Women on Top: Liz Plank

You may know her from her Twitter and Instagram as @feministabulous, Vox’s video series 2016ish, or numerous video news and talk shows—but if you don’t already, Liz Plank is someone to watch. A journalist and activist, she isn’t afraid to be loud and proud when voicing her opinions on the crazy stuff going on in the world. Through her Election Year video series for Vox called 2016ish and her new podcast with Hitha Herzog called Divided States of Women, she encourages others to speak out with her.

Liz is also an up-and-coming author! You can find her first book, How to Be a Man, out from St. Martin's Press in Fall 2019.

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“It’s super fun to fight for equal rights.”

I want to say first I really love the way you do things, by the way. The way you cover all the weird political and social things that are happening in America right now.

Thank you! Oh my God, there’s so much happening.

So you’ve made quite a name for yourself in the media world, which is awesome. Did you always want to be a journalist?

No, not at all. I actually sort of came into media from the back door. I was a Women’s Studies major, and I went to the London School of Economics for a Master’s in Gender & Policy; I thought I would end up working in government or working a policy job regarding women’s heath or, you know, women’s issues. I was doing my Master’s in London, and it was the 2012 Olympics. They were going to start Female Boxing. For the first time, and they were going to force female boxers to wear skirts; I was very alarmed by that and very annoyed, and I had just started boxing so I eventually started a petition and a campaign to [ask] the boxing association to let female boxers wear whatever they want and not have to wear skirts because their argument was that it made them look elegant and differentiate them from the men. I ended up writing an article about it and the petition went viral, and the decision ended up being overturned. I was doing interviews for The Independent and all these outlets that I never even thought I would ever be interviewed for, so I really saw the power of social media .... I realized there was a much bigger audience and it could change things, and that’s what I wanted to do, that’s why I went into policy, that’s why I became a Women’s Studies major. I was constantly stuck in this the period when, you’re like two years old, and you’re all, “Life is unfair!” and that’s the way it is, and I was [like] no, why? Why must things be this way? So one thing sort of led to another—I worked my ass off—but I was lucky to have great opportunities presented to me that I could use to tell stories that I thought were important.

Do you think social media helps you or anyone else talk about politics?

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Yeah, oh my gosh. Entirely. The episode ["The Women Who Get Left Out of #BlackGirlMagic" from November 12, 2017] is about social media, how powerful social media has been for women and girls but more particularly for marginalized communities, for people [who] don’t have access to information or the resources, or the education, so they can use social media sources to be in touch with people who care about similar issues. They can learn about things, [and] they can organize that platform for many people. ... the world is not a safe place for a lot of people. It’s not a safe place if you’re a person of color going to protest in the street; going to any kind of protest ... can be really risky, but with social media, there are these safe spaces online that people can use and try to mobilize ... to communicate and connect on. Politics isn’t just for the supremely educated and the people who know the intricacies of the US government. I certainly didn’t as a Canadian, ha! But it means that you don’t have to have [a master's degree] in politics to be involved in politics and become a politician. I mean, if there’s anything 2016 showed us, it’s that anyone can be a politician— I guess there’s a silver lining there for women! I think it has caused a lot of women to consider running, because already women are much less likely to run, but I think Donald Trump has made it clear that no matter what your shortcomings are, everyone has a shot.

Wow, that’s a good way of looking at it.

Yeah, a very small silver lining, but it’s there!

So your platform is super accessible to basically anybody, probably because of the humor and satire you use, which I personally love. So do you think that that makes the issues more accessible to the general public? Or do you know why that makes it more accessible to the public?

Ultimately, humor is disarming. If you laugh with people, two people sitting on a street corner, and they’re both sitting at opposite ends of the political spectrum, they have totally different outlook on the world, totally different experiences, if they laugh at the same joke, they have that common experience. So humor is a way to bring people together. It’s also a way to point things out for me in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m blaming you or teaching you, or I’m coming on with some kind of plan. What I encountered as a Women’s Studies major in the early 2000s was that not a lot of people are always welcoming to ideas that shake the status quo. Those kinds of things can feel threatening to people, especially people who benefit from the status quo, so I can use humor because it really disarms people into having difficult conversations, because it can be hard, or complex, or uncomfortable, but if you can make people laugh, they can have that conversation, and maybe not say the perfect thing or know exactly what to say, but it also gives them a vehicle to have that conversation. You show someone a funny video that has a powerful statement, [and] maybe it feels easier to send that to someone than to send them a copy of, you know, an article post on Facebook that they’ll probably never read. You know, I never wanted to be a journalist because ... "I want to be on TV!" or "I want to write a book!" I did it because I have a message and I have things I want to say, and it’s all about how I package that message, because if no one listens to you, then what’s the point? Or if it doesn’t change any minds then ... what are you doing?

