Fit to Print: Bust Magazine, The Feminist Press & Feminism in Media at Soapbox Feminist Winter Term – Day 2

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m obsessed with the media.  Films, TV, books, pop culture…I devour it all.  As an aspiring writer, I love to read (I feel uneasy if I don’t have a book in my purse at all times) and network with other writers.  So I was thrilled for my second day in NYC at Soapbox Feminist Winter Term, as our theme for the day was “media.”  Our first stop?  The headquarters of one of my FAVE mags…Bust Magazine!!  I was so freaking excited!!  Later in the morning, we headed to The Feminist Press, an independent non-profit publisher specializing in books on women, feminism and social justice.


My fab friend Lauren got me hooked on Bust, chock full of interesting, snarky articles, its pages littered with intelligent, feisty, mouthy women.  When I read my first issue, I sighed saying, “Where have you been all my life??”  We met with Debbie Stoller, editor/creator, and Laurie Henzel, the creative director.  It was invigorating just sitting in their small conference room with pale hardwood floors and high industrial ceilings.  Books, magazines and retro toys, including the sexist board game “Mystery Date,” littered the shelves.  I was at a magazine’s office…a feminist magazine!!  Henzel began, sharing with us the history of this fab feminist mag.

While Laurie Henzel was working at Nickelodeon in the early 90s, she met editor Debi Stoller who wanted to create a fanzine.  All women’s magazines were (and still are!) crappy, focusing solely on beauty products and losing weight.  Henzel and Stoller loved the 80’s/90’s teen magazine Sassy (a mag I grew up on!), even though they were all older than Sassy’s intended audience.  They wondered why there couldn’t be a magazine for women their age.  (Bust’s target age of their audience is 18-34 with a median age of 27 years old.)  Debi thought it would be funny if they named it “Bust.”  The first issue was stapled and Xeroxed at Nickelodeon.  They went around to bookstores, trying to sell it but the stores turned them down since they weren’t professionally bound.  Henzel didn’t even see it as a business at first.  But a business it became!

Sassy's awesomeness inspired Bust

Debbie Stoller, editor and creator of Bust, gave us her personal background.  She earned her PhD in women’s studies.  She believes culture affects feminism and women’s subjugation.  Stoller asserts that women’s work in the home – while it was drudgery – so was men’s work too.  But the difference was society devalued women’s work.  Taking away cultural assumptions, is there a different way to look at it?

Stoller wanted to take a cultural feminine product where women resided at the center, where women were viewed as good and valuable.  She wondered, what would that product look like?  Feminine magazines (Cosmo, Vogue, Elle, Glamour) hold up traditional stereotypes.  She hoped to break stereotypes; that liberated women DO like fashion and cooking but they can be whatever they want (women breaking into “male” occupations like truck drivers). Regarding intersectionality, Stoller thinks the way people oppress women also affects across cultures and races.  She knows they present themselves in different ways though. Stoller says she stays on top of cultural issues by observing cultures and oh yeah, by having younger staff and interns who keep her abreast of what’s fab (like Glee!).

So how does Bust put an issue together, you ask?? Well they brainstorm in the office writing on a board with all of the topics and stories they’re looking to create.  They’re already working on April/May issue.  They design a schedule, assign stories to writers and freelancers, get drafts back and edit.  Meanwhile, the art department works on images.  They eventually put all the articles and images into the computer and send it off to the publisher for a proof and then to print.  We also got a sneak peek at Feb/March issue.  Now it’s on sale at newsstands…but for a few weeks, I could say that I knew Portia DeRossi was going to be on the cover before anyone else knew.

What are their challenges as an independent feminist mag? Because they’re not a fashion and beauty mag, it’s a challenge to get advertisers onboard while simultaneously not alienating their core audience.  Stoller’s greatest challenge and frustration is people NOT seeing it as a feminist mag.  Stoller said, “A feminist magazine doesn’t just have to be about abortion and rape.”  There are other feminist topics too.  “Your sexuality is always a performance for someone else.”  She talked about how in traditional magazines, you can only be sexual if you’re skinny or have this particularly bra size.   Feminism is so “in the water” (a reference to Jennifer and Amy’s infamous quote in Manifesta), sometimes you don’t even see it.  “You don’t have to be about all of the terrible things that are happening but also celebrating a separate culture of women.”

When asked they differences between Bust and other feminist mags like Ms. Magazine and Bitch, Henzel applauded those mags.  But those are about feminism.  Bust is not.  She said, “We’re informed by feminism.”  They talk about women and pop culture and make it fun for women.  Both Henzel and Stoller said that Ms. and Bitch write about all of the bad things happening to women and how men keep us down.  Instead, they decided, “We’re going to make our own media.”  I hear what they’re saying.  I adore both Ms. and Bitch, but I can see how some people might find them heavy-handed.  I think it’s important to have all 3 mags (and more!) to showcase numerous perspectives.

