Dec/Jan 2010

Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism

Trinie Dalton


Few things herald the end of a subculture like the book-length critical study. Yet it's thrilling to see zines taken seriously in Alison Piepmeier's Girl Zines, which explores the world of handmade magazines created by women as a kind of social activism. The idea of an academic treatise on "grrrl zines"—grrrl with its triple r referring to the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s—is probably what compels Andi Zeisler, a founder of feminist magazine Bitch, to warn humorously in the foreword that "it can be difficult to talk today about the impact of the medium without giving off a whiff of the . . . wistful old-timer." Piepmeier's smart, insightful book, written in a theoretical idiom, is intended for zine enthusiasts but may best satisfy feminist scholars.

Piepmeier traces feminism's "tradition of informal publishing" over the past 150 years to scrapbookers, health pamphleteers, and mimeographers. Scrapbooking, in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women's clubs and again in the suffragette era—feminism's first wave—inspired feminists of the 1990s to embrace self-publishing as a "space for girls and women to comment on mainstream culture and also to construct community and solidarity." During the second wave—the 1960s and '70s women's movement—mimeographs and pamphlets distributed by health collectives revolutionized information about female sexuality, giving rise to such classic manuals as Our Bodies, Ourselves. At one point, Piepmeier notes the resemblance between the covers of a 1970s mimeograph, Sisters Stand, and a 1993 issue of Riot Grrrl, both of which feature a nude woman's torso "defaced or dismembered" and surrounded by hand-rendered title lettering. She sees this as representing a generational bridge between zines, demonstrating "a feminist legacy on which the early grrrl zines were building."

In her discussion of contemporary zines, Piepmeier begins with the creation in 1992 of Sarah Dyer's Action Girl Newsletter, where "grrrl zines and third wave feminism emerged." She covers zines whose visual aesthetics mimic their content, like Nomy Lamm's I'm So Fucking Beautiful, ironically small (three by four inches) for a magazine about fleshy women, and zines that capture neighborhood voices, like the East Village Inky. Myriad identities are represented: Mimi Nguyen's Slant responds to racism, while Lauren Jade Martin's Quantify relates to transgender experience. Piepmeier also describes "grrrl style," images in which cute, girly subjects are undercut by shocking additions ("kinderwhore," "kitten with a whip"), explaining this as a punk reclamation of abject female imagery. Likewise, the idea of "girlhood as a space of danger and damage" is epitomized by Neely Bat Chestnut's Mend My Dress, a zine about a girl's experiences with a lascivious father.

Unlike another recent book on the subject, Whatcha Mean, What's a Zine?, by Esther Watson and Mark Todd, Girl Zines doesn't include much of the visual history of these pamphlets. Fair enough: The zine makers Piepmeier's writing about mostly favored political resistance over art. Any book on the topic is worth celebrating, but what I find most compelling about zines are their handmade qualities. Zines are more than texts, and best presented visually.

Piepmeier's strongest argument is that the "first person singular feminism" of grrrl zines is characteristically third wave. Rather than being a regressive version of second-wave social activism, in which women banded together as empowered groups, these solitary zine makers are, in fact, forging new political strategies based on artistic individualism. While I was reluctant to see ladies who've made zines from the 1990s onward lumped together as "part of a cultural climate that is so relentlessly marketed to and so self-consciously savvy that they don't expect or offer straight-forward points of view," I'm grateful to Piepmeier for her attempt to rescue zines from inferiority among older generations of feminists.

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