Feminism and Pop Culture

Seal Studies


By Andi Zeisler

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Whether or not we like to admit it, pop culture is a lens through which we alternately view and shape the world around us. When it comes to feminism, pop culture aids us in translating feminist philosophies, issues, and concepts into everyday language, making them relevant and relatable. In Feminism and Pop Culture, author and cofounder of Bitch magazine Andi Zeisler traces the impact of feminism on pop culture (and vice versa) from the 1940s to the present and beyond. With a comprehensive overview of the intertwining relationship between women and pop culture, this book is an ideal introduction to discussing feminism and daily life.


For my first and favorite MTV-watching partner:
my father

MY NAME IS ANDI, and I’m a pop cultureholic. I subscribe to twelve different magazines and have piles and piles more gathering dust in various parts of my house. I have elaborate plans to someday make sense of the hundreds of books and CDs I own, but for now they sit on shelves and in storage receptacles crying out for order. I have a uselessly encyclopedic memory for bands, album and song titles, and lyrics that came about because I spent much of my first two years of high school hiding out in the library and reading back issues of Rolling Stone. My computer brims with podcasts and blogs that would require eleven more hours in each day to keep up with, but even if I had those extra eleven hours I’d likely spend at least eight of them watching TV.
I’m lucky, however, because I can legitimately say that keeping up with popular culture is my job. Twelve years ago, I cofounded Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture with my high school friend and fellow pop junkie Lisa Jervis. Lisa and I were both obsessed with how women were represented in pop culture. On every channel, in every magazine, in every darkened movie theater, we saw the way pop culture limited women’s roles—they were girlfriends and victims, hookers and corpses, sex bombs and cock teases—and we wanted to talk about why. As ardent feminists and voracious readers, we were primed to dig into some analysis of how feminism had affected pop culture and vice versa, but apart from some deeply academic (and thus somewhat inscrutable) papers and books, we couldn’t find much. And so we decided to write our own. We started Bitch as a zine in which our love of pop culture and our dedication to feminism could mingle, and in the process we tried to reframe pop culture: No longer a guilty feminist pleasure, it could be a locus of activism. We wanted to talk about why women rarely appeared on the covers of Rolling Stone or Spin and why, when they did, they were invariably missing most of their clothes. We wanted to talk about why daytime talk shows treat teen girls pursuing sexual pleasure as a problem to be contained. We wanted to talk about why the unisex Big Wheels of our youth had been replaced at the toy store by gender-specific pink “Princess Coaches” and blue “Rough Riders.” We wanted to talk about the fact that pop culture was not just the fluff that came over the airwaves and through the newsstands but rather was the material from which young people’s impressions of their world are molded.
I’m not totally sure when pop culture took over a significant chunk of my own social education, but I do know that, as for many women, my discovery of what I came to know as feminism was sparked by pop culture—pop culture involving Burt Reynolds, to get embarrassingly specific. I have no idea what I was watching around the age of seven—a TV show? a movie?—but the image that shocked and enraged my young self was that of Mr. Reynolds entering a bathroom in which a woman was showering, popping his head behind the shower curtain, and snapping a photo of the unsuspecting lady. Folks, I was livid. At an age when nothing seems more private than nudity, and nothing more undignified than having that nudity exposed, I wanted to hunt down Burt Reynolds on behalf of that showering gal and kick him in the shins, repeatedly. It would be years before I read texts and novels that articulated the pain and powerlessness women experience from sexual harassment and assault—works such as Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye—but in that moment I was ready to start fighting so that no woman would ever again have to know the violation of being surprised in the shower with a flashbulb.
Through my years editing Bitch, speaking at colleges, and talking with fellow pop-loving feminists, I’ve heard many stories in which a girl’s simmering anger at being catcalled on the street, belittled by a male teacher, or simply made to feel like “just” a girl was later made clearer through a snippet of film dialogue or a passage in a book. Popular culture has become our common language, and to become fluent in it is, like it or not, a key part of making sense of the larger world. Pop culture is also a key route to making the concept of feminism—which still manages to send many women and men into a kind of nervous tizzy—both resonant and relatable. Perhaps the most gratifying part of my work has been seeing others make connections between popular culture’s representations of women and girls and the need for feminism—not as a lofty, highfalutin, political movement but as a part of everyday life. I regularly read letters from high school girls saying things like, “You know, I thought I was the only one bothered by [name of TV show or movie], but I’m so happy to know I’m not alone,” and from adult women and men saying they’re happy to have a way to talk with their daughters about sexism in a contemporary context. Letters such as these are the best proof that offering a feminist critique of pop culture is, unfortunately, a job that still needs doing.
In outlining the long and often contentious relationship between feminism and pop culture, this book only scratches the surface of its history. There are places where I’m sure I’ve left out something important or defining. So if you, like me, are a book-collecting, magazine-subscribing, TV-obsessed, feminist pop omnivore, I probably don’t need to tell you to look at this book as just the start.


