How the Fall of Bitch Media is a Sign of Disastrous Things to Come.

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S1: That’s it. That’s it.

S2: Welcome to The Waves Slate’s podcast about gender feminism and reclaiming misogynist epithets. Every episode you get a new pair of women to talk about the thing we can’t get off our minds. And today you’ve got me. Heather Schwedel, a staff writer at Slate, and I’m going to be talking to Andi Zeisler, a writer and editor who may be best known for co-founding Bitch Media, which recently announced that it will be ceasing operations in June. Bitch started as a zine in the mid-nineties and went on to influence a generation of feminist media, including the very podcast you’re listening to now. The timing here really stings. One of the publishing world’s most respected, independent feminist voices is closing, just as the country has been plunged into a state of feminist emergency. I’m referring to news that is still top of mind for so many of us. The leak of the Supreme Court opinion that would strike down Roe versus Wade and end federal protection of abortion rights. This is hardly at the time when we want to see feminist media contracting. So we’re going to talk to Andy all about the state of feminist media. What happened to bitch and whether some of the same backlash that led to the end of Roe was a factor. We’ll be back with Andy after a short break. Welcome back to the Waves. I’m joined now by Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Pitch Media. Andy, welcome to The Waves.

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S3: Thanks so much for having me.

S2: Let’s go back for a second to Beaches Origin story, the beginning of it all. Why did you decide the world needed bitch and how did you make it happen?

S3: My two co-founders and I were living in the San Francisco Bay area and we had pretty recently graduated college and we were working day jobs and most of what we spent our free time doing was consuming popular culture, whether that was TV or movies or magazines or books. And we spent a lot of time just talking amongst ourselves about why the sort of pop culture representations we were seeing out there just didn’t seem to reflect what we knew, what we saw around us. Everything still felt incredibly stereotypical, whether it was, you know, Pepsi commercials or Beverly Hills 92 or no. There was so much pop culture that really seemed stuck in gender stereotypes and assumptions. And that was just something we we spent a lot of energy talking about. My co-founder Lisa and I had both been interns at a teen magazine called Sassy in New York City, where we grew up. And Sassy was kind of a cool teen magazine that took a very different approach to talking to young women and men, for that matter, about what was important to them. It was very forthcoming about things like being gay, dressing, how you wanted, even if that sort of flouted gender assumptions. It took a really refreshing approach to Teen Hood, and right around the time we started, Bitch Sassy had been sold to this mainstream publisher. We called it Bizarro Sassy. It became something that seemed to take the aesthetics of what Sassy had been, but superimposed the sort of classic teen girl ethos over it. When we had started, Bitch Men’s was still a wonderful magazine, but it really seemed to dismiss popular culture, but also young women as sort of agents of change. And so we started talking about like, what would a magazine that sort of blended, sassy and men’s look like and what would a magazine that really aim to reach young people by using pop culture as a frame through which to talk about things like gender and power and sexuality and things like that. What would that look like? That was something we wanted to read, but we couldn’t, you know, we didn’t see it out there in the market. So it felt like, well, I guess we need to make the thing that we want to read. And so we did.

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S2: One thing about Mitch that is sort of obviously radical is the title. I think we forget how big a deal it was to title the magazine Bitch. Now you maybe say to your friend, Hey, Edge, but bitch was a bigger deal or it was more transgressive back then. Can you tell me a bit about using it as a title?

S3: You know, a lot of it really came down to the fact that strong women, women who stand up for themselves, women who don’t act the way everyone wants them to. There are a lot of words that aren’t gendered to talk about people who are not acting like you want them to. But with women, it’s it’s like Bitch is always the first one. And growing up in New York City, we had certainly heard it a lot. You know, if you’re walking down the street, someone calls you and you don’t answer bitches is the thing that you’re going to be hearing next. We really thought about the way that there was a kind of anticipatory retaliation to the title. And so we were like, Well, you know, people are probably going to call us that. So we’re just going to go ahead and do it and call ourselves that first.

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S2: What to you, was the platonic ideal of a bitch piece?

S3: The platonic ideal of a bitch piece was was something that looked at a sort of familiar pop culture media product and asked questions that weren’t necessarily asked by by mainstream outlets or a piece that took something that was very popular and pulled out a kind of larger theme of it. A really good example of that is when. Desperate Housewives came on the air and everyone was talking about it and everyone was talking about, you know, these suburban housewives being bad or these suburban housewives being subversive. The pitch that we got about it was about how Desperate Housewives was being framed as something women watched as a so-called guilty pleasure. And so the piece ended up being about how the idea of the guilty pleasure is sort of an inherently feminized concept, this idea that that women consume pop culture in a way that they are sort of socialized to feel guilty about, like, I shouldn’t be watching this. The voice made a big difference. A really conversational tone was kind of a hallmark of the pieces. We really loved a sense of understanding that the concept of a feminist analysis of pop culture was something that a lot of people were going to roll their eyes at and say, Well, why don’t you just change the channel? And sort of engaging with the activity of analyzing itself and looking at that.

