We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement
By Andi Zeisler
Review by David Wineberg
Is pop culture a better lens than political action to view the state of feminism? Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once posits that feminism has been taken over by Madison Avenue and capitalism, so that’s where we must look. She calls it marketplace feminism, the main takeaway of this book. In a blistering summary of songs, commercials, bands, tv shows, films, novelists, fashion and especially actresses, the book is clear evidence of way too much television intake.
Capitalism and Madison Avenue have been lurking about feminism right from the beginning. Marketplace feminism long ago overcame the stigma of hardcore feminism and has never looked back. Zeisler points out there are all kinds of so-called feminist products that have little or nothing to do with feminism, but they are feminist because the purveyors say so. Right in the commercials and on the packaging. So it must be true.
The basic point is sadly obvious and valid: feminism has been diluted by capitalism. The word empowered is so ubiquitous and overworked “We may have empowered ourselves into a corner”. There’s a whole chapter on the word, and it’s the best chapter in the book.
There appear to be no two people who have the same appreciation of feminism. And everyone seems to criticize everyone else’s definitions, as well as their lifestyles and life choices. The entire book is anecdotes along these lines, and the message from them seems to be Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. Everything counts, from t shirt slogans to song lyrics to tv interviews. And everyone is an expert. And nothing is forgotten - or forgiven.
Zeisler’s style is delightful. Every time I thought I’d had enough, she swung through with pointed, perceptive sarcasm, self deprecation or a caustic observation that kept me reading. She is knowledgeable, thorough, clever and smooth. The book though, doesn’t build. Every chapter is more of the same. And then, after all the enduring criticism of marketplace feminism, Zeisler concludes: “Marketplace feminism has made equality look attractive, sexy and cool.” And she hopes for more. So I don’t know.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.