So: Pop Culture. Let’s Define It.

Actually, this is quite a bit easier said than done. Definitions of popular culture depend on who’s defining it and what his or her agenda is. In a purely literal sense, popular culture is any cultural product that has a mass audience. In Shakespeare’s time, it was the theater. In ours, it’s everything from Top 40 radio to The Simpsons to Paris Hilton. But historically, pop culture grew out of low culture, the uncouth counterpart to so-called high culture. If high culture comprised the art, literature, and classical music made by and for the world’s educated elite, low culture was the baser stuff with which the masses contented themselves. As the phrase “pop culture” gradually came to take the place of “low culture,” it was defined more by what it wasn’t—elegant, refined, erudite—than by what it was. Mass culture that supposedly engaged the prurient interests and visceral (rather than cerebral) urges of people assumed to be ill educated and unworthy of “real” art. Museum exhibits were high culture, comic books were low; literature was high culture, pulp magazines and novels were low. As the Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “The masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” High art was supposed to entertain, yes, but it was also supposed to inform, enrich, and inspire. It was considered enough, however, for popular culture to simply amuse.
Thus pop culture came to be understood—and, by many, looked down upon—as that which entertains masses of people by “distracting” them and by calling on their common references. (“Entertaining,” of course, is a subjective word: I, personally, am not entertained by Sylvester Stallone movies, but even though I’ve never sat through the entire length of one of them I cannot deny knowing the names of at least eight. Why? Because Mr. Stallone’s oeuvre entertains enough other people that his movies have become part of a lexicon of our culture.)
The economics of pop culture further complicates defining it. Popular culture is available to anyone with the money to access it. In Shakespeare’s time, that meant a sausage merchant might take in a performance alongside an aristocrat if both bought a ticket. These days, the symphony is still considered high culture—but what about symphonies that give free concerts in public parks attended by people who drink beer to the rarefied strains of Dvorák? We pay to consume pop culture: $10 for a movie ticket, $17.95 for a CD, $4.95 for a magazine, $75 for a Broadway play, $50 per month for cable TV and Internet access. But we’re also sold to popular culture via its dependence on advertising. Advertising didn’t come along, after all, because producers of radio broadcasts and television programs decided they wanted to break up an hour by telling listeners and viewers about products they could buy; those broadcasts and programs existed so advertisers had an easy vehicle with which to peddle their wares.
This book focuses on American pop culture, so it makes sense to point out here that the United States—while obviously not the only nation that produces pop culture—leads the world in its export. Pop culture has replaced more tangible products as the United States’ biggest export, and as countries such as India, Malaysia, and Russia have replaced state-owned broadcasting channels with those that are privately owned, our cultural reach into other continents has deepened. Even ill-gotten American pop culture is flourishing abroad—the growth of both technology and piracy worldwide has led to a booming trade in illegal DVD sales and unlicensed movie broadcasts.
Our pop products—from Mickey Mouse to Michael Jackson to Levi’s—are cultural, and sometimes literal, currency in other countries. But the things the United States is selling so cheaply to these new capitalist markets aren’t necessarily our best efforts. It can be disheartening to hear that a show such as Baywatch is the most-watched TV show the world over, or that girls in Fiji—a nation that has historically prized plump bodies—began suffering from eating disorders shortly after the island nation introduced U.S. television in 1995. But such information also reinforces the idea that pop culture, entertainment or not, is absolutely crucial to how people understand and live in the world. It may be just as critical in shaping societies as the more prestigious offerings of high culture.