I think that’s a really good point. And 2016ish is hilarious, and I think those are the kinds of videos you can send people that have a message but are still funny.

I hope so!

Definitely. Especially because of the people you interview! Out of them, who was your favorite to talk to?

Well I mean, okay—that’s a really, really hard question because obviously, interviewing Justin Trudeau was the best day of my life, by far! I mean obviously, it felt really important and gratifying in terms of my career, and being able to interview my first out-of-state person was really awesome, but moreover, I just felt personally inspired by his approach to politics and by his ability to connect and talk about issues, again, that are difficult and maybe controversial, and I think he does approach them in a way that is disarming. So yeah, meeting him and getting to do that interview was really important. But my favorite episodes are not always the ones that get the most views, and I don’t really mind that my favorite people that I interviewed were ordinary folks who were at a disability conference. I interviewed a bunch of people who have difficulty going to vote. I just interviewed them about each of their experiences with struggling with basically what should be a fundamental human right, to vote inside a democracy, to make your voice heard, which is really difficult because of physical barriers in our society. We don’t design our world so that people with disabilities can equally participate and tap into their potential to be full human beings. So interviewing Victor Pineda was really important to me, [as well as] interviewing Vilissa Thompson, a disability advocate. Every single person I interview, I love listening to people’s stories. And when I can get into their real stories, their lives, what they actually care about, that’s my favorite.

“Why don’t we have the phrase 'trophy husband' if we have 'trophy wife?'”

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So I listened to an episode of Divided States of Women today on Hugh Hefner [from October 5, 2017]—I absolutely love that—and I appreciate you and Hitha talking about men coming to fame by exploiting women. Do you think that is an issue beyond Hugh Hefner?

Yeah, oh my God, have you met Donald Trump? Donald Trump made a career and business and empire by exploiting women ... so, like, it’s everywhere. And it’s rewarded — that’s what men do, that’s what a cool guy, macho guy, powerful man ... does; he acquires women, he has a lot of money and a lot of women around him. So women become a currency in the capitalistic-focused culture that we live in. And Hugh Hefner is a version of it that feels very old school and ... archaic in a way. Donald Trump embodies that culture ... when he compliments the First Lady of France on her body, sort of winks at her husband, kind of saying, "Look how great she looks, good for you!" And the worst part is when he looks at the President of France and he gives him a nod, "Good job, good on you," because he’s with a woman who is attractive, he thinks more highly of him, and men do that all the time. Why don’t we have the phrase '"trophy husband" if we have "trophy wife?" We’ve come a long way since the 1970s, [but] in a way the world is still so similar. The body positivity movement is something we talk about in the show and in this season, and it’s certainly awesome to see that companies represent women in a wider diversity of ways, but it still comes down to objectification of women; our primary value is in our bodies, what we look like. And so even if those body standards are like, "Okay great, now you can be a plus-size! Now you can have thicker thighs!" It’s still that the most important thing about you is your body. There’s much more of a stigma around women who don’t fit the body standards than men, and that’s because we put a higher premium on what women look like.

Well, to close all of this, and I’ll let you get back, where do you see yourself in the near and distant future?

I really feel like every six months I have a new goal. I have a new who I want to be, or what I want to do, or who I model myself off of, what kind of imaginary mentor I have — which I highly encourage, having imaginary mentors, because you can’t always get in touch with some of the people you’d want to be mentored by, but you can have imaginary conversations with them —but anyways, it always changes. Social media is changing our environments. Who could have predicted the political landscape that we’re in right now? So I always sort of keep my thoughts open and I just follow what I’m passionate about and what I love, and I follow my gut.

I’m working on a book! [It’s] about men. I’m super done with being in rooms full of women, and on channels full of women, talking about how gender equality needs to be reached, and how we all agree basically that feminism is great and we should all have equal rights, but I’m super interested in having that conversation with men. And I’m super interested in talking to men about how they not only should join the fight for gender equality because they know women and love women and came out of a woman, but also that [men] have a personal benefit to joining the fight for gender equality because they are also under a gendered system that is constraining and oppressive, and there is no real big conversation about that. So I’m really hoping to broaden the conversation around feminism for men to really feel included, and not just feel included but do the work and join the fun, because it’s super fun to fight for equal rights.

All images courtesy of Noa Gurvis.