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Bust magazine’s two decades of being unapologetically feminist

How has the feminist print magazine survived for 25 years as glossies with deeper pockets have folded?

Bust magazine’s two decades of being unapologetically feminist
[Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images]

“We started this project 25 years ago with a mission of how we were going to present feminism,” says Bust founder and editor-in-chief Debbie Stoller. “Now I have a strong sense that the culture has finally caught up with us. That’s the most surprising feeling to me.”

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Since 1993, Bust—along with the likes of Bitch, which also started as a zine—has offered women an alternative to the pages of mainstream glossies like Glamour and Cosmopolitan. According to Stoller, those magazines made the women she knew “feel terrible about themselves” and made little to no mention of feminism. “We wanted to make a magazine that women could actually feel good about reading,” Stoller says. “If Playboy is—or was—entertainment for men, then this would be like entertainment for feminists, to present pop culture from a feminist perspective and give feminism some better PR.”

But unlike other indie publications that sprung up in the name of third wave feminism, Bust has made it to 2018, surviving the decline of print media and even outliving mainstream magazines with far deeper pockets. Stoller attributes this to being “scrappy,” as well as the bimonthly magazine’s investment in events—such as the Craftacular, a crafts fair in its 13th year, as well as lectures and classes—and subscription revenue. (Bust’s current subscriber base is about 12,000.)

“Unlike a lot of other magazines, we have always relied more on subscribers,” Stoller says, noting that other magazines get much of their revenue from advertising. “The other thing is because we don’t have a parent publisher and aren’t running on someone else’s dollar, we cannot afford to do anything other than what we can afford to do. We have to work within our means; we have to have a balanced budget.” That said, Stoller plans to finally seek outside financial support for Bust. “I think with even a small amount of money, there’s so much that we could do,” she says.

The changing landscape of feminism in media

Perhaps more interesting is that Bust has survived the changing tides of feminism and what women demand from their media. One example of the latter is Jezebel, which launched as its own corrective to women’s magazines nearly 15 years after Bust. (“The Bitch and Bust aesthetic, if you can call it that, never really appealed to me,” Jezebel founder Anna Holmes once told the New Yorker. “Probably because I associated it, fairly or not, with cool young white women, and I was neither cool nor white.”) In the years since Bust‘s inception,  Cosmopolitan has deemed itself “deeply feminist” and published tough interviews with figures like Ivanka Trump; Barack Obama has written about his feminism for Glamour; the New York Times has brought on its first gender editor; and Teen Vogue‘s political coverage has drawn wide praise since 2016. And over the past year, countless publications have interrogated sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace in light of the #MeToo movement.


Related: The frustratingly familiar history of workplace sexual harassment

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That evolution—and the mainstreaming of the term feminism—is something Stoller thinks Bust has had a hand in. “We’ve always interviewed celebrities and always asked whether they consider themselves a feminist,” she says. “Some people would say yes, but I’d always had the sense that you could clearly feel there were celebrities who were afraid to say they were feminists.” Now, she says, the opposite is true. “When female celebrities say they aren’t feminists, there’s a backlash, because what kind of a person really wouldn’t be a feminist?”

When I ask where Bust fits in now that many women’s magazines have, indeed, grown with the times, Stoller points out that Bust has never really been reactive. “We’ve never been so much about news,” she says. “We’re much more often about pop culture, and very often about women’s history.” She also stresses that many publications aren’t really curating content in a meaningful way and are often “throwing as much against the wall as they can” to see what works.

“[Bust] is like slow-roasted content,” Stoller says. “We spend a lot of time on the stories, the photography, and the illustration. We spend a lot of time thinking about what the mix is going to be, so if you unplug and actually sit and read through the magazine—which most of our readers tell us they do—you get to have an experience. It’s like the difference between watching 50 YouTube videos and watching a movie.” The women who flock to Bust, she believes, aren’t necessarily interested in the glut of mainstream content directed at women. “I always think our readers are too smart to be part of the mainstream,” Stoller says. “They think for themselves, and they don’t buy into a lot of bullshit.”


Related: This designer is fighting back against bad data–with feminism


Feminism as a selling point

Bust is also fully woman-owned, a claim few other publications can make. The majority of mainstream women’s magazines are owned by male publishers, and as Stoller notes, even feminist digital media isn’t necessarily self-sustaining. “The advertising landscape of people who are willing to support this is still not quite where it should be,” she says. “We used to not even use the word feminism when we were going out looking for ads because it would just turn people off, and we knew they didn’t understand it anyway . . . today, it’s a selling point. We can say it. But the stable of advertisers that are looking to reach young, smart women still seems to tend toward fashion and beauty.”

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Much like advertisers, a magazine like Bust also has to contend with the evolution of feminism itself—young feminists today, for example, are concerned with issues of intersectionality and gender fluidity—and varying opinions on what constitutes feminism across generations. The #MeToo movement, in particular, has thrown into stark relief some of these differences. “I don’t see it so much as disagreements among generations, but more n evolution of thinking,” Stoller says. “I think it’s trying to solve a very, very complicated, intricate issue, which is: How do you achieve equality between men and women? What does it look like, and what does it mean? It doesn’t have a straightforward, simple answer.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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