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By Jamie Jones  


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When it’s used as an insult, "bitch" is most often hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we’ll take that as a compliment, thanks.
— The Editors of Bitch Magazine

They are bitches. They’ll tell you so, in lilting voices edged with sarcasm. They are young, they are proud. They are women, they are critical. They say it on page after page, in issue after issue, of Bitch magazine.

They work in a small office on 16th Street in San Francisco. Three desks, shabby carpet and prostitutes on the street outside. To produce the semi-annual magazine printed on matte paper, they collect and edit articles written by colleagues across the country. Bitch is six years old, and circulation is about 28,000. It’s regarded among industry experts as one of the two leading feminist zines, the other being Bust magazine.

"We’re floating beneath everyone’s radar," said Bitch founder and publisher Lisa Miya-Jervis. "But we like to think we’re playing a big role in educating people about the way the media portrays women."

I picked up a copy of Bitch at a newsstand in downtown Manhattan. I’ve read these feminist magazines before, and was fully prepared to be disappointed by the articles inside. So often these magazines are filled with what writer Michelle Goldberg calls easy-to-swallow feminism, "shopping and fucking feminism" that encourages women to pamper themselves, to guiltlessly buy lipstick and dildoes as a way of fighting the evil patriarchy.

Many of these self-styled feminist forums lack sophisticated stories on politics, literature and social issues. Much of the content is flighty and breezy. These alternative feminist voices are similar to Glamour and Vogue. They simply repackage the sex ads and dating tips by superimposing a superficial coat of feminism on stories and columns.

But Bitch is different. It does contain the requisite sexual ads. One reads, "Please your beaver with fearless, feminist porn." Moving past those, readers will find that Bitch takes a refreshingly intelligent look at popular culture in an irreverent, sophisticated tone.
The most recent issue of the magazine contains one article written by a professional dominatrix and another by a virgin. They discuss the women’s experiences with discrimination stemming from how they practice, or don’t practice, sex. Both are well-written and strongly opinionated.

"My greatest alienation as a sex worker comes not from the nature of the job I have chosen…It comes from well-meaning liberal women who have no greater exposure to sex work than what’s provided by Andrea Dworkin books and bad movies, and who assume I must be an incested, self-hating drug addict with no other choice in life than to enter the sex industry…It comes from the exhausting exercise of being an hourglass-figured, sex-bomb dominatrix bitch goddess, 24-7," writes Annalise Ophelian.

Another article examines how "Dateline" covered the Puerto Rican Day Parade, in which dozens of women were sexually assaulted in Central Park. The writer notes that the reporter, Bob McKeown, dwelled on what the women might have done to provoke the attack (worn revealing clothing) rather than adequately examining the motivations of the attackers or the inaction of nearby cops.

The Editor’s Letter focuses on a cover of Teen People that displayed Eminem and The Marshall Mathers LP, an album that editor Andi Zeisler says features "gross misogyny, antigay vitriol and continuous violence as thematic fodder." She argues that magazines such as Teen People should question whether Eminem is "just entertainment" and urges them to explore the impact of song lyrics on teen minds.

"Is it just entertainment when lyrics that reference ‘faggots’ are likely to have a very real effect on the way youth get treated at school? … Teen People, which ran a feature admitting that Eminem may not be the best influence on the youth of today yet still put his picture on the cover because it was guaranteed to sell magazines, only perpetuates the fascination with his lyrical misdeeds," Zeisler writes.

Miya-Jervis says she launched the magazine to introduce a needed feminist perspective on popular culture. She hoped to influence the mainstream media. Bitch’s views aren’t spread widely across the country. But circulation is growing by about 20 percent an issue, Miya-Jervis said.

Paula Kamen, a feminist writer, said the magazine is probably the only one whose sole mission is to critique popular culture through a feminist lens, and one of the few ‘zines with a social conscience.

"Most of these magazines give us information on how to use a vibrator, but they don’t tell us about John Ashcroft," she said. "Intellectually, Bitch is very heavy. But it’s also fun."

Lettie Conrad, a California State University graduate student, said magazines such as Brill’s Content critique the media, but Bitch adds the moderate feminist perspective.
"Feminist analysis on film and television is out there, but it’s stuck in the academic world," said Conrad, who’s writing her master’s thesis on Bust and has published articles on the history of women’s magazines. "The gendered perspective has been missing from magazines, and Bitch brings it to the newsstand."