Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bitch magazine and the feminist press (by Skylanda)

Nearly ten summers ago, I was taking - of all things - a 101 level chemistry class at a junior college in San Francisco. I struck up a conversation with the gal on the lab bench across from me, and over some foggy lunches and breaks between cram sessions, we talked about all kinds things political and passionately personal. One day, she brought me a magazine and told me she thought I’d like it, should give it a read.

The magazine was Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. I was intrigued. I read her two back issues cover to cover. I started buying it on the newsstands when my meager budget allowed. Though the rhetoric was familiar (and sometimes off-base, and sometimes trite…ya know, like any other publication out there), it put to print opinions that I’d had myself, thoughts that I should have had, and insights that I never would have come up with on my own.

I didn’t agree with every writer published in their pages, and one time I disagreed enough to fire off a snappy reply to the email address listed under the letters-to-the-editor section. One of the editors herself wrote me back and we proceeded to engage in five or six back-and-forth emails debating the topic at hand (which concerned - I kid you not - whether the infamous lesbian kiss on Ally McBeal was a step toward or away from adequate, accurate representation of lesbians on primetime). At the end of our exchange, though we animatedly disagreed, she told me she liked my style and asked if I would be interested in writing for them some time? And so Bitch magazine became the first media venue to ever put my name in print. In the intervening near-decade, I was a regular contributor until the demands of work put a crimp in my minimally-paid extra-curricular activities.

I bring this up now not to flash my somewhat dubious qualifications around now that echinde has given me a space as a regular contributor here, but because Bitch is going through a rough patch these days. There’s all the usual stressors on small independent press - low advertising revenues, the flailing fluctuations in income when one issue does not sell as well as the last, a markedly biased increase in postal rates for bulk mailers a few months back - and then there’s the stress of putting out a progressive, incisive feminist mag four times a year while maintaining the editorial cojones to turn down advertising not in line with the mission of the publication. On September 15th the editors ran a home-spun video to plead their case that if they didn’t come up with the cash flow to publish the next issue, the previous would be the last.

The outpouring from readers - new and established - in cash and subscriptions pushed them over their goal in just three days. The fairly spectacular feat of having gathered up some $55,000 in donations in the span of a few days - a few days that coincides with the virtual collapse of the nation’s banking industry and its reverberating effects at home - speaks volumes to the value that a large (and fairly poorly-funded) group of people place on independent press in an era of media consolidation.

Along with the plea for a cash infusion (hey, if the banking industry can call on the masses for a cash hit every so and again, why not a feminist press?), they also opened up threads to take suggestions on how best to proceed in the days ahead. Continue to rely on donations when sales are thin? Change over to an online-only format? Close the doors forever next time the cash flow closes in around them?

Many suggest the middle solution - quit the print business altogether, go to an online-only format to cut costs and maybe even save a few trees. Others decried the lost of yet another indie print magazine (check out the video for a litany of independent magazines that have left the shelves forever in the last year), arguing that online venues are dimes per dozens, and the print format lends a (literal) weightiness to the publication that would evaporate with an internet-only incarnation.

Not that I’m biased or anything, but I gotta agree with the latter. With the advent of teh internetz, it is easy to dismiss print publications as wasteful, needlessly expensive, passe. But the fact remains that this is critique is offered up - often unasked for - only for struggling, progressive indie press. You don’t hear Cosmo, Vogue, Seventeen, or The Economist pressured by readers to junk their newsstand editions for purely electronic versions.

But there’s more to it than that. Independent print media fills a necessary and irreplaceable niche that the internet cannot mimic. It gives corporeal form to the unique and rarely-published views - a form that sits on coffee tables, gets passed around dorms, gets picked up and read again a year later when you dig out the mess of papers accumulated on your desk and find a great issue you’d forgotten about. It plays in the world of the big boys - not the every-page-is-an-open-mike-night world of bloggery and chat rooms (not to dis my very fine host and her excellent blog!), but the world where things get translated on paper that lasts beyond the next crash of a server, or the next time the mag can’t pay the bills to their online host. Print and online media complement each other well, but it is inexcusable that print become the sole domain of the mainstream and the powerful - something that has become alarmingly possible as indie magazines have failed in droves these last couple of years.

And another thing: I suspect that I was not the only young, ambitious gal with a keyboard and a penchant for lengthy commentary on all matters practical and arcane that Bitch started out in the published world. Independent print venues offer openings and vital experience that pave the way for young (or otherwise burgeoning) writers with diverse views to get their name down, get some experience, find their confidence in the craft of the written voice. Without Bitch, I never would have learned the arts of the published word, things like respecting word limits, working with editors whose creative vision might not be identical to your own, and producing creative material under deadline (haha, I can hear the editors laughing, she hasn’t quite mastered that one yet!). I can’t imagine any other venue that would have put my name on feature-length articles on the faith in my skills gained solely from a few letters back and forth to the editor.

So Bitch has pulled through the financial grinder this time - the next issue will go to press on December 1st. But the long-time sustainability of one of the last standing grrlzines (which started as black-and-white, hand-folded photocopies) is still in question. If it’s a venue or a viewpoint that intrigues you - or one that you would like to see stay strong into the future - consider throwing them a couple dollars, or buying a subscription and seeing what they have to say in the coming months. It’s an investment well worth your dimes and dollars.

Cross-posted from my blog Loose Chicks Sink Ships.