So What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Pop Culture?

Well, we’re talking about television. We’re talking about movies. We’re talking about radio. We’re talking about MTV, NBC, BET, VH1, and HBO. We’re talking about websites and LiveJournals and sports radio. We’re talking about fashion magazines and celebrity tabloids. We’re talking about board games such as Clue and Monopoly, toys such as Barbie and Bratz, online pursuits such as Doom and Second Life.
We’re also talking about things that were in no way created to entertain us but that nevertheless become part of our mass consciousness: social and political events that stand as touchstones of collective experience—the Vietnam War, the impeachment hearings of President Clinton, the horrors of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina—as well as coverage of these events on daytime talk shows, nightly news, and everything in between. As we talk about these events—and dissect the meaning of how others talk about them—those very conversations become pieces of popular culture: Think Anderson Cooper’s excoriation of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina, or Jerry Falwell’s assertion that “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians” were responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
And we’re talking about the commercial forces that inspire and encourage us to open our wallets in pursuit of visceral pleasure, personal expression, and group identity—the beauty advertising that tells us that a certain foundation will imbue us with confidence, the car commercial that appeals to our hedonism, the sneakers that are deliberately marketed to us so that we’ll feel stronger and healthier every time we lace them up. Advertising has long been an aspect of pop culture whose focus is deliberately on women. Soap operas, for instance, got their name from the detergent manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble that created episodic melodramas that were broadcast on radio during the day, when housewives were most likely to be listening.
We’re also talking about the way we understand both the time and place in which we live and the way we define ourselves as individuals. When we look at our lives—both personally and collectively—we view them largely through the lens of popular culture, using songs, slogans, ad jingles, and television shows as shorthand for what happened at the time and how we experienced it. When we see a short film in which the Doors song “The End” plays over a black-and-white clip of soldiers in uniform, we understand it as a reference to the Vietnam War, because the Doors were a popular band during the years in which that war took place. That same clip updated to 2006 and accompanied by a song off the Green Day CD American Idiot would just as readily be understood as a reference to the war in Iraq.
And this is why pop culture can never be dismissed as being “just” about entertainment. Take the Vietnam War example: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, rock, folk, and experimental music were some of the chief expressions of an entire generation’s disillusionment with what it saw as a pointless war waged by a repressive, hypocritical government. The music was entertaining in that it was pleasing to the ear, the performers were interesting to look at, and the experience of it was often enhanced by drugs. But the music was also a social statement, and it resonated not only with the people who were making it and hearing it then but with people of later generations who heard it and found that they, too, were moved by the melodies, the lyrics, and the emotions contained within. The same can be said for music that came out of specific cultural communities—hip-hop in the 1980s, for instance, or Riot Grrrl in the 1990s. Each form had its own reasons for existing beyond simply providing the pleasure of hearing and seeing it, and it’s impossible to talk about the music without acknowledging those reasons.
As it happens, the barrier that once existed between high culture and low culture has been whittled away to the thinnest of shards, and the voices that once conferred status on one form over another have become so many and so diverse that they often drown each other out. Shakespeare, Homer, and Dickens were the low culture of their respective eras, yet because of the vagaries of time are considered high culture in ours. Comic books, once derided as pabulum for kids and illiterate adults, have become the subject of retrospectives in major art museums. And television, movies, and music have become fodder for the realm of “cultural studies” at colleges and universities.
Cultural studies is the all-purpose umbrella term for the interdisciplinary examination of a phenomenon or phenomena—a groundbreaking novel, a record-breaking film, an icon such as Michael Jordan—in the context of its social value, influence, and ideology. It’s usually informed by sociology, anthropology, literary theory, political science, and race and gender studies. You may be studying it right now. In any case, the rise of cultural studies—which might encompass anything from African American film theory to Jewish American humor in literature to Madonna studies—has further chipped away at the distinctions between high and low (after all, if you can study it in college, it can’t be too trashy, right?) and made pop culture both past and present an increasingly rich source of fodder for examination and analysis. We are, in the words of Walter Benjamin, still seeking distraction, but pop culture these days seems to demand the concentration he proposed to be the domain of high-art spectators. And it gets it: These days, newspapers such as the New York Times cover TV and blogs with a relish that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago. Most media provide far more space for reviewing television shows than for reviewing literature. And even those who create high art—painters, sculptors, installation makers—use tools of and references to mass culture for inspiration.

