Raising a Riot: Feminist Zines and the Power of Print Culture

Contributed by Library Research Award winner Agatha Beins


Girl Germs cover from AfterEllen; Broken Hymen from RiotRiot

Revolution Rising; Fight Like a Girl; Girl Germs; Upslut; The Fuck Your Bean Zine; Bitches Brew; Housewife Turned Assassin; Broken Hymen— are all titles of feminist zines published in the 1990s and early 2000s that are cataloged in the Barnard Zine Library. Leaf through them and you’ll see content reflecting this language on the cover: anger, frustration, joy, love, angst expressed in fierce language and imagery. For example, critiquing punk culture, the second issue of the zine Gecko proclaims,

“I can take whatever dose of testosterone induced anger you wanna throw at me and I’m not afraid to fight back. You may be bigger than me, but brotha, I’m angrier. Remember, there’s a grrr in this grrrl.”[1]

And Shea’la composes a page in Smart Ass challenging separatist politics based on sexuality. The main piece, titled “queercore society suffocates,” overlays a background of cut-and-paste excerpts from newspaper articles, and it ends with several sentences in a larger font:

“I’ll be who I fucking want, I’ll be with whoever the fuck I want, and I’ll fuck whoever I want.”[2]

These strong emotions are part of what has made zines so compelling to me. The raw and ragged manifestos, the exclamation points and capital letters, the bold graphics—all of which zinesters could include because their zines were self-published and not beholden to advertisers or to making a profit. They can rant and rage and holler without censorship that those writing for mainstream media might face. Do It Yourself!, made by a Sarasota-Venice riot grrrl collective includes a full-page piece about resisting the shame related to menstruation and about the commerce around women’s periods:

“It’s just another form of modern day slavery to be dependent on products you don’t need, made by companies that flourish on greed.” And then then writer advocates for reusable cloth pads, writing “we’re not only making existing a little nicer: we’re reducing the influence of monopolized, profiteering business – A BIG FUCK OFF TO THE SYSTEM!!! Now that’s D.I.Y. punk!!!”[3]

Taking the means of production in their own hands, these grrrls bypassed the tension between sustainability and practicing one’s politics that bigger and more widely circulating periodicals, like Ms. magazine, have faced in decisions about including or excluding advertisements.[4]

To be sure, not all zines embody this aesthetic and these politics, yet for those familiar with US feminist activism in the 1990s and 2000s such content is likely unsurprising. Known for its raucous in-your-face style and its unapologetic politics, riot grrrl invaded the punk scene, refusing to let sexism, heterosexism, and racism keep them on the margins.[5] Part of their response to the status quo of US punk involved creating explicitly feminist and grrrl-friendly spaces, in music and performance venues as well as through zines. Zines thus became a staple within riot grrrl communities as a way to express oneself and find kinship with others. Zines, though, expanded beyond riot grrrl and punk communities to third wave feminism, an era of activism that began roughly in the early 1990s and has continued—some would argue—to the present day (others contend that a fourth wave has emerged). Within this framework riot grrrl tends to be seen as a subset of third wave feminism.

As is clear, the emotional tenor of these zines dominates. It’s so pervasive and prevalent that many I read at the Barnard Zine Library were identified with the genre term “personal zines,” which are also referred to as “perzines.”[6] This label, while accurate, can also be misleading, suggesting that these zines focus only or primarily on the personal, private life of the zinesters. To varying degrees, discussions about high school tribulations, boyfriends and girlfriends, and body image appear, and some of these zines do read like diaries. We see this in Face when Aral uses the word “obsession” to describe her relationship with her body throughout a five-page handwritten essay. She begins by cataloging her body, piece by piece: “I think about the hair on my legs. . . . I think about my fat. . . . I think about my breasts. . . . I think about the mole on my arm.”[7] More than a collection of teenage complaints, though, these zines are textured with savvy political analyses, nuanced rhetoric, and sophisticated understandings of the ways that the personal intersects with the structural and the political.

