Who’s the Bitch?

Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine interviewed Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch magazine. The following exchange in an excerpt:

Deborah Solomon: You sound as if you’re trapped in a pop-culture bubble, which is probably true of many people born since the 70’s, when image became all.

Andi Zeisler: TV and mass media in general are the conduit by which most people get their information and form their opinions. We are such a mediated society.

I don’t believe in postfeminism. The media love to trot out the idea that feminism is dead, and every so often it will be the cover story in Time or somewhere else. But feminism is as alive as ever.

DS: Is it really? It seems as if its original vision of social equality has been undermined by third-wave feminists like yourself, who limit your critiques to, say, Tori Spelling’s breasts. Doesn’t the obsession with pop culture risk trivializing feminism?

AZ: I think that could be a risk. But if you are going to be working in feminist activism, you have to look at pop culture, because that’s what everyone else is looking at. Young women today have more day-to-day contact with “Desperate Housewives” than with the radical feminist writings of Germaine Greer or Shulamith Firestone.

DS: Did you and your co-founder, Lisa Jervis, have any magazine experience before you started Bitch?

AZ: We were both interns at Sassy.

DS: As opposed to Savvy.

AZ: Savvy was earlier, right? Maybe there will be a magazine someday for older women called Saggy.

This is a particularly instructive interview, despite a tone that can only be described (charitably) as catty. Let’s start with the signifiers of identity.

Zeisler is pictured alongside the column, smartly attired in clean, distressed jeans, a mid-cut dark-blue-and-white blouse and closed-toed, high-heeled, sensible-but-stylish black shoes. She has pale skin and red lipstick, a dull-yellow (amber, perhaps) necklace, dark hair swept across and tied back – and three tattoos visible, one on her right shoulder, a bright and large one on the inside of her left forearm, and one peaking out from the inside of the left shoulder-strap of her blouse.

For those who know to look – and that is primarily who we dress for – the outfit says a lot. It is a uniform of kinds for a particular element of the under-40 urban professional creative class. Individual elements betray different consciousnesses and identities: the blouse is quite possibly a $2 thrift store pickup; the jeans quite likely from a $90 New York fashion house; the necklace could be either. For a certain co-hort – with which I’ll admit I largely identify – all of these pieces of clothing mark the wearer as a particular kind of person and, importantly, a particular kind of consumer. That is (briefly), one who is primarily seeking out quality and a personally-satisfying image, rather than being more concerned with “keeping up” with fashion. That in practice there is a broad kind of conformity (i.e., that this outfit is recognizable as a cohort uniform) which grows out of these assertions of personal identity does not indicate any sort of hypocrisy on the part of the cohort. As to Zeisler’s tattoos, I will return to them shortly

As to Solomon: her own status goes unmentioned, except by virtue of her station. She is the interviewer for the New York Times Magazine – for readers of the Times, she is therefore self-evidently important. I do not know her personal history, but that is less relevant than the role she quite willingly (and ably) plays – she is the voice of vapid insider-ism, of been-there-done-that cynicism without the edge. She’s a near-perfect personification of the values of the contemporary commentariat and, they presume, their readership.

Unsurprisingly, I dislike her interview style which – perhaps oddly given the hostility she reveals for Zeisler on this count – I have always found incredibly superficial and glib. But in the context of her role, the superficiality of it all is a feature, not a bug. The commentariat and its presumed readership live in a kind of world of easy pleasures where nothing much matters, and as a consequence project that view of the world onto the world the rest of us inhabit. Passion – caring about anything becomes inherently suspect.

And so, the tattoos. Solomon herself is Jewish – as is Zeisler – as am I. And again – it doesn’t really matter whether Solomon is in fact a bona fide first-wave feminist, what matters is what she represents, and what she represents are the interests of the now-ruling class, and their values. In her own particular corner of the world, this means that many of them are middle-aged New York Jews, who though politically quite liberal are also often possessed of a very particular social conservatism on some things. And boy, are tattoos one of those things. There’s both a long (Biblical commandment – you can’t get buried in a Jewish cemetary with a tattoo) and more recent (the numbers tattooed on the wrists of Jews in concentration camps) social convention against tattoos in the American Jewish community, even more pervasive than the more general societal convention that tattoos are not something that “respectable” people get.

The broader societal convention against tattoos began to break down after World War II, when soldiers – and especially sailors with service in the Pacific Theater – returned home, many (such as my mother’s father [who was not Jewish, btw]) absolutely covered in tattoos. The gradual mainstreaming of biker, rock and metal cultures from the 1960s to 1990s further broke down the idea of tattoos’ disreputability, and the current full-on commodification of the female lower-back and stars-on-the-wrist tattoo has, I’d say, more or less obliterated it in the medium term. By the time my knees fully succumb to arthritis and are replaced with titanium robotics, and probably before, it will be of little note for respectable businesspeople to have obviously visible tattoos.

The Jewish community, however, has been one of the last bulwarks, for the obvious (and understandable) reasons listed above. But for young American Jews – three or four or more generations out of the shtetl or the [Old] Lower East side; two generations separated from any possible relatives who were victims or survivors of the Holocaust – these conventions do not carry much weight and, indeed, flouting these conventions becomes its own assertion of identity.

And so it is with Zeisler – Solomon’s voice becomes that of her parents (or at least her parents’ generation), when getting a tattoo was still something you just didn’t do (“What if bubbe sees it?”) and, at a very minimum, something you went to lengths to hide. No longer – Zeisler’s assertion of a distinct identity is everywhere, from her refusal to capitulate to Solomon’s definitions of “postfeminism” or “third-wave feminism”; to her signifier-rich outfit; to her clearly-visible tattoos; and, finally, in her general refusal to capitulate to Solomon.

The last exchange in the interview might’ve been seen as disrespectful, or rude – but really, it’s just pretty damn funny. And it’s amazingly effective. Solomon spends the whole interview belittling Zeisler, judging her an insufficient feminist, mocking her life and work, and Zeisler fires back in her defense with the last word: you’re old. I don’t really buy the hard-line feminist deconstruction of why this might be an “inappropriate” (e.g., judging a fellow-woman’s worth solely on her appearance/age degrades all women) method, because in one fell swoop it perfectly centers Zeisler in her cohort – young, relevant, with-it – and Solomon in hers – old, out-of-touch, preachingly moralistic. Best of all – both sides walk away vindicated in their core identities.

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