The means of production: alternative media

Printed zines were by no means the only medium used by riot grrrls. The group in Olympia created a radio show and a video programme; while Dana Younkins of the band Cuntz with Attitude produced several episodes of a television ‘variety show’, as well as music videos. However, it was the zines that provided the movement’s most widespread form of cultural expression – and were arguably more lasting in their impact than the music.

Underground zines had existed in earlier youth subcultures, of course. The hippies had an elaborate alternative press, which occasionally enjoyed very wide circulation (see my discussion of the magazine Oz in an earlier essay). Second (and indeed first) wave feminists also produced leaflets, pamphlets and magazines in order to publicise their concerns and to support networks of activists. Punks created several ‘DIY’ zines, whose style and layout might have been an inspiration for the riot grrrls – although the riot grrrl zines were much less focused on music than the early punk publications (which is why I’m using the term ‘zines’ rather than ‘fanzines’). I have seen no evidence that ‘zinesters’ involved in riot grrrl were aware of any of this prior history. Nevertheless, the zines appeared right from the start, in some instances in parallel with the music (the members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, for example, were among the earliest zine producers), but in many instances quite independently of it.

As riot grrrl ran into difficulty with mainstream commercial media, the zines were framed more explicitly as an alternative means of communication and networking. In Spring 1993, Erika Reinstein and May Summer founded the Riot Grrrl Press, based in Washington DC, as a kind of national distribution network and clearing house for riot grrrl zines. As a later Canadian edition of the Riot Grrrl Press catalogue put it:

We need to make ourselves visible without using mainstream media as a tool. Under the guise of helping us spread the word, corporate media has co-opted and trivialized a movement of angry girls that would be truly threatening and revolutionary, & even besides that it has distorted our views of each other & created hostility, tension & jealousy in a movement supposedly about girl support & girl love. In a time when Riot Grrrl has become the next big trend, we need to take back control and find our own voices again.

The zines themselves helped to collate information on these alternative means of production. A 1993 issue of the UK’s Leeds and Bradford Riot Grrrl, for example, contains detailed instructions on how to design, produce and distribute zines, alongside similar information about recording, pressing and distributing music tapes and CDs. The scale of this activity is very hard to assess, but the first Riot Grrrl Press catalogue listed almost 90 zines; while according to Sara Marcus, in the following year a Canadian newspaper estimated (a little implausibly) that 40,000 zines of all kinds were in circulation across North America.

As Mary Celeste Kearney suggests, the zines could not hope to be wholly independent of mainstream media. In principle, like the music, zines reflected the DIY ethos of punk. Anyone with access to a typewriter – and even, in some cases, just to pen and paper – could produce a zine. However, photocopying cost money, even if some zinesters seem to have made illicit use of copying machines, for instance at their workplaces. Distribution also relied on the government postal service. Mainstream media sources – like Sassy magazine, or some of the music press – also helped to spread information about the zines that were available, and how to obtain them.

To some extent, this kind of alternative media production depends on class privilege: middle-class young people (as the riot grrrls mostly were) are more likely to have access to the equipment and opportunities to create their own media. However, these arguments would apply more strongly to music: access to musical instruments and associated technology is significantly more costly than the relatively low-tech requirements for making and distributing zines. Although some notable riot grrrl zines were produced by collectives, most were created by individuals or very small groups, who also did the work of distribution. Readers would need to send in stamps to cover postage, but otherwise zines were distributed free, sold at cost, or bartered in exchange for other zines (although some could be found in ‘alternative’ bookshops). Very few zinesters used the digital desk-top publishing software that was then becoming available: most zines were simply cut-and-pasted with scissors and glue. By contrast, while the dissemination of the music depended on ‘alternative’ record labels and publications, and on a network of independent venues and festivals, the costs of production and distribution were significantly greater – and as such, the boundaries between the underground and the mainstream were much more blurred. In several respects, zines were a more accessible form of cultural expression than music (or, at this time, video-making) for the majority of potential riot grrrls.

However, the ‘alternative’ nature of the zines wasn’t just a matter of their production and distribution: it was also apparent in their content and form. The zines addressed issues that – at least from the perspective of their authors – were often marginalized or trivialised in mainstream media, although they were very similar to the agenda of second wave feminism. They included familiar ‘personal-is-political’ concerns: domestic and sexual violence, body image and eating disorders, pornography, menstruation and women’s health, as well as broader concerns to do with gender identity and sexuality. As we’ll see, discussions of race and class were apparent from the start, although they became more prominent over time. Some zines contained quite academic pieces, for example about black writers or about feminist history, although these were often written in quite personal terms. Many also published reviews of music or of other zines, as well as articles about ‘youth’ topics like skateboarding; and many contained information about how to contact local riot grrrl groups.

