Rest in Peace, Bitch Magazine
Rest in Peace, Bitch Magazine
My first experience with Bitch Magazine was seeing it peeping out from around the corner of another publication in the magazine rack at Tangents, the local alternative store. It wasn’t the first issue, but it was close. Tangents sold things such as obscure magazines with limited distribution, gag gifts, weird postcards, boxes of nag champa incense, and toe rings. I ambled in to read Adbusters in the back of the store, but I couldn’t resist something with such a tantalizing name. I can’t remember what it was I read, but after that, I always checked for a new copy when I entered the store, and I was rarely disappointed by my reading when I found one.
It’s hard to articulate the place Bitch had in my life, and in the larger media landscape. Bitch offered something unique in the form of a thoughtful feminist response to pop culture, as it billed itself, with work I couldn’t find anywhere else — or place anywhere else. But that came later. First came Bitch as a reader, and as a mind-expanding way of viewing the world from within the confines of my small town. When Bitch went online, I was even more excited, as it expanded and democratized access. And it materially shaped my career.
Bitch was a key early byline for many feminist and feminist-adjacent writers, a place where editors were willing to take a chance on a new writer, and a place where a writer could start to build up some respectable clips. Bitch was a known quantity, a respected entity, a place where the editors had good taste in writers and other editors sniffed around for new talent, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “punching above its weight.” The editorial team provided uncountable opportunities for writers who didn’t have the right background, education, or connections, allowing them to lay the groundwork for larger media careers. Bitch very much shaped the media landscape, both by building opportunities for writers and sparking conversations about media and pop culture.
And one day, my time came. I’d started a site called FWD/Forward: Feminists with Disabilities for a Way Forward with a collective of people who were frustrated by disability representation in feminist blogging culture (this may be an era giveaway) and also more broadly. We weren’t anywhere in media and pop culture, most of the mainstream feminist blogs didn’t have openly disabled writers. When we did show up as a novelty to be written about, it was often in derisive, harmful, and just plain bad depictions. Disabled people weren’t really people, and certainly the interests of disabled people were not relevant to the largest feminist movement. How could they be?
At FWD, we started conversations about disablism, stereotyping, and disability feminism, and continued conversations that had been happening for decades. That’s work other people have since built on (largely uncredited), and work that had a tangible, transformative impact on progressive spaces far beyond feminist blogs — even sites and people who took pleasure in mocking us and demeaning our work later slunk back into the conversation. But others saw the conversations we were having as an opportunity to work directly with us to do better.
It was because of FWD that Andi Zeisler, the co-founder of Bitch, reached out to me in 2009. Would we be interested, she was wondering, in a short run column? Several of us were, and we wrote as the Transcontinental Disability Choir on topics such as ableist language, the use of disability iconography in music videos, and disability representation on Glee. These early Bitch bylines were important to me as a writer, but also as a huge fan of Bitch; it was the kind of place I dreamed of writing “someday” and in the more than a decade since, I’ve written extensively on topics ranging from unicorns to grief, with some of my all-time favourite pieces running at Bitch.
Bitch was an amazing place for disabled writers for a number of reasons. One, notes writer Vilissa Thompson, is that it provided a space for people to write about something other than disability even when they were known for covering disability. Thompson first wrote for Bitch because then-Editor-in-Chief Evette Dionne approached her to see if she had an interest in writing about tarot. A known fan of witchy things, Thompson certainly did.
Disabled writers often find themselves pigeonholed, only covering disability or closely adjacent topics even when it is not their primary interest, or an interest at all. Seeing the byline of a disabled writer at Bitch didn’t mean you were going to encounter something about disability: Instead, editors such as Zeisler and Dionne had a good eye for talent and cultivated people in a way that went beyond their identities. One of the things I most enjoyed about working with Dionne was that I never knew what she’d hit me up with when she emailed to see if I was interested in a story. It might be about disability, but it might be something totally wild and different that she thought I might like, such as a dive into the Cinnamon Toast Crunch shrimp incident.
Dionne was unique for another reason: She’s one of the few Black women working in high-level editorial today, even at progressive publications. For some writers, Dionne was their first experience working with a Black woman. For fellow Black women and femmes like Thompson, it was a very important experience: “Women of color editors have an outlook that is incredibly different from the white folks. I saw Evette being intentional about giving people space to do what they love, which is to write. ” Dionne made space for the work of people of color, including through a curated issue that was entirely , in a way that white editors — even those who have experienced marginalization in other ways — could not.
