charlotte was kind enough to buy me a copy of girl zines: making media, doing feminism, by alison piepmeier:
okay, actually i bought it for myself, by ordering it from the indie bookstore downtown. support your local businesses!
i am only about halfway through, & one of the chapters i haven’t read yet is about the intersectional identities in girl zines, which is of special interest to me, so i am still not prepared to make a full assessment of the book. but of course i am pretty psyched that a book on this topic was finally written! even though my feelings on it are a bit of a mixed bag so far…
i guess maybe i should back up & explain the concept of the book because probably not every single person reading this is familiar with zines, right? especially because people like my sister & jared’s mom & god knows who else could conceivably stumble across this thing & wonder what i’m rambling about. so, personal back story: i got into zines when i was…i don’t know…maybe twelve or so? zines are little self-published publications about pretty much any subject you want to write about, but i got in on the ground floor of the early/mid 90s riot grrrl zine explosion. i was definitely on the younger side of folks involved with zines at the time. a lot of movers & shakers in the zine scene were in college or at least old enough to be living on their own, & i was trapped in oak harbor, ohio, too far out in the country for things like cable TV. it blows my mind now to think that a house three miles down a state route from the nearest town would be too country to be wired for cable TV. things were different in the early 90s. i used to tie an onion to my belt, because that was the style at the time, & the kaiser had stolen our word for twenty. truefax!
i made awful, dreadful, horrifying zines throughout my teenage years, although i’m sure i thought i was a literary genius at the time. my dad ran off copies for me using the photocopier at his place of employ, the sun oil refinery, in toledo. they refine petroleum products & provide the gasoline for sunoco gas stations. in retrospect, i don’t really understand why my dad had access to a photocopier, because his job involved coveralls, hard hats, climbing up the sides of big huge oil drums, adjusting pressure valves, & occasionally getting blown up & spending months on end in a hospital burn unit, but let’s go with it. i’d give him my masters & say, “don’t read it!” & he’d say, “i won’t!” & of course, how dumb am i, he did. i was like fourteen! how the hell else was he going to ever find out anything that was going on with me? thank goodness i really didn’t know what i was doing & wasn’t writing the kind of agonizingly cathartic, intensely personal shit that i loved reading in other girls’ zines. i wrote hard-hitting exposes on the gender bias of children’s toys (did you know that not all girls like dolls? i just blew your mind, didn’t i?) & dedicated more pages than i care to remember to my all-consuming love of toads. i was OBSESSED with toads when i was a teenager.
anyway, with these awesome pseudo-feminist, toad-loving zines, i traded with girls all across north america, europe, & australia. we swapped painstakingly handwritten letters covered with crayon hearts, glitter glue, lisa frank stickers (in the case of every zinester except for me), & toad stickers (in my case…what the hell was wrong with me?). once someone sent me a plastic doll. a few times, girls made me one-off zines that were just for me, with color photocopies & hand-drawn pages. i still have an entire milk crate full of mix tapes i received from my scores of pen pals, including bootlegged live sleater-kinney shows with tape liners that say, “happy 16th birthday ciara!” in glitter pen.
obviously things have changed in the zine scene. for me, anyway. not being a teenage girl with a distressing affinity for amphibians (…anymore), i can’t say with certainty that teenage girls are no longer as passionate about the mail culture aspect of zines. but my teenage zines years pre-dated widespread internet access, so mail correspondence was our only correspondence. no e-mail, no online diaries, no chat rooms. if we wanted to gush about each other’s zines, share dark secrets, call each other out on shit, & send each other locks of our hair (& we did), we used the postal service.
this is kind of sort of the world that the book addresses, but because it’s about “girl zines,” & because girl zines are still being written (visit my lovely zine distro for examples, including issues of several of the zines profiled in the book), it’s ostensibly not just about that weird mail-obsessed world i lived in circa 1992-2000 or so. as such, the book makes some generalizations that might not be completely consistent with my lived reality as a zinester in good standing for almost twenty years. i don’t think pen pal culture is as prevalent now (though it is by no means dead), i think girls put less effort into mail art, etc. i think mail culture has changed because girls have so many other ways to communicate with each other now. i mean, in 1994, if i wanted to talk on the phone with one of my pen pals, it was prohibitively expensive (to cite one example). now that practically everyone has a cell phone plan with free long-distance, barriers to long-distance friendship don’t seem so insurmountable.
i’m going to write more about this book once i finish reading it, but i do want to mention that i really appreciate piepmeier’s attempts to trace a feminist/girl-centric ancesty for girl zines of the last twenty years. she links them to mimeographed position papers & publications written by women involved with civil rights/new left organizing & the women’s movement of the 1960s & 1970s, & goes further back to develop an argument linking zines to reproductive health pamphlets that circulated among women wanting to educate themselves about birth control & abortion during the comstock law days. she also mentions the scrapbooking prevalent among women in the 1800s, which often involved women responding to current events of the moment, the abolition movement, nascent suffrage struggles, etc. i have been involved with zines for so long, & i know all about the gazillionty million position papers, newspapers, & magazines women produced in the 60s & 70s, & the health pamphlets on the 20s, & i never made the connection between them & zines. i always just bought into the male-centric, male-dominated history that positions zines as descendants of anti-british revolutionary era pamphleteers (almost exclusively male), science fiction fanzine writers (almost exclusively male), & early punk fanzine writers (almost exclusively male). like the 90s girl zine explosion was just some weird aberration, like never before in history had women taken over the means of writing & publishing in an effort to liberate themselves!
i got a zine for distro consideration a couple of months ago that is all about those early science fiction fanzine writers & their role as the progenitors of modern-day zine culture. it was of course written by a boy. something about it didn’t sit right with me & i didn’t pick it up for the distro, & now i am relieved. it’s like i knew in my gut that there was something missing from that narrative.
my biggest disappointment with the book is the resource section & the fact that there is almost nothing about zine distros in the book. i would have loved to read a concise history of riot grrrl press. it is shocking to me that the book is essentially a who’s who of dozens of women i have traded with &/or am friends with, & there is nothing about pander zine distro, which was instrumental in catapulting some of those zinesters into the culture & to the level of popularity they currently enjoy. the only distro mentioned in the text so far is microcosm, which is so disappointing, considering their paltry selection of feminist zines & lady-penned personal zines, & (putting it out here into the public forum), microcosm founder joe biel’s well-documented status as a manipulative, abusive individual who has issues with misogyny. a big part of feminism for me is trying to put an end to abuse, domestic violence, misogynistic intimidation tactics, et al, & working to hold perpetrators accountable to survivors & the larger community in which they live & work. efforts at mediation & accountability processes with joe have been fruitless, & i believe that supporting microcosm (by ordering from them, recommending them as a great source of zines, publishing books or zines with them, etc) is an exercise in letting joe off the hook. his financial & emotional ability to keep being a manipulative, unaccountable scumbag is tied up with the success of the microcosm project & the goodwill he gets from it. cut that off at the source & maybe he will be forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror. there are other fantastic indie publishers out there (try eberhardt press in portland, oregon or 1984 in the bay area), & there are TONS of great zine distros, many of them run by smart, feminist women who carry smart, feminist zines.