Excerpted from Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine edited by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler. Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler. Published in August 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
the aztecs had quetzalcoatl and the underworld of Tlalocan. The Egyptians had Isis and Osiris. The Greeks had Homer. The Elizabethans had Shakespeare. We have American Idol, Us Weekly, and Angelina Jolie.
Actually, when Bitch was born we had Beverly Hills, 90210; Reality Bites; and Mademoiselle. It was 1996, but even then, before the popular advent of the Internet, reality TV, and blogs, pop culture comprised our contemporary oral traditions, shaped our modern myths, and provided us with our gods and goddesses. As freshly minted liberal-arts college graduates with crappy day jobs and a serious media jones, we were prime targets for movies, TV, ads, and glossy magazines, all of which fell over themselves telling us how to dress, what to eat, where to work, where to go after work, whom to lust after, and how to lust, period. More than that, they sought to tell us—as they seek to tell everyone—who we were.
The thing is, we pretty much already knew who we were—or at least who we weren’t. We weren’t breathy, baby-voiced Kelly, using her bruised-blonde shtick to steal Dylan away from Brenda. We weren’t Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls, shtupping Kyle MacLachlan in a pool in hopes of career advancement. We weren’t the waifish, expensively clothed girls draped mournfully across the pages of Vogue and Bazaar. We weren’t even Xena, warrior princess. What we were was curious about what those fictional women and their representational peers had to tell us about our cultural take on femininity, “proper” male and female behavior, and women’s place in the world.
We were also obsessed with how pop culture treats—and by “treats” we mean ignores, sidelines, and denigrates—feminism. The mid- to late ’90s saw the rise of so-called postfeminism. The concept wasn’t necessarily new; it was associated with postmodernism and French feminism, and introduced to nonacademics in a 1982 New York Times Magazine article titled “Voices From the Post-Feminist Generation.” But now, all of a sudden, there were books about postfeminism, references to it in film and literary criticism, even an entire website called the Postfeminist Playground where a group of women wrote about sex, culture, and relationships from a standpoint that assumed a world where the gains of feminism were unequivocal and its goals roundly met.
Postfeminism is, perhaps not surprisingly, very similar to old-fashioned antifeminism; at bottom, it suggests that the culture at large is just fine and that our pervasive, ongoing struggles with, for instance, workplace equality or work/family balance aren’t societal problems—they’re personal ones. And winking slogans like “Postfeminism: Boys Like It” revealed an image of feminism and feminists that was still loaded down with some very familiar, very unattractive baggage. The term was (and still is) an insult to the legacy of feminism, an eye-rolling suggestion that we need to get over it and move on, already. But postfeminism can exist only in a postsexist world, and we’re not there by a long shot.
If we were, feminism wouldn’t still have this persistent image problem. A gorgeous woman like Ashley Judd can be loud and proud about being a feminist—even appearing on the cover of Ms. in a T-shirt reading “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like”—but when tasked with conjuring up feminism, most of the mainstream media still sees lumpy, frizzy, hairy she-trolls advancing with castrating knives in hand. It’s this persistent misconception that sometimes makes our f word seem so much more controversial than that other one. Every young feminist has a story about the time she had a run-in with it. Maybe it was chatting with a high-school classmate about an upcoming march for reproductive rights, only to hear her deliver the gentle dis: “Well, I believe in equal rights, but I don’t need to march for it.” Maybe it was overhearing a male peer complaining in the college dining hall, “I’m here to learn, not to hear about women’s issues.” Maybe it was a new friend responding to an offhand comment about not fitting the girly-girl mold with, “You’re not one of those militant feminists, are you?” As twenty-three-year-old women in 1996 (and as thirtysomethings now), we found it ridiculous and enraging that such simple concepts—that women deserve equality, that gender shouldn’t determine the course of our lives, and that the world we live in is often arranged in a way that does not serve these goals—freak people out so much. And the sparks of indignation we felt ignited a burning need to correct the record about what both women and feminism can and should be.
