Soaring for a Decade
The founders of Bitch are still getting flak for giving their periodical that awful name. But then, what's in a name?
In 1996, two women in Oakland had an idea to launch a magazine. And not just another magazine offering 1001 ways to have better sex with men, but something a lot different. Something to fill the void left behind when feminism became a pejorative word and pop culture began its relentless scorch and burn campaign against the female psyche. The two budding publishers wanted to reach younger women. The only way to do that, they surmised, was to take this same out-of-control media juggernaut by the horns and turn it into a launch pad. So they wrote their first articles, printed 300 copies of the magazine, and took them around to independent bookstores in the Bay Area.
Because of the name they chose for their publication, they weren’t quite sure what the reaction would be. No one had ever named a magazine after a profanity and tried to stick it on a bookshelf. Well, maybe somebody had, but not it’s not the kind of thing you normally pitch to a female audience.
The new magazine was called Bitch.
One can only picture the gloomy horror inside those Madison Avenue High-rises as marketing executives choke on the olives in their martinis. Yet, to the pleasant surprise of the new magazine’s owners, those 300 copies sold like gangbusters.
So another 300 copies were printed and they sold too. Then it dawned on Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler that since this was a periodical they would have to come up with a second issue. And then a third. And a fourth.
They were going to need more writers.
But the writers came, and so did the subscriptions. The local booksellers put in a good word to their national distributors – something like, “This is next big thing, Bitch,” - and the orders started pouring in. So did the advertising revenue. (And anyone who’s ever tried to start a publication certainly knows how hard that is. Hint. Hint.)
Of course, the budding media moguls knew they would eventually take some flak for that outlandish title they chose. After all, “Bitch” is what you call a woman who doesn’t go with the flow, or a woman who blows a gasket over practically nothing, or even a streetcorner hooker. It’s not a nice word.
Except for Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler, it’s a magic word. In fact, it’s the word for economic security, fame, book tours… and now as a political force to be reckoned with as well.
Ten years after its founding in 1996, the magazine boasts a circulation of 50,000, with 12,000 paid subscriptions and a territory that extends throughout North America and beyond.
The website explains the mission of the company. “Bitch, the Feminist Response to Pop Culture, is a print magazine devoted to incisive commentary on our media-driven world. We feature critiques of TV, movies, magazines, advertising, and more, plus interviews with and profiles of feminist pop culture makers, new books and music, and lots more.”
Of course, people still ask them why they call their magazine what may be the equivalent of A Boy Named Sue.
The website elucidates on this subject, too. “When it's being used as an insult, "bitch" is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don't shy away from expressing them, and who don't sit by and smile uncomfortably if they're bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we'll take that as a compliment, thanks.
Jervis and Zeisler got their start in the business as interns with the popular teen magazine Sassy in the 1980’s. Zeisler says they were lucky. This particular publication didn’t talk down to girls or try to feed them a bunch a stereotype-driven nonsense. A young staff was employed and its readers were encouraged to think and act for themselves.
Unfortunately, that common sense formula began to wear thin with corporate advertisers in the late eighties who boycotted Sassy to the point of bankruptcy. According to Zeisler, “It became sort of a very controversial magazine and a proto-feminist magazine. They would run an article on gay teenagers and all of the sudden their major advertiser, like Tampex, are like ‘Well we're going to have to pull our ad.’”
Yet a door never closes but another one opens, and Zeisler and Jervis began planning their new publication on top of the wreckage of their old employer. “Our feeling was we can get people to see pop culture as important and as a crucial locus of feminism,” Zeisler explains on the telephone from the magazine’s Oakland headquarters.
Both women figured that a magazine that was a cross between Ms. And Sassy could maybe help stir to safety an up and coming generation of girls caught in the crosshairs as a result of the mean-spirited messages and brain-dead depictions being slung at them from much of the other media.
So the articles were geared toward the material that was already out there on the news stands. Bitch would furnish a much-needed critique of pop culture, specifically from a female perspective, and perhaps impact some of society underlying values.
“Maybe they would truly start to reflect the realities of women and men, and not the kind of sexist regurgitation that has dominated for so long,” Zeisler says of the message she and Jervis were pitching to readers. As for editorial content, “There might be something on how female politicians use humor and how it's perceived when they're covered… [or] Why desperate Housewives became a media juggernaut for marketing guilty pleasures to women.”
The publication recently held a fundraising auction at The Women’s Building, located in the Mission District, with items donated by a remarkably diverse base of supporters, including The Gorilla Girls, Yoga Tree, Divine Swallow Tattoo, and former San Francisco Supervisor Matt Gonzalez. Jervis and Zeisler have also spent the better part of this year touring the country and promoting their new book Bitchfest, a compilation of articles published in the magazine over the last decade.
As Zeisler sums up the grail of Bitch, “It makes sense to talk about politics and feminism and social issues using the lens of pop culture, because increasingly that’s way they are framed.” And whether the two entrepreneurs turn that recipe into another ten years of success, oddly enough, may have less to do with reader support and ad revenue than with decisions by the Federal Communications Commission, as the big media monopolies continue to gobble up all the little fish in their path.