SARAH MIRK: Bitches Get Stuff Done

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When Sarah Mirk spotted a headline in Ebony Magazine this week that read, “The Average 27-year-old:  Educated and Broke,” she thought, ‘hey, that’s me.’ Mirk, 27, is the online editor for Bitch Media, a nonprofit magazine, website and podcast that seeks to apply feminist perspectives to pop culture. She graduated with a degree in history from Grinnell College in Iowa in 2008 — having taken time off to intern for the alternative news weekly, The Stranger, in Seattle, Washington. Mirk’s first book, Sex From Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules, hits the presses this August. WEEKEND sat down with Mirk to talk about the word “bitch,” feminist media, the direction of journalism and her relationship advice.

Q. The name of the magazine — my first question is why?

A. Using the word “bitch” for the title of the magazine is a pretty good inroad to getting people to talk about and think about sexism and the different words we use for women and men. Especially if I’m talking to a group of people who don’t think a lot about sexism, you can say, “Who is bitch used to describe?” It’s used to describe specifically women who are aggressive or who ask for what they want. We would never use the word to describe men who exhibit those same characteristics. That’s something that really clicks with a lot of people. They’re like, “Oh yeah, you’re right — there is a difference there.”

Q. So is it an effort to reappropriate the word?

A. It’s an effort to think about why we use that word — and who we use it to describe. It’s not an effort to say everyone should feel comfortable calling themselves a bitch, but to ask everybody, “Who do you think of as a bitch?” What do you think of as bitchy behavior? And what are the issues behind that? And if you come away from that being like, “Yeah I want to call myself a bitch,” then sure, do it.

Q. How did the magazine come about?

A. It was started in 1996 in Oakland. Now we’re based in Portland. It was initially a zine that people photocopied in their basement and distributed. It’s a noun and a verb, it’s an action. It’s saying, “We’re bitching about pop culture,” and women who do speak up for what they want are often called bitches.Q. What do you see as the target audience?

A. Anybody who has an interest in pop culture and social justice. If you’re the kind of person who watches TV and starts shouting at the screen, then it’s the type of magazine for you. Or if you watch music videos and you say, “I really want to talk to somebody about what these Beyoncé videos mean,” then Bitch is for you.

Q. Do you have to self-identify as a feminist?

A. It’s all about pop culture, which is a niche in itself. It’s not necessarily for people who self-identify as feminists. You don’t have to have taken a gender studies class or have been a gender studies major to be able to get it. It’s pretty practical, real-world stuff that people understand. It’s for people who think about issues of sexism and racism and class in pop culture.

Q. What does it mean to write about news with a feminist perspective?

A. You keep an eye on a lot of things. One is keeping an eye on what perspectives are included and what voices are being left out. What sort of big picture issues are driving the stories in the news?

Q. So how would Bitch cover the State of the Union?

A. We listen to the State of the Union and say, “Well, what is Obama saying about race or inequality and gender?” What was missing from his speech? He didn’t mention sexual assault of women in the military. He didn’t talk about race. But he did talk about the minimum wage, and that’s cool to put the minimum wage on the national agenda. And why is the minimum wage important? Because it’s a big inequality issue.

Q. Do you think that’s the way journalism is headed — toward more specific, niche-oriented coverage?

A. Journalism is so fragmented. Because it’s easier now for anyone to make their own media than it’s ever been, you can get a lot more of those voices out there. It’s been cool to see people starting their own blogs or speaking up on social media. The ideas aren’t just coming from people who are in charge of newspapers. There are fewer gatekeepers, which is a good thing.

Q. How’s the magazine doing? Is it financially stable?

A. Bitch has had to adapt a lot. Since 2008 it’s actually been a nonprofit magazine. It’s called Bitch Media because it’s a magazine and a website and a podcast. We’ve been shifting away from having all of the costs be covered by subscribers and newsstand sales. Now we’re more donor-based.

Q. Who are the donors?

A. It’s lots of individuals. Our average donation is eight dollars. I couldn’t tell you the demographics of our donors. It’s not a lot of super rich people giving $10,000. We don’t get any grants from the government either. It’s people who have felt alienated by other media and love Bitch and are really excited to support it.

Q. You have a book coming out in August. The title is “Sex From Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules.” What does that mean — “sex from scratch?”

A. Whenever I go look at relationship guidebooks, they’re always really bad. And they’re like “how to snag a man and get married to him.” And that’s not really what I’m interested in. I’m interested in developing an ethical framework for relationships that doesn’t hinge on religion or tradition. If you don’t want to do what your parents did and you don’t use the Bible as your moral guidepost, how do you make decisions in relationships? Lots of people are doing that on their own. But there aren’t a lot of spaces to talk about it. Whenever I’ve gone through trouble in relationships, I’ve wanted there to be a book of collected wisdom of people who are smarter than me and older than me.

Q. How much can we learn from guidebooks and how much does it just depend on personal discovery and making mistakes on our own?

A. Well, it’s kind of weird writing a book that’s just like, “Do what you want.” But we don’t have a lot of role models in our culture for doing relationships in any other way than being straight and middle class and being married and having kids. That’s assumed to be the same goal for everybody. But that’s not what a lot of people are doing. My goal was to find other people who are doing relationships in different ways. And to say, “Look, these people can be role models, too.”

Q. It’s based on a lot of interviews; you traveled all over the place. What’s the best story you heard?

A. There’s this interview I start crying in where this friend of mine who is gender queer — they use the pronoun ze — and ze was talking about ze’s grandmother. And writing to the grandmother about gender. And the grandmother getting this letter — she’s a conservative Montana grandma. And calling up my friend and saying, “You know, whatever you want to do, as long as you’re happy.” As long as this Montana grandma can be that smart, that just really made me so happy to hear about someone being accepted by their family.

Q. What about a bad story?

A. Everybody has a bad story — about shit they screwed up. The worst are just stories of people being in relationships for way too long. That’s what I’m afraid of in my own life. I don’t want to get to a point where I’m resentful and angry toward somebody I’m dating.

Q. How much of it is based on your own personal experience?

A. My personal story goes through it. It’s me trying to figure out what I want to do, and how I want to be in the world.

Q. So what have been the major elements of that? What aspects of your own life make it into the book?

A. I started writing the book when I was 25 and in a long-term relationship with my boyfriend and trying to figure out whether we should keep dating or not. And that basic question of like, “Should we work through our problems or break up?” How do you know when to break up with somebody?

Q. Did you break up?

A. Yeah, we wound up breaking up — and it was really good. It took us two years to figure that out. We dated four years altogether. That process of breaking up — of figuring out what I want to do — it was sad but we had really honest conversations. That’s one mantra from the book: Be more honest.

Q. Why did you break up?

A. There are so many issues there that I can’t even go into it. Why do you think people break up?

Q. I don’t know — probably a lot of reasons. Why did you break up?

A. We felt like we weren’t super attracted to each other, and the root of that is insecurity and our own issues about ourselves and how we interact with the world. There’s not a simple answer. Talking honestly about relationships has always led me to a harder road, and more complicated feelings. But that’s a good thing.

Q. So are you involved with someone now?

A. I’m involved with a couple of people.

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