That indignation is a big part of why we chose to call the magazine Bitch. (If you were wondering about that name, you’re not alone.) We’d argue that these days the word “bitch” is as loaded as the term “feminist”—both are lobbed at uppity ladies who dare to speak up and who don’t back down. This is not to say that Bitch is down with being gratuitously mean or catty; no, we just know that taking a stand is usually more important than being nice. ’Cause here’s the thing about “bitch”: When it’s being used as an insult, the word is most often aimed at women who speak their minds, who have opinions that contradict conventional wisdom, and who don’t shy away from expressing them. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment, thanks. And if we do, the word loses its power to hurt us. Furthermore, if we can get people thinking about what they’re saying when they use the word, all the better. Last, but certainly not least, “bitch” is efficiently multipurpose—it not only describes who we are when we speak up, it describes the very act of making ourselves heard.
That said, we are aware that the word carries a difficult, complex legacy (though the many people who call the office to berate us about the title may think it’s all too simple), as well as the fact that its popularity as an epithet is more sanctioned than ever. And yet we still think, ten years later, that it’s the most appropriate title for a magazine that’s all about talking back.
And what better to talk back to in this intensely mediated day and age than the boundless source of material that is pop culture? Anyone who protests that a focus on pop culture distracts from “real” feminist issues and lacks a commitment to social change needs to turn on the TV—it’s a public gauge of attitudes about everything from abortion (witness all the convenient miscarriages that befall characters torn between keeping and aborting their pregnancies) to poverty (two words: welfare queen) to political power (if Commander in Chief is accurate about nothing else, it nails the fact that our first female president will be scrutinized through the lens of gender every day of her working life), Contemporary feminism has always had ties to popular culture and its representation of women: Gloria Steinem’s first big break was “I Was a Playboy Bunny,” her expose; of the working conditions of the cottontailed waitresses in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs; two of the highest-profile early women’s-lib actions were a protest of the Miss America Pageant and a sit-in at Ladies’ Home Journal.
The notion at the heart of Bitch is simply this: If the personal is political, as that famous phrase goes, the pop is even more so. And like that other maxim, its truth doesn’t mean that we can ignore the other things that are also political. On the contrary, they all go together—living-wage campaigns with critiques of Maid in Manhattan, antiviolence organizing with questions about why the Lifetime channel loves its women so victimized—informing each other to keep this movement vital. The world of pop culture is, in a metaphor that has turned out to be all too close to literal, the marketplace of ideas; if we’re not there checking out the wares, we won’t be able to respond effectively—or put our own contributions on offer.
At the time we first ventured into the Xerox-and-pasteup world of zine making, we were frustrated readers as much as burgeoning activist writers. We wanted to read something that would put the lie to the cliche; of young women the nation over saying, “Well, I’m not a feminist or anything,” before voicing their desire for equal treatment. We wanted to read something that would call the news media on its ghettoization of feminist viewpoints and its vicious stone-casting at women like Anita Hill and Patricia Bowman, who stood up to abusive behavior from a future Supreme Court justice and members of the Kennedy family, respectively, and were dragged through the mud for their efforts. We wanted to read something that talked about why all the actresses on the cover of Vanity Fair and Details and all the female musicians on the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone were dressed in lingerie with their mouths hanging open. We wanted to read something that talked back to the forces that had been talking to us for years: the ones telling us and countless others that, say, men are useful only for the two-carat diamonds they provide, that without children our lives will be sad and incomplete in spite of dazzling careers and intense friendships, that consumer freedom is just as good as social equality.
We realized that if we wanted to read something like this, we would have to write it ourselves.
As the magazine took shape, we saw in it the potential to be more than a forum to air our complaints—we saw that it could be an agent of real change. If we asked more girls and women to stop and think critically about the pop culture they’re encouraged to consume unquestioningly, we figured that maybe in some small way we could contribute to changing its messages. If we could encourage a generation of young women and men to look at the culture around them through a lens that prioritized gender representations, they’d be inspired to protest that culture—and maybe by the time those people became ad executives, TV producers, and studio heads, they’d be creating a pop culture that truly reflects all genders accurately. We wanted to remind people, ourselves included, to ask questions about the messages in their media and to speak up—to each other and to the corporations and culture makers behind those messages.
We still do.