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S2: Feminism and its place in the culture changed so much over this period. Did those changes sort of affect the magazine’s fortunes or did being a nonprofit, you know, enable you to to stay pretty safe from all of that? How did that affect things?

S3: Well, when you talk about the changes in feminism during that time, do you sort of mean the the rise of a feminist media and sort of online feminist media.

S2: That and I think its place in the culture in the nineties. Being a feminist was considered sort of alternative in a way that it evolved to sort of not be. It became a more mainstream stance and I think online media was definitely part of that.

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S3: Yeah, I mean when we started Bitch, feminism was sort of had started to re-enter the public imagination by way of things like Riot Girl and Sassy. And that was, you know, after this really protracted backlash to second wave feminism in the 1980s. And so, yeah, I mean, at the time we started Bitch, feminism was still not something that people were, you know, scrambling to associate themselves with. But right. It’s true that particularly with the rise of the feminist blogosphere and social media as well, feminism became something that was demystified for more people for Bitch for a really long time. We didn’t really think of other feminist outlets as our competition. We really treated it as a rising tide lifts all boats. You know, the more feminist media there is, the more feminist there will be. And the more feminist media there is, the less any one outlet will have to feel like it is all things to all people. Because, you know, that’s always tough for a feminist publication. There’s always the sense of like, Well, why don’t you do this? Or Why don’t you cover that? For us, it really felt like the rise of more feminist publications, whether online or offline, was a positive in the sense that it enhanced kind of everyone’s possible media diet.

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S2: In interviews over the last few years, you’ve said things to the effect of that you wished the bitch wasn’t still around, in that the company had managed to put itself out of business because the culture was just so evolved that it didn’t need bitch anymore. That’s not the terms that the company and the project are ending on. Would you liked it to have gone on indefinitely?

S3: When I said that our goal was always to put ourselves out of business, that was certainly tongue in cheek. I think, you know, my hope for Bitch was that it would evolve and continue being an important resource for people who were just starting to form an understanding of and relationship with feminism. There is so much media out there and it is so hard often and I would imagine particularly for young people to figure out what speaks to them and then figure out whether what speaks to them is is even telling them the truth or whether it is a mouthpiece for a larger organization or parent company. That has particular commercial aims. I think having a reader supported non-profit feminist outlet, I mean, having more than one out there. I hope that is always the case. Unfortunately, it just it feels like a particularly bad time for bitch to go under. It’s never been clearer than right now that there is a vast difference between feminism as kind of an aesthetic and feminism as a foundational need and a foundational process of liberatory politics.

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S2: That’s something that I definitely want to get into. But we’re going to take a break here. If you want to hear more from Andy and myself on another topic, check out our Waves Plus segment. Is this feminist where today we’re debating whether asking whether things are feminist is feminist. So we’ll see how that goes. We’re back. And Andy, I want to return to what you were saying about now being such a hard time in media, in feminist media in particular, with bitch being hardly the only feminist publication or independent publication to struggle over the last few years. The writer Jude Doyle wrote a lovely remembrance of Bitch on Medium, which will link to on our show page. But one point they made really stood out to me. They wrote that these closures are a sign of the current anti-feminist backlash and that the shuttering of feminist publications and the impending appeal of Roe v Wade are intrinsically linked. So this might be incredibly naive or failing to see the big picture of me, but I tend to think of bitches situation and others like it as more about the economic realities of the publishing industry, or maybe even consumer fatigue with what you’ve called, you know, feminism as an aesthetic marketplace feminism. So what do you think about that?

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S3: Well, I love Dudes piece. I just thought it was really lovely and I really appreciated that they talked about so many different aspects of what made a bitch different. I agree with you, though, that so much of bitches struggles have always been related to the idea of how people value media and whether they value independent media. It was really never easy financially to be a feminist non-profit. Like none of us got in it for the money. That was never a thing. But over the years, certainly the thing that made us stand out in an increasingly digital marketplace was the fact that we also had a print magazine. But the print magazine became increasingly hard to sustain because the costs of printing kept going up. The magazine distribution process is very arcane and often quite wasteful. And so that in many ways kind of presented us with a real dilemma in the sense that the print magazine was our, you know, our flagship product. But it was also the thing that tied up the most money and kept us from really being able to to develop a lot of our non magazine programming, whether that was, you know, podcast or our campus program. We really had so much invested in the magazine itself and really valued it and knew our readers really valued it. But yeah, the, the economics were, were always against us and were just sort of getting more so.

