Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism
by Alison Piepmeier
New York University Press, 2009
About a decade ago, before I had kids, I was part of a writer’s group that met every other week at a local Borders. (I know. Of all places, right? In those good old pre-Depression days, I bought dozens of books and magazines per month … sigh.)
After one of our meetings, I found myself by the magazines, glancing at the latest Story or Glimmer Train and noticed a few zines. I paged through them briefly but didn’t quite understand them. And because I didn’t, I summarily dismissed them.
Which is a shame, because now that I’ve read Alison Piepmeier’s book Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism, I understand them so much better now. Reading this was like a big a-ha! moment for me, as I realized girl zines hold an important place in our history, our literary culture, as well as within the context of feminism.
I think I was born a little too early to fully immerse myself in the zine scene, which occurred in the early 1990s. Reading this I was reminded of my teenage years when I corresponded with dozens of pen pals. Along with our handwritten letters, we often exhanged “lyrics books” filled with customized return address labels with our favorite Bon Jovi or Duran Duran lyrics, along with our interpretations of their meanings. (Among the varieties I had were ones with quotes from Bryan Adams’ songs.) We also exchanged “slams,” which were books that allowed us to share our thoughts and answers to questions. Creating these was so much fun – we spent hours on these – and they allowed us a form (albeit somewhat limited) of self-expression, and I remember thinking how cool it was that someone half a world away might read my words.
These weren’t zines, but zines do strike me as similar because of this tactile quality. Zines are more solitary in their creation, but operate somewhat on a familiar scale. They are, like the lyrics books and slams, part of a “gift economy.” They’re created not for monetary gain (although some zines charge $1.00 per copy), but primarily as a means of self-expression and sharing, to give a piece of oneself in the form of writing about personal experiences in the hopes that someone else might begin to heal from their own pain.
Author Alison Piepmeier traces zines’ origins back to the scrapbooks kept by women in the 19th century, which were meant to be shared documents, complete with commentary about current events or opinions on newspaper articles of the day. Later, the advent of health pamphlets provided women with an awareness of sexuality and sex education; with the invention of the mimeograph machine (remember those?!), the pamphlets could be more widely distributed on college campuses and at other public gatherings.
Given the ease of blogging compared to the time-consuming process of producing a zine, one might assume that zines would have become passe or naturally morphed into a blog format. I know that was my own assumption. If one of the purposes is for sharing one’s writing, one might think that could be accomplished more efficiently and quickly via a blog. That’s not exactly true for zines, for a variety of reasons.
Alison Piepmeier is one smart woman. According to the book jacket, she directs the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston, where she is Associate Professor of English. She knows of what she speaks with women’s issues and literature. Because of her academic background, there are parts of Girl Zines that read as such, which could be challenging for a non-academic lay person such as myself. My advice? Try your best with those sections and think of those as stimulation for your intelligent senses.
I fear that I am not doing this book justice with this review, because there was so much information presented. Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism is an eye-opening look at the world of zines and their creators combined with how their work is impacting third-wave feminism by emboding feminist theories. By no means am I an expert in this discipline. Still, women’s and girls’ issues are ones that I care deeply about and am very interested in reading more about. If that’s the case for you, too, Girl Zines is a good place to start.
In her conclusion, Piepmeier writes a nice summary of the impact of zines:
“Grrrl zines demonstrate the interpenetration of complicity and resistance; they are spaces to try out mechanisms for doing things differently – while still making use of the ephemera of the mainstream culture. They demonstrate the process, the missed attempts as well as the successes. They aren’t the magic solution to social change efforts; instead, they are small, incomplete attempts, micropolitical. They function in a different way than mainstream media and then previous social justice efforts. Indeed, my work with these zines has helped me understand one of the central paradoxes of third wave feminism; the contradiction between the emphasis on the personal and intimate on the one hand, and the need for broader collective action on the other hand. In some ways, grrrl zines merge the two: they are clearly intimate, personal artifacts, and they create embodied communities. But these aren’t communities that become large protest groups or voting blocs. They are communities that operate in the cracks and fissures, that – as Moore suggests – aren’t equipped to bring down the megacorporations but to disrupt them, to offer some static, what Rodriguez describes as the bubbles in the swamp that show that democracy is still fermenting. They show that change is still possible – ‘even more than we are able to imagine.'” (page. 197)
I read this as part of my participation in the Women Unbound reading challenge. And, for the FTC disclaimer, this was borrowed from my local library.