The televised car chase of O. J. Simpson. The catfights on "90210. " The fall of Sassy, teen media's closest answer to Ms. Pop culture in the...
The televised car chase of O.J. Simpson. The catfights on “90210.” The fall of Sassy, teen media’s closest answer to Ms.
Pop culture in the mid-’90s was brimming with riffable material, particularly when it came to women. Andi Zeisler and Lisa Jervis were liberal-arts-educated 22-year-olds living in a run-down apartment on Oakland’s Ruby Street. They had little money and no journalism experience. But they had a lot to say.
So they started writing. About Esquire’s rather one-dimensional feature “Women We Love” and the sorely missed early days of MTV, and its female role models. They went to Krishna Copy in Berkeley, printed hundreds of ‘zines, and sold them at bookstores for $1 each.
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Oh, and they called it Bitch. Yes, Bitch, the feminist response to pop culture. Now in its 10th year, Bitch has a paid staff and a circulation of 47,000. The mag strives to do what Ms., Lilith and other feminist magazines don’t — talk to young women about gender issues in a language they understand.
“Let’s face it, for many people, that’s pop culture,” says Zeisler, now the magazine’s creative and editorial director. Jervis left the magazine three years ago and serves on its board of directors.
Peruse the quarterly, which costs $5.95, and you won’t be hit with ads for eye shadow and convenient companion-editorials on how to apply it. Neither will you be force-fed ideals from a bygone era.
Depending on the issue, you might read a history of Wonder Woman, an interview with a sex worker and why it took “Sesame Street” so long to introduce a female lead.
Even the title, besides its shock value, has an ironic trickiness to it, says Zeisler. They chose it because it piques curiosity about the content, and works double-duty as a noun and a verb.
Jervis, who came up with the title, did so to reclaim the word.
“The word ‘bitch’ is thrown at women who are outspoken and won’t back down from their opinions,” Jervis says. “So if I’m smart and outspoken, and that makes me a bitch, well then fine.”
By Bitch’s second year, the word was everywhere: Meredith Brooks’ song “Bitch” was on heavy rotation, soon after Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book by the same name was a best-seller, and the word was an official part of prime-time television’s lexicon.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it progress, but as far as realistic television, why not?” says Zeisler.
Zeisler, 33, notes positive changes in the ways women are portrayed on ensemble dramas such as “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “Bones.” Those women are certainly a far cry from Mary Tyler Moore.
“You really do get a realistic sense of working women who are consumed with their work and not compromising it for anything else,” she says. “They’re rarely sexualized, and their personal lives are rarely called in as plot points.”
She also loves seeing a good action movie — as more and more of them star heroines.
” ‘Underworld.’ ‘Kill Bill.’ All the Hong Kong action films,” Zeisler says. “Those have always had treacherous female heroines. It’s not perfect, but compared to 30 years ago, when all-female roles in action films had to do with them wringing their hands and waiting for their man to get home, it’s better.”
What does disturb Zeisler, however, is so-called reality TV, specifically the dating shows.
“What those shows are often doing is asking women to humiliate themselves in the service of winning something so intangible, like love, from a man they don’t know.”
The editing often pits young against older, with the latter often portrayed as so desperate as to be unhinged in her pursuit of marriage.
Just another example, Zeisler notes, of the culture’s unhealthy relationship with age, and a fetishizing of youth that blurs the lines so much they’re almost nonexistent.
“It’s alarming to me that Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff are on the covers of Elle and Vogue, magazines for women,” Zeisler says. “Retail stores like Forever 21 and fashion magazines have really turned to fetishizing youth in a way.”
A magazine like Teen Vogue, Zeisler says, is instilling a label-consciousness that is very different from the one she experienced as a 13-year-old. Back then, teen magazines pushed kids’ labels.
“Teen Vogue pushes the same labels on its 45-year-old readers,” she says. “That to me is a dire sign of things to come.”