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A Nuanced and Fearless Feminism: In Conversation with Andi Zeisler

Growing up, the closest thing I had to organized religion in my house was probably feminism. It was a living, breathing thing.

While other kids watched morning cartoons, I would snuggle in the crook of my mom’s arm and screen documentary shorts that she was considering for the festival she started with a friend in my hometown of Colorado Springs. (The festival is now the longest-running women’s film festival in the world!) I used to perch myself at the top of the stairs, long after I was supposed to be asleep, to listen to the sounds of her women’s groups gathered in the living room below. They alternated between laughing uproariously and an indecipherable but unmistakable dialogue of hushed sacredness. By my senior year in high school, I was stealthily slipping books off of her shelves by Gloria Steinem and others.

It wasn’t just my mom who modeled feminism for me. My dad retired from the male-only business club in my hometown because he said he wouldn’t be a part of an institution that would one day welcome his son, but not his daughter.

So it was with great interest that I learned about Andi Zeisler’s new book, We Were Feminists Once. In it, the Bitch Magazine co-founder argues that feminism has, in a sense, lost its way — becoming more of trendy sound bite than a bonafide systemic movement, akin to what “greenwashing” has done to water down the environmental movement. After devouring it, I decided the best way to help translate its power was to ask her a few questions. Her answers reflect just the kind of nuance and fearlessness that characterizes the whole book.

In this book, your main thesis is that “while feminist movements seek to change systems, marketplace feminism prioritizes individuals.” What role do you see individual consciousness playing, not as an end, but as means to getting to systemic change? Part of the power behind the idea that the “personal is political” is that when one first wakes up to the sexism in her own life, it helps her move along a spectrum of engagement that gets her agitating for the abolishment of sexism in systems.
The process and the results of consciousness-raising are a huge part of feminism, and definitely a place where contemporary feminism is indelibly connected to past movements. I think there is a difference between the individual dimensions of consciousness-raising and the individualistic aims of the marketplace. Consciousness-raising is so crucial because part of its point is to make people understand that experiences or issues they’ve been told are theirs alone — their fault, their doing, their problems — are in fact shared. So, yes, the connection between the realization and the ability or motivation to act can be profound. But the marketplace isn’t interested in shared solutions to systemic problems. Its concern is reaching and profiting from the individual.

You write, “The idea that it matters less what you choose than that you have the right to choose is the crux of ‘choice feminism,’ whose rise coincided with the rapid, near-overwhelming expansion of consumer choice that began in the 1980s.” I’ve struggled with this so much. How does one push back against the idea that all choices are inherently feminist simply by being available to women, without seeming judgmental of other women?
I wish I knew! That was a big struggle for me in writing the book, and is proving to be a big struggle in talking about it. So much of feminism has been defined not by actual feminists, but by people hostile to feminist ideals and movements. It’s almost like there’s more throat-clearing that has to occur before we discuss feminism than there is actual discussion of feminism, sometimes. And that can potentially stymie systemic change.

You write, “The problem is — the problem has always been — that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable.” While I admired your gumption in taking such a clear, unpopular stand, part of me wondered if it was too clean. Feminism’s fundamental goals may threaten the status quo, and therefore be threatening, but who says that being threatening isn’t sometimes fun? Many successful movements have integrated a sense of the absurd, of revelry, of the pleasure that comes from abandoning so-called appropriate behavior, right?
I probably could have been clearer about that, because so much of the fun and joy in my life does come via feminism — the people I work with, the projects I see out in the world, and the people on social media who have what sometimes seems like superhuman capacity for humor and wit in the face of injustice. And you’re right that so much of the feminist activism, past and present, that has led to impact and change has happened at least partly through the vehicle of humor and absurdism. I guess my point about it not being fun is more about the idea that, as a society, we seem to have developed bad reactions to things that seem too earnest and too sincere.

You write of women’s conferences with an understandably critical eye. As someone who has attended a bazillion conferences and had a role in curating and hosting a handful, it felt very poignant, but also a little “above the fray.” What would you say to someone like me who sees her feminist politics being hugely compromised in settings like these, but also sees a lot of good coming out of them? While I share your frustration about corporate women’s conferences, I also think the most systemically focused conferences actually fall into the trap of “preaching to the choir” in a way that’s not productive for the movement either. How does someone like me use my energy wisely when faced with these extremes?
That’s a really fair question, and I’m not sure I know the answer. I hope it doesn’t come across that I’m painting all women’s conferences with the same brush — the ones I am most wary of are the ones that seem to be as much about branding and about bringing women to advertisers as they are about actual networking or resource-sharing, the ones that are basically live, in-person versions of glossy magazines. I know that there is some good coming out of corporate women’s conferences, and I’m not trying to suggest that the shameless marketing aspect of them cancels that out. But I think it’s worth questioning why commercialism plays such a big role in those conferences, and what values that imparts, both to the people who are part of them and to the people who are necessarily excluded.

Surely other movements have had to struggle to find the balance between valuing a more appealing, accessible framing and spokespeople versus maintaining a serious, systemic focus. Who, either now or historically, has done a better job than feminists? What can we learn from them about not letting feminism get co-opted or corporatized into meaninglessness?
I don’t know that it’s a question of who has done a better job or what movement has been able to stoically resist co-optation. But it seems to me that various LGBTQ movements have managed to sustain an ongoing, rigorous critique of assimilation and corporate co-optation on everything from marriage equality to AIDS activism to respectability politics. I definitely think it’s possible, and maybe at some times even desirable, to have parallel spheres in which there’s a highly polished, feel-good vision of change — e.g., “Everyone should be able to marry!” — and a grittier counterpoint of rejecting conformity for more — I’m thinking about the work of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Dean Spade. Not everyone starts at the same place, and it’s important to be able to meet people where they are. That’s why I have grappled so much with marketplace feminism. It serves a purpose as a gateway to feminism. The problem happens when it’s mistaken for the movement as a whole.

You don’t write much about your personal ideology or activism and how it has evolved since landing on this thesis. Has it changed the way you think about or act on your feminism?
Well, my activism has always been chiefly concerned with critical thinking and the need to really be cognizant of what stakes consumers have in mainstream media and popular culture. Definitely in the course of and since writing the book I feel even more strongly about that, because there is just so much more media now than ever before, so much more competition for clicks and eyeballs, and so many more consumer imperatives. So I wouldn’t say my feminism has changed, but my feelings around the importance of teaching and learning critical thinking have intensified.

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