The Unstable Future of Feminist Media

(Xavier Lorenzo/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, I folded myself into the couch and opened a book of Arundhati Roy’s essays when I realized I hadn’t read a feminist book for weeks. 

It wasn’t always this way. As a former contributor to Bitch Media — the feminist monthly that provided incisive critiques of pop culture for a quarter century — I read constantly to deepen my feminist framework of the world. But now that Bitch Media and other outlets focusing on women and marginalized genders have closed, I’m scrambling to fill the intellectual and financial voids.  

Sign up for our newsletter! Right Arrow

I’m not the only feminist writer feeling the absence. Bitch Media, which closed in 2022, is one of the more recent casualties. Many mainstream feminist blogs, newsletters and publications that have shut down in recent years had come to define what some consider fourth-wave or “online” feminism, including some that had more complicated histories: Feministing, Wear Your Voice,  The Establishment, Lenny Letter,  The Hairpin, The Toast, Rookie and XoJane

Even glossy women’s magazines with more financiers and name recognition — and not always explicitly feminist — have scaled back or closed in recent years. Glamour, Self, Seventeen and Teen Vogue stopped print publication between 2016 and 2019. Many of the feminist digital magazines that remain feel like they’re in need of a refresh, the ratio of fluff to constructive writing seeming more and more skewed. It has left writers like me wondering about the future of feminist writing and the coverage of issues we deeply explored, from reproductive and trans rights to pop culture and art.

“It makes it feel like we shouldn’t write feminist pieces or explore themes that would have been important to these now-closed publications,” said Reina Sultan, associate editorial director at the women’s newsletter The Newsette. “What’s the point in making something your life’s work when there isn’t anywhere to publish it?” 

Why so many feminist outlets have shuttered 

For the most part, these publications reduced operations or closed altogether due to financial reasons. Many couldn’t find a long-term funding model that was sustainable or that could fairly compensate employees, as Feministing noted in its goodbye letter. Feminist analysis is hard to sell to advertisers, even when you’re part of a large media company like Conde Nast. It’s even more difficult for an independent or reader-funded feminist magazine, like Bitch Media. 

“A lack of financial interest is baffling, considering how Gen Z is deeply invested in feminist issues like climate change and wage theft,” culture writer Najma Sharif said. But it’s not always that there isn’t any financial interest. Sometimes the help offered is counter to the magazine’s own values. 

Andi Zeisler, writer and co-founder of Bitch Media, said that surviving as a publication required a constant consideration of ethics. “Realistically, we knew we were not going to have big money advertisers like Revlon or whatever knocking on our door,” she said. “We also knew that if we did have big corporations come calling, that was going to be intrinsically in conflict with our mission.” 

Zeisler said that at one point, American Spirit cigarettes wanted to buy the back cover, which would have provided a huge influx of resources for the struggling magazine. The publication rejected the ad out of a responsibility to its readers. “We had an audience that was growing and was feeling very protective of Bitch’s mission and feeling like they were stakeholders in it. And as we became explicitly reader supported, they were stakeholders.” 

The impact of a feminist void

When writers don’t have a place to publish intellectually rigorous, radical feminist work, it’s not just harmful for those writers’ careers, but for society as a whole. “The loss of feminist publications has resulted in a gaping void in the kind of critique that takes power to task,” said Sharif. 

And just as Sultan feels the loss of having fewer places to pitch her ideas, Zeisler also mourns no longer being able to assign stories to writers like Sultan. ”I’ve definitely had those moments where I see online discourse that’s going nowhere, and I’ll think of a particular writer who would be able to really break down both the issue and the discourse around it,” Zeisler said. 

It may seem baffling to grieve the deaths of feminist blogs when women’s magazines are still around and thriving. But not all women’s content is feminist content. Many glossy women’s magazines are still in existence because they are essentially catalogs of fashion and beauty ads. Their articles are more concerned with surface-level cultural critique, which can trick readers into thinking what’s there is the full feminist picture without realizing there are elements of the conversation missing. For example, stories on abortion rights will barely glaze over the complex ways the growing lack of access to the procedure impacts Black and Indigenous birthing people, nor do they explore the ways trans people are left out of reproductive rights advocacy.

