fIn We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler deconstructs recent incarnations of feminism, especially as it connects to pop culture and advertising. She mixes acerbic wit and interviews with both fellow journalists and researchers. But the crux of her work is her specific and insightful interpretations of the marketplace, social and cultural trends, and their impact on the short and long-term future of the feminist movement.

If this sounds a little intense, it is. Other times Zeisler tends towards funny while discussing the Spice Girls or granny-pants. But honestly, this book wasn’t nearly as snarky as I thought it would be. I thought discussing pop culture and feminism together would lighten the mood. Nope. In fact, what I learned is that pop culture primarily discounts and undermines feminist goals. Zeisler drives that point home with example after example.

She begins with Hollywood, and this book pre-dated the #metoo revelations. Even so, the discussion of equality in this industry is nothing short of depressing. The way “women’s” movies are denigrated and female writers treated makes you wonder why any women would want to work in Hollywood.

”Empowertising”

Then Zeisler unpacks the relationship of empowerment and feminism. The advertising industry uses empowerment and choice to sell products to women. Apparently it all started in the 1990s with the Wonderbra, which was pitched as a boon for the wearer’s self-esteem. And not for all the men who could now more effectively view her pushed-up boobs.

Television shows haven’t exactly added anything to the advancement of feminism, despite their regular spin to the contrary. The Mary Tyler Moore Show may have been the first show about a young, single, working woman. But it didn’t present an accurate reality for most women. Instead, television white-washed and over-simplified. Mary was white, lived in a lovely large apartment, and didn’t sleep around. She didn’t struggle with paying bills, deadbeat family members, or working multiple jobs just to keep the heat turned on. According to Zeisler, the decades since Mary haven’t improved much.

In fact, reality TV like The Bachelor / Bachelorette have put feminist perspectives on a deep dive. And don’t even get Zeisler started on The Swan. Despite the theoretical empowerment of women, reality TV is more about shaming women for what they aren’t than allowing them a true equal footing. Not very feminist, right?

And this is just part one of the book.

My conclusions

Zeisler lays out the good, the bad, and the ugly. She sees that mud puddle and says, “let’s see how deep it goes.” After reading this book, I’m glad she did. I came up from the mud with my eyes wide open, and ready to more critically analyze the pop culture crossing my path.

I think We Were Feminists Once appealed to me as a former marketing professional. Zeisler examines a dizzying variety of consumer and advertising trends in the lens of feminism. But my background may have also helped me grasp some of her concepts, rather than overwhelming me.

It would be easy to say this is a fundamental 21st-century feminist tome. But I’m struggling to heartily recommend it because parts weren’t very easily readable. On the other hand, if you want easy, feminism isn’t it. The topic itself is complicated and Zeisler lets it be just that. She revels in its intricate layers. Then she clarifies them as much as possible. As she says of feminism, 

“It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable. The root issues that feminism confronts—wage inequality, gendered divisions of labor, institutional racism and sexism, structural violence and, of course, bodily autonomy—are deeply unsexy.”

But, if you care about these “deeply unsexy” topics, I hope you’ll read Zeisler’s book. It’s worth the effort.