The Pop Culture Pirate

Poised to become a household name, disruptive media talent Elisa Kreisinger ’08 wants you to know how white women ruined her summer, why separating the art from the artist is absurd, and the truth about Serena’s shouting.

The list of stuff that keeps Elisa Kreisinger ’08 up at night doesn’t even include her round-the-clock work mode. The 32-year-old host/producer of a hard-hitting, side-splitting iTunes top-10 podcast and weekly video series frets about big-picture stuff. For instance: Is it possible to critique modern pop culture for mass consumption without becoming part of the problem? Or, what’s the sell-by date of a career in postcapitalist capitalism? To say nothing of her vague, existential skepticism about whether her move to the suburbs could someday chloroform what Freud might call her disarmingly insurgent id. Not the stuff of sweet dreams.

Be that as it may, escaping a cramped, one-bedroom in Brooklyn by purchasing a charming brick house on the leafy streets of Glen Ridge, N.J., with her partner, Meg Bickford, has afforded Kreisinger snoozier surroundings. Besides, it’s not like the activist-provocateuse had bags under her eyes. Things are good. Real good. Neither her bedroom community nor the everyday angst of being in the entertainment business, spending half her week on Wilshire Boulevard, is having any detectable impact on her considerable capacity as a cosmopolitan feminist touchstone.

Kreisinger is a deep thinker and nimble conversationalist. Her self-
assured manner is offset by searing self-deprecation, and she’s unafraid to double back to ensure she’s said what she wanted to say how she wanted to say it. “Let me get this right” and “I can say that better” are a fulcrum from which she pivots to amplify insight. She bats aside her weekly whirlwind as “just my job—most people have it harder than standing in front of a camera asking questions.” But the reality is, Elisa Kreisinger (ee-LEASE-a KRAY-singer) has banked a bundle of sweat equity to build an abundant portfolio.

An executive producer at Refinery29, a global media company focused on young women, Kreisinger is the creator and star of Strong Opinions Loosely Held (SOLH). The podcast-video show bills itself as “made by and for the internet’s biggest threat: smart, opinionated women,” but it has universal appeal. Kreisinger chats up today’s culture makers and rule breakers to unravel the accepted norms, hiding-in-plain-sight biases and corrosive conventions of our modern popular culture.

The concept seems ripe for obsolescence-by-overreach, but Kreisinger drives the bus, and she corners like a coupe. Her on-air persona is scalpel sharp—at once honey-coated and slap-you-in-the-face. Think: Zooey Deschanel meets Michelle Wolf. SOLH won a 2017 Digiday Award for best podcast and was a 2017 Webby Honoree. Without prompting, Kreisinger credits Simmons and institutions like it for elevating the level of discourse, paving the way for her success.

“I think the mainstreaming of the topics I discuss has helped me carve out a niche,” she says. “When I got my degree, talking about these sociopolitical topics was seen as super academic. Now, all these millennials are coming out of liberal arts schools like Simmons with this high level of awareness as a baseline. It’s just my job to create content that appeals to that.”

Perceive, Publish, Repeat

Before launching her show, Kreisinger spent two years expanding Refinery29’s video content, spearheading a 500-percent increase in video views and boosting video production by 250 percent. Now, three out of four women on Facebook see the company’s content, prompting Ad Ageto call R29 a “women’s media icon for the digital age.” Those bragging rights come with a conga line of expectations.

“The short-form video business is about successfully scaling your content,” says Kreisinger. “How do you create enough to feed an all-day audience of millions—one that you’ve grown and have to sell to advertisers—but remain loyal to your brand? Because what you have to say is why you got into this in the first place. It’s this age-old dilemma of art versus commerce, and how you balance the two. I think it’s a sexy conversation people are still having in 2018, it’s just wrapped in an algorithm.”

Of course, Kreisinger needs no algorithm to tap into her exigencies like her beef with a bevy of white women this past summer.

“We just did a video that asks, ‘What’s the deal with white women?’ Because clearly, they, you know, ruined the summer by calling the cops on people of color,” she says. “We roll footage of Pool Patrol Paula and Permit Patty [internet nicknames for white women who, respectively, assaulted a black teen at a community pool, and reported an eight-year-old black girl to police for selling water on a sidewalk without a permit]. You see white women, who look like those you see every day, getting upset about someone who happens to be a person of color apparently taking up too much space.”

