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‘Society doesn’t let women live past 40’ – An interview with Debbie Stoller of BUST magazine

Alex Casey talks to Debbie Stoller, editor-in-chief of feminist magazine BUST, on the power of nail polish, reclaiming knitting and what pop culture can tell us about society. 

I remember the first time that I saw a copy of BUST magazine in the central Auckland library, presented to me as a teenager by dear friend and chilled out entertainer Rose Matafeo. A proudly feminist magazine aimed at providing content that wasn’t all ‘how to please your man in 47 easy steps’, BUST has been offering an alternative voice for young women for over 23 years. Lending a wry tone to all facets of women’s life, including traditional craft tutorials to in-depth profiles, BUST‘s vibe is basically Jezebel a million years before Jezebel.

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I’m ashamed to admit that, at the tender age of 14, I was distinctly ‘yucked-out’ by the F-word and wouldn’t pick up BUST again for several years. Ironically, it was that very reaction that BUST set out to quash with every issue, weaving together the best in pop culture, sex and society into a a brand new vision of feminism. If only I had opened it sooner.

A good decade and many revelations later, I scored a half hour with BUST editor Debbie Stoller before her appearance at WORD Christchurch, to chat about about how much women still have to get off their chests.

If we start by going way back to the beginning of BUST, the early ’90s, Riot Grrrl era, what was the state of feminism for you?

I’d always been a feminist. We were born in the ’60s, and came of age in the ’70s when feminism was in full force. We were raised on feminism, but it was still very second-wave. When Riot Grrrl came round at the end of the ’80s, there was this whole new way of doing feminism that had a bunch of different and interesting strategies that weren’t really in the mainstream.

When we started BUST, we knew plenty of women who were feminists, but it was still something that a lot of people didn’t understand. Smart women were feminists, but a lot of people weren’t, because they believed the bad press that feminism got in the ’70s.

When you began to carve out this new space, and bring a new tone to feminism, what was the drive to promote more traditionally ‘feminine’ interests in BUST?

We didn’t actually decide we were gonna do a feminine approach, it was just a sort of a by-product of the strategy we were using. In the ’70s, feminists asked that we didn’t call adult women “girls” because it was belittling them, making them childish, all sweet and quiet. By the ’90s, research had come out saying young girls were actually far more confident and fiercer than when they grew up into women. Maybe we do need to embrace our inner girl, maybe girls are more powerful than women, or at least maybe we can try to see it that way?

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We just wanted to make a women’s magazine that looked like what actually feminism was. A magazine that understood women were interested in more than just fashion, beauty and how to please your man. We didn’t want to fill our magazine with role models either, because that would be just as stifling as filling it with supermodels. We wanted just cool fun stuff, so we went back and looked at a number of things that had become forbidden in feminism.

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Hell, make a cake if you want

In the ’70s, the pressure on women to get out of the house and into careers was so much that there were traditional things that women weren’t “supposed” to enjoy anymore, like knitting and craft. We thought, hold on, are we throwing the bra out with the bathwater here? There were things rejected by ’70s feminists that we needed to take another look at. If we look at it in an another way, could it actually be empowering, and doesn’t have to be something that just represents women’s oppression.

That’s how, little by little, things like make-up as a means of self-expression rather than something to make you beautiful came about. BUST became about embracing girl culture and female culture and acknowledging that not everything women traditionally did was ‘bad’. There’s no need to think that women playing sports is great and women doing embroidery isn’t.

Embroider a wolf if you feel like it

Embroider a wolf if you feel like it

We’re not saying that feminists have to be feminine, or that women have to be feminine. The most important thing is that there’s variety, and the acceptance that some things needed to be reclaimed and not just rejected.

 

You said something in an interview once, that you knew celebrating things frivolous things like nail polish was not going to save a woman’s right to abortion, but that you also felt that women shouldn’t bear the burden of pointing out every wrong in the world all the time. 

