This interview is part of a multimedia Salon Mix story about how 2016's pop culture feminism wins fueled a backlash against women that Donald Trump rode all the way to the White House. Read the full story, watch a video and read the transcript of Amanda Marcotte's conversation with Andi Zeisler below.
Hi, this is Amanda Marcotte, politics and culture writer for Salon. This is an audio interview with Andi Zeisler the co-founder of Bitch Media and the author of the recent book, “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement."
We’re talking about the recent surge of feminism and pop culture and how that lead to a backlash that helped elect Donald Trump as President. This podcast is part of a larger package on this topic that you can read, watch, and listen to at salon.com
So, thanks for joining me Andi.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Your book really kind of delves into these issues of feminism being kind of a pop culture phenomenon in recent years especially. It used to be kind of unacceptable or at least controversial for female celebrities to call themselves feminist but now you’re seeing it everywhere. Can you talk a little bit about this rise in pop feminism and what do you think is really kind of driving it?
Yeah. I mean it’s sort of interesting. I think a lot of it has to do with activist feminism and the fact that media culture, particularly, the internet, and feminist blogs, and social media have really created, what I think of, is kind of a more ambient feminism than has ever existed. I mean the way that people talk about feminism on the internet and the language we use, that has all has managed to seep into sort of more mainstream conversations about feminism and about issues around things like sexual assault or women in comedy or careers, things like that. Just the fact that you started to see people talking about slut shaming, for instance, in coverage of rape and sexual assault cases. That owes a lot to the feminist internet. That didn’t come out of nowhere. It was one of those things that really sort of simmering under the surface for a long time. I think that a lot of that has really contributed to a culture in which celebrities who are, of course, equally plugged in in many ways to the internet and social media have begun talking about feminism.
And I think the way that people use pop culture as a means to discuss feminist issues and as a lens on things like power dynamics and gender relationships that has really informed a lot of conversation. I think that as time has gone on we do see celebrities who would probably have once distance themselves from anything that sort of whist of politics really embrace concepts that have to do with feminism at least in as much as it extends to things like representation and power and kind of general surface notions of equality.
One thing I realized when I was doing the research for the article that this is attached to is that women still only have like a third of speaking roles in movies and TV shows and yet we are beginning to see indisputably a rise in women occupying the kind of roles that used to be a little bit more reserved for men. Say action heroes. Right? "The Force Awakens" has Rey in the Luke Skywalker role, the lady Ghostbusters, Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games," do you think that this sort of thing is kind of enhancing this notion in the general public that women have kind of — that feminism has made some real strides, at least culturally?
Yeah. And this is something that has had a name for several decades. Marjorie Ferguson called it the feminist fallacy. And it’s the idea that the representation of women in more roles and in bigger, more prominent, stronger roles, the idea that it translates into power on other levels that aren’t necessarily within pop culture and media. And I do think it’s important. I absolutely think representation is incredibly important. But I think we often take for granted the idea that representation of women in greater numbers or in different kinds of roles or in roles that are typically reserved for men, can stand in for a more systemic kind of change. What we’re seeing I think, is that that’s not necessarily true. But because pop culture and media have such pride of place in our culture, we start pointing to those, as examples, that women are equal. You actually hear people say like, “Well, you know, we’ve got Oprah, so, of course, women can do anything.” Or, “We have the first female presidential candidate for a major party.” “What are you people . . . What are you complaining about, women are equal now?” There is this sense that this most prominent outliers are actually the same as like a critical transformational, foundational change, which is definitely not the case.
I brought you on to talk about the way that 2016 ended up being a backlash year against feminism. The election of Donald Trump, it’s very hard to deny that he not only is a misogynist, he admitted to sexual assaults on tape, he then beat out the first female candidate for president.
There’s a very gender backlash-y aspect to this election. A lot of his most fervent fans, especially among the younger men, especially online, are very explicitly anti-feminist. They seem so angry that women in their opinion have come so far and they even go so far some of them as to argue that women are somehow gassing men out, blasting them, overdoing men, over-coming men, right? Some are beating men.
It’s funny because you look out into the landscape and what you see is that women’s . . . the pay gap is still high, women’s healthcare has gotten a little better, but we still have gaps there. Women are more likely to live in poverty. Women are more likely to have all these negative outcomes. In a sense, that hasn’t changed. Where do you think that this notion that all these men have that women are somehow making all these sudden gains over night coming from?
It’s a perception fallacy. It’s the idea that when you don’t see women in these positions or you don’t see them in public life or you don’t see them in prominent roles in movies, when you do start seeing them, men really tend to overestimate how much representation or how much presence women have.
When people start hearing women’s voices or seeing them in the same spaces where they’re used to seeing men being dominant, there becomes this fear that there is an imbalance. That people are being outnumbered. We’ve seen this a lot over the past couple of decades with stories about the supposed “boy crisis” in schools and especially in higher education. Where it’s not necessarily that the number of men enrolling has changed, but the number of women enrolling has increased. You get these headlines about women leapfrogging over men in the pursuit of higher education.
Like you said, this social and political climate for the past couple of years, has just been such a perfect storm of this kind of aggrieved white-male entitlement that really anything that could be perceived as an overture to social justice or to writing representational wrongs is going to really upset a lot of people.
I’m sure a lot of people listening to this are probably going to be like you know we are in a country right now that’s in serious crisis. We’ve just elected Donald Trump to be president, so why are you talking about Hollywood movies? I think the critical thing that we need to talk about here is that these debates over "Ghostbusters" and "Star Wars" and video games and all these other things that have been these culture war flashpoints on these issues of representations, they have been politicized towards Donald Trump. There is no doubt about this. The harassment campaign against Leslie Jones of "Ghostbusters" was orchestrated in large part by a Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, who has close ties to the Trump Campaign and presumably to the Trump administration.
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, he calls Donald Trump, “Daddy,” or he did.
Yeah, he does.
Which is creepy in its own way. A lot of this has to do with this self-perceived underdog identity that a very large and very loud group of white men have embraced in response to again to this perceptual fallacy that women and people of color are somehow taking over and displacing them. Whether it’s in Hollywood or on TV or in politics or on the internet. I don’t think that we can really underestimate the level of fear that that’s caused. Yeah.
Why do you think that so much of that anxiety and fear gets directed through movies and TV and music discussions? Why do you think that there’s such a concentrated effort to sort of have that discussion in those areas as opposed to things like real world stuff like jobs and education and things? Why is so much of it about Hollywood?
Well, there’s a couple of reasons. I mean the first is that everything else seems so overwhelming and so sort of impossible to penetrate. I mean most people wouldn’t know where to start. But Hollywood, especially now, has become a lot more accessible. It’s become a lot more important and it’s become a much more prominent conduit by which we talk about things like politics and values and ideals and bigotry and things like that.
You know pop culture has always been one of the key ways that people sort of define themselves and identify who they are and who their people are and what their affinities are for. I think just the sheer amount of pop culture and the position of privilege that it holds in our cultural discussions, that’s really just changed so profoundly just in the past 10 or 15 years. Then the other reason is that it’s just sexier. It’s so much sexier to talk about Hollywood and representation and stories than it is to talk about the sort of like bloodless jargony policy stuff that makes up politics. It’s just more attractive and easier in a lot of ways.
Is there anything we can do about this? You see a lot of articles now that even from liberals, though I will point out mostly white-male liberals, saying it’s time to draw up identity politics liberalism. But as far as I can tell, what these conservatives and these reactionaries consider identity politics liberalism is that Beyoncé gets to be on their TV at all.
Yeah. I mean I find it incredibly suspicious. And I am also old enough to remember that in the early 1990s when these same arguments were being made when political correctness first began to be demonized and people started talking about the chilling atmosphere on college campuses of talking about multi-culturalism. And you know what? It didn’t work then and it’s not going to work now. The idea that people want to believe that the world was somehow better when we weren’t talking about these things is just that’s the biggest fallacy of all. If marginalized people don’t speak up, whether it’s about policy or representation or police violence, nothing’s going to change. It really is this very head-in-the-sand approach to progressivism that has certainly been a future of the progressive movement for decades. But, I don’t think you can really look around be like, “Well, that works,” because it didn’t.
Yeah. It might work for the people making this argument, but not for anybody else.
Right. Yeah. I mean, it makes them feel comfortable, it makes them feel right.
I guess where you should end on is, where do we go from here? How should we think about these issues in the age of Trump?
I think so much of the problem right now is that people who really didn’t think it could happen, who assured everyone else that it couldn’t happen, kind of brushed off the concerns of the people, mostly non-white and non-male people, who were saying, “Of course, this could happen, it’s happened before. Why wouldn’t it happen now?” I think the way that we talk about media, the way that we talk about news and the way that we brush off things like pop culture as unimportant and not influential really should change because there are connections and trajectories to how these things really enabled the machine that that got Trump elected. But yeah, critical thinking, media literacy, being able to see what ends are served by certain narratives, what stories are encouraging people to think and believe. All that stuff is incredibly important.