The following is a summary (taken from the New York University archive) of the contents of the six issues of Riot Grrrl NYC published between 1991 and 1993. This was more of a collective production than some other zines, although it gives a good indication of the range of content overall.

Contents of Riot Grrrl NYC, 1991-93

Source: summary in New York University Riot Grrrl archive

Issue #1 is titled Rape and Ritual, and is focused on organized religion as a tool of social control, as well as the links between religion and sexual assault. The issue contains a piece called ‘Girl gangs must rule all towns’ by Kathleen Hanna, as well as personal stories of sexual assault. There are numerous poems, often written by Jill Wienbrock, that predominantly deal with themes of sexual and physical assault. The issue also includes reviews of records.

Issue #2 begins with an editorial on refusing to soften the tone of the zine to accommodate male readers. The issue contains poetry and prose, often on the theme of sexual assault, and includes excerpts from the book Moons by Jane Hohenberger. There are reviews of shows by Babes in Toyland, Huasipungo, and Lunachicks, as well as a Bikini Kill show at Wesleyan University and printed lyrics of Bikini Kill songs. The zine also features a bell hooks clipping, an advert for WHAM (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization), and a report back from the DC March for Women’s Lives on April 5th 1992.

Issue #3 is dated October 1992 and begins by announcing that Riot Grrrl NYC meetings will be held at Reconstruction Records on East 6th Street every Sunday. There is also an advert from Flytrap Records, seeking all-female bands. The issue addresses the intersections of performance and politics in an article on burlesque and The Bowery Girls, and also refers to homophobic attacks taking place in the state of Oregon. There is poetry dispersed throughout the issue.

Issue #4 is dated January 1993 and is dedicated to the memory of the African-Smerican writer Audre Lorde, who died in November 1992. There are further references to current events through newspaper clippings detailing war rapes of Bosnian and Croatian women during the Yugoslav Wars. The issue also contains a satirical gossip page, a recipe page, and a letter from a woman trying to encourage people to smoke less during riot grrrl meetings.

Issue #5 is dated March 1993. Quotes from various girls about what riot grrrl means are dispersed throughout this zine. Media critiques include examples of the backlash against the movement in the press, as well as critiques of the mainstream girls’ magazine Sassy. Calls for participation include projects on sexual abuse and radical activism. Personal writings focus on relationships with mothers, in addition to the destructive effects of drug use on friendship. The zine features reviews of books and local art by and about women and women’s issues. An audio compilation of spoken word to support the pro-choice movement is described. The zine concludes with an extended interview with Jennifer Blowdryer and an excerpt from her book Wrong Wrong Wrong.

Issue #6 is dated April 1993. The issue begins with ecofeminist poetry and prose from the anthology Sisters of the Earth by Lorraine Anderson. There is also additional poetry and prose on themes of sexual assault, heterosexual relationships, and lesbianism dispersed throughout the issue. The issue contains a selection of articles dealing with pornography, alternative pornography, and Andrea Dworkin’s views on pornography. There is also an article on street harassment that focuses on a series of cards a woman made to hand out to men who harass women on the street. Music components include a review of the 1991 split LP by Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear.

While some of the writing in the zines was public and declaratory, much of it was direct and personal, almost in the style of private diaries or letters. Despite (or in addition to) the public politics of the movement, individuality – the particular, the eccentric and the quirky – seems to have been considered a value in itself. Many zines published poetry and fiction, as well as painful confessional pieces. As in riot grrrl fashion, there was sometimes a deliberately incongruous mix of writing styles: zines might switch between ferocity, bitterness and rage at male misogyny and a very friendly, playful tone.

The visual style of the zines was often defiantly low-tech and anti-professional. The very ‘scrappiness’ of the zines, like the lack of polish of much of the music, arguably helped to equalize the relationship between the writer and the reader. Typewritten or hand-written text would be pasted in deliberately irregular and uneven ways, or chopped up to make way for illustrations and headings. There’s an appearance of chaos, but the influence of early avant-garde collage and photomontage techniques is also apparent in some instances (there’s evidence in the archive that at least some riot grrrls were aware of the work of artists like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Jo Spence, for example).

As in the performances of riot grrrl bands, the zines often make playful but subversive use of mainstream images of women, sometimes taken from old-fashioned sources (such as fashion catalogues and girls’ magazines). Many seek to expose how the appearance and performance of femininity is constructed; and they frequently reflect on what they take to be the fragmentation and contradictions of gender identity. It is sometimes hard to tell what is sincere and what is intended to be ironic here. As Alison Piepmeier suggests, the zines are not a matter of straightforward ‘self-expression’, or the manifestation of a singular, coherent self: on the contrary, identity is often shown to be confused, multifarious and fluid. Girls, they seem to say, are not simply victims or powerful agents, but both at the same time.

