Feminist Media in a Time of Economic Trouble

It's been a busy year for Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial director of Bitch magazine.

She gave birth to a son in September. After a catastrophic funding crisis this fall threatened to put Bitch out of print, she took to YouTube to help raise $70,000 to keep the 50,000-circulation magazine alive. And then, this November, Zeisler published her second book, Feminism and Pop Culture, a single-volume historical survey intended for classroom use.

Zeisler said Seal Press contacted her about writing the book two years ago when it started up Seal Studies, a series of accessible texts on progressive subjects for "101 level" classes. (She is also the editor of the 2006 anthology, BitchFest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism From the Pages ofBitchMagazine, with co-founder Lisa Jervis.) In Feminism and Pop Culture, Zeisler covers the feminist significance of American pop culture from the 1940s until today, from pin-up girls and I Love Lucy to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the Spice Girls.

Zeisler spoke with the Prospect about her new book, "sexy" feminist issues, and the fate of feminist magazines like Bitch and Ms. in an economic downturn.

Some might say the subject of Pop Culture and Politics, a feminist analysis of media like Sassy magazine or shows like Sex & The City, is frivolous for students.
When it comes to feminism, there are a lot of internal arguments about what the worthiest debates are. There's this idea that feminism should only have a couple of different issues or focuses. And there's also often a fear that, when you're talking to people who aren't interested in feminism, you have to kind of snare them, and you have to snare them with an issue that won't be perceived as frivolous.

Feminism has such bad PR -- it has such loaded historical associations. As a result, many feminists are so self-conscious about how they present feminist issues. Certainly in the realm of women's studies on the academic level, I think there's a worry that there's too much focus on representations of women in pop culture, and less sexy issues, like labor politics, get lost in "whether The Pussycat Dolls are empowering" or "whether Sarah Palin is a step forward or a step backward." I think it's frustrating! I certainly worry about contributing to that, but at the same time, Bitch's mission has always been to think critically about media. We didn't set out, like Ms. magazine, to cover global issues and the nuts and bolts of women's representation in politics and policy-making.

There's certainly room for all of these perspectives. It gets frustrating when people assume every feminist publication should be covering the same things. To me, that doesn't make sense. I'd rather see them cover different things [because] that helps break down the idea that feminism is a monolith.

How did you narrow down the list of topics for the Pop Culture and Politics book?
It was really fun to write as a survey [of pop culture], but I am definitely aware that people are going to see a lot of holes in it, so I feel like I should apologize in advance.

What do you think you left out?
All of the Seal Studies books follow the same structure -- they have five chapters and a study guide. And I thought, "Oh my god, I'm leaving out huge chunks about women in music" or "women in groundbreaking TV shows." I can just imagine people saying, "She didn't write about Police Woman or Get Christie Love" or "She didn't say more about Ladyfest!" In a survey, there's so much to tackle. ... I want readers to know I'm cognizant of the fact I didn't cover all the pop-culture bases people probably want to see.

Bitch hit some financial problems a few months back. You and publisher Debbie Rasmussen made a video on the Internet asking for $40,000 in donations to print the next issue. You managed to come up with the money and then some, but how will you keep the magazine printing in the future?
We are a nonprofit, and we do pretty regular fundraising campaigns. We're sort of in a constant state of fundraising. This was one where we found ourselves in bit of a cash-flow crisis. Magazine sales are on a downturn because of things like increased cost of postage, particularly for independent magazines, and things like the cost of paper and fuel. Actual costs to print magazines have been increasing for years and years. It definitely puts progressive magazines at a disadvantage.

[This fall] it looked like we weren't going to be able to pay the printer to print the next issue of the magazine. [The fundraising plea] was something we didn't necessarily want to do. We didn't want go with that "nuclear option" and have it be, "This is it! Hey, give us money or the puppy gets it!" We didn't want to have this alarmist call out there. [But] we were also in a position where we literally didn't see any other option because we needed a lot of money fast. It was kind of amazing how it happened -- how we got such an overwhelming response in just a few weeks. It was overwhelmingly humbling.

We worried [because] especially when you have a print magazine, we always hear from people, "Oh why don't you do a Web site because it's so much cheaper?" But we suspected people like the magazine because it is a magazine. One of the things that came through with this fundraising appeal is that people do want the magazine as a tangible product. Getting that outpouring of support made me realize that whatever struggles we have, the magazine is still important to people.

Not all people, though: Tracie, a blogger at the Gawker Media site Jezebel, came out against Bitch's fundraising pretty harshly. She wrote, "For a publication that is so concerned about the way women act and are portrayed in the media, I'm afraid its publishers are reinforcing the negative stereotype that women are shit when it comes to business." Did you expect criticism from feminist-minded blogs like that?
No, not at all, especially not from Jezebel. I don't think Jezebel has written extensively aboutBitchin the past, but I remember they did a similar piece about Ms., which was basically like, "Does anyone still care about Ms?" And it was interesting because they got the same kind of reaction that they did about Bitch -- Ms.may not be the best magazine in the world and you may not like it, but it's really important and it paves the way for stuff like Jezebel.

I don't think Bitch paved the way for Jezebel -- I think Ms. paved the way for a lot more women-specific media than Bitch has. But that attitude of pooh-poohing the gains of feminism -- "I have an umbrella so therefore it's not raining" -- that's the kind of short-sighted, individualist attitude that many people think has hurt the legacy of feminism. Certainly Bitch isn't everyone's cup of tea and feminism isn't everyone's cup of tea and a lot of people who don't consider themselves feminists balk at Bitch .

People who think of themselves as de facto feminists because it just exists in their lives, those people too often don't see a need for a magazine like Bitch or a magazine like Ms., because they think, "Wow, feminism is something that happened, it's over, young women benefit from it, so what's the bit whoop?" I can understand that reasoning, but I [don't] really buy it.

I should note, too, that the response to Tracie's post [on Jezebel] from commenters was very, very supportive of Bitch, with commenters really coming to Bitch's defense and pointing out that Tracie's post came off as petty and mean-spirited.

So is Bitch on steadier ground now? Or will you have to ask for more funding?
The thing this made us all realize is we need to figure out ways of fundraising that don't necessarily involve doing these kind of "disaster" appeals. Obviously, this particular incidence of fundraising has put us on steady ground. We far outpaced what we expected to get -- we raised, so far, almost $70,000, which is really amazing. I think sometimes it's necessary to be that alarmist because the fundraising we normally do doesn't sound that alarm, it doesn't hit a high tenor of need -- it's just "hey, we're a nonprofit, you should really support us."

What we're trying to do going forward is look at ways in which the magazine and the organization can grow without necessarily depending on newsstand sales, because newsstand sales across the board are taking a hit right now, and progressive magazines are feeling it most. Whether that means becoming subscriber-only, or coming out less often, or changing the size of the magazine -- these are all on the table. It's all geared towards making sure the magazine can exist.

Do you think the influence of pop culture waned a bit during this long election season?
No, but I would say what's different now is that politics is in the realm of pop culture more than it's ever been. Pop culture used to be considered low culture and to a lot of educated, cultured people, it wasn't considered worthy of discussion in the same breath as a presidential election. But now the boundaries have become completely eradicated -- you won't have a presidential election going forward where the candidates don't appear on The Daily Show or The Today Show or Jay Leno or in a story in US Weekly.

Also, it's much more likely that young women and young men are talking about presidential candidates in a more savvy way than eight years ago. But when you think about it, that increased visibility is due to popular culture, rather than young people reading The Nation or The Economist. They're not necessarily getting their information from different places -- it's that the information itself is sort of changing.