By Jennifer Waldref
Monday, October 13, 2008
Twelve years ago Andi Zeisler and two friends were dreaming of a pop-culture magazine to take over from the defunct Sassy. Today she's focused on keeping the quarterly Bitch magazine afloat, steering it into other media forums.
PORTLAND, Ore. (WOMENSENEWS)--Twelve years ago, Andi Zeisler was fresh out of college, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, underemployed and searching for a creative outlet.
Today, as the only one of three founders of Bitch magazine still on the masthead, the 35-year-old editorial-creative director is struggling to keep that outlet going.
On Sept. 15, her cultural quarterly released a May Day appeal in the form of a "Save Bitch" video message from Zeisler and Publisher Debbie Rasmussen, posted on both the publication's Web site as well as social networking sites like Myspace.
The goal was $40,000 to fund the next issue, due out on Dec. 1. Within two days the goal was reached. After four weeks, $70,000 had come in from individual donors giving an average of $40 each.
Now Zeisler says the close call means it's time to regroup. "It was the nuclear option," she says of the "Save Bitch" campaign. "We know we can't ever do that again. We have to find different and new ways to fundraise."
The Fall 2008 issue, which came out in early September, will remain on newsstands during the Nov. 5 general election. Like every issue it has a loose theme. This one, called "Loud," offers a piece on the media coverage of Michelle Obama by Joshunda Sanders.
In another piece, Montreal-based writer and actor Abby Paige talks about the way women's voices are judged and ridiculed, with Sen. Hillary Clinton's laugh offering a prime example. "It's about women as purveyors of comedy, but also says that when women laugh, we have motivations prescribed to our laughter," Zeisler says of the piece.
Absent from the issue: any articles about Sarah Palin. "Loud" had already gone to print by the time she'd been named the first female Republican vice presidential candidate in U.S. history.
Catching the cultural messages produced by mass-media coverage of this year's heated presidential race isn't easy for a quarterly magazine.
"In a 24-hour news cycle environment, by the time we get around to covering something, it's been covered a hundred times already," Zeisler says. "We have to extrapolate from those cultural conversations and themes and look at things in a much larger, more exploded, context."
Last year, in an effort to cut costs, the magazine moved its headquarters from the more expensive Bay Area to Portland. The move meant that Bitch could, for the first time, offer employees health insurance.
Zeisler credits a "high burnout threshold" for keeping her at the magazine 12 years and several moves later. "I really love the work."
In 1996, Zeisler was a former intern for Sassy, the defunct teen magazine that had become a cult hit. She and her high school friend Lisa Jervis were mourning the demise of Sassy, which had been published by Los Angeles-based Petersen Publishing. Both young women felt the time was ripe to confront media trends from a younger woman's vantage point. "We noticed the media representations of women were really moving backwards," Zeisler says.
One example: the cover of Vanity Fair's 1995 "Hollywood" issue featuring several of the highest-paid U.S. actresses in skimpy lingerie.
"We were just gaping at that cover," Zeisler says. "To us, it was insane. You would never see the top-earning male actors in their boxer shorts."
Together with Benjamin Shaykin, another high school friend with a background in graphic arts, Zeisler and Jervis launched Bitch as "the feminist response to pop culture."
"In the beginning, the content was mostly opinionated rants," recalls Zeisler. "But over time, we've evolved to include more interviews and reporting. The shift was necessary, but I would say the magazine is guiding me rather than the other way around."
As to the magazine's name, Zeisler, a native of the Westchester County suburb of New York, says the credit goes to guys who hurl the word as an epithet when catcalls fail to get the attention of women passing by on the street. "It's a little about reclaiming the language, in the way the gay community has done with the word 'queer.' "
She and Jervis also liked that "bitch" is both a noun and a verb, and that it might be provocative enough to get people to pick up the magazine and figure out what it was about.
By 2001, Zeisler and Jervis quit their day jobs--as a rug designer and proofreader respectively--to work on Bitch full-time. They had been working seven days a week between their two jobs.
In an effort to reach people through more than just the magazine, Zeisler and Jervis in 2001 founded B-Word, a nonprofit 501 copyright (3) organization that publishes Bitch and also funds other projects.
Jervis left the magazine in 2006 and is now a freelance writer. Rasmussen, who was Bitch's associate publisher, took Jervis's place as publisher.
With a new financial model to develop, Zeisler and Rasmussen are looking to fashion Bitch into an increasingly multimedia operation.
One nascent effort--Bitch Radio--has produced two podcasts so far and Rasmussen hopes this will lead to a national pop-culture radio show that Zeisler will host. "Andi is a great interviewer, and has such a good radio voice," she says.
Rasmussen is also spearheading an effort to hold discussions in communities across the nation that focus on the word "feminism" and whether the term remains relevant.
The effort is called Feminism In-Action, a name intended to simultaneously suggest verve and complacency, self praise and criticism.
On the inaction front, Rasmussen points to the inattention to race, class and other forms of oppression among women who tend to enjoy a privileged social status.
Eight Feminism In-Action discussions have taken place so far around the country. The first was held in May in Detroit, a city that Rasmussen says has an active grassroots social justice and independent media movement, but that geographically has been totally marginalized.
Zeisler and Rasmussen hope the discussions will seed a grassroots network of "Bitch chapters" that will solidify B-Word as a national organization.
"Branching out presents its own financial challenges," Zeisler says. "But we have incredibly loyal supporters who have a need for something like Bitch in their lives."
Jennifer Waldref is a freelance writer and communications specialist based in Olympia, Wash.