Few would deny the power that popular culture and media have over the way we understand and form opinions about the world around us. We consume media almost constantly, perpetually shifting our social and even political beliefs. But how can either modes of influence act as a locus of activism for gender equality?
On Tuesday, co-founder and editor of the non-profit feminist media organization Bitch media, Andi Zeisler came together with students, faculty and members of the USC Annenberg community in the Wallis Annenberg Hall auditorium for a discussion exploring just how pop culture has impacted the many waves of feminist action across history.
The event, titled “Don’t Just Change the Channel: Why Pop Culture Matters to Feminism, Activism and Social Justice,” was opened by director of the School of Communication Sarah Banet-Weiser before Zeisler dove into a presentation hitting eight major points — noting the power behind harnessing pop culture as a positive force in advocating for feminism among other social issues.
Founded by Zeisler and high school companion Lisa Jervis “on the idea that if nobody speaks up, nothing is going to change,” Zeisler said it wasn’t the magazine’s slightly scandalous title that raised eyebrows when Bitch first launched in 1996.
“Having the word ‘feminist’ in the magazine subtitle has been far more controversial than having the word ‘bitch’ in the title,” Zeisler explained. “That’s because the word ‘bitch’, for better or worse, has become part of our cultural lexicon. Yet ‘feminist’ is still one of those words that people find very hard to understand.”
While Zeisler said “really exciting” improvements have been made in the diversification of women represented in pop culture, the everyday sexism seen in the media Bitch originally set out to bring attention to and critique has not completely vanished in the almost 20 years since the magazine’s inception.
“I tend to feel a big part of what people misunderstand about feminism is that it’s still very relevant despite the fact that some of what earlier feminists fought for has come to past,” Zeisler said. “There’s this idea that some women gained some ground in some areas, feminism happened and we’re all done. That’s absolutely not true.”
Now more than ever, Zeisler said we must pay attention to how we consume products of pop culture because, as she put it, the stories media tell are the ones we believe. Presenting images of women in mainstream media to the completely full auditorium of attendees, it became clear that many of the deep rooted stereotypes and narratives surrounding what it means to be a woman in modern society are largely connected to what we see in film, television and music.
The over-sexualization of women in alcohol advertisements, violence against women within the fashion industry and the laser-point focus on female celebrities’ bodies by tabloids were just a small sample of pop culture hypocrisy brought up by Zeisler.
Zeisler also addressed feminism as a trend, recently popularized by Beyonce’s version of female empowerment through music and actress Emma Watson’s #HeForShe campaign to “convert” men to feminism. Although grateful for the revival of gender equality by a more conventional, seemingly less radical group of feminists, Zeisler said it is crucial to remember the corporate motivation behind selling the idea of feminism for profit.
“The aspects of feminism that are currently amplified in media and pop culture are the friendliest and sexiest ones. Popular feminism doesn’t challenge identities so much as it offers nips and tucks to a larger un-feminist status quo,” Zeisler said.
First-year USC Annenberg Ph.D. student Courtney Cox agreed with Zeisler’s assertion that for every two steps made forward in feminism, we often move one step back.
“A lot of people are very excited that feminism is now popular and cool, so I thought it was great to consider what might be negative about mainstream feminism,” Cox said. “It’s useful to think about for every good thing happening in pop culture, there are some bad sides as well.”
But Zeisler didn’t use the presentation to just point out what is currently wrong in the intersection between feminism and popular culture. Technological revolutions by way of the Internet have bolstered feminist activism from grassroot movements to a widespread, digital crusade anyone can invest in.
“The Internet and new technologies have [made] activism not only more accessible, but less of a burden,” Zeisler said of the potential to effect social change through memes and Tumblr posts. “You no longer have to define yourself as an activist to do activism in a consistent and meaningful way.”
Audience members were also able to ask Zeisler questions, spanning topics from celebrity intervention into feminism, the political implications of companies selling feminism and the importance of educating youth on media literacy.
At the core of Zeisler’s presentation was the idea that pop culture’s significance in our lives is immutable and the crucial need to utilize a feminist lens on media to better understand women’s perceived role in society.
“The question at the heart of every wave of feminism has always been, are women human beings with the same liberties and rights as men?,” Zeisler said. “And that question, despite everything that is going on with feminism being a hip new club, is contested every day in politics, in entertainment, the workplace, in court and in academia.”
For those studying media or interested in paving a career in the field, Zeisler offered advice on how to bridge those passions with feminism.
“Figure out what you’re most passionate about because [pop culture] a big subject and it can be pretty daunting. Then figure out how to incorporate your feminism into that” Zeisler said. “These days it’s easier than ever to make your own media.”
Watch the event below: