We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement

By Andi Zeisler
PublicAffairs, November 30, 2015, $26.99

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The world of feminism nowadays is… saturated.

Women are leaning in, #girlbosses are getting that money, period-friendly underwear is readily available, #GirlsCan empower themselves with bombshell lipstick and oh so much more.

But, is this feminism?

The rise of consumer culture has created a warped movement that author Andi Zeisler in We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement has dubbed “marketplace feminism” — perhaps adding another term to an already bloated list.

The book goes deep chronicling a fascinating history of pop culture’s co-optation of feminism and the shift from feminism as one of the most hated movements to an iteration where consumerism is key and celebrities and big brands happily drop the f-bomb.

“It’s decontextualized. It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably feminism’s most popular iteration ever,” explains Zeisler. It’s like a frothy feminism-lite that everyone can enjoy!

But it would be silly to dismiss its influence just because, at first blush, it does seem so harmless.

As Zeisler breaks down the influence of advertisements, TV and movies, celebrities and fashion and beauty and the evolution of marketplace feminism, a hollow movement entrenched in capitalism begins to form. We are attaching false labels and notoriety to non-feminist things and actions.

“It can no longer be about who says they stand for feminism, but about how they stand for it,” argues Zeisler.

The facade of feminism is expertly explained in the author’s discussion of Dove and its “real beauty” empowertising. That term is an eye roll in itself.

The first campaign for Dove saw “real women” adorning billboards and commercials and dammit if you weren’t overjoyed by the diverse images and moved by the interviews. It was like a brilliant revelation… right up until the firming cream creeped in.

Zeisler notes that these ads were both a symptom and an effect of marketplace feminism. “By addressing something feminism had long sought to remedy — the narrow prescriptiveness of mainstream beauty standards — Dove positioned itself as a progressive brand, even while performing its ‘firming’ bait-and-switch.”

The main goal was making money, not advancing women. This becomes even more obvious as the outward feminist message of Dove began to slide and its parent company Unilever’s predilection for skin whiteners was revealed.

This huge lack of followthrough is the issue that can’t be ignored. It also spills over into two repercussions: 1. anything claiming to be feminist inherently is, and 2. empowerment is achieved through buying power or economic status.

More to the point, it equates feminism, which is about equality, with capitalism, which is, shall we say, not about equality.

And that there is central to what Zeisler wants us to understand. “Feminism is fundamentally about resetting the balance of power.” 

Implicit in this is the discussion of “choice feminism” which the author defines as the idea that it matters less what you choose and more that you have the right to choose — a concept heavily debated in feminist circles.

I think it’s unfair to paint all choices with the same brush, which, I don’t think the author is doing. As she states it doesn’t make sense to argue that all choices are good simply because a woman can choose them, nor is it logical to say a woman’s choice only affects that woman.

But it is possible for people to know two things at once. For example, some can know about the history of beauty standards and still make an informed decision that wearing makeup is an empowering act.

This is why it was disappointing that the author largely glossed over the discussion of the sex industry.

It’s a pretty big gap to not address sex work, stripping, porn and burlesque especially given the industry is a flashpoint for this discussion on choice feminism and probably the most polarized debate in feminism right now.

I would have liked to read about the intersections between the industry and marketplace feminism, choice and erotic capital from the author’s pro-sex worker rights stance and intersectional lens. 

These days we tend to have a checklist to deem who or what is actually feminist. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is limiting and at times reductive. 

It also brings up the narrative of working within existing structures and being able to provide support as an avenue towards the ultimate goal of system change. Something that’s not readily discussed in the book, but perhaps outside its focus.

Zeisler doesn’t give us the solution to any of the problems she presents, specifically the conundrum of how we can take back feminism or effect change on a large scale without using the current structures.

And, that’s okay. She’s given us a lot in this book and feminism is still out there, lurking underneath all these other iterations. And it gives me hope.

Call me an idealist, but I think marketplace feminism can be a gateway to actual change if those currently wrapped up in it are willing to do the work to get to the next level and dig deeper.

We all had a moment where we decided to call ourselves feminists that was probably somewhere along the lines of what we’re seeing today (mine was definitely Spice Girls).

Pop culture is a significant force in the world, but it is not the pinnacle of feminism. We should not look to brands or celebrities to embolden our choices or prop up our feminism.

Again, it shouldn’t be dismissed, but it shouldn’t be upheld as the ultimate feminist revolution either. 

Zeisler’s refusal to concede feminism to capitalism and urge readers to look behind the progressive drapings is harsh, provocative and necessary.

It’s enough to make you grab your matches and burn the whole damn system to the ground.


Kaitlin McNabb is rabble’s books and news coordinator. She wrote this review at the public library using the library copy while wearing a Calvin Klein bra and Adidas shirt. She understands the irony.

Kaitlin McNabb

Kaitlin McNabb

Kaitlin McNabb is rabble’s news coordinator, book lounge coordinator and moderator of the babble book club. She is currently completing the Editing Certificate at Simon Fraser University, satisfying...