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Still Sassy after all the deadlines

Person of the Week: Bitch magazine founder makes move but keeps faith in feminism
by: L.E. BASKOW, Unpacking boxes in a new office on Northeast Alberta Street, Bitch magazine’s Andi Zeisler talks about how the magazine got where it is, and where she’s taking it.

Most recent college grads choose one of two tracks: start low on someone else's corporate ladder or spend some time in self-exploration, with an epic road trip or a stint in the Peace Corps.

Andi Zeisler handled the intimidating juncture in her life by founding a magazine, Bitch. Ten years later, against the formidable odds of the publishing world, the Bitch is going strong. And Zeisler, now 34, still is at the helm, as editorial and creative director.

This month, Bitch, a magazine that focuses on the intersection of feminism and pop culture, is relocating from Oakland, Calif., to Northeast Portland. Between interviews of job candidates at the Concordia Coffee House, across the street from the magazine's new headquarters, Zeisler answered a few questions herself.

Zeisler gives a substantial amount of credit for starting the magazine at such a young age to others, including co-founder Lisa Jervis (who left the magazine a year ago but still is a board member and consultant) and the unconventional teen magazine Sassy, where both Jervis and Zeisler interned.

Sassy (published from 1987 to 1996) was a phenomenon, a near-religious experience for many women now in their late 20s to late 30s.

The magazine inspired a whole generation of girls to start their own publications, ranging from furtively photocopied zines to glossies like Bitch.

Zeisler says: 'Sassy was a real departure from the teen magazine format, in that it really treated young women as agents of their own intellect and sexuality. It didn't talk down to them.'

Just as Sassy was folding, Zeisler and Jervis saw a void in the market and a disturbing trend in pop culture's depiction of women.

Zeisler explains: 'The overarching representation of women was that of sidekick or romantic interest but wasn't much of an autonomous person. … We envisioned Bitch as a cross between Sassy and Ms. - something that could use pop culture as a tool to make feminism accessible and fun.'

It was an innocent jump

Zeisler concedes that her youthful naiveté was, in this case, a blessing: 'It's a really good thing that we didn't know what we were getting into. The cost and logistics of magazine distribution and production would have been way too intimidating.'

Even with such a clear mission, Zeisler also believes that the magazine's location in the Bay Area was instrumental to its success.

She says the DIY culture and strong community of independent bookstores there made the venture possible in ways a less creative city never could have facilitated.

It is this very idea - the importance of location to creative pursuits - that brings Bitch to Portland. 'I really love it up here. I'm in this place where I'm angry at the Bay Area - it's great, but its economy is driving away a lot of creative people who have something to offer. They can't afford it anymore; they're tired of struggling. Portland has the same DIY, progressive spirit and same artistic energy, but is more mellow.'

Feminism: dead or alive?

Bitch focuses on clever, feminist content.

Zeisler says the death knells for feminism, asserted in a spate of recent media stories, particularly in The New York Times, are misleading.

'The media has always been invested in the idea that feminism doesn't work, that it's passé or that young women don't relate to it - but they're never looking at the grass-roots activism that is going on,' Zeisler says. 'It's unfortunate because it can become a self-perpetuating myth. If young women read enough that they're (supposedly) not interested in feminism, it's going to seem less attractive.'

So what, then, is the true state of feminism in an age where young women have unprecedented 24-hour exposure to vacuous role models?

Zeisler scoffs at using celebrities or television characters as a gauge. Parsing 'Sex and the City' for insight into real women seems ridiculous to her: 'No one in the '70s looked at Suzanne Somers on 'Three's Company' and said, 'Hey, feminism has failed.' '

So with new digs and fresh Portland blood, Bitch will keep fighting the good fight, fueled by Zeisler's undying faith in the power of print and her lifelong fascination with the magazine format.

She says, 'I love the whole aspect of (magazines) - editing and communicating with writers, laying stuff out.' Zeisler admits the perks of running a magazine aren't bad, either: 'We get a lot of free books; that's great.'

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