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S2: So after the announcement was made about closing and there was the initial round of loving eulogies, some former bitch staffers spoke up on social media about working conditions at the magazine and company, basically talking about how overworked they felt. One of them was Marina Watanabe, a former bitch social media editor, and she wrote a thread on Twitter that she ended by asking, Is it possible to be an independent feminist or that exists under capitalism and not have these issues of burnout and overwork? What do you think?

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S3: I mean, I think that’s an incredibly valid question, and it’s certainly one that has come up so many times during bitches life lifespan. And unsustainability isn’t just financial. You know, if if everyone is feeling overworked and everyone is feeling burned out and everyone feels like they’re doing two or three jobs, that’s also not sustainable. I think with nonprofits and often with with workplaces that are by and for women, there can be this sort of dangerous dynamic that you get into of feeling like if I complain that I’m working too hard or I’m not getting paid enough, I am going against the spirit of this project. We were always very conscious of of not wanting to to perpetuate that. At the same time, I feel like increasingly so many media organizations, nonprofit or not, have those problems. It is a problem with capitalism and not just feminism. At the same time, the troubles that bitch has had over the past few years in terms of capacity and money and staff attrition, really did put a ton of pressure on our staff and. I think it is a testament to their excellence as staff and as editors and writers that they continue doing amazing work. But again, I would never argue that that is a good way to run a publication. I think overwork and burnout are really endemic to most progressive organisations and I can’t really say for sure what would solve that. But yeah, I mean I think there’s certainly a way in which feminism and capitalism to begin with are very much at odds in the market and of course in workplaces.

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S2: So another one of the things that we lose when we lose outlets like Bitch is places where young writers can cut their teeth. What advice would you give to a feminist writer who’s just starting out right now and seeing bad news like this in their feeds?

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S3: Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s very difficult. And and really the most rewarding part of Bitch for me and my favourite part has always been working with emerging writers and young writers to sort of figure out what their passion is, what they can write about in a way that no one else can. I do think the question of feminism as an aesthetic versus feminism as a living evolving movement is something that is not necessarily. Offered particular nuance in the digital landscape of websites. It’s really hard to give advice because I don’t think that young writers should feel like they have to have a certain set of politics or beliefs to have a career as a writer. So really, I think the thing that I would say is find something that you can write about in a way that no one else can. And really carve out that place for yourself. That’s harder and harder to do. But I. I do believe it’s possible.

S2: Before we head out, we want to give some recommendations. Andy, what are you loving right now?

S3: So right now I’m loving a new book called Time Zone J by Julie Do Say, who is a French-Canadian comic artist. Julie Do Say is one of the first comics artists I discovered in the early nineties when I was starting to draw comics and was sort of really looking for for women comics to emulate. And she had a comic book called Dirty Plot. Plot is like a French Canadian slang for vagina. And it was just a really fantastic like it was just back then what was called alternative comics. It was just just really, really raw and sort of confrontational and very busy. You know, every panel was just really chock full of of things to look at her sort of confessional language and and sort of recounting of, you know, just being a young woman in a city, drawing comics, interacting with people. I just found it very captivating. And so it’s very, very cool to see that she’s still working and still evolving and just doing this great work. And and I just love this book.

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S2: I am going to endorse a book as well. I want to recommend a novel called Ghosts by Dolly Alderton. The title refers to ghosts as in ghosting, so that should clue you in that this is a novel about modern dating. Among other things. The second I finished this book, I wanted to recommend it to all my single friends because I just think it nails the experience of being a single woman in your thirties, which on a bad day can feel like the absolute worst thing in the world to be. And not just because of the hopelessness of dating, but also because of the feeling that your life is diverging from that of all the coupled off friends and people that you know. And that sounds sad, but I think this book is actually incredibly witty and charming. It’s set in London, so it feels a bit like an updated Bridget Jones’s Diary. Another book I love, but I would say that it’s a little more wise and wistful, so I hadn’t heard of Dolly Alderton or really been familiar with her before reading this novel, and she also has a book of essays, so I can’t wait to read that as well.

S1: But that’s it.

S2: That’s our show this week. The Waves is produced by Shaina Roth. Shannon Palus is our editorial director with Alisha Montgomery, providing oversight and moral support. We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the Waves at slate.com. The waves will be back next week. Different hosts, different topic. Same time. Thank you so much for being a Slate Plus member. And since you remember, you get this weekly segment, is this feminist where every week we debate whether something is feminist? This week we’re talking about this segment itself, sort of we’re getting meta. But I guess the question is, is it feminist to ask whether things are feminist? Andy, what do you think?