In conversations about working at Bitch, Dionne’s name came up repeatedly as an exemplary editor who led a feminist publication to new and expanded places. That was a constant highlight with disabled writers; it remains startling today to visit a website with multiple disabled writers on the front page, or to recognize multiple disabled writers in the table of contents of a print mag. At Bitch, that was routine, thanks to the work of the Bitch staff, who made it a priority, and didn’t keep investing in the same names. Instead, they fostered opportunities for new and emerging writers, but also artists and illustrators. As writer Kate Horowitz said, “Disabled writers of color and other multiply marginalized writers seemed to be featured more frequently, which was a welcome shift.” That happened because of conscious staffing decisions Those decisions marked a continual desire to do better, to broaden feminist perspectives, to learn from mistakes, and to evolve in a changing cultural and ideological landscape.
The Sick and Access issues both highlighted a broad scope of disability experiences and writers, and firmly rooted disability as a feminist issue, but disability content wasn’t limited to “very special episodes” — Horowitz wrote about invisible illness and medical misogyny for the Invisibility issue, for example. Even for readers who might not intuitively grasp the role of disability in society and culture, the nature and scope of coverage showed how deeply disability feminism should be rooted in their understanding of pop culture; a story did not need to be about disability or by a disabled person to integrate disability elements. By featuring numerous disabled people of color, Bitch also made it clear that disability has racial elements, and that the default depiction of disability — a generic white person — was erroneous and racist.
At a time when it sometimes felt like I knew all the major disabled writers working, and their body of work, Bitch was the place I could go to find a name and go “wow, who is that, I’ve never heard of them,” in an excited way as I discovered a new talent. Writer Anna Hamilton said, “I recall seeing many disabled writers with a wide variety of disabilities covering various issues,” a truly remarkable thing in a media landscape where disabled people are treated as though they are interchangeable and all able to speak for each other. Or one where we are pitted against each other by editors who “already have a disability story for this issue.”
It was also a truly unique place, one where stories that couldn’t be placed anywhere else could thrive. Bitch staff relished deep, thoughtful cultural criticism in addition to weird stories, running things that were truly special and an opportunity for a writer to play around. “I could reliably pitch some really out-there ideas to Bitch, such as an exploration of the r/IllnessFakers subreddit, and a review of the 2020 HBOMax Heaven’s Gate documentary,” commented Hamilton. The ability to hew to a mission while expanding what that mission could look like was distinctive, and Bitch was always the first place I went with fun, offbeat stories that might not necessarily fit within editorial guardrails elsewhere.
The thoughtful approach to content and writers went further than some may have realized. Though writers such as Horowitz sometimes experienced disorganization when it came to administrative processes, Bitch genuinely worked to improve, and it showed. By the end, Bitch was one of the promptest payers in the industry, with the least fuss; sometimes a payment would land in my bank account on the same day an article published. And the editorial staff genuinely cared for their writers. I still have handwritten notes, stickers, and other things the main office sent to me over the years, and I haven’t forgotten how supportive they were when I, and they, were brigaded over an article that a certain section of the internet didn’t like, or how Zeisler was the first to step up and say “how can I help” when a publication I relied on for steady work closed. It’s easy for a publication to take a piece, pay out (on net 90 terms, naturally) and consider the matter done, but the Bitch team worked to cultivate a relationship with writers.
Bitch’s closure leaves a gap in feminist media, present and future. It is deeply mourned by many of the people who wrote there, as well as people who worked there — even as they also struggled with issues such as burnout and pay. Many of the comments from former staffers reflect the larger state of media, where editorial staff and support teams are expected to do more with less, facing shrinking pay and staffing even as the demands of digital media escalate. While Dionne and others fought to improve writer pay, they faced their own internal challenges which clearly contributed to attrition, even as they believed in the magazine, what they were creating, and the people they worked with. These experiences showed that no magazine is perfect, but that a way forward should be possible, and that we need to have these conversations clearly and publicly to learn and grow.
The sad and sudden demise of Bitch Magazine is a true loss to a number of communities, and it’s also a warning. As more and more newsrooms close, nonprofit newsrooms are no exception, and others, such as The Counter, are also facing closure, narrowing the scope and diversity of media in a way that harms everyone. No publication is safe, and if we do not find a way to make it sustainable to live, work, and come up in media, we are going to lose valuable perspectives and voices, with exceptional stories and coverage that may be unplaceable anywhere else. At a moment when “free speech” is on everyone’s lips, the die-off of independent media should be cause for concern, and priority, for everyone.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist, essayist, and editor. smith’s work on disability, culture, and social attitudes has appeared in publications such as the Washington Post, Time, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Vice, in addition to anthologies, most recently Disability Disability. They received a National Magazine Award in 2020 for their work in Catapult. You can find smith on Twitter @sesmith.
Support Disability Media and Culture
DONATE to the Disability Visibility Project®
Leave a Reply