BOOK REVIEW/Heather Seggel

We’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe

It feels like peak times for feminism right now, doesn’t it? As I write this we’re either going to elect our first woman president or bring on the Rapture post haste; Beyoncé donning the scarlet F has given it all kinds of cred, and everything from perfume to movies can be marketed as feminist, even if exactly how it qualifies is tenuous at best. So, like, Yay! Right?

Not so fast. In We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (Public Affairs Books, 2016), author and Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler argues that the feel-good nature of feminism’s merging with pop culture has largely thrown the people the movement was designed to help under the bus. (Disclosure: I’m a regular contributor to Bitch Magazine, which is published by the nonprofit Zeisler helms.) It’s a bittersweet pill for the cofounder of a magazine subtitled “feminist response to pop culture” to swallow, but her cogent arguments are tempered with biting humor.

The book opens with a look at the evolution of advertising and its relationship to women, which has not always been ideal. Ads for the perfumes Charlie and Enjoli in the late 1970s tried to create a visual shorthand for women “having it all,” but all the ads really made clear was that if you’re a boss in the boardroom, tigress in the bedroom and kickass mom, you probably need perfume to cover the flop sweat pouring out of you for much of the day; that shit is exhausting. Advertising evolved a bit, morphing into what Zeisler calls “empowertising,” ads that may well be artistic and leave viewers with a rush of positive feelings, but that still exist solely to get you to buy Dove soap, or Dove chocolate, complete with affirmations inside the wrapper. Problems arise when we conflate these emotional triggers and the purchases that follow—and they do, or advertisers would drop us like we’re hot—with actually having actually done something positive for women.

The notion that personal choices (to Brazilian wax, or buy and eat those chocolate squares, or do basically anything at all, ever) can be inherently feminist is where things get troubling. Zeisler writes, “We may have empowered ourselves into a corner, with a feminism that holds that no one choice is better than any other choice and that suggesting that it might be amounts to not supporting other women. We all know about that special place in hell.” All the sniping that goes on over whether something is or is not feminist makes for a fun day scrolling around online, but open a tab with a news feed and you’ll notice that women’s wages are stagnant, our bodily autonomy is under near-constant attack by the right wing, and we’re still largely shut out of Hollywood unless it’s as eye candy. It’s also painfully clear that whatever rising tide has been created through empowertising, the boats it lifts tend to be overwhelmingly white and middle-class. “Defining ‘feminist’ as ‘a woman who lives the life she chooses’ is great if you’re a woman who already has choices. But it does nothing for the vast majority on the outside of the conference hall, waiting in vain for that empowerment to trickle down.”

The uncomfortable truth at the heart of We Were Feminists Once is not one devoid of hope, but it does demand reflection and then action. The fact is that feminism is not fun, nor is it supposed to be; merging it with pop culture should have inspired women and men to demand equality, work for paid family leave, and bring to the fore the difficult but desperately needed discussion about violence against women that is only just surfacing after yet another mass shooting by a man who beat his wife. It means voting in mid-term elections, where real and lasting change often happens when nobody’s looking. It means demanding inclusion for people of color and people at every point on the gender spectrum. The people doing this Sisyphean job may not have time to reassure you that your choice to do a smoothie cleanse is a feminist one, because we’re not yet a society that can spontaneously choose full equality into existence. It requires incremental and often strenuous effort. Feminism is a duty; a mission, not a meme.

Heather Seggel is a freelance writer based in Ukiah, CA. She’s currently looking for a day job while working at her dream job. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2016

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2016 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652