free up staff enough to try new things with the magazine to make it stronger.
"We have flown in the face of convention and trends. We do well on the newsstand and our subscription rates are still up, but the problem of our own sustainability is an ongoing one. While we certainly have no intent on ending the magazine, we want to build some sort of fortification by building our website, being a little more innovative, and reaching out to a younger audience. I think that's the direction it's going."
And Bitch plans to pop up all over town, partnering with groups like NOW for events, tapping local volunteers, and—obviously—talking up feminism.
"I did a couple of speaking engagements here in November, and really felt there was a huge—especially among young women—number of people realizing the importance of feminism in our lives. There are many women who get to college and realize, 'I'm still being treated like just a girl or still being told by professors that I should choose a career track that will allow for motherhood'—tacit discrimination that girls have been told doesn't exist anymore, but it does. I've definitely found that feminism as a concept really resonates with them."
Based on the overwhelming and excited response Rasmussen received when they announced their move, it seems Bitch resonates in Portland, too.