Girl Talk

Scrawled and stapled, filled with rough-edged collages and BLARING CAPS, often achingly, embarrassingly personal, zines hardly seem like the founding documents of a movement. But, in the first book-length treatment of this topic, Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism, Alison Piepmeier argues that zines played a signature role in the development of third-wave feminism. "These hopeful interventions are not identical to traditional modes of doing politics," she writes, "but they are political nonetheless, because they are drawing attention to what's wrong with the world, awakening their readers' outrage, and providing tools for challenging existing power structures."

Piepmeier begins reclaiming zines from the male-dominated culture of punk. Instead, she connects them with what she identifies as earlier forms of feminist "participatory media": the scrapbooks kept by suffragettes to document and respond to sexist characterizations of their work; the pamphlets that transmitted contraband information about contraception and sexual health to women in the early 1900s; the mimeographed flyers that called women's libbers to consciousness and revolt. "Participatory media represent a way of engaging with unfriendly mass culture and transforming it -- if not always on a broad scale, at least at the level of the local," she notes.

Like these efforts, Piepmeier suggests, zines produced by women from the 1990s through the present are inspired not just by reaction to male domination but by women's passion to be heard, to connect with others, and to express what they can't find in culture around them. Zines (short for magazines) can vary widely -- from simple handwritten pages photocopied and folded in two and distributed at anarchist infoshops, to elaborately constructed cartoon booklets hand-laid with color and sold in gallery stores, to glossy publications with regular production schedules and devoted subscribers. But they share one characteristic: "Zines are resistant media," Piepmeier writes. Third-wave zinesters have used the pages of their photocopied booklets to rail not only against sexism but against racism (Evolution of a Race Riot), incest (Mend My Dress), the tyranny of the diet industry (I'm So Fucking Beautiful), the aggravations of motherhood (The East Village Inky), the rip-off of consumer culture (Thrift Score), and the limitations of feminism itself (Bust).

It's not just the content of these zines but their form, their look and feel, their "girl style," that make them noteworthy. Early-'90s grrrl zines made liberal use (and fun) of both contemporary and retro sexist images -- apron-wearing housewives with vacuums, tattooed pinup girls, bikini models torn angrily from ads, ironically juxtaposed with princess and Hello Kitty cartoons -- developing a distinctive visual vocabulary that set them apart from both earlier feminist newspapers and zines about other topics. Piepmeier describes them as "sculptural media," notable for the pleasure that their makers experience in constructing them and for the small thrill the recipient gets in opening up a hand-decorated envelope or finding a tiny, raging, perfect zine in a crammed independent bookstore.

Such zines play on the often-denigrated practices of girls' communication. "The external trappings of zine exchanges seemed like they were the logical and only slightly more grown-up extension of the sticker-trading, fortune-teller-making, bus-note-trading giddiness that had been a crucial part of my elementary school years," writes Andi Zeisler, the co-founder of zine-turned-magazine Bitch, in the book's forward. Zines move from the hands of their creators directly into the hands of their readers, creating an intimate, tactile connection, a gift economy built on affinity rather than commercial exchange. What's more, the act of zine creation is physical: gluing, glittering, and stickering generate pleasure that is "cathartic as well as inspiring."

This welcoming familiarity is part of what creates a sense of "embodied community" among zine makers and readers, writes Piepmeier. Such communities developed in parallel with events and spaces created by third-wave pioneers who were simultaneously challenging and reinventing their mothers' feminism: punk/grunge women's music festivals, feminist sex shops, "renegade" craft fairs, protests that defended previously taboo variations of gender and sexual identity. Grrrl zines were not only bought and swapped at such venues but also recorded, celebrated, and sometimes lambasted what happened there.

Piepmeier describes the ethos of grrrl zines in terms that are both romantic and heroic. She calls raucous, in-your-face, lustful zines by Riot Grrrls "love letters, dreams and adventures." She positions zines as "dark matter" -- invisible to traditional art and academic worlds and more virtuous because of it. She celebrates their "scrappy messiness," their alternative forms of distribution, their cagey authenticity, the way they yellow and age, demonstrating the passage of time. She defends the "micropolitics" of resistance, the "bubbles in the swamp that show democracy is still fermenting." She luvvs, XOXs, lurves zines -- it makes the read both charming (because I love them too!) and cloying.

Overall, her analysis about the political role that grrrl zines played is dead on. They were central to the evolution of my own feminist development in college in the early 1990s, speaking directly to my feelings of exclusion, disgust with pop culture, and surliness about the lingering sexism that second-wave feminism had failed to abolish. But nearly two decades later, we are awash in platforms for self-expression, drowning in other people's opinions and life stories. The cut-and-paste visuals of zines have given way to the remix video. Are grrrl zines now just one more species of roadkill on the information superhighway?

In many ways, they did their job, making taboo subjects and attitudes visible and acceptable. The most innovative zine creators found their way into more mainstream publishing ventures or created their own independent productions. Stella Marrs' tongue-in-cheek postcards exploding retro stereotypes are now available nationwide (http://www.stellamarrs.com/). Bitch (http://bitchmagazine.org/) hangs on and continues to evolve despite the increasingly brutal economics of magazine publishing. Many books, such as those published by Seal Press (http://www.sealpress.com/home.php), now reveal and revel in women's varied ambitions, experiences, and life choices through first-person accounts that would be familiar to zine readers.

Grrrl zines' emphatic energy, can-do spirit, and irreverence also informed the evolution of third-wave blogs and online communities, like Feministing (http://www.feministing.com/), which targets sexism in pop culture, or She Writes (http://www.shewrites.com/), a recently formed social network for women writers with a membership that has been steadily growing.

Piepmeier acknowledges that digital third-wave productions far overshadow the reach and influence of zines. She notes, though, that while blogs and social media share many of the same participatory qualities, the online communication environment can be much more hostile for women -- a distinction that drives some zine makers back to the safety of their relationships with analog readers and the printed page. "Zines are a living medium," she writes. "Historically they are a space where many third wave ideas and iconography developed, and as a contemporary phenomenon they allow for different kinds of community and different modes of activism than digital media."

The bad news is that grrrl zines spawned trends and tropes that have mutated in the toxic sludge of commercial culture. While it was the simultaneous celebration and rejection of girly culture and stereotypes that gave grrrl zines their initial punch, pop puppets like the Spice Girls and Avril Levigne have long since rendered such gestures meaningless. (When you can buy skull stockings at Target, you know your potential for shock value has plateaued.) Zines were also a manifestation of the same self-indulgent, therapeutic, voyeuristic, and ultimately apolitical culture that supports reality TV and daytime talk-show confessionals. As Piepmeier notes, they represent an individualized form of political engagement -- a "first-person singular feminism" -- that doesn't always translate into collective action. This is a real limitation in a moment when we could use some coordinated pushback.

Regardless, for now, zines are here to stay. Piepmeier notes that every time she lectures on the topic of zines, students are inspired to make their own.

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