Bitch Magazine: Marrying Pop Culture And Feminism

This post is part of our month-long series featuring Greatest Women of the Day, in recognition of Women's History Month.

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"I don't think there was ever another name on the table," said Andi Zeisler, founder of Bitch magazine.

Along with friends Lisa Jervis and Benjamin Shaykin, Andi picked the provocative name, excited by the fact that it was both a verb and a noun and inspired by the way the queer community had reclaimed the word "queer".

"We thought if we could reclaim the word 'bitch,' that would be something," said Andi, 38.

"Clearly we haven't, but we knew at the very least, that it was going to get people who otherwise wouldn't pick up a feminist magazine to pick ours."

Founded in 1996, Bitch has gone from a "zine" photocopied and stapled together by three friends and delivered around San Francisco by station wagon to a magazine with a loyal following.

They just wanted to read something intelligent and accessible, Andi said. "We were very avid consumers of popular culture, and we found it very upsetting that it seemed to be going backward rather than forward in terms of representation of women, gender, race and sexual orientation," said Andi, now based in Portland, Ore.

One glaring example of this she said was a mid-1990s Vanity Fair Hollywood issue, which featured the highest paid, best-known actresses in the business, "and they were all white, and they were all in lingerie," she said. "It just seemed to be such a perfect paradox, they're so successful, and they're just being reduced to objects."

And no one was talking about it.

Discussions about feminism were deeply academic, and discussions of pop culture were fluffy and insubstantial, so they went about marrying the two.

The first issue included a nostalgic article about the way Andi learned about different types of femininity through videos on MTV, cofounder Lisa wrote about the Larry Clark's controversial film "Kids", and there was a piece about how Kelly from "Beverly Hills 90210" always talked in a breathy, girly voice when she was talking to boys and a regular voice when she was talking to girls.

They published the magazine while carrying on with their day jobs until 2001, when a loan from San Francisco's Independent Press Association meant Andi and Lisa could work on the magazine full-time.

Bitch runs as a nonprofit, Andi said, because they knew selling ads in the traditional sense was not going to work. "What we write about involves a critique of ad-driven culture and the way advertisements manipulate ideas about sex and gender and women." Instead, Bitch relies on subscribers, sponsors, and fundraising drives, and said Andi, it's a part of the ethos that may be keeping Bitch alive while the magazine industry struggles.

"The classic ad-driven magazine model was never really that successful for anyone, except maybe the advertisers," said Andi. "I don't feel that losing magazines that really just exist to sell eyeballs to advertisers is that much of a loss."

And, she said, while the Vanity Fair spreads featuring scantily clad women are still an annual occurrence, the fact so many more people are responding to it, online, and in other independent magazines is inspiring. "You can read a hundred different scathing, brilliant criticisms of it, or see a parody of it on a Tumblr," said Andi.

"The conversations surrounding those things are sophisticated enough to almost make up for the fact that the thing itself refuses to change."