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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