If you’re the kind of person who can’t ignore the endless stream of sexism in pop culture, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by it. And depending on who you hang out with, an inability to keep your mouth shut during a preview for My Super Ex-Girlfriend may not help your reputation as a super fun person. Knowing this all too well, I call myself a feminist anyway. This is partly because I care too much about the implications of Uma Thurman’s scorned woman routine to let it slide. I also think it’s pointless to disassociate yourself from a movement because of other people’s understandings of it.
Why avoid a label because it makes people uncomfortable? At its most basic level, feminism is about disrupting usual ways of thinking, especially about things like gender, race, class and sexuality. There’s nothing wrong with imposing a little discomfort. As Andi Zeisler writes in the new anthology Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine, "the road to feminist consciousness is for many women paved with multiple instances of other people whining, ‘Can’t you take a joke?’” Well, yeah. But it depends what it costs.
Bitchfest arrives in celebration of Bitch magazine’s tenth year in print -- a significant milestone, considering the brief lifespans of so many periodicals. In that time, its print run has climbed to 47,000 from an initial 300, and readership is estimated at 150,000. For the book, Bitch founders and editors Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler have pulled together a few dozen “Best Of”-type essays from past issues, as well as several new pieces. Divided into sections like “Beauty Myths and Body Projects” and “Confronting the Mainstream,” the book attempts to highlight some of the themes that have preoccupied the magazine over the years.
From its start in 1996, Bitch’s purpose was clear: to serve as a space for the conversations and cultural criticism so lacking in the mainstream media, and to be an outlet for the frustrations that come along with caring about culture. This attentiveness to pop culture helped tailor the magazine’s focus, honing in on an area more specific than the easily misconstrued “feminist.” Every issue tests the boundaries of what a “Feminist Response to Pop Culture” might look like.
Where Ms. magazine was for a long time the only game in town, today you can choose your favorite of several overtly feminist magazines. Having never really gotten over the demise of Sassy (circa 1994), I now read many of the publications helmed by women who were inspired by it: Bust, Venus, Jane. Even for the sake of research, reading Ms. can feel like a chore. After 35 years, the magazine would still rather explain to readers why something is feminist instead of showing them, and runs spreads of “notable women” without seeming to notice that you can buy calendars of the same at the mall. For Ms., counting the disappointing number of women in politics takes precedence over recognizing the feminist culture that’s being created all over the country. Feminism can’t and shouldn’t be measured like it’s a key ingredient in a particularly unstable recipe.
In the newer -- and, okay, younger -- magazines, feminism is more a flavor than a focus. Smart, fierce and truly sassy, Bitch’s feminism is my brand of choice. Bust of late is a more casual read, caring about fashion and music in ways that compel photo shoots and models and make up artists more than lengthy think pieces. Appreciation for this depends on your individual priorities, or more likely, the mood you’re in. In a nice surprise, Jane has been kind of great lately, even more so since Brandon Holley replaced founding editor and Sassy originator Jane Pratt as Editor-in-Chief.
As seen next to its glossier sisters, Bitch is not an obvious sensation, not a particular symbol of any scene. Big on analysis, it takes a proudly dorky and often academia-tinged approach. This never translates to misplaced formality or condescension: there’s a real lack of pretentiousness in these pages. Bitch is not a magazine you can sort of like, or half-read, and I’ve never met a reader who wasn’t absolutely rabid in his or her devotion to it. Still, it has always lived up to its name. While the bitching is mostly like having an intense conversation with someone who’s just as fed up with Jessica Simpson clones as you are, the constant emphasis on criticism is exhausting even as it’s validating. But -- unlike Ms. -- Bitch doesn’t feels like homework.
Recurring feature “On Language” has dissected a range of linguistic slips and trends, from everyone’s favorite “like” to the oh-so-loaded “choice,” to “guys,” a word whose inclusivity one writer finds fault with. Themes for each issue, like “Fame & Obscurity,” “Truth & Consequences” and “Pink,” stretch to accommodate disparate subjects without sacrificing coherence. Even predictable elements like interviews and reviews -- which can so easily seem like little more than habit -- surpass the substance of those in many other places.
There’s obviously a difference between reading articles like “Teen Fighting Machine: Why Does the Media Love Mean Girls?” and “The God of Big Trends: Book Publishing’s Ethnic Cool Quotient” in a book versus a magazine. As a book, Bitch’s content is even more earnest than usual. New essays like Brendan O’Sullivan’s “Dead Man Walking: Has Masculinity Outlived Its Usefulness?” and “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” by frequent contributor Rachel Fudge are welcome additions, but I missed the pithy front-of-the-book pieces that ease readers into the more concentrated content. Bitch’s talent for balancing rigorous critique with pleasure may be slightly off in this collection. Somehow it hardly matters. The book’s whole reason for existing is a celebration, and I’m raising my glass to another decade. At least.
Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine edited by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux