Culture: Bitching About Gender

Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler (editor), Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006)

Female facial hair, the politics of urination, gay parenting, the racial segregation of prime-time comedy, the gender bias of science—since the mid-nineties, the pages of feminist ’zine-turned-magazine Bitch have been witness to some of the past decade’s most creative indie cultural criticism about the intersections of pop culture, gender, and sexuality. In BITCHfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of _“Bitch” Magazine, editors and Bitch cofounders Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler have collected several dozen of the mag’s most dynamic and contentious essays, featuring subjects ranging from the mundane to the unacknowledged to the disturbing. The result perfectly underscores not only the continuing importance of feminism, but also the value of deconstructing the narrowly defined norms into which our media-saturated society dictates each of us fit.

“If the personal is political,” write Jervis and Zeisler in the introduction to BITCHfest, “the pop is even more so.” Between The Swan, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and media outlets only too willing to hype studies claiming “Housework ‘Reduces Cancer Risk’” (BBC 2004), pop culture, as the articles in BITCHfest _attest, continues to provide new reasons to get out there and “bitch.” Fortunately, the contributors to _Bitch don’t hold back from giving a good tongue-lashing to anything that smells homophobic, sexist, racist, classist, or just plain ridiculous—whether it be “I had an abortion” t-shirts, the increasing use of fat suits in cinema, or the popularity of reality porn.

The book is smartly organized by theme into eight chapters: puberty, identity, feminism, desire, domestic arrangements, beauty myths, the mainstream, and activism. Each of these chapters includes a sharply written introduction by either Jervis or Zeisler, and a few also feature new essays composed specifically for BITCHfest. The articles themselves are organized chronologically by section, making it possible to read them not just for their individual contributions, but also for the way they represent the shifting terrain of society’s stereotypes and the activism that has emerged to challenge them.

For instance, in 1997’s “In Re-Mission: Why Does Redbook Want to Keep Us on Our Backs?,” Amy Harter cuts through a Redbook article that cheerfully endorsed the missionary position (as Harter cites, “the man on the top, the woman looking up at him adoringly”) as the best one for women. Seven years later, Diane Anderson-Minshall has moved beyond pondering the status of hetero sex positions in the mainstream’s imagination to discuss the evolution of the lesbian kiss on prime-time television.

This is not to suggest that any of the articles are dated—just that it’s possible to see in the book a tiny slice of the way pop culture continues to evolve in its (mis)repre­sentations of gender and sexuality. In fact, somewhat depressingly, most of the articles are as timely as ever. With challenges to Roe v. Wade continuing to make headlines, Summer Woods’ 2004 article about the politics and history of the word “choice” remains more than relevant. And, as the media continues to normalize plastic surgery, Julia Scheeres’s 2000 article about the trend of cosmetic vaginal reconstruction seems scarily pertinent.

Some might claim that critiquing pop culture has little to do with creating real, lasting change. And yet, inarguably, pop culture is a ubiquitous force, and turning a critical eye on it can bring the politics of gender and sexuality into an individual’s everyday awareness in a way that legal battles or protests frequently don’t. As Zeisler puts it, “Political idealism and activism are crucial, but pop culture has the juice to bring it to the people.”

The trick, of course, is actually encouraging the media to abandon overly simplified storylines and characters, and to replace them with a diversity of perspectives. And, as BITCHfest demonstrates, Zeisler, Jervis, and the contributors to Bitch are playing a key role in inciting dialogue about just these issues. With a new season of Nip/Tuck just around the corner, gay marriage in the courts, and who knows what other appalling, gender-biased material the media will trot out next, BITCHfest should prompt a flurry of subscriptions to Bitch. I’ll definitely be renewing mine.

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Erica Wetter

Erica Wetter is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.