You're welcome to bitch

by Steve Rhodes (from the March/April 1997 Mediafile)

Note: This version just has the text of the original piece & links to the pubs in the sidebar at the end. I've also added some links in the text. Links were updated 8/98 and there was slight updating of the text. Another update (3/98) There used to be lots of links in this story to the pieces mentioned, but the website was down for a while and relaunched at a new domain and with a new design.

Fed up with a media diet they've judged male-oriented, insulting, or just plain bland, Bay Area women are producing their own media in what seems to be greater and greater numbers. Bitch, a growing zine with a popular Web version soon to be relaunched with more original content, is one of the most recent success stories.

Cofounder Lisa Jervis had been an intern at a New York-based magazine and was working as a freelance copy editor in San Francisco, but what she really wanted to do was write critiques of pop culture and the media from a feminist perspective. She couldn't think of any magazines that would publish that kind of material, so she started Bitch , so named "because-regardless of those who still think it's an insult-it's an action."

The first issue was published in January 1996. Written and edited by Jervis and her housemate Andi Zeisler, it included a story on fate of Sassy, a magazine for young women that was purchased by Peterson Publishing (the publisher of Guns & Ammo) and turned into another Teen; a response to Esquire's "Women We Love" issue called "Why We Don't Want to Be Loved by Esquire"; and reviews of books and music, mostly by or about women. The first 300 copies sold out in bookstores all over the United States, so the pair quickly printed another 300.

In the introduction to the debut issue (a slightly different version used to be online in full), Jervis made sure that readers would have no doubt about Bitch's agenda:

"This magazine is about speaking up. Because when we hear, over and over again, without responding, what the mass media has to say-that women are stupid, shallow, incapable-we will believe it. Too much of the time we're told to shut up, to calm down, to take a joke. Well, we won't. Because it's not a joke, and what we have to say is too important to leave unsaid.

"This magazine is about speaking up. It's about formulating replies to the sexism that we see every day. It's about using those replies to maintain our sanity...We need to find and make girl-friendly places in the mass media. Where are the things we can see and read and hear that don't insult our intelligence? How can we get more of them? This magazine is about theorizing and fostering a transformation of pop culture."

Janelle Brown and Heather Irwin were working at HotWired and thinking about starting a women's Website when they ran across a copy of Bitch at the Naked Eye news and video store in San Francisco's Lower Haight and saw a perfect match. Jervis accepted their offer to take Bitch online and the Website ( was launched in May. One of the first sites with user-friendly frames and a design that gave new life to stories from the print zine, Bitch garnered a Cool Site of the Day award, a Cool icon on Yahoo, and writeups in Spin and Wired. The site was soon receiving thousands of visitors a month.

Irwin explained the need for a woman-oriented Web zine in a June column she wrote for Netizen, HotWired's political section:

"Feeding on the maleness of the Web, many sites have geared their content almost exclusively toward that gender. Take HotWired. This site is an ode to being young, white, rich, and male. Its columnists are almost exclusively men, the writing often flagrantly sexist, and its content marketed with a heavy dose of testosterone. Women are rarely heard from in Threads [the discussion area]-an almost exclusive playground for cyberboys who seem to almost revel in cutting any unwitting posters down to size. Surprisingly, one HotWired columnist [Jon Katz] said that nearly half of his personal e-mail responses come from women readers, proving that women are braving the front-just less publicly."

The Bitch Website-on hiatus since November but slated for a relaunch as early as February-pulled a lot of material from the print zine, but also took advantage of the online medium by adding up-to-date sections on issues and events as well as a weekly "rant"(a short, personal commentary), a daily "raw nerve" about something annoying or exciting in the media, and discussions. Archives of past issues are still available on the Website (it isn't easy to navigate the archives right now, so I'm including links to index pages for features and rants).

Update (8/98): Bitch never did re-launch online, but it continues as a wonderful print publication. The women who did the online version of bitch now do Maximag

One of the more discussed rants was HotWired staffer Lisa Schmeiser's "Sisterhood is Powerful, But There's No Way I'll Stuff My Bra for It," which pilloried a Website advertising Curves, a bra with a rubber insert in the cups. The president of Curves had spammed a number of women's mailing lists with information about the Curves product. Schmeiser's rant linked to a topic, "Do webgrrls stuff their bras? Give us your take on 'women-oriented' marketing," which included an e-mail message from Curves' president in response to the rant.

Brown says she is most proud of the community that developed in the discussion area. "We had everyone from women in college to women in their 40s." She and Irwin, now living in New York, became too involved in other work to keep updating the site (Irwin was covering the campaign for Netizen and Brown started covering culture for Wired News. Update (8/98) Brown now writes for the technology section of Salon.) but they hope to relaunch it with a new design and a new relationship to the print zine: "Instead of being mother and daughter, we'll be more like sisters."

Meanwhile, the print zine continues to grow. Jervis says her role model is Bust, one of the most successful women's zines, with a circulation of about 15,000. "I'd like to get to the point where Bitch is self-sustaining," she says. The fourth issue of the zine, due out in February, will have a print run of 2,000. Jervis says it will include an article comparing Playboy and Details magazines; a commentary on "the missionary position and why Redbook wants everyone to stay in it"; and interviews with Lisa Palac, the former editor of Future Sex magazine, and Sarah Jacobson, a filmmaker whose first feature, Mary Jane's Not A Virgin Anymore, was just shown at the Sundance Film Festival.

Steve Rhodes writes about media, culture, and politics and cohosted the Media Shock conference on Electric Minds. An updated version of this story with links can be found on his Web page (

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