Kreisinger curates visuals that depict unfiltered contemporary culture. Her hope? That deconstructing source imagery will make viewers question it, or even look at it differently. Teeing her up to riff on issues that either everyone (or hardly anyone to that point) has been buzzing about illustrates her show’s riptide rhetoric.

On Serena Williams’ treatment after a combustible U.S. Open final: “Women who look like her are the future of a sport that’s been dominated by white people. Media coverage of her ran right into the stereotype of black women as angry, and [the International Tennis Federation] is making the sport seem dated and irrelevant by not speaking out. You can’t walk away from that news cycle and say, ‘Yeah, that was just.’”

On uncoupling Hollywood icons’ perversity from their performance in the #MeToo era: “Separating the art from the artist is nonsense. It’s time we include how something is made—and anything illicit involved—in critically assessing the work. There’s more transparency nowadays about where our food and denim and coffee comes from and the ethics of how it was made or harvested. I hope the same for entertainment. Consumers will know: who shot it, who was behind the scenes, whether they were paid equally, etc. I think that’s coming. It’s going to be slow, but it’ll be like the fair-trade movement.”

Slow Burn

Making money by transforming sobering subjects into edgy, digestible and frequently funny morsels was not a eureka moment for Kreisinger. It was like building a jigsaw puzzle, with Simmons serving as her corner pieces.

“Simmons was a huge feminist awakening for me and taught me how to ask better questions, make media and formulate that into a career,” she says. “Teachers encouraged me to keep asking questions and relate to the world in a way that reassured me I wasn’t crazy, and my peers weren’t crazy. Rather, the world is crazy. That was really important for me to get.”

Kreisinger’s postgrad “apprenticeship” was home-producing video remix clips that subverted television characters using tropes viewers knew intimately. (Check out: Don Loves Roger, or Sex and the Remix: QueerCarrie Project). By late 2011, using the handle Pop Culture Pirate, she was enough of an influencer to be called to offer testimony to the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO), helping to win exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which ultimately allowed video to dominate across social platforms.

“I kept thinking: ‘God, how are we going to talk about this in a cat video, and how can we make it shareable?’ Over time, I was awakened to this huge audience that still wants to engage with mission-driven content that’s meaningful.” —Elisa Kreisinger ’08

Before landing at Refinery, Kreisinger was a creative director at Upworthy—in effect, contextualized social science and social justice delivered via social media—and a creative partner at Eileen Fisher.

“Everything I did along the way was crucial for me, because I came to consciousness in a world of cat videos,” she explains. “I kept thinking: ‘God, how are we going to talk about this in a cat video, and how can we make it shareable?’ Over time, I was awakened to this huge audience that still wants to engage with mission-driven content that’s meaningful.”

These days, the onetime Cambridge Community Television intern gets texts from people like Rosanna Arquette telling her she’s “a great interviewer” and urging her to keep “doing what you love and supporting other women along the way.” Not bad for someone who, as a high school kid, “wanted a career as fast as possible, but didn’t know how to do it or with what social skills.” Mind you, none of this comes as any great surprise to those who have charted her ascendance.

“We went out for pizza after she graduated and I knew then she was going places,” says Simmons Associate Professor of English, Suzanne Leonard, a recent guest on SOLH. “Her ability to apply critical analysis and a feminist lens while telling people the stories that I can only tell in academic terms, that’s her brilliance.”

Though she commutes to Los Angeles most weeks for show production, Kreisinger still finds time to bang out a thought-provoking, weekly subscription newsletter at Plus, a generation after turning the tassel on her own mortarboard, she’s keen to share her street smarts with current Simmons students.

“It’s easy to say: ‘Have an opinion and monetize it,’ but I would counsel young undergraduates or graduates to just figure yourself out,” she says. “What do you want? And if you don’t know what you want, what are the experiences you need to have to acquire that data set? Develop a perspective and build upon it, because people want to know where you’re coming from and how that relates to them. No matter your career path, start with: ‘Hey, here’s what I think and here’s why.’”

Just no cats. Please.