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

we were feminists onceI’ve always considered myself a feminist, ever since I was a little girl. I’ve seen feminism evolve over time, having most of my feminism honed by the third wave of feminism when my fellow Generation X-ers began to make their mark in the early 1990s. This was a time of Riot Grrrl, ‘zines, girls picking up instruments and kicking out the jams in bands like Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy and Bikini Kill. Young women read books like Backlash and The Beauty Myth, and realized when it came to feminism, we still had a lot of work to do. A new teen magazine called Sassy celebrated feminism and soon two other magazines, both which can be found at any major bookstore in 2016, emerged. One magazine named Bust and the other named Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture.

And that brings us to Andi Zeisler’s latest book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. Zeisler is a founding member of Bitch. And boy (um, grrrrl) does she have a lot to say about the current state of feminism, and how it has evolved and devolved in the last twenty-odd years.

Yes, women today definitely have more rights than they had as little as a hundred years ago. We can vote, run for office, get an education, run a company, compete in a sport, get credit in our own names, make reproductive choices and so many other things our foremothers couldn’t even comprehend. But for all the rights feminism has gained, these hard won rights are being contested and chipped away on a daily basis, one being our access to proper reproductive health services. And still others scoff over our concerns regarding rape, sexual harassment, equal pay for equal work, and domestic violence. To make sure we don’t lose these rights we have a lot of nitty-gritty work to do, which includes everything from contacting our political representatives to raising funds for our favorite female-friendly causes.

And believe me, none of this is easy, fun or pretty. It’s a lot of hard work and can be very frustrating. So why worry about doing any of hard work of feminism when we can justify our feminist street cred by using market place feminism to become empowered women? And we become empowered not by voting or writing an op-ed in favor of feminism, but by purchasing the right yogurt, underpants or following celebrities via social media, many who seem to use feminism as a way to further publicize their “brand.”

We Were Feminists Once is divided into two wonderfully written and well-researched parts. Part One, The New Embrace, focuses on how feminism is seen through the lens of Hollywood, celebrity worship, the products we buy, and various forms of pop culture. Part Two, The Same Old Normal, revisits the waves of feminism and how all this market place empowerment is harming women in the long run even though it’s supposed to make feminism look fun and cool because apparently wearing a pair of panties with the word Feminist on them is more empowering than maintaining my access to birth control.

Still, Zeisler is quick to point out, marketplace feminism isn’t exactly something new. It’s been around since the advent of Madison Avenue and furthered sharpened by unfettered capitalism and neo-liberal thinking. Several decades ago market place feminism was expressed by Virginia Slim cigarettes telling us “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” and perfume ads for Charlie and Enjoli. Today we have Dove soap’s “Real Beauty” ad campaigns, Sheryl Sandberg’s admonishments to “Lean-In” and Beyoncé, Emma Watson and Lena Dunham’s embracing feminism as the thing all the cool girls are doing,. Yea, it’s great so many celebrities identify as feminists, but feminism goes much deeper than the fame, wealth and privilege these ladies all share. Feminism also encompasses the intricacies of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation none of which market place feminism examines.

Zeisler writes in a way that is audience-friendly, but not dumbed down. She writes in a way that is never preachy but explains in depth the harm of market place feminism and how it impedes the actual hard work of feminism. Zeisler doesn’t offer any clear cut solutions but recognizing there is a problem is a first step, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who read this book and said, “I thought I was the only one bothered by market place feminism!”

In the end We Were Feminists Once fully exposes how marketplace feminism is nothing but “you go, girl” advertisements, a collection of hashtags and sound bites, celebrity worship, pop culture slim pickings and more power at the cash register than at the voting booth. Feminism, women and society as a whole deserve so much more.

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Book Review: Girls to the Front-The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

girls to the frontMention the term “riot grrrl” and you’ll probably get a lot of different responses. ‘Zines, Doc Martens, punk bands, feminism, baby barrettes, Kathleen Hanna, and writing “slut” on one’s stomach are just a few words that may come to mind. But to write a history of the riot grrrl movement and how it shaped a generation is one hell of an intimidating task. Thankfully, writer Sara Marcus has the ovaries to do just that in her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s young women and girls were sick and tired of the sexism they found in their beloved punk music scene. Girls were to be seen, not heard. They were also furious about a country that seemed to be eroding the rights their feminist foremothers fought for. But instead of withdrawing, these brave women and girls decided to fight back through music, activism, ‘zines and support groups. And they called themselves riot grrrls.

In Girls to the Front, Marcus writes how the riot grrrl movement got its start in the Pacific Northwest and the Washington, DC area and soon grew throughout the country uniting like-minded girls (and some guys, too). Some of them of these riot grrrls became well-known names and were considered the leaders of the riot grrrl movement.

But many were just young girls who finally found something they could believe in, themselves.

Marcus doesn’t solely focus on riot grrls as a whole movement; she focuses mostly on the grrrls themselves the most famous probably being Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail and Erin Smith. She describes in vivid detail how a lot of young women formed their own bands and many produced their own zines. And there were riot grrrl meetings where budding young feminists discussed abusive families, rape and the sexism they dealt with on a daily basis, often for the very first time.

Though the riot grrrl movement turned out to be a positive thing for most involved, it did have its share of problems, and Marcus isn’t afraid to discuss them. The riot grrrl movement was often looked upon as too white and middle-class. The sexism the bands had to deal with at shows was beyond appalling. When the mainstream press finally decided to examine the riot grrrl movement, it simplified it to a bunch of silly girls in vintage frocks and Doc Martens, writing slogans on their bellies and boobs.

But most disheartening was the infighting among the women in the riot grrrl movement. I must admit I cringed when Marcus described how Bratmobile broke up at a gig while playing on stage. And sadly, by the mid -1990s the riot grrrl movement as it was known splintered and imploded.

However, in a follow-up, Marcus tells us what the women profiled in the book are doing with their lives. Some continue to play music. Some are professors, writers and artists. Many are activists. As short-lived as the riot grrrl movement may have been, it turned out to have a long lasting effect on countless women.

Girls to the Front is tirelessly researched, empathetic to its core and brutally honest. At times it can be a daunting read, but it’s also empowering and enlightening whether you were a riot grrrl or not.