This is an excerpt from the article “Feel-Good Feminism” in the current issue of Oregon Humanities.
Nineteen years ago, two friends and I sat around a San Francisco bedroom, putting the finishing touches on the first issue of our zine. It was a thirty-two-page, black-and-white, hand-illustrated affair centered on feminism, popular culture, and the representation of gender within both. It included articles about television and movies, critiques of sexist ad campaigns, a handful of reviews of the newest books about women and feminism, and more. Bleary-eyed, fueled by Twizzlers, hopped up on idealism, proofreading page after page as Guided By Voices bleated from tinny speakers, the three of us had found a place to channel our anxious post-college energy and the sense that our lives stretched before us, waiting to be filled with purpose.
It was 1995, post–Riot Grrrl but pre–Spice Girls, and it felt like feminism had only recently reentered the pop-cultural imagination. As magazine hoarders, TV junkies, and cinephiles who hated the word “cinephile,” we were ready for it. At a time when the first whiffs of the Internet had just begun to permeate mass culture, the zine we started aimed to take popular culture seriously as a force that shapes the lives of everyone—particularly young women—and the three of us were excited to make a case that the publication was the right place to center discussions about feminism.
Furthermore, we were interested in the possibility of disarming the word “feminism” itself. My cofounders and I were born in the 1970s but came of ideological age during the backlash ’80s, when feminism was seen either as something that had already happened (Those marches! Those groups of women sitting around admiring their vaginas through speculums!) or something that had utterly failed, leaving many women bitter and love-starved (thanks, Fatal Attraction). The zine we started was called Bitch, but we were equally concerned with reclaiming a word in the subtitle: “A feminist response to pop culture.” The zine grew into a magazine. The word “bitch” moved deeper into common parlance, becoming a staple of television and radio, a pangender casual greeting, and a signifier of female “badness.” But the complexity of making “feminist” palatable remained.
And here we are, at the end of 2014. As I write this, it’s been slightly more than a month since Beyoncé commanded the stage at MTV’s Video Music Awards, the word “FEMINIST” spelled out in lights behind her as her song “Flawless” sampled the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.’” The sample concludes with Adichie paraphrasing the dictionary definition of “feminist”: “The person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Bathed in spotlights, the biggest pop star in the world was wearing that maligned label like a curve-hugging designer dress, literally spelling it out for her fans. For once, the hackneyed phrase about having come a long way actually seemed to fit.
Read the rest of this article in Oregon Humanities—it’s featured in their Fall-Winter issue, Quandary. Illustration by Kate Bingaman-Burt.