For example, Cari writes about sisterhood in the zine she co-created with Rebekah, Habitual Freak. In a piece spanning four pages she brings up the way “catfighting” between women and competition for men is both an intensely personal experience as well as something that patriarchy as an institution encourages. She explains that one way to change this dynamic is by “recognizing how society pits us against one another. It was a big step for me, because it changed my whole outlook on the sexism problem, and the approaches to its solution.”[8] Other zines broaden critiques of male dominance by drawing connections with capitalism, filling pages with fury about mainstream media’s representation of femininity and the imperative to buy, buy, buy.

We also see astute understandings of language and the power of rhetoric. Lucy Doyle frames issue no. 4 of Danger! Hole about sexual harassment by focusing on the tension between “yes” and “no,” writing “And so begins the epic ‘When NO = YES’ episode of my darling zine-baby.” After a five-page essay about her own experiences with sexual harassment and domestic violence, we encounter a page devoted to the word “no.” Lucy uses the form and rhetoric of a dictionary entry, which often includes a neutral-sounding definition and examples of usage. She first presents this definition—“a word used for denying, disagreeing, refusing, etc”—and then offers some examples: “‘Do you want it in the ass?’ ‘No, (I don’t)’; No, I don’t consent; ‘Will you help me get off?’ ‘No, I won’t.’[9] This juxtaposition powerfully exposes the political and social significance of this term, showing readers that using the word “no” involves much more than simply understanding its denotation but also requires the speaker to have the courage to say it and the addressee to heed it.

Eager to think more analytically and critically about these exciting, complex, and vibrant publications, I had the good fortune to spend two weeks at the Barnard Zine Library with fabulous assistance from librarian Jenna Freedman and archivists Martha Tenney and Shannon O’Neill. This research trip allowed me to revisit zines after an almost fifteen-year break during which I had immersed myself in the 1970s, studying newsletters and newspapers published by feminist collectives. Although I had departed from the more contemporary feminist activist zines I remained connected to feminist and activist print cultures, and the more I read, the more these two sets of ephemera—women’s liberation periodicals and zines—seemed to resonate with each other. Their energy. Their unabashed politics. The informal, do-it-yourself approach to publishing. The way the urgency of publishing seemed to trump a polished, professional aesthetic. Both also tended to have small circulation numbers and maintained a significant focus on what was going on at the local scale.

In my research at Barnard I used the search terms <riot grrrl> and <third wave> to narrow my focus regarding both time frame and the content, and my plan is to compare and contrast third wave feminist zines and 1970s feminist periodicals in terms of their content, modes of production, and aesthetics. My assessment is still nascent, but reading through these zines has confirmed the significance of print publications to feminist activism and community building during both eras. Zines remind me, as well, that accessing the means of production continues to have salience. Activists in the 1970s and 1990s could produces these publications because technologies like the mimeograph machine and photocopiers allowed laypeople with limited resources to create and circulate print these texts without expending much money. As Osa Atoe writes in Shotgun Seamstress,

“The existence of DIY culture is so important for historically marginalized people because it shows you that you don’t have to have formal education in something or be an expert to do it well. DIY makes room for everyone to participate, and that means you.”[10]


Danger!Hole cover used with permission. Shotgun Seamstress from Antiquated Future.

 


[1] “Lindsay Rules the Pit,” [page 35]; no author

[2] issue #4; no date; no page numbers

[3] this piece doesn’t have an author listed and the zine doesn’t have page numbers (but it would be on page 28)

[4] Steinem, Gloria. “Sex, Lies, and Advertising,” Ms. July/August 1990, 18-28.

[5] See Sara Marcus’s book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution (New York: Harper Collins, 2010); see also Schilt, Kristin, “The History of Riot Grrrls in Music,” Feminist eZine [no date],

[7] The TOC for this zine lists the title as a series of images; Face issue 5; this quote is from page 6.

[8] “Sisterhood,” Habitual Freak, #3, page 51

[9] Danger! Hole, issue 4; the quote is from page 10.

[10] “DIY or DIE!” Shotgun Seamstress, #5; August 2010; no page numbers, but this quote is on page 28.