Zines and Riot Grrrl Press: Margin vs Mainstream
The Complex Relation Between Margin and Mainstream Small Press Publishing: How Zine Culture Counteracted Commercial Misrepresentation
Small press cultures are driven by a resistance to the commercial imperatives of mass print. The sexist misrepresentation of the Riot Grrrls in mainstream media and the ways in which they utilised zine culture, through Riot Grrrl Press, counteracted this. By following the punk tradition, DIY self-publishing emerged in the small press revolution of zine culture so that women editors and writers worked against repressive structures that confined them into a patriarchal image of femininity. This specific case of zine culture allows for a reflection on the ways in which modernist small presses, particularly little magazines, do ‘intersectional’ cultural work in upending simplistic oppositions between the ‘margin’ and ‘mainstream’ cultures.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘publishing’ is the activity of preparing and issuing readable material for sale. As a vital catalyst for literary innovation, print culture in any sense of the word is key to moulding public opinion. However, the small press publishing industry is made up of independent publishers who are often self-funded and not part of multi-national, cross media conglomerates that have become corporately consolidated (Guthrie 12); small press objects are therefore inherently born outside of the commercial eye and look beyond profit to the realisation of literary and intellectual projects that have inverted hierarchies. In their form, zines occupy a revolutionary role which encapsulates the definition of small press. Not only did they begin as ‘indie’ publishing projects, but the same ethics and aesthetics that went into their production was integral to the beginnings of independent publishing- it seized the machines of reproduction to hand produce publications that would create a literary revolution.
Zines are academically defined by Duncombe as “non-professional, non-commercial, small circulation” magazines that are distributed, often by mail, and produced by their creators. They are advertised either through the network of other zines in review sections or by word of mouth and were sold or swapped through a barter system (427). Although up to 50,000 zines may be circulated in the United States, their print runs are on average only 250 due to reproduction methods such as Xerox Machines (Thompson 70). Amateurism is key in the creation of these literary artefacts that simultaneously masquerade as “little smudged pamphlets” (Duncombe 2008 6) and “homemade newsletters” (Farmer 35); they come in altering styles but ultimately all contain nothing less than love, rage, a beautiful “inarticulate articulate-ness” (Duncombe 2008 6) and a misfit-minded, democratic ideal at the heart of their construction. Zines became a communicative voice that refused to be engulfed by the long shadows of consumer capitalist authority.
‘DIY’ (Do It Yourself) publishing was the beginning of a mainstream resistance towards sabotaging the culture of privilege. Chaos and unruliness was the order that characterised zine culture and, while the dominant culture could not understand the emergence of harmony from disarray, zines grouped people with no plan or hierarchy together to create an authentic vision of entrepreneurship centring around “shared alienation” (Farmer 35).The punk movement, among a plethora of sub-cultures, was initially able to spearhead this method of taking obsolete means of production and recruiting it to make artistic forms of mass media subversion. Originally, zines became a “distinct medium” in the 1930s through their first form as increasingly popular science fiction fanzines (Farmer 47). The first modern zines epitomised the core message of punk’s “personal freedom” and “radical individualism” (Farmer 40) which provided a sharp alternative edge to the normative identities of mainstream society. As Farmer argues, zine culture and DIY spirit are anarchist in a parallel way as they dissolved the boundary between amateurs and professionals, consumers and creators, and audience and performers (47).
Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the punk movement to eventually also merge into an alpha-centric sphere. In the seventies, the community exemplified diversity through the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals and women who were “almost a requirement” as band members (Dunn and Summer-Farnsworth 137). Stereotypical gender roles and egalitarianism which differed from traditional rock and roll fit the scene’s radical agenda, however women were later ironically pushed to the margins of a movement which celebrated itself as marginal. Sexism ensued as angry hyper-masculine bands dismissive of ‘feminine’ self-expression and interested in violence, such as The Californian Fear, were celebrated in the eighties (Dunn and Farnsworth 138).
The emergence of girl bands including Bikini Kill and Bratmobile was a reactionary force seeking to resist further silencing- the ‘Riot Girl Movement’, both one of feminism and music, was the term coined to celebrate the reclamation of the punk scene through zines. Roaring back at dominant culture, ‘grrrl zines’ were a phenomenon of third wave feminism. It began in Olympia, Washington in 1991 when members of Bratmobile, Wolfe and Neuman, worked with fanzine editor Jen Smith to create the first ‘Riot Grrrl’ zine (Dunn and Summer-Farnsworth 139). One of their biggest projects, Jigsaw (Piepmeier and Zeisler 2) went on to internationally spread through weekly zine-producing meetings that used open lines of communication to encourage the production of new chapters in other girls’ hometowns- they discussed ‘controversial’ issues such as sexual abuse, identity, racial awareness, self-defence, music and zine-making. Particularly after the 1992 Washington DC national conventions, meetings were held in dozens of cities and had even spread to places in Europe such as Leeds (Dunn and Summer-Farnsworth 139/40). Bands joined together to create other zines such as Bikini Kill, Snarla, Bust and Bitch, the latter two of which have now grown to larger scale magazines (Arnold).