So What’s This Book About?

The subject of this book is feminism and pop culture, and it tackles two sides of that topic: first, how popular culture has inspired, fueled, and furthered the women’s movement and feminism; and second, how feminism has been depicted in popular culture. In the most general sense, the aim of this book is to provide a survey of the way feminism has interacted with popular culture as both catalyst and subject.
In the past decade or two, feminism and popular culture have become more closely entwined than ever before. This can in part be chalked up to the growing interest in cultural studies as an academic discipline and the resulting number of academic papers, conferences, and books devoted to feminist analyses of various facets of pop. (The field of studies devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer alone is proof that feminist cultural studies is no passing fad.) But it can also be explained by the fact that, well, there’s a whole lot more popular culture to watch, read, examine, and deconstruct. Television networks are continually expanding their programming slates, and many in the past few years have switched to a year-round programming schedule that makes the phrase “summer rerun” nearly obsolete. Print magazines such as Bust, Entertainment Weekly, Radar, and Bitch are interested in pop culture as common language and as genuine pleasure. And the Internet teems with blogs, e-zines, and social-networking sites that not only dissect existing pop culture but create their own.
There are feminist issues that seem, it’s true, more immediately vital than whether TV or movie characters are reflecting the lives of real women. There are the continuing problems of the gap between men’s and women’s wages, of glass ceilings and tacit sex discrimination in the workplace. There is the need to combat violence against girls and women and promote sexual autonomy. There are ongoing battles, both individual and collective, against limiting cultural definitions of “mother” and “wife.” There’s the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed in 1923, has as of this writing still not been ratified by the United States Congress—meaning that under the U.S. Constitution women are not equal to men. And there are even broader, more global, and more complex issues of what it means to be a woman, a feminist, and a seeker of human and civil rights. But like the disintegrating line between high and low culture, the distinctions between political and pop have also all but disappeared. Pop culture informs our understanding of political issues that on first glance seem to have nothing to do with pop culture; it also makes us see how something meant as pure entertainment can have everything to do with politics.
I first heard the term “male gaze” in high school, and it sent me back to my seven-year-old self, watching Burt Reynolds watch that naked woman in the shower. I got angry all over again. It seems that for many women, a formative experience with that uncomfortable gaze—maybe in an issue of Playboy, maybe in an oil painting in a museum—becomes a defining moment. The male gaze affects how women view pop culture and how we view ourselves. And the concept of the male gaze itself is one that’s crucial to understanding why reforming and reframing popular culture is a feminist project.
What is the male gaze? Put simply, it’s the idea that when we look at images in art or on screen, we’re seeing them as a man might—even if we are women—because those images are constructed to be seen by men. John Berger’s 1972 fine-art monograph Ways of Seeing didn’t coin the phrase, but it did describe the gendered nature of looking this way: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
A year or two later, Laura Mulvey took this concept further in what’s become a well-known work of psychoanalytic film theory, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In talking about the way narrative film reinforces the gender of the film’s viewer using a sequence of “looks,”
Mulvey drew on Freudian psychoanalysis. She wrote that the male unconscious, which, according to Freud’s theories, is consumed with a fear of castration, deals with that fear by seeking power over women, who represent the castrating figure. So by positioning women as nothing more than objects to be looked at, sexualized, and made vulnerable, the male unconscious reassures itself that, really, it has nothing to fear from women. As Mulvey put it:
Ah, the male gaze. It’s the idea that women are portrayed in art, in advertising, and on screen from a man’s point of view, as objects to be looked at. Here, photographer Nick Bruno photographs a model in his studio.
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.
