Girls Write - Zines and riot grrrl




Zines trace their start to science fiction fan publications from the 1920s. Music became a key component of zine culture in the 1970s when zinesters began promoting the new punk rock music scene. [3]

These low-cost, self-published works became a natural venue for punk rock fans to express themselves creatively, politically, and personally while they critiqued and supported punk musicians.

Unlike online media, zines share with musical compositions a sense of completion that can be revisited and reinterpreted but not changed by readers. Zines go in all directions, visually and philosophically. Definitely not mainstream, zines aren’t isolationist either. Community is essential to zines. (For more on zines, check out [link to barnard page])  Riot grrrl found a natural home in the zine genre with its emphasis on intimacy and connectedness.

Julia Downes writes, “Writing a history of riot grrrl is like walking a tightrope, blindfolded, over hot coals with a bad sense of balance.” [4]  A feminist political and cultural movement that grew out of the music world of the 1990s, riot grrrl began in Olympia, Washington. While it can be traced back to musicians Tobi Vail, Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman and Kathleen Hanna, the movement rejected a centralized leadership or ideology, Downes points out.

“These girls created a radical philosophy centred around encouraging girls and women across the country to subvert the stagnant male-dominated underground by creating their own music, art, writing and scenes.” [5]

Events of the 1990s incited that subversion. Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the US Supreme Court. The Court upheld numerous restrictions to abortion, including mandatory 24-hour waiting periods. Rebecca Walker wrote about these and other issues that directly impacted young women’s lives in her January 1992 article for Ms. magazine, “Becoming the Third Wave.”  [6]

This Third Wave of feminism tapped into an anger and desire among young women to become more active politically and more confrontational creatively. At the same time, women artists confronted their marginalization within the punk rock scene, where their attempts to challenge norms and break rules were thwarted by male musicians and distorted by mainstream media. Zines, writes Downes, emerged as “a means for women and girls to discuss, examine and resist the cultural devaluation of women with each other in a safe space.” [7]

Riot grrrl introduced a “cultural activism which incorporated everyday cultural subversions like creating art, film, zines, music and communities as a part of feminist activism.” [8]

The riot grrrl zine do-it-yourself message speaks powerfully to young girls, writes Marisa Meltzer in Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music. It “encouraged everyone to pick up an instrument, regardless of one’s expertise or lack thereof, [and] helped inspire girls who might otherwise have been too intimidated.” [9]

Riot grrrl has evolved in new directions and expressions, and Meltzer mourns the lost physicality and directness of live performance. Online video can’t capture the “celebration of women rocking out live onstage,” she writes. But, coming full circle, she finds inspiration and hope for the future in models like the Willie Mae Rock Camp, which give girls the space and freedom to challenge themselves and the world around them. That, Meltzer says, is “pure riot grrrl.” [10]


[4] Julia Downes, “Riot Grrrl: the Legacy and contemporary landscape of DIY feminists cultural activism,” riot grrrl: revolution girl style now!  London: Black Dog Publishing Limited, 2007, 12.

[5] Downes, 23.


[7] Downes, 18

[8] Downes, 27

[9] Marisa Meltzer. Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2010, 130.

[10] Meltzer, 135.