The zines operated around an insurgent need for late twentieth century girls to express their identities amidst the ashes of a contemporary culture which was fuelled by media misrepresentations, stereotypes and conservative ideologies. In The Jigsaw Manifesto, editor Tobi Vail expresses a desire to redefine gender along with race, class and sexual identity through a ‘girl revolution’. Prevalent within it was ‘tough’ imagery of ‘girl soldiers…perhaps wearing black leather’ fighting to resist the mainstream media’s sexist depiction of feminine weakness (Piepmeier and Zeisler 4). The primary goal of feminine empowerment, achieved through music, protests and provocative body art, was also largely accomplished by DIY self-publishing of alternative media (Dunn and Summer-Farnsworth 140). As low budget operations, they resorted to creating a virtual zine network using free or cheap equipment through connections at Kinko’s Copies. Zines were perfect vehicles for both punk and the Riot Grrrl movement as they provided minorities the chance to transform into “the revolution” against the media which “decapitated, laughed at, ignored, invalidated, choked and killed” women (Reinstein Fantastic Fanzine no. 2).
Riot Grrrl Press zines epitomise DIY culture through the “scrappy messiness” (Piepmeier and Zeisler 67) that bounces off the loosely curated yet purposeful pages. The ground-breaking zines, such as the first four shown above, carried the same uniform tumultuous frenzy despite the lack of a cohesive pattern between any combination of photographs or illustrations. What unites them is the “chaotic visual energy” (Piepmeier and Zeisler 68) and barely legible print, as present in the first copy of Jigsaw and Bikini Kill. Both boast powerful feminine portraits as well as a combination of bold and subtle typefaces. This serves to humanise both creator and creation who can consequently enjoy the projects laid out on xeroxed plain paper and filled with zine and band reviews, personalised poems, mass press appropriations with ironic commentary, illustrations, collages, critical rants and ‘comix’ (Thompson 61).
The disarray serves to form a connection between reader and writer due to the vulnerability it emphasises ( Piepmeier and Zeisler 67). Although many of these zines now have an online presence, the very process of making aesthetic decisions such as handwriting, type writing and self-printing is unique to these carefully crafted physical objects (Piepmeier and Zeisler 66). Somewhere between a personal letter and a magazine, folded in a folio formation and ranging from 10-40 pages (Duncombe 14), these ephemeral publications are bold reproductions that, while sometimes academically trivialised, reproduce revolutionary intersectional content that covers a huge variety of topics- from identity to food politics (Piepmeier and Zeisler 2). Individuality bursts from the pages amidst the amalgamation of art, stickers, glitter and sketches.
As print objects, zines ironically utilised the technology popularised by the commercial press (such as machines, computers and mailing) to spread their anarchic content through the voluntary, non-commercial structure which imbued every consumer with the capacity to contribute as an underground creator (Farmer 50). In part, this was to avoid the inevitable “cannibalisation” (Duncombe 2008 10) of alternative culture that happened when zines were promulgated by the mainstream media as a gateway to new trends and, consequently, an opportunity for profit.
As the Riot Grrrls and their press were fed into the marketing machine (Duncombe 2008 9), the higher meaning of their rebellion was problematically belittled. Although zines in the seventies were ignored by the mainstream music press (Duncombe 2008 6), they were especially victim to mass media attention after the IPU convention, which threatened their punk-inspired ‘anticommercial impetus’, as listed in the seventeen points of “Riot Grrrl is…” printed in Jigsaw (Thompson 59).
Magazines such as Sassy, Spin, Seventeen and Newsweek which informed the traditional capitalist agenda that the Grrrls despised produced cover articles appropriating ‘girl power’ by trivialising both the members and the movement to “archeological artefacts” (Dunn and Summer-Farnsworth 141/9) in a way reminiscent to the mainstream corruption of punk. Despite the fact that, even compared to late eighties ‘alternative’ grunge bands, their aesthetics were far from commercial (Thompson 63), the movement was reduced to a loud fashion statement and dried of its political protest. Superficial articles omitted the true meaning of interviews while picture spreads were viewed as offensive by the Riot Grrrls due to the use of a classically ‘attractive’ model peppered with degrading words scrawled on her body. This image almost mocked their activist protest methods by portraying them as “quasi-feminist” sex objects (Dunn and Summer-Farnsworth 147) or “ridiculous girls” in their underwear (Dunn and Summer-Farnsworth 141).
