Beware commercialized feminism -- or embrace it?

Laurie Penny reviews Andi Zeisler's ‘We Were Feminists Once’ and considers the progressive dilemma of popularity: how do you turn new popularity into change, when the idea of change is so easily turned into an ersatz commercial product?

As a founding editor of Bitch Magazine, which was first published as a zine in 1996, Zeisler understands the fraught relationship between feminism and pop culture. It’s a relationship of toxic codependency. Activists need the media to help spread the word, even as it pumps out sexist stereotypes; the media, meanwhile, cannot risk losing touch with the zeitgeist. In her introduction, Zeisler describes her book as “an exploration of how the new embrace of marketplace feminism — mediated, decoupled from politics, staunchly focused on individual experience and actualization — dovetails with entrenched beliefs about power, about activism, about who feminists are and what they do.”

However, Penny writes that things have become more nuanced, less monolithic, and that feminists are one again engaging the in the "time-honored tradition" of being too hard on their own movement -- and especially on grassroots creativity that's succeeded despite media indifference.

Granted, as she points out, this newfound feminist populism hasn’t stopped the relentless conservative assault on abortion rights in the United States. Given the tireless work of abortion rights activists, however, perhaps it’s time we stopped blaming feminists for that and started blaming Republicans. The women’s movement has always been good at rebuking itself for every imperfection. The “confidence” promised by Dove body lotion may not be the revolution we have waited for — but feminism could use a little more faith in itself.

Sometimes we don’t know when we’re winning.

When Miley Cyrus described herself as pansexual, I thought it was awesome but that it presented a similar "semiotic" dilemma where everyone's constantly thinking about what it all means rather than what was said. Celebrity self-presentation as queer is easily understood as performance and often assumed to be a cynical commercial act. But it's also worthy in its own right, even if untrue, as an act of affirmation: an empowered willingness to broaden and define our identities irrespective of traditional standards and values, to whatever ends suit the willing. I still can't decide if I think it's bullshit or not, but the point is maybe that no-one should care what I think in the first place.

As of press time, Google will reply "Liam Hemsworth" if you ask it who Miley Cyrus's girlfriend is.

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