So who are Bust’s fave celebs?  When identifying celebs to interview, it’s great if they call themselves a feminist.  But not all women identify themselves as such.  Tina Fey (of course!)…she asked Henzel how she juggles kids and work.  Henzel said it was so cool to give Fey advice.  She also loved the Flight of the Conchords cast and Iggy Pop.  Henzel said comedians are always fun.  Part of Bust’s mission is humor.  They place Kathy Griffin and Amy Poehler on the cover because they’re interesting but they wouldn’t go on other magazines’ covers because they’re not deemed “pretty” or “sexy.”  I know they’re right but other mags are stupid…Amy and Kathy rock and are hot!  Not that looks matter, but they are damnit.

Bust’s ideological focus has shifted slightly since its inception.  In the beginning there was no fashion but now there’s some.  Initially, they made the mag for their friends, now they strive to reach a broader audience.  Henzel also would like the magazine to expand into other media arenas like TV, events and another film festival.

So now that you’ve heard some behind the scenes info, wondering how you can get a job at Bust? Trust me, I asked!  Henzel said interning is the best way.  She also recommended taking a business class if you’re interested in publishing.  She also advised that if you want to be a freelance writer (um yes!), send pitches and a cover letter.  My fingers will be typing away…


Published by Feminist Press

When we arrived at The Feminist Press, at City University New York (CUNY), we met with Jeanann Pannasch, the managing editor, and the staff and interns.  What immediately struck me was the variety of ages and the racial and ethnic diversity of the staff.  Pannasch shared the publishing house’s history.  This year marks their 40 year anniversary.  Founder Florence Howe was a professor dismayed at the lack of feminist books.  So she founded the Feminist Press so there would be books for curriculum for feminist courses.  The first books were intro to women’s studies books.  The press also began rescuing lost works.  In the 80s, they added international works (“Women Writing India” and “Women Writing Africa” series).  They frequently buy books that have gone out of print and reprint them.  Some of their “lost” books rescued include “Women Who Kill” and works by Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Similar to Bust, they have a small staff with lots of interns; everyone juggles various roles.  They publish approximately 10 books a season.  Jobs include art direction (which involves making books look attractive so people want to purchase), press releases and publicity, editorial, event coordination, development and marketing.  With art direction, usually a publisher prints 50 or 60 books so art directors just select a basic design.  But with fewer books to print, Feminist Press’ art director reads each book and hones in on the book’s message, choosing what image will fit the content of the book.

Published by Feminist Press

So how do you publish as a feminist author? The staff advised prospective authors to work on a strong proposal with a sample, and not harass them with unsolicited emails.  Get a literary agent who’s familiar with Feminist Press or other publishers.

We went around the room and shared some of the books that have inspired us.  One of my Feminist Winter Termers said she’s building a “feminist tower of books,” spreading feminist ideas and sharing books.  I relish that idea, like you’re building an army, a bad-ass fortress of feminism!  Here are just some of the books mentioned:

The Handmaid’s Tale
The Feminine Mystique
The Bell Jar
The Second Sex
King Kong Theory
Witches, Midwives and Nurses
Feminism is for Everybody
(or ANYTHING by bell hooks)
Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes
Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape
Full-Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters
Cunt: A Declaration of Independence
Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism
Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future

Most women’s magazines try to get women to conform to hetero white standards of beauty.  We’re bombarded with messages telling women to be thin, but not anorexic; to have curves but only in their butts and boobs; to be hairless on their bodies yet have long, luxurious manes of flowing hair.  Women’s bodies are a battleground of control and domination. If you browse chick lit women’s commercial fiction, it seems that women only care about getting married and getting pregnant.  Wife and mother are the only appropriate roles; shopping, rings, homes and babies the only suitable interests for women.

So what constitutes feminist literature, books and magazines?  As I learned in the Franzenfreude debate, some people assume feminist means all things having to do with women.  But feminist does not equate women, meaning that not all print material created by women is feminist.  And men can write feminist media too.  To me, feminist media strives to break gender stereotypes, eliminating sexism and the oppressive heteronormative gender binary in our society.  It’s activist and groundbreaking, empowering people to see the world and themselves in a new light.  Yet it doesn’t always have to be serious and sobering.  Whether shrouded in snark or buoyed by lightheartedness, it celebrates beauty in diversity and self-acceptance.  Sometimes, it’s inspiring enough to me to read a novel with a female protagonist or flip through a magazine focusing on women’s voices, for outside of these pages, women rarely stand in the spotlight.

So what books, magazines, sites or blogs inspire you?  Which would you select for your “feminist tower of books?

Stay tuned for the next post on Soapbox Feminist Winter Term 2011!

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