As Feministing co-founder Jessica Valenti recently noted, mainstream media can be late to never on issues that matter to birthing people — like the onslaught of red-state legislation aimed at punishing those who seek and perform abortions.

“The same brands that don’t want to be associated with an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist thought use social justice language to sell their beauty and fashion products,” said Sharif. “The message here is that feminist thought can be cherry-picked to market a product but it’s too dangerous to platform in its entirety.” 

The other glaring issue with women’s magazines is that they are limited in their scope of gender. Feminism and womanhood — particularly cis womanhood — are too often conflated. Writers across the spectrum of marginalized genders found a home for their ideas and analysis in the feminist publications that have since closed. 

Frankie de la Cretaz, a former Bitch Media contributor, said the closing of these publications means “so much nuance and so many observations held by people with marginalized identities doesn’t make it into the world or isn’t given a platform.” And when publications that define themselves by cis womanhood fill the gap, it “leaves trans people of all genders on the margins and out of the public conversations,” de la Cretaz said.

This void is especially felt during a time when more Black trans women are murdered every year and hundreds of bills targeting trans youth are working their way through state legislatures — and yet much of the mainstream media coverage of trans people has been over “culture war” debates, not how trans people are being targeted and harmed

The closing of feminist publications has also had a financial impact on writers. Although Bitch paid less than many of my other clients, it paid within a few days of publication, versus 30 or 60 days elsewhere. Sultan had a similar experience when Wear Your Voice Magazine closed in December 2021. Nicole Froio, an independent researcher and freelance writer, also has had her finances hit hard. “I used to reliably get two to four commissions a month from Bitch Magazine. I lose out on about $600 every month because I don’t have that income stream anymore,” Froio said.

It’s hard to make up for that loss in a saturated market that seems to have increasingly less room for feminist writing. 

What comes next for feminist media?

Nothing can be replaced, but feminist writers acknowledge that some are still doing incredible work. “Teen Vogue, Them and Prism are taking up the mantle and publishing more radical works that very often exemplify a feminist politic,” Sultan said. 

Then there are the non-mainstream feminist blogs that are “inspiring,” like socialist-feminist Lux Magazine and the women-led Dame Magazine, Froio said. But she pointed out that these publications often focus on reported content over cultural critique, the latter of which will use theory to land on a firmer statement. And in a time when recession fears have caused layoffs across media, “the question then becomes, ‘Until when will they be able to stay alive?’” Froio said. 

De la Cretaz hopes for a resurgence of the feminist blog, but like Froio, they are concerned about the larger implication of so many shutting down. “I worry that the closing of these publications reflects the larger cultural and political shift to the right, making it harder for progressive and radical publications to receive the support and funding they need to survive,” de la Cretaz said. 

Sharif said people can cast a wider net when searching for feminist writing these days, going to YouTube, Substack and influencer content. But she noted that these platforms have a unique element of danger because they can promote content based solely on views, not on substance. “There is a thirst to understand power dynamics and oppression on TikTok, but the loudest people are reactionaries [and] the algorithm rewards polarizing generalizations. The algorithm doesn’t care for nuance, exactingness and empathy,” she said. 

Zeisler sees the current media landscape as one that is “increasingly becoming individualized,” with many journalists taking their reporting and opinions to Substack and their own monetized newsletters. “On one hand that’s great because people don’t have to go through traditional routes of funding — advertisers — and can instead rely on subscribers.” Still, she feels that with individualized media, feminist discourse can sometimes feel circular and unproductive. “Often, it feels like there are just a lot of people  saying versions of the same thing and then sort of arguing with each other about it.”

Perhaps feminist media is just going through another transitional phase with a fair amount of growing pains. Still, Zeisler remains hopeful. “I really believe that there are going to be people who take up the project of feminist publications in whatever form works best,” she said.