Review: Bitchfest

Bitchfest edited by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler


I don’t remember the moment I became a feminist. Presumably, it occurred around the point my mother determined that I would not be raised in the Catholic Church and didn’t come up with an alternative, so I would have been negative a few months old. Of course, being an itty bitty ace feminist didn’t stop me from being alarmingly femmephobic throughout my adolescence, but I like to think that my feminism is in a constant state of evolution. Even so, my formerly impervious pop culture bubble didn’t particularly allow me access to magazines like Bitch or Bust, but there’s no time like the present to catch up, especially when they just go ahead and publish a greatest hits collection. Merci!

Bitchfest collects ten years—as of 2006—of Bitch Magazine’s particular brand of feminism: applying a feminist lens to pop culture. By looking at the intersection of feminism and pop culture, Bitch has presented its readers with ways to resist these narratives and substitute their own. Bitch wants to arm young feminists with media literacy, and in this collection of greatest hits and a few new pieces, the Bitch crew flexes their own considerable muscles.

I’ll be honest—when I picked up Bitchfest, I had no idea that Bitch focused on pop culture. In my mind, it was always floating around as this sort of nebulous, general interest feminist magazine, more along the lines of Bust, copies of which litter my women’s college’s campus quite regularly. But the discovery was a welcome one. I’ve been gravitating towards identifying my feminism with geek or fan culture recently, because that’s where I learned to resist and reconstruct narratives to my own nefarious ends. Similar methods are outlined in the collection’s last essay, “How to Reclaim, Reframe, and Reform the Media”. (Bitchfest even includes a short article on slash, even if it is just the dead basics.) Although they’re coming at it from a feminist lens rather than a feminist and fannish lens, there’s still a lot of overlap in the approach. After all, the feminist and the fan both destabilize and rewrite media texts to empower themselves. The fact that this collection opens with a celebration of ‘80s MTV, with its androgynous men and powerful women complicating the gender binary, is just the icing on the cake.

I’m starting to be very fond of essay collections. It’s a great way of getting a little information about a lot of interesting topics in one go, as well as making your reading list swell. In Bitchfest’s case, all of the essays are interesting takes on Bitch’s manifesto of “feminist response to pop culture”. A black woman deals with her participation in heavy metal music fandom; the two approaches to female gender in horror movies (being female is either the ultimate supernatural curse or ignored so the presumed male audience can identify with her) are dissected; the mean girls phenomenon is questioned as perhaps another way to demonize young women. Specific expressions of pop culture aren’t targeted to the exclusion of other narratives in our culture. The Collapsible Woman” questions the rape narrative that states raped women have been stolen from, while “Envy, a Love Story” reframes female competition in terms of female desire. (If I’d had access to that one as a girl, I think I would have realized I was queer a lot sooner.) “Celebrity Jeopardy” questions feminist organization techniques that try to eliminate a leader, the very thing the mainstream wants to hear from, so they appoint whoever steps up to the plate, while “Laugh Riot” examines female comedy and explains the difference between female humor and feminist humor, quoting from Gloria Kaufman: “The former “may ridicule a person or a system from an accepting point of view (‘that’s life’),” while the latter demands a “nonacceptance of oppression” (152). Brilliant.

Bitchfest is, especially from our point of view here in 2013, a little dated—the nineties were another country, man, especially if you were a small child shielded from pop culture. But every piece in the collection remains thought-provoking, interesting, and engaging, without being exclusive. Well, mostly; Rachel Fudge’s pieces are great, but it does hurt the argument of “Bias Cut”, a piece about how ironic “racism” and “sexism” is really just racism and sexism, when she uses the word “trannies”. That stumble aside, reading Bitchfest has inspired me to go to my first feminist conference (hello, spring break!), as well as given me a lot to think about in terms of the pop culture landscape I navigate and remake in my own image. After this, I really want a subscription to Bitch for my birthday. (Hint.)

Bottom line: Bitchfest, while a little dated, remains thought-provoking, interesting, and engaging—there’s a misstep in Rachel Fudge’s “Bias Cut”, but the critiques remain as razor-sharp as they did when they were first published. Plenty of food for thought for the modern, pop-culture savvy feminist and the feminist fan. Highly recommended.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: Bitchfest

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