Some days are better than others for being a feminist. Today, so far, is a good day.
I started my WORD Saturday with Busted; Charlotte Graham interviewing Debbie Stoller, editor in chief of US feminist magazine Bust. The art gallery theatre was full of people – mostly women – I assume mostly feminists – keen to hear her talk.
Bust magazine has recently celebrated its 100th issue. Stoller says they were often not sure there would even be a next issue. “There’s not a lot of money in feminism, and I often do feel like I’m in the feminism business … We have to pull ourselves up by our bra straps every day.” Funding is a constant issue. Selling ads on the website doesn’t work; Bust has to be supported by readers subscribing to the print magazine in order to survive. “Hopefully print will come back like vinyl.”
Stoller spoke about the way in which women raised on feminism “felt like we were trying to cut our way through the jungle” in terms of finding a way forward in life. “Bridget Jones’ Diary was a revelation, the way it depicted the life of a single 30yo woman.” She and her colleagues started Bust because they wanted to create a mainstream women’s magazine that didn’t make women hate themselves. “Men’s mags were about the pleasure and the power of being male”, so where were the magazines that made women feel good?
Stoller is also known for re-embracing traditionally feminine arts such as knitting, and has written a series of ‘Stitch & Bitch’ books. She says “Martha Stewart is one of my three top feminists” (the other two being Madonna and Courtney Love). Domestic art can be something you do for yourself. But why, as women, when we read about Martha Stewart, do we immediately put pressure on ourselves to do that too? There’s this presentation of perfection followed by a feeling that we have to achieve that too. Is there an equivalent in male culture, asks Stoller? And if not, why not?
Stoller spoke about the ways that, even though young women these days are not reading as many magazines, they’re still getting the same messages of body hatred and the pressure to perform constant perfection from social media: “No one instagrams how well their toenail polish matches the cat vomit”. She spoke about the way feminism in the 1970s classed housework as drudgery, but then women got into the workforce and found that a lot of that was drudgery too. The difference is that paid work is more highly valued, both in terms of money and appreciation. But with Pinterest etc., “private work becomes public”, and can transform domestic work into something publicly and immediately appreciated by others. “I feel that I should have a Pinterest-worthy life.”
Stoller says that the issue of feminism and choice is very difficult. If a women chooses to, for example, surgically enhance her breasts or shave her vulva, is that a feminist action? Stoller pointed out that “women can make choices that help sustain sexism too”, and that “it can makes you feel better in a sexist society to just go along” with the prevailing mode. Just because it’s a woman making the choice doesn’t necessarily make it a feminist action.
The thing that struck me most was when Stoller said “always question how things are assigned value and importance”. She pointed out that things that come out of male culture (like sports) tend to be immediately valued, whereas those that come from female culture (like fashion) are constantly put down. “Why is playing soccer so much more important than being a weaver?”
Stoller pointed to the abuse US actor Lesley Jones has recently received as an example of the sexism and racism still active in our society. “It’s a really important moment … Solutions start with awareness and acknowledging of the problems … Mainstream media is site of change and power now, not politics.” She has hope that the world can change for the better.
I’m finding that that hope, tempered with pragmatism, is emerging as a common theme across WORD Christchurch 2016 – particularly in the 2050 session yesterday discussing climate chaos. We should have hope for the future, contingent upon us all pitching in to help to make that change happen. Something for us all to consider.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Debbie Stoller will also appear in:
The Sunday Fringe – How to Start a Magazine, Sun 28 Aug, 10am