Bitching and Talking/gazing Back: Feminism as Critical Reading

By Bailey, Courtney | Women and Language, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Bitching and Talking/gazing Back: Feminism as Critical Reading


Bailey, Courtney, Women and Language


Abstract: The 1990s marked the appearance of a particular image of the feminist in mainstream media-the young, fashion-conscious, pop culture-savvy woman. An alternative magazine called Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture takes on this vision of feminism. Being a "bitch," talking and gazing back at popular culture, is in this case a valued/valuable feminist act and is precisely what Bitch the magazine puts on display. Performing feminism as an act of critical reading through various formal and rhetorical strategies, it works to undercut patriarchal meanings, particularly those surrounding beauty, and to reinforce/create a sense of feminist community. In the pages of Bitch, feminism itself is a site of cultural contest rather than a set of tenets settled on prior to (and outside of) discourse.

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Familiar stereotypes of feminism and of feminists abound in the U. S. American mainstream news media, crystallized perhaps most clearly in the image of a hairy-legged, combat-boot-wearing lesbian with short hair and big biceps. Although such a caricature is not often evoked explicitly in the popular press, it does resonate with common assumptions about what constitutes feminist dogma, namely that feminism entails being anti-marriage, anti-romance, anti-male, anti-fashion, anti-sex, and anti-motherhood. The mid 1990s marked the appearance of another image of the feminist in mainstream media--the young, fashion-conscious, pop culture-savvy, single woman. Variously referred to as "girl power," "lipstick feminism," "power feminism," "the third wave," or even "post-feminism," this woman is well aware of patriarchal conceptions of femininity and uses them in a parodic or hyperbolic manner to her own advantage. She is embodied in such media figures as Monica Lewinsky, Ally McBeal, and the women on Sex and the City. Depending on the commentator, she is either an empowering figure or a sign of complicity with patriarchy and with the forces of commercialism. (Leibrock; Stansell; Bellafante; Millman, Shalit).

One material instance from U.S. American media that seems to have something in common with this newer concept of feminism is an alternative magazine called Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Bitch is published quarterly; for the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the issue from November of 2000 (No. 13). My reasons for focusing on this particular issue are two-fold: first, it is representative of the issues and rhetorical strategies that are typical of the magazine more generally, and second, it demonstrates a particular reworking of the concept of beauty. I will discuss this in more detail below, but for now it is worth noting that this issue's focus on beauty is one of the central ways in which Bitch performs its feminist critique, a critique which distinguishes it from more mainstream women's magazines. It is available in both independent bookstores as well as selected major chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, although usually hidden in the back of the rack behind more mainstream publications. Although decisions about which magazines are placed front and center are no doubt influenced by which magazines sell the most copies, (1) the relegation of Bitch to the back racks has consequences for the circulation of its feminist discourses. Hiding it in this way limits access to Bitch's performance of feminism, qualifying its publicness and working to restrict its circulation to those who might be predisposed to hunt it down. (2)

The magazine's public circulation is shaped and constrained geographically as well. Towards the end of the issue, Bitch provides a list of the bookstores which carry it, highlighting the independents most prominently and mentioning the major chains almost as an afterthought. Arranged by geographical location, this list features mostly metropolitan centers in the U.S. and Canada, including San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Toronto. Thus, this list maps the commodity flow of the magazine, highlighting who has access to it and who does not. …

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