There was an integral tension between the benefits of the mainstream media’s advertisement in terms of broadcasting the message to a larger female audience, and the resistance of succumbing to the corporate press’ commodification of an originally pure message (Reinstein Fantastic Fanzine no.3). Having already responded to the punk movement’s masculine ignorance through DIY, the Riot Grrrl solution was to indulge solely in their own underground, independent media and control their image through a zine distribution network that became a sub-culture in itself- one which shaped the official policy of the 1993 “media blackout” (Gottlieb and Wald 265). Vail herself, who coined the phrase ‘riot grrrl’, crossed it out entirely in her copy of Jigsaw#4 in protest of its mainstream advertising popularity (Piepmeier and Zeisler 5).
The refusal to engage with the commercial press, and the reporters it employed, was a backlash not merely against the ‘repackaging’ of the movement but the very ‘packaging’ itself (Thompson 60). To preserve their integrity in the face of artistic exploitation, they only granted interviews to other zines and small press media outlets, requesting that conglomerates either “not write an article about us or have a blank space where the article would be” (Thompson 61). The media ‘blitz’ meant greater content for zines like Satan Wears a Bra and Girl Germs. The result was a split between new and old Riot Grrrls who argued over the media’s value and thus distracted from the movement’s original conversation of culture. Along with the media interference itself, this led to the disbanding of most chapters (Thompson 61). Yet ultimately, the Riot Grrrl Press proved how the independence of zine culture was a powerful force against the mainstream media’s misrepresentation, and even subversion, of the movement because zines enabled them to “take over the means of production to create our own meanings” (Hanna Planet Punk 38) and practice intellectual control.
The era of modernist little magazines, roughly defined as “non-commercial enterprises founded by individuals for small groups” (Churchill and Mckible 6), parallels zines in the complex relationship that arises between the margin and the mainstream. Despite their differences in print medium and the more ‘literary’ set of concerns that powered this tension, the magazines were also centred on radicalism that defied mainstream norms by publishing under-represented and unknown writers to subvert contemporary political conventions (Churchill and Mckible 6). They filled the cultural space with intellectual and artistic communication rather than pandering to commercial agendas of profit (Pound 690). Little magazines were founded to minimise commercial appeal and maximise aesthetic rebellion regardless of the arising difficulties in production that resulted from ignoring commercial demand (Brinkman 71). Although Lathan and Scholes argue that little magazines cannot be as easily distinguished from the world of commercial enterprise due to the inevitable interrelation between high art and advertising in periodicals (Churchill and Mckible 7), for modernists the distinction of these magazines from the mass market was very significant.
It was the opposition to mainstream magazines that partly motivated modernist writers and editors to produce work which satisfied the aesthetic experimentation and political radicalism that contrasted little magazines from commercially motivated operations. Larger periodicals such as Vogue even mocked little magazines, yet this inadvertently aided the introduction of modernist poets like Stein and Pound to the public. Yet, irrespective of their different attitudes to money, both types of periodicals utilised each other’s methods in order to cement a modern literary world. Little magazines and modernist poetry, while most appealing to the non-commercial elite, were also popular in the mainstream market and its editors had to navigate an approach of either rejecting or reforming the masses in light of their purer intellectual purposes.
The “mediamorphosis” which increased modernist poetry and little magazine production also simultaneously threatened an extinction of the rebellion which led to its existence (Churchill and Mckible 175). Akin to the Riot Grrrl narrative of balancing the effects of mainstream media attention with alternative goals, modernist little magazines were an example of the blurred lines between the margin and the mainstream.
In conclusion, small presses provide a resistance to the imperatives of mass print due to the editorial focus on the process of making print objects such as zines or little magazines and the inadvertent by-product of self-discovery that ensues from this creation. The intellectual network unites creator and consumer and mobilises the human experience similarly to the modern equivalent of digital platforms which likewise cater to our entrepreneurism.
Although mainstream media interference led to the inactivity of many Riot Grrrl chapters, the spirit which ignited the creation of zines continues in the 21st century through the forms of physical, digital and mental reproductions; the legacy still impacts thoughts of girl empowerment and inspires zine making. Even today, corporate print media and advertising is gender-stereotyped, provoking the development of zines such as The Bitch and blogs like Jezebel to remain a parallel reactionary force (Jervis and Zeisler 73) that transforms from material to digital sources in a way reminiscent of the punk era’s use of DIY publishing. The relationship between large and small presses remains complex and inter-dependant, both in terms of the production techniques and the curation of content.
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Piepmeier, Alison and Zeisler, Andi. “Why Zines Matter: Materiality and the Creation of Embodied Community.” Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism, New York University Press, 2009, pp. 1-86.
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Reinstein, Erika, ed. Fantastic Fanzine no.3. Olympia, WA: n.p., [c. 1993].
Thompson, Stacy. “The Riot Grrrl Scene.” Punk Productions: Unfinished Business, State University of New York Press, 2004, pp. 58-70.
Images are from the zine archives.