Despite the clunkiness of the phrase “to-be-looked-at-ness,” Mulvey pinpointed the way that images of women onscreen (and, by extension, on television, in magazines, on billboards . . .) seek to align viewers of any gender with the male gaze. So it makes sense that many girls and women grow up seeing images of girls and women the way men do—the images themselves are simply constructed that way. The mother figure is sexless; the cheerleader is hypersexual. The girl alone in her house is a potential victim, the man coming to the door an obvious rapist. Seeing the visual cues of the male gaze, in turn, affects how women understand images of other women on screen.
What “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” didn’t suggest, however, is that perhaps there is a corresponding female gaze that informs how women see images of both themselves and of men and affects the images they themselves create. This, of course, had largely to do with the fact that female screenwriters and directors were few and far between at the time Mulvey was writing—and, in many places, remain so. Since the 1975 publication of Mulvey’s article, feminist and cultural critics have responded to it—both directly and indirectly—with essays and books that attempt to define a female gaze and parse the many ways in which images of women can be claimed as powerful and even subversive. And many more authors, filmmakers, musicians, and artists have made work that takes on the male gaze directly, flipping the script on the likes of Berger and Mulvey with imagery that is unsettling in its confrontation of the looker.
Television was, for most women, the first place they saw themselves represented. And for a long time, they didn’t see much besides loving wives, dutiful daughters, gossiping girlfriends, fashion plates, and the occasional dowdy maid, nanny, or granny. The same went for magazines and books. In Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, author Susan J. Douglas wrote of postwar pop culture and feminism, “Here’s the contradiction we confront: the news media, TV shows, magazines, and films of the past four decades may have turned feminism into a dirty word, but they also made feminism inevitable.” Without pop culture’s limited images of women, many actual women in the real world might not have been inspired to fight for more and better representations of themselves.
What’s Your Worst Memory of Women in Pop Culture?
“There’s an episode of M*A*S*H where the guys rig the shower tent, so when it collapses suddenly while Hot Lips, the only woman, is showering, all the guys are on lawn chairs and snacking on popcorn, enjoying the show. It’s played for major sitcom laughs. I saw this when I was about twelve. I wish I could say I was horrified when I saw the way the show represented the body of the only major female character, but I wasn’t. I didn’t laugh, either. I was simply confused. I suppose this is when I began to see how female bodies were treated as public property in a way that men’s bodies weren’t.”
“When I was growing up, I was a real tomboy—I dreamed of joining the Army or a street gang or a rock band, wore tough muscle tees, cropped my hair, etc. (I totally sucked at sports, but for some reason this didn’t deter me.) As a result, I had all kinds of pop culture dissonances going on—it was the late ‘70s. You can imagine. For some reason, one thing that really got to me was the host on Family Feud, Richard Dawson. He was really oily and would always kiss all of the lady guests. I had this fantasy of going on the show in this Georgia Bulldogs shirt that I owned and refusing to kiss him when he approached me. Somehow, this seemed highly symbolic to me. I would mentally rehearse various ways of rejecting him, up to and including popping him in the nose.”
“I really wanted to watch the movie The Hotel New Hampshire because I had a huge crush on Rob Lowe. So my friend and I rented it. What I didn’t know was that the movie also had this awful scene where Jodie Foster’s character is gang-raped in the woods by a bunch of guys from her school. There was a lot of thrusting, and it was just awful. I went home feeling sick to my stomach, and then I couldn’t even talk to my parents about what was bothering me because saying I had seen a rape scene was too embarrassing—I associated it with sex, and I didn’t want them to know I thought about sex. I have still never seen The Accused because I can’t watch Jodie Foster be raped again.”
“I saw the movie Grease


On Sale
Oct 14, 2008
Page Count
150 pages
Seal Press

Andi Zeisler

About the Author

Andi Zeisler is a writer, editor, and cultural critic. She is the cofounder of Bitch Media, the nonprofit best known for publishing the award-winning quarterly magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, which has over 50,000 subscribers.

Zeisler is extremely plugged into the community of feminist bloggers, her writing on feminism, popular culture, and media has appeared in newspapers and magazines including Ms., Mother Jones, BUST, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Washington Post. She regularly speaks at colleges and universities and holds interviews in various national publications and radio programs around the country. She has been featured and interviewed in publications like the New York Times, among others.

Learn more about this author