That is a bit of a weird quote. Embracing nail polish isn’t going to save women’s rights to abortion, no. But on the other hand, respecting and valuing things that have come out of women’s culture instantly gives them a higher and more egalitarian status. I do believe that promoting things of interest to women could end up contributing towards women championing their own rights to abortion.

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More powerful than you think?

There’s so many things in culture that assume that anything men do, or anything that comes out of male culture, is interesting and worthy and valuable. On the flip side, so much coming out of women’s culture is viewed as just frivolous. There are some things that may be part and parcel with women’s oppression that may be part of the patriarchy, but not everything. 

What I like about that quote is the second part of it, that there’s an expectation that we have to right every single wrong in society at all times. It got me thinking about Ghostbusters, and how whenever anything announces itself as ‘female-driven’, there’s this pressure that they have to get everything right and make a statement and single-handedly solve gender inequality.

I strongly believed when I started BUST, and still believe, that political change comes out of pop culture and cultural values and beliefs. Pop culture reflects who we are and our place in society. I really felt that if we started to present a different view of women, where we celebrated them, where we made women feel good about themselves, where we presented a variety of women, that that could help to equal out our views of women and men.

I always use the example of Ellen DeGeneres, and her sitcom in the ’90s here in America. At that time, there were just no out and gay characters on TV. Her character in the sitcom was going to announce her love for another woman, which today seems like no big deal, but it was front page news.

Can you believe that? Front page news that we had our first real gay character on TV. Then more people started coming out, there were more and more gay characters on TV, and then eventually gay marriage was made legal.

Ellen made history after coming out on her sitcom.

Ellen made history after coming out on her sitcom.

I really think that those things led to each other, that making things more visible and accessible in pop culture can create change for the whole culture. Pop culture is incredibly powerful in reflecting back what our beliefs are. 

Through the BUST years, can you identify the big shifts you’ve seen in popular culture for women, or the yardsticks that stand out?

I think the ascendance of people like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, both being in very popular, long-running TV shows in the US was hugely important. These were two women who were out and proud feminists. They would say the word “feminism” on TV, they would do sketches or commentary around sexism, things that previously didn’t really have a public forum. They went on to produce sitcoms which were also very popular and very smartly feminist.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler: legends

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler: legends

They gave way to Amy Schumer, or the girls from Broad City, or Jessica Williams. The gates have really opened for smart, funny, proudly feminist commentary. That also led to the growth of certain types of websites, like Jezebel, with a smart, decidedly feminist attitude. So for me, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were the big breakthroughs, the Trojan horse of feminism into the mainstream.

And there are also those amazing moments like Beyoncé opening an arena tour standing in front of a giant feminist sign…

Right. I have to say the last few years have really been a watershed year for feminism. The term is popping up everywhere, and it turns out a lot more millennials are willing to call themselves feminists than women of other generations. It’s becoming less of a dirty word. Two years ago one of our big magazines, maybe TIME magazine, came out with a list of words that were maybe overused, and needed to be retired, and feminism was one of them.

Wow. To be retired?!

Yeah. When we were first doing BUST, we always asked celebrities if they considered themselves feminists. There were always some who said yes, but for a long time they were afraid to say it because they might get backlash. Now the opposite is true: there’s backlash if celebrities say they’re not feminists. Everybody’s asking celebrities if they’re feminists now, even Cosmo magazine. It’s nuts.

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What do you think of reality television culture? It seems like there’s a snobbery around reality TV, and I wonder if it’s that same pattern of attaching low-culture values to something just because it is predominantly of female interest. Just like knitting or make-up.

That’s something that I find really interesting too. Shows like The Real Housewives are the new soap operas, a genre that used to be only the domain of women. It’s all the same thing, looking at how people interact, or how they argue, or how power structures happen. Celebrity culture used to exist just in those old movie magazines, and they were just like social sports for women. Now celebrity is a mainstream obsession.

