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Friday, March 23

Gapers Block

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For eight years Bitch magazine has provided, as their tag line says, a feminist response to pop culture. They use their own sense of style to watch, read and listen to what we are too embarrassed to admit to and snark about it. On November 6th, three writers from Bitch hit the Windy City thanks to the sponsorship of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Marisa Meltzer, Andi Zeisler, and Lisa Jervis were welcomed by more than 50 fans (I'd say readers, but it wouldn't reflect the intense energy in the room) at Barbara's Bookstore on North Wells for a reading and Q&A session. Jervis began by reading from the current issue's (Family: Issue 22) piece entitled "An Open Letter to Carnie Wilson." The column muses about the former Wilson Phillips singer's very public weight loss and how she claims her recent layout in Playboy was for all the fat chicks. Zeisler read the most recent edition of the popular "Jane Petty Criticism Corner," in which the ladies of Bitch continue to ponder what is wrong with Jane magazine. (For a historical perspective on their never-ending petty (and funny) war with Jane, see the winter 1999 issue.) Meltzer completed the readings with a piece from Issue 21, the column "Like It or Not: A fluffy word with a hefty problem" which dealt with the social, racial, and class issue of women using the word "like" in everyday and work speech. Afterwards the fans got a chance to chime in.


Fig1. Staff members of Bitch magazine hold court at Women & Children First.

The ladies of Bitch are laid back, so many of the questions turned into a full discussion with the audience. The first question was about why they named Bitch Bitch. It's a question they must get a lot because they address it on their website. Zeisler commented that it's not Bitch that appears to keep readers from opening the pages, but the word feminist on the cover. This lead someone from the back to ask their advice on whether or not to name their new student art group a feminist art group for fear of keeping some people away. Meltzer, Zeisler and Jervis are unapologetic feminists and the bottom line from Jervis was that once we cede the word feminist and lock it away, the anti-feminists win. Many in the crowd nodded their head and mumbled "yes" under their breath. Asked about using the word feminist in a post-feminist world, Jervis added, "When there is no need for feminism, then we're in a post-feminist world. I don't see that yet."

The ladies of Bitch aren't catty about their "rivals" Bust or Ms either. When asked about them, they replied that we should read them all if we want. Zeisler acknowldged that sometimes reading Ms is like doing your women's studies homework, but she still reads it when it lands in her mailbox. It would make sense that Bitch and Bust can co-exist in the feminist press, Jervis said, they're not like Newsweek and Time battling over readers.

And their readers love them. Bitch receives a fair amount of fan letters and letters to the editor. Zeisler considers their letters section one of her favorite parts of the magazine. "We get one letter about a topic, another reader responds, and so on. It can go on for issues." One topic that generated a lot of mail was the issue that displayed an ad for Babes in Toyland on the back cover. The ad consisted of a woman holding a large purple vibrator. One letter came from a mother of a teen reader who had decided to cancel her subscription. Another came from the U.S. Postal Service warning them about mailing obscene literature without covering ala Playboy and Maxim. In a showcase about how conscious Bitch readers are, some readers wrote in debating the meaning behind the ad. Why was it purple? Why didn't we see her face? Some readers didn't like the ad on the back cover for modesty purposes such as reading the magazine on the bus or not wanting to have to deal with the vibrator question with their 8-year-old child.

Bitch also receives letters of support. In the current issue they have an article about domestic violence, "How Pop Psychology Hijacked the Domestic Violence Discourse." So far the magazine has received only positive letters concerning that article. The piece speaks about how nowadays we see men on shows like Oprah and Dr. Phil discussing their abusive ways. "Feminists and abuse activists have...also been saying...that it's not women's job to change men or educate them. But something is wrong. Men are deciding what is and is not abuse." This statement stems from the glut of male domestic violence experts on TV shows and women playing the role as victim.


Fig2. Editor Lisa Jervis listens to a question from a reader.

Zeisler and Jervis are from Oakland, so the question of "what the hell happened with the recall" came up. They laughed and said it was simple. Non-Californians have a distorted view of California as a liberal mecca. Of course San Francisco and parts of Los Angeles are pretty liberal, but the farming communities and Orange County are very conservative. It was not the conservative coup that the media is playing it up to be. The evening ended with fans chatting it up with the ladies and some snagging autographs on their copies of Bitch.

I was lucky to grab some dinner with the ladies on Friday night. Dinner chat included dishing about the upcoming season two of the Surreal Life, pining for the days of slutty-Kelly on 90210, and the torture of having to catch the El in the dead of winter. It's easy to put people like Jervis, Zeisler, and Meltzer on a pedestal for all the kick-ass work they do and they deserve it. They are down to earth, hard-working, and they get it. I asked them if they could start it all over whether they would do Bitch as an online magazine instead of dealing with printing costs. Zeisler instantly said no. She said she loves tangible reading material and hordes magazines in her own home. I then asked for her view on blogs. The first blog they mentioned was Pound. (As it turns out, Wendy, Pound's author, was at the Women and Children First event on Saturday.) They also mentioned Gawker and Gothamist. Zeisler and Meltzer enjoy the snarkiness of blogs. You can tell these women have a fabulous sense of humor.


Fig3. Andi Zeisler, seated, and Marisa Meltzer discuss the future of Bitch.

Saturday found the ladies of Bitch at Women and Children First in Andersonville at a meet and greet after grabbing some grub at Kopi Cafe. It was amusing to see the ladies seated at a table and their adoring fans crowded around them as if they were some sort of exhibit. The conversation again centered on the meaningfulness of the label feminist. Since Bitch is about pop culture, the ladies were asked what they thought was the most feminist TV show. Jervis began with a nod to the dearly departed Buffy the Vampire Slayer and added that she'd most like to know the best non-anti-feminist show.

Zeisler mentioned she really likes "Gilmore Girls" for its own brand of feminism. She notes that it's a feminism that is so engrained in the characters everyday lives that most people don't recognize it. The discussion had the feel of a bunch of girlfriends gathered around a dining room table talking over coffee -- indeed, some of the crowd was drinking java, and a plate of Krispy Kremes was making the rounds.

When asked what's the next step for Bitch, Jervis said she hopes for a Bitch book with a compilation of past articles. The ladies also mentioned hopes to print Bitch in color. Color would mean glossy paper, and quite a few fans spoke up against it. One pointed out that glossy paper is hard to read while working out -- she said a typical Bitch article can last her whole workout and the gym lights are very bright. I pointed out that their black and white print is excellent for photocopying; sometimes (OK, a lot of the time) there's an article that I have to pass on to a friend or at a meeting. The ladies chuckled at the defense of black and white because they had never thought of it. They added that this is what's great about their readers: they talk back.

I attended the events hoping to find out more about the ladies who publish Bitch. Why do they do it? What do they hope to accomplish? I found out that they are just as cool as one would expect, but more importantly, I found them to be just like me. Jervis and Zeisler founded the magazine with the mission "to be a fresh, revitalizing voice for feminism, one that welcomes complex arguments and refuses to ignore the contradictory and sometimes uncomfortable details that constitute the realities of women's lives." That's a mouthful for the average woman to comprehend, but Jervis and Zeisler are the average woman. Average women with an extraordinary talent to write and hash out feminism's place in pop culture and vice versa. We all have our own extraordinary talent. The ladies of Bitch put theirs to good use. Do I? Do you?


About the Author(s)

Roni writes about feminist issues, her newborn daughter and the Cubs at Goddess Musings.

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