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S3: You know, to me, it’s not that it’s on feminist to ask the question. It’s just usually the wrong question depending on, you know, what you’re talking about. A different question or a more productive question might be, how is this feminist or how does this relate to feminism? Or How does this challenge feminist conceptions? I think one of the sort of. You know, for me, kind of unfortunate byproducts of feminism sort of getting trendy is the idea that the feminist qualities of something is about sort of making it, quote unquote, okay to consume. It seems to me that a lot of times when people ask, is this feminist, what they’re saying is, is it okay for me to consume this? Like, Can I feel good about this? And to me, that’s that’s kind of the wrong question. You know what I mean? Like, it feels counterproductive to decide that because you hold a certain set of politics. Everything that you do and everything that you consume must conform to that. All the questions of like, are high heels feminist, are bikini waxes feminist. What they’re really people asking is, Can I do these things? And feel. Okay about myself in relation to feminism. But I think what we’re really talking about is thinking of equating feminism with consumption is maybe the problem here. As is thinking that when you’re a feminist, everything that you do and everything you consume must live up to your kind of ideological standard. I just don’t think that’s realistic. I was married for 15 years. I would never say that marriage is feminist. When I see articles like Why The Bachelor is Secretly Feminist. My first thought is like, it doesn’t have to be like, don’t twist yourself into a pretzel trying to justify something that is clearly not in line with what you want the world to be like for women. It’s okay to say, like, You know what? I just want to watch this dumb thing because none of us are perfect and all of us have have internalized a lot of misogyny. And it’s okay to acknowledge that it just isn’t going to work to try and bend everything to our will. And I don’t think we should have to. I mean, this is really something that is put on women more than anyone else. You know, you don’t see men being asked to justify, you know, their political stances in the context of, like, watching football. You know, I mean, it’s it’s really a misuse of a kind of ideological belief. It grates on my nerves a little bit.

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S2: Yeah. I love that you brought up The Bachelor. Many a feminists.

S3: Sort of.

S2: Secret shame or thing that they are finding hard to reconcile with their politics. I have definitely been there. And I think one reason I like this question about asking should we even be asking if things are feminist is I think I often get distracted thinking about pop culture especially. That’s not feminist. And I really don’t like how this celebrity is, you know, acting and or this storyline in a show and or even just like judging people that I know in real life and really getting pretty far afield from actual feminist issues. Like when I’m on the Internet tweeting, Taylor Swift is not feminist. How is that helping for.

S3: The feminist movement.

S2: Or. Taylor Swift is feminist and here’s why. So I think it’s good to take a step back from that sort of thing. But I also do like asking whether things are feminist or just the whole idea of of bringing the feminist lens to pop culture. That bitch made its mission. I like watching The Bachelor and sort of seeing, you know, this is telling me something about modern womanhood and, you know, modern gender politics and and there is something to read here. So I think you’re right that maybe is this feminist is not.

S3: Always a.

S2: Great question, but it is kind of a simplified version of sometimes an interesting question.

S3: Yeah, I think what the question does is it confuses intent with interpretation. You know, I think it’s possible to put a feminist lens on almost anything. And part of the value I think of feminism, particularly in the social media age, is that so many people were put feminist lenses on things that, for instance, the news media didn’t think about as feminist issues, whether it was like prison reform or immigration, Christian fundamentalism. That really is kind of the value of a feminist lens. But when you take something that was never intended to be feminist, for instance, a show like The Bachelor and sort of judge it on how it lives up to the ideals of feminism, you’re barking up the wrong tree. And I think that that’s something that increasingly in the past several years I’ve seen happening where people get mad at things that aren’t feminist enough when in fact they were never intended to be feminist. Even if there’s a way to look at it through a feminist lens or to ask questions about what it says about gender or feminism, it’s odd to me that so much of discussion of pop culture in the past few years is really conflating feminism and women. So, you know, if you see a movie that comes out or it’s written by a woman or directed by a woman or stars a bunch of women. People. All are immediately going to be like, Well, this is a feminist movie. Well, what if it’s not like it’s fine if it’s not, you know, just because it involves women doesn’t mean it has to be feminist. It’s okay to let things just be what they are. That doesn’t take away from the usefulness of of thinking about them through a feminist lens or about what they the messages they’re imparting. It’s weird to to look at everything with feminism as a kind of static value rather than as something that is an ethos and an ideology that is constantly evolving and that can’t be, you know, contained or defined by one movie.

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S2: This is something I imagine you discuss a lot more in your book. We were feminist once, which reading a little bit about that book is what made me think we should talk about this. So I also wanted to ask, so if someone wants to apply a feminist lens to a show they’re watching, what cute is a better starting point then? Is this feminist like what should we or they be asking?

S3: I mean, I think one one place to start is what is this show? What is this narrative saying and what is its subtext? You know, who is it speaking to? Who is the intended audience? What messages are they intended to get?

S2: Yeah, that makes sense. And we’re learning from the master. Okay, so I think we solved it then. Is there something you’re dying to know if it’s feminist or not? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate.com.