For me, it feels like that was part of women’s culture that has become part of everyone’s culture, and I always see that as a positive. When I used to watch the news every evening, and they have the sports report – now I know a lot of women like to watch sports too, but not nearly as much as men – I never understood it. Why sports news? What would it be like if women’s interests were included in the news? Now I know what women’s sport is – it’s celebrity.

Our newest soap stars

Our newest sports stars

Bust was set up as an antidote to Cosmopolitan, and those magazines that tell women they’re never going to be good enough, or look good enough. How does it feel to still see that everywhere? 

We once had some high school girls come visit us. I asked how many of them still read magazines and only one of them raised their hand. Where are they going to get your negative body image from, if not there? I got my negative body image from reading women’s magazines, but now it’s all coming from Instagram. Unfortunately there are many other sources for that besides women’s magazines.

The reality is that there is still a very limited range of women’s faces and bodies on TV. I watch these news shows in America. Regardless of if they are left or right wing, they still have these female commentators that look like models. The men that come on the show aren’t beautiful. I’m not doubting the knowledge of the women at all, there’s just no equal physical standard for men.

And the men are always so much older!

Society doesn’t let women live past 40, apparently.

It’s depressing.

It’s not only depressing, it’s powerful. It’s constantly telling girls what acceptable femininity is, what’s valued, and what kind isn’t. We’re still given our culture through a male lens. I don’t care if the person who’s telling me the news is a beautiful woman, or some older, rounder woman. I’m interested in the information, the people who care about her looks are the men, because only certain type of woman registers on their radar as valuable.

Typical news anchor dynamic

Typical news anchor dynamic

I think that’s such a real problem. It’s why pop culture is so important in shaping our worldview and women, and all kinds of other minority groups. They’re still not at all present in the pop culture proportions the way they are in reality. For women, we make up the majority of the country, yet you would never know that if you came from another planet and turned on the TV. It’s even worse for people of colour, there’s still a lot of work to do. 

How does it actually feel being a woman in America right now? From the outside it looks like you might be in pure hell 24/7 with Trump looming over you. Is it scary?

People are very scared about Trump. The fact is, even though he’s said those stupid things about women and he’s clearly a misogynist, people are mostly afraid of his views on race. To women, he just sounds like an idiot. There’s so much to be worried about with Trump, but the biggest thing is that he’s an out and proud racist. How can there be so many people in this country supporting him?

Hillary will be alright eh. She’ll make it? Right?

I do not feel sure at all that she’ll win. People who vote for Trump are very enthusiastically for Trump, and most people who vote for Hillary are cautiously for Hillary. That’s a problem. People who agree, and are racist, are all about Trump, but people who are liberal, they all have their individual concerns. They’re still running pretty close. There’s no reason to feel safe.

I think the argument that we should vote for Hillary because she’s a woman isn’t so great. I think it’s a problem. I think it’s great that there’s a woman running, who’s on the liberal side of things, and largely agrees with me, but just the fact she’s a woman is certainly not enough. If that was the case, we would have been as excited about the woman who was running against Trump to be the Republican nominee, which we weren’t of course.

Makes you think...

Makes you think…

On that scary note, where do you see BUST and feminism going in the next 10 years?

It’s hard at the moment for print. I don’t know whether the pendulum has swung back, but it seems the young folks are starting to enjoy print more as a fetish, vintage object. The positive thing is that it looks like there’s a lot of interest in our content – this interesting mix of pop culture and news and history and celebrity that’s smart and funny and from a feminist perspective – that’s all over the Internet now.

We used to be the only people doing it, and now we’re riding the wave of popularity. We’ve been independent all this time, but what we were doing for so long that was niche is now mainstream – that can only be a good thing. There’s more competition, but I have hope that we’ll be able to keep this boat sailing off into the sunset.


Debbie Stoller of BUST magazine will be appearing in the WORD Christchurch festival, click here for more information on the event.

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