While some of the zines are fairly perfunctory, some of the more elaborate ones point to the considerable possibilities of the form. Three examples might serve to illustrate this. Kathleen Hanna’s 40-page My Life with Evan Dando, Pop Star (1993) is a reflection on the author’s apparent infatuation with a poster boy of the grunge scene (the former frontman of the popular band the Lemonheads). Hanna veers from expressions of lust and romantic obsession to murderous rage (there are references here to Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol), although it’s deliberately hard to tell how serious either position is. Contradictory fragments of typewritten text cut across torn, smudged images of Dando, echoing Barbara Kruger’s agit-prop-style collages; and the text also contains hand-written sections and crude drawings. My Life is, on one level, painfully intimate and personal; yet it is also a complex, powerful political statement about gender and stardom, about male entitlement and female ambivalence.

Doris, created by Cindy Crabbe (a.k.a. Cindy Ovenrack), is a more idiosyncratic production, which in parts comes closer to a personal diary. Issue 6, published around 1995, is pocket sized (around A5) and unevenly typed, with few illustrations. It reads at times like a stream of consciousness (or perhaps a flood of consciousness), and at times like a confessional. It relates stories of the author’s friends rather as if it assumes we already know them; and in this respect, it has much in common with a private letter, perhaps written to somebody who used to live in the same town. On the other hand, a feature called ‘Romance 101’ is a numbered list of (mostly mean and sadistic) ways in which one might convey to a romantic partner that your relationship is over: after one hundred such suggestions, the punch line (number 101) is simply ‘fuck’. Doris, which eventually ran for more than 15 years and over 20 issues, is discussed in much more detail in Alison Piepmeier’s book on zines, as an instance of a kind of activist emotional autobiography.

My third example, Bitch, is different again. Founded by Andi Zeisler and Lisa Jervis (who had been an intern at Sassy), it began publishing in 1995, providing what it calls ‘feminist response to pop culture’. In the mid-1990s, for example, it was including critiques of Wonderbra advertising and the gender bias of children’s toys, alongside a celebration of the ‘inspirational’ Harriet the Spy. Written with gusto and anger, it also had a good line in irreverent sarcasm; but it didn’t take a single or predictable line on the issues. By the end of the decade, Bitch had grown from a photocopied fanzine into a professionally-produced magazine, with a much larger group of writers; it was also taking advertising. The feminist critique was no less forthright (articles on plastic surgery, women in advertising, and the sex industry, for example), but this came alongside profiles of leading women in the mainstream media that would not have been out of place in Ms. magazine. Today, Bitch Media (as it is now known) appears to be thriving, with an extensive website, spin-off podcasts and other publications: it claims a readership of around 80,000.

Andi Zeisler, who continues as creative/editorial director of Bitch Media, has produced her own account of the intervening years in the book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl: The Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. Her story is clearly about the commodification and depoliticisation of feminism; but the evolution of Bitch itself suggests that this has not been simply a matter of betrayal or ‘selling out’, and that other outcomes are possible. (I’ll return to the issue of ‘commodity feminism’ in my conclusion.)

Viewed in retrospect, the zines might be regarded simply as early precursors of online forms such as blogging, and more developed forms of social networking. In some ways, they reflect a particular style of amateur creativity that pre-existed the internet. Aside from some of the exceptions I have discussed, for the most part they are deliberately home-made, small-scale and ephemeral. As Alison Piepmeier suggests, there is something about the physicality or tangibility of the zine (and its mode of distribution) that conveys a shared intimacy, as well as the sense of being part of a ‘gift economy’, where zines are exchanged like private letters. These qualities are not necessarily available online; and it’s perhaps partly for these reasons that some people continue to create hard-copy zines.

However, the differences here can be overstated. I’ve written in another Growing Up Modern essay about the use of the social networking site MySpace within the emo movement – a more male-dominated post-punk subculture that (like riot grrrl) emerged from the US hardcore scene towards the end of the 1990s. The intense, confessional writing of some of the riot grrrl zines could also be found on MySpace, although digital technology allowed emo kids greater possibilities for visual self-representation. The function of these different media was ultimately quite similar: as Chris Atton has argued, both zines and blogs (and more elaborate social networking profile pages) provide opportunities not just for ‘self-expression’, but also for sociality – for creating intimacy and community across distance. However, the more public nature of online communication created new problems, as well as offering new opportunities: by putting their confessions and profiles online, emo kids were exposing themselves to levels of mockery and vilification from outsiders that were rarely evident in the culture of zines. Nevertheless, as we’ll see in the following section, the riot grrrl movement was increasingly